If Magic Goes Wrong, I Don’t Want To Be Right

May 14, 2020

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I’ll bet I’ve sold a dozen tickets to THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG since I first saw it in the West End nearly five years ago. It’s a door-slamming farce, a cousin to NOISES OFF (of which I also can’t get enough), only the premise here is that the cast and crew are British amateurs. As they attempt to stage a stereotypical locked-door murder mystery, Murphy’s Law arrives, flourishes, and rampages for two solid hours. It’s the unluckiest production humanly possible, but the poor beleaguered cast charmingly soldiers on: what else can they do? It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on a stage.

I’m not the only one smitten. J. J. Abrams loved THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG so much that he helped bring it to Broadway, where it won the Tony for set design; if you see it you’ll understand why. Later, the comic magicians Penn & Teller also had a (separate) look and were just as excited. This was their introduction to “Mischief Theatre,” founded by the three lads who devised the deliberate debacle, and somebody must have said, “hey, guys: MAGIC GOES WRONG! The instant my brother and I heard of it, we snagged our tickets, and at approximately one month B.C. (Before Coronavirus), we settled into London’s Vaudeville Theatre for the collaboration.

The piece presents itself as a televised fundraiser for a charity devoted to magicians who have been injured attempting to perform magic tricks. (The “charity’s” hilarious cartoon logo features a magic wand stuck in the magician’s eye.) Then we are treated to a typical tv variety show during which the magicians turn out to be not nearly as deft as they intended. As we’d hoped, the result is tear-makingly delicious.

Not only is the show heartily entertaining on its face, it also takes sly digs at the cliched tropes of magic. The emcee is “Sophisticato,” who has faced a lifelong struggle for the approbation of his recently deceased conjuror-father (played by a portrait of the late Johnny Thompson, who was a beloved magic consultant). “Mind Mangler” is a delightfully inept mentalist and card handler. Funniest of all is a daredevil “rock & roll magician,” an over-amped cross between Criss Angel and David Blaine, known as “The Blade.” Four other performers keep things moving faster than you have time to ponder, which is, after all, the secret of magic, even when it’s going to go wrong.

I won’t offer any specifics regarding what actually happens. Magic is all about surprise, so that’s for you to discover. (This show is almost certain to make the same trip to America as did THE PLAY, especially with Abrams as a lead producer.) But fans of Penn & Teller’s work will occasionally have an unusual perspective, as a handful of tricks originated in their act, including their hilarious Houdini water torture, a card-finding illusion using a sharp object, and a sawing-a-lady-into-halves routine. P&T devotees will thus be able to discern the lovely handiwork of Mischief Theatre as the “Wrong Boys” (that’s how their American partners refer to them) contribute bits and beats that lift each piece over and above the original presentation — and that’s only the few we’ve seen before. This truly is a match made in prestidigitational heaven.

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Sophisticato (Henry Shields) and Mind Mangler (Henry Lewis), about to saw. What could possibly go wrong?

 


I Saw This In Brussels (It’s Scatological)

September 3, 2019

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Satan Defends The Constitution

August 12, 2019

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I missed HAIL SATAN? at Sundance last winter — you can’t see ‘em all. But I’ve just spun the DVD, and man, is it something. It’s one of those documentaries that opens your eyes and changes your perspective. It’s more than entertainment, it’s enlightenment.

Hold up, there. I didn’t become a Satanist after simply watching a movie. (See the “Satanic Panic” below.) But what did happen was that my prejudices regarding The Satanic Temple — the subject of this beauty — were completely upended, redefining my inner regard of “Satanism.” Which was exactly, precisely, the point, both of the filmmakers and the Satanists.

First, let’s anchor The Satanic Temple. You may have noticed the people who have peacefully and nonviolently opposed the placement of a giant replica of the Ten Commandments on public property in the Bible Belt. Their method is by legally applying to set alongside it an equally giant statue honoring Baphomet, the man-goat, bat-wings extended, the embodiment of Satan. (And, in one storied incident, they succeeded, at least for one day.) Before I saw this movie, I assumed they were political pranksters, like the Yes Men or the Yippies. But pranks these are not. These people are dead serious in their beliefs, yet those sincerely held beliefs are not what you may think. (They might indulge themselves in a little fun sometimes; note the question mark in the film’s title.)

Now, if you are a devout who believes in the inerrancy of the Bible, some of what will follow may strike you as blasphemous. Fair warning. TST, as I’m going to call the group hence, doesn’t want to injure or restrict or delimit your faith in any way. Believe whatever you like, with their compliments. They just don’t want you to impose your own particular beliefs upon the rest of the country. 

You frequently run into the trope, “America is a Christian nation.” Um, no, actually it isn’t. Most of the founders had nominal religious affiliation (even George Washington, who didn’t take communion or kneel when he prayed; Thomas Jefferson, who did not believe in Jesus’s divinity or resurrection; and Benjamin Franklin, who rarely attended Presbyterian services because he found them dull), but many of them were “deists” rather than the type of “Christian” represented by today’s evangelicals. You will search in vain for the words “God,” “Creator,” “Jesus” or “Lord” in the Constitution or any amendment, except for the Signatory section: “…the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven.” Let one of the Founders explain: “I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved—the Cross,” wrote John Adams. “Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!”

Yes, but what about “one nation under God,” and “In God We Trust”? As we learn in this film, both are artifacts of the Red-Scare era. The Pledge of Allegiance did not contain the phrase “under God” until 1954. “In God We Trust” became the national motto in 1956, not 1776, and first appeared on paper money the following year. Those who say America was founded as a Christian nation have it exactly backward: the Founders wanted to escape religious persecution and establish a pluralistic republic. Furthermore, those giant Ten Commandments stone blocks that to this day adorn small towns all over the country? Most of them came not from the hand of God but from the publicists of Paramount Pictures and Cecil B. DeMille, who distributed 4,000 six-foot granite tablets to municipalities around the country to promote their 1956 blockbuster movie. Their original partners, the Fraternal Order of Eagles, kept ’em coming for years afterward.

Okay, we may not be a Christian nation, but why worship the Evil One, and doesn’t that mean dancing naked around a fire and drinking blood? No, those are the fantasies conjured by Hollywood movies and the thousands of parents who thought playing Dungeons & Dragons and listening to heavy metal music drew their little darlings to Satanism during the “Satanic Panic” of the Eighties and early Nineties. It proved to be as bogus as the Salem witch hunt or Joe McCarthy’s debunked commie counts during the similar Red Scare. Those imaginary covens and spooky chants are not what TST is about, not anything of the kind. 

TST members do not espouse evil. They do not endorse violence or physical harm of any kind. We see one leader of a local chapter basically get drummed out of the organization for giving a speech in which she advocates violent revolution, and there have been other internecine skirmishes off camera, but if you’re speaking for TST you toe the line. In fact, the Satanists don’t really “worship” anything. To them Satan is a mythical fallen angel who dares to question God, and if you were brought up in a religious household, you might have had some of the same questions. Satanists would put it this way. Considering Bible verse as literal truth for a moment, when the serpent persuades Eve to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge while God prefers that she and Adam remain ignorant souls in Eden, is the snake really the bad guy? When God orders Abraham to sacrifice his own son and then relents, is that an act of charity? How about the bullying of Job? When Satan suggests to a starving Jesus that he take food and water, does that suggestion do harm? Yes, TST might be stretching points, but that is the point.

To put it clearly, these Satanists don’t even worship Satan. According to TST co-founder “Lucien Greaves” (who cheerfully admits this is not his given name), “Satanism is a non-theistic religion, meaning we don’t venerate a personal Satan or deity; we recognize it as a metaphorical, mythological construct. For us Satan is iconic of the ultimate rebel against tyranny. We also place the highest value on rational exploration and the pursuit of knowledge.” TST (based in Salem, Massachusetts, natch) is only a religion for tax purposes, just as is Scientology. Rather than dogmatic ritual, TST espouses seven tenets for interpersonal behavior that make at least as much sense to me as do the Ten Commandments. 

What they object to is the rule of a theocratic society, particularly the stranglehold of the religious right. “Some people would think it ironic, but I’m probably most popular in the Bible Belt territories,” muses Greaves. “People there seem to understand our relevance more and more.” I always thought these folks were doing, you’ll pardon the expression, God’s work by acting to remove theocratic icons from public spaces using rational jujitsu: if you get yours, then we get ours. As TST well knows, most town councils would give the hook to their Commandments rather than have to stare at Baphomet every time they walk into the courthouse — but the attendant lawsuits are expensive and they move at glacial speed. 

I don’t want to make this flick sound too weighty. It’s hilarious to watch down-home folks try to find legal ways to stop TST from erecting something they obviously view as a monstrosity. And one can never be entirely sure how firmly TST tongues are placed within their cheeks. But these are very smart, very devoted people who will absolutely not countenance the establishment of any official state religion. The Satanic Temple is not the ACLU. But by visually showing the general public what their religious icons look like to nontheists — kinda how the man-goat looks to them — TST is coming after the same thing.

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A typical DeMille promo installation. The movie had already been released by now, but with the Fraternal Order of Eagles behind the project from the start, it took on a life of its own.

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TST’s response. For my money, it’s the children who make it hilarious. In real life they wouldn’t get anywhere near that thing.

8/13/19: Today the Church of Satan tweeted me: “That film has nothing to do with us or the religion of Satanism.” The first part is absolutely correct. Here is an amusing comparison between that group and the subjects of this film. And in the spirit of free speech, here is the Church of Satan’s official response.


How To Stick It To The Man

July 10, 2019

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Funniest book I’ve read in a long time wasn’t written by a humorist, not exactly. Most of it was written by legislators, bureaucrats, and lobbyists. That makes it even funnier.

HOW TO BECOME A FEDERAL CRIMINAL is a guide to the craziest, most arcane federal laws that are still actually on the books. They’re either in the United States Code (“USC”) if they were statutes passed by Congress, or the Code of Federal Regulations (“CFR”) if they were rules set by executive branch departments and agencies, but they are the no-lie law and you can definitely be punished if you disobey. Author Mike Chase is a criminal defense lawyer who operates the @CrimeADay Twitter feed, and he’s never at a loss for material. This is essentially a greatest hits compilation, styled tongue-in-cheek as a handbook for potential lawbreakers.

It’s a daunting task, even though Mr. Chase limits himself to the federal code and the overwhelming majority of convictions in the U.S. are for violations of state laws, of which we have fifty different sets. But we’re going to set those aside for now. (Although the “Assimilative Crimes Act” allows the government to adopt any state crime from the state where fed property is located and deem it federal.) The USC/CFR code alone has grown so vast that nobody really knows its scope: “Lawyers from the Department of Justice once tried to count all the federal crimes on the books and gave up. Since then, others have tried and failed.”

Mr. Chase begins with everybody’s favorite federal crime, the one I’ll bet you’ve considered committing at least once if you haven’t actually done so. You know, the mattress tag that says DO NOT REMOVE THIS TAG UNDER PENALTY OF LAW. It’s a real law, and breaking it is punishable by fines and up to a year in prison. But it wasn’t intended for you: in fact, “ultimate consumers” like you are exempt. It’s intended instead to punish unscrupulous mattress dealers. Even the most risible laws on the books are there for some reason: as Mr. Chase writes, “we get many of our laws from people doing dumb, gross, and dangerous things.” And, “Sadly, time has shown that the crimes people will commit in the national parks are as limitless as human stupidity itself. Park visitors have been arrested for taunting bison, taking selfies with bears, and urinating into Old Faithful.”

The U.S. Code splits some interesting hairs. Although it is of course a federal crime to deface paper money, “purely recreational coin mutilation” is fine. So flatten a penny on the railroad tracks or in a penny press machine to your heart’s content; that’s for small-timers, chumps and fancy-pantses. This book is for people who affirmatively want to become actual federal criminals. 

The breadth of the long arm of the law is, well, breathtaking. Here are a few examples, out of context (where they are funniest). You may not use a falconry bird in a movie that isn’t about falconry (film crews actually use lookalike birds or CGI to avoid breaking this law). In 1979 McDonalds discontinued its popular miniature coffee-stirring spoon to avoid running afoul of 21 U.S.C. § 863(a)(2), which prohibits mailing “drug paraphernalia,” after an anti-drug crusader testified to Congress that the “McSpoon” would be just jake for snorting cocaine. If you sell shingle-packed bacon, you’re a criminal if customers can’t see at least 70% of a “representative slice” through the clear plastic on the package. You may not pledge or accept stolen explosives as collateral for a loan. (Stolen explosives, mind.) There are only three forms of pasta with federally mandated shapes and dimensions, “macaroni,” “spaghetti,” and “vermicelli”; ziti and rotini are in the ristorante equivalent of Sergio Leone’s Wild West. You may not hold a child over a moat at the National Zoo. (Remember: dumb, gross and dangerous.) “Knowingly and willingly” moving a table on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) ground can make you a con. Piracy laws dating from the 18th century are still valid, even on the Great Lakes. 

Stupid laws can definitely wear thin quickly beyond one-a-day Twitter length, but two features save this book from drudgery. First is the author’s droll sense of humor. His offhand remarks liven up the most idiotic of statutes. Reporting that swine sexual odor, or “boar taint,” is prohibited, Mr. Chase notes, “Aside from being a great metal band name, boar taint is said to smell like a mix of sweat, urine, and feces. Again, not unlike a metal band.” You may not take a cat on a raft trip in the Grand Canyon, causing him to observe, “The sad part about this rule is that it bars cats from doing the thing they are known to love most: white-water rafting.”

The second is a series of deadpan illustrations, drawn by the author himself, that sell the satirical perspective of a how-to book. With the innocence of a Fifties educational film, they underline the mundanity of the United States Code and make you struggle to imagine what godforsaken real-life behavior it took to get these things codified into law. 

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Mr. Chase winds up by swerving into bizarre but true corners of the U.S.C., by naming actual, genuine lawsuits that have been brought in federal court: United States v. Twenty-Five Packages of Panama Hats, United States v. Seventy-Five Boxes of Alleged Pepper, United States v. Thirty-Dozen Packages of Roach Food, and my personal favorite, United States v. 11 1/4 Dozen Packages of Article Labeled in Part Mrs. Moffat’s Shoo Fly Powders for Drunkenness. He also details how cigarette lighter manufacturers are required by law to test the safety of their lighters on at least one hundred children between 3 1/2 and 4 1/4 years of age by deliberately letting the toddlers play with them.

But the pièce de résistance comes in 1971, when the USDA Forest Service introduces a cartoon character named Woodsy Owl. You may remember his slogan: “g-ve a h—t, d-n’t po—ute.” I didn’t print that because it’s against the law to use this slogan for profit without the prior approval of the Secretary of Agriculture, and no blog post (there are ads below) is worth facing federal hard time, Jack. The hilariously banal testimony before both houses of Congress, with Mr. Chase carefully redacting the protected phrase, is laugh-out-loud funny. Leave it to Rep. Gene Snyder (R-KY) to sum it up: “Angela Davis is loose. The Chicago Seven are loose. Ellsberg is loose after giving away the secrets of the country and so on. Now we want to send somebody to jail for saying, ‘G—- a h—-, d—- poll—-.’”

Sometimes stuff like this can make you irritated. But Mr. Chase is such a genial host that ineptitude is reduced to entertainment. Don’t take the government so seriously, he says. That’s not a bad message for these times.

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Making an unreasonable gesture to a passing horse is illegal too.

 

 


Acting Residential

April 29, 2019

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I think I know the secret identities of the (probably only) four original Residents. In fact, I’m so confident that I’ll name them now: Jay Clem, Homer Flynn, Hardy Fox, and John Kennedy. Four monikers you and I have never heard of. So who cares? Well, that’s kind of the whole point.

That reveal is germane because when these (probably all) boys set out from Shreveport, Louisiana (one Resident may be from Texas) for the West Coast, to live the bohemian life among like minds that didn’t much exist in the Bayou State, they settled almost immediately on the Theory Of Obscurity. Only the art matters. Only the work. The cult of celebrity demeans and dilutes the end product by its very nature. Therefore we will forever remain anonymous, and go to great lengths to preserve that state. It’s as if Clark Kent were in reality a black hole: there they are, up there live on stage, but they steadfastly decline to acknowledge identity, and that’s why they always wear disguises in public. Sia is working the same street nowadays, but The Residents paved it a very long time ago. Their road work began about 1970.

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Devotees believe the soon-to-be Residents came from the visual arts, oriented toward images intended for the optic nerve. (More on eyeballs later.) Arriving in a Bay Area that had already upchucked the excesses of the Summer of Love, they noticed that popular music was reorienting itself from the anything-goes era of Hendrix and Zappa toward a Laurel Canyon-lite soft sound. Icky! They found some instruments and a place to record them and produced avant-garde (actually more like en garde!) tracks that deconstructed the barriers between the givers and receivers of music, as the Fugs had done in New York years earlier. Legend has it that a major label declining their anonymously submitted demo tape sent it back addressed to “Residents.” Aha. A band name!

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The original Residents — I say that because there’s no telling just how many different people of either gender have performed or created with or as The Residents over the years — were conceptual artists; they have never professed to be accomplished musicians. Heavily influenced by such mavericks as Captain Beefheart and the Sun Ra Arkestra, they produced freewheeling audio tracks that were energetic, dissonant, thought-provoking, offputting, funny, freaky, fascinating, difficult, and utterly unique in American culture. But although they have released dozens of albums and performed these compositions in live shows, it’s not quite accurate to think of The Residents as a “band.” Again, they are primarily visual artists, and their media are multi.

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They were true pioneers of music video (some of their work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, where The Residents have been represented in five exhibitions) and digital media (they did two acclaimed discs for Voyager back when CD-ROM was the Hot New Thing). Yet if you leaf through The Residents’ audio catalog, you will nevertheless find among the outre screeching some interesting slices of Americana: covers of songs by Elvis, Hank Williams (they perform “Kaw-Liga” under a sample of the opening beats from Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”), even John Philip Sousa. And rising from the gleeful cacophony, their remarkable 2002 album DEMONS DANCE ALONE is one of the most sensitive reactions to 9/11 that I’ve ever heard. So their sonic creations are not without meaning. In fact, an indicator I once employed to quickly evaluate the savvy of any newly visited record store, back when there was such a thing, was to head straight to the Rs. (The Virgin Megastore that opened in the Times Square building which also housed my employer, Bantam Books, was outstanding in this regard.)

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But The Residents are, above all, provocateurs. Their most famous stage costume features formal top hat and tails, white tie, elegant cane — and a giant veined eyeball mask covering each Resident’s head. They want you to stare back at them just as hard.

The most amazing thing about The Residents is that, without the slightest care for fashion, they have been making a living producing art on their terms for almost fifty years now. How long can one swim upstream? Yet here they still are.

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But we may have arrived at an inflection point. Sadly, last November, Hardy Fox, longtime president of The Residents’ business entity, the Cryptic Corporation, passed away at 73. The other three gentlemen named above have also been Cryptic officers. You can see them all interviewed in the wonderful Residents documentary THEORY OF OBSCURITY. They “work for” The Residents, to whom they always refer in the third person. Who knows who’s up on stage these days? (It’s probably not septuagenarians.) And who knows how the collective’s creative output has been derived? Maybe Hardy’s death will finally break up the group, or maybe Obscurity Theory will allow it to continue as long as it wants. I so admire how these stalwarts have carved themselves a place in the culture despite all odds, despite all evens, despite everything. I’d tip my hat, but the eyeballs below it are far too small.

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P.S. To hear a curated sample of The Residents’ music, check out the 2017 compilation 80 ACHING ORPHANS, with extensive liner notes by Homer Flynn. To see their amazing and sometimes disturbing music videos, get ahold of the compilation DVD, ICKY FLIX.  

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Danger In Delaware!

July 24, 2018

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Are you as nostalgic for a competent, compassionate executive branch as I am? Do you wake up every day with the same low-grade anxiety and check the “breaking” (sic) news with horror-movie dread? Do you hope today’s presidential antic or TWITTER TANTRUM! will just be idiotic as usual rather than potentially fraught with real harm? Would you prefer your head of state to care about others and speak in complete English sentences? Then I have a book for you. It’s only a short one, but take it from me, for a couple of hours it’ll make you feel better.

HOPE NEVER DIES is a mystery novel by Andrew Shaffer. This is Mr. Shaffer’s very first mystery novel. That’s because he’s actually a humorist who specializes in literary and pop culture parodies. I’m not actually a diehard mystery fan either. The reason I picked this one up is that the private investigators who set out to solve a murder are Joe Biden and Barack Obama.

Biden, hilariously, is the narrator and centerpiece. A beloved conductor on the Acela Express has been struck and killed by a train, and “Amtrak Joe” takes it personally. He’s been irritated that “44” has been enjoying all these glamorous vacations since leaving the White House — windsurfing, kayaking, hanging with Richard Branson and Bradley Cooper — without even calling. So imagine his surprise when Obama shows up in a black Cadillac Escalade with a Secret Service agent in tow. 

Mr. Shaffer juggles that funny Internet meme of Biden as a Ray-Banned muscle-car badass with the mundane reality of a seventyish suburban guy whose physical best days are behind him. Before long, Biden and Obama ditch the Escalade for Joe’s own ride, a “2017 neon-green Dodge Challenger T/A., 3.6-liter Pentastar VVT V6 engine with an 8-speed Torque-Flite automatic transmission.” Biden’s hardboiled monologue is priceless: a grizzled cop is “as tough as a two-dollar steak,” a rural lake is “as calm as a soul at rest.” Yet his prim Irish character shines through: where you might say “No shit, Sherlock,” Joe says “No crap, Matlock.” Obama is as cool as ever (if prone to overthink and overexplain), but Biden’s body is notably slowing him down. Both guys are terrified of their wives.

We spend much of the story on the mean streets of Wilmington, Delaware. Most of the typical detective-story ticks are laid before us, but personalized to the two politicians: “Barack placed one of his oversized ears on the door. Political cartoonists had loved to mock Barack’s elephant ears. If only they could see him now, using them for their God-intended purpose.” Obama’s own foibles are comedy grist: when he’s forced into a McDonalds, the only thing on the menu he can stand to eat are the apple slices. In a gas station, Biden chats up the counter girl:

“Hot one out,” I announced, tossing a five spot on the counter. Barack rolled his eyes—he wanted to get in and out as quickly as possible. However, I was a Delawarean. And Delawareans make small talk. The girl looked out the window. “Global warming,” she said with a shrug. “Actually, it’s more of a gradual process than that,” Barack said, suddenly interested in our conversation. “That’s why we prefer the term ‘climate change.’ What you’ll see is a degree or two warming over the next fifty years, which will be enough to cause the sea levels to rise ten feet. When that happens—”

Again, I’m not a particular genre fan, so I found the first part of Act III a little flabby during a long passage in which the plot thickens around Biden with Obama offstage; aficionados will probably see nothing wrong at all. But the rest of the book is a wistful delight. The wistfulness comes from Mr. Shaffer’s ability to remind us why we respected the heart and dignity these men represented while making fun of them at the same time. That’s the soul of “An Obama Biden Mystery.” Late in the story, Joe warns Barack against stepping on the third rail in the Wilmington yard. “‘Guess they don’t call you Amtrak Joe for nothing.’ ‘I know some things,’ I admitted.” Oh, for leaders who know some things.

8/5/19: A sequel has dropped.


So Long, Keppler

June 27, 2018

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Late-night comedy loses another promising voice tomorrow night, when THE OPPOSITION W/ JORDAN KLEPPER broadcasts the last of its 129 episodes. Comedy Central has been having trouble filling the key four-times-weekly slot following THE DAILY SHOW, the one ruled for years by THE COLBERT REPORT, and now they have to try again. First Larry Wilmore — frankly, a better writer than an on-air host — tried THE NIGHTLY SHOW, at the time the most color-centric program in late night. Then star DAILY SHOW correspondent Jordan Klepper earned his turn at bat. It’s a shame they’ve pulled the plug: his show was very good.

THE OPPOSITION is a creative cousin to THE COLBERT REPORT. Stephen Colbert spent almost ten years as a character named “Stephen Colbert,” a self-important, thick-headed right-wing blowhard modeled on Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and especially the one he called “Papa Bear,” Bill O’Reilly. (The show even parodied specific O’Reilly segments, only evident to those who’d actually watched THE O’REILLY FACTOR.) To appreciate this character you had to use some ironic detachment, but it was hilarious, and Colbert surprised everybody, probably even himself, when he was able to hold on to the bit and broaden the character over a mammoth run that extended from Dubya well into Obama. 

A similar character, “Jordan Klepper” — again saying basically the opposite of what the writers actually mean for you to understand — is a madman conspiracy theorist. His walls are covered with crazy-quilt lines of connecting string, there are piles and piles of binder-clipped sheets of paper scattered all over his desk. He resembles nobody more than Alex Jones, the goofy shouting nut who hosts something called INFOWARS. In fact, just as O’Reilly hipped to Colbert’s “homage” early on, somebody must have told Jones that there’s a guy on tv making fun of him, because he started fighting back on air — only, in true conspiracist style, he got it all wrong and kept calling the host “Keppler.” (THE OPPOSITION even did a segment on INFOWARS’s pathetic putdowns of “this guy Keppler” and it became a running gag.) That’s the concept, and they never drop the premise. The audience are “opposers.” Instead of “We’ll be right back,” Klepper says, “The fight continues.” During his nighty interview segment, his last question is always, “Tell me something I already know.”

Klepper is a great presenter and superb improviser, which “we already knew” from his stint on THE DAILY SHOW. On this very program, the host earned an honored place in television history with his brave MAGAMeal Challenge. But what I’ll miss the most about THE OPPOSITION is its correspondents; per the conspiracy theme, they call themselves “Citizen Journalists.” This gang, culled as usual from comedy clubs and improv stages, is the sharpest and most energized bunch since the heyday of Jon Stewart’s run.

While each Citizen Journalist helps Klepper take down imaginary threats from the Deep State, and each has posted brilliant field pieces, they’ve managed to carve out their own personalities in record time. Tim Baltz is the privileged white oaf with slicked-back hair, a wannabe Gordon Gekko. Laura Grey (Klepper’s wife) is an adorable wide-eyed ball of anger whose contradictions obstruct any feminism. Niccole Thurman is a black conspiracist who usually doesn’t see what the libtards’ problem is. Josh Sharp and Aaron Jackson are flamboyantly gay men powered by their own hysteria. And Kobi Libii, my favorite of them all, has managed to find his way as a buttoned-down paranoid, inventing innumerable methods of gaming the system and presenting them with a self-satisfied kilowatt smile. These people are all aces, the best team on late-night. I hope each and every one of them gets another great gig right away. 

When I read of the cancellation about a week ago (they’ve been having fun with it on the air ever since — see, it’s part of the grand conspiracy to silence them!), I admit my first thought was that the dark maddened universe inhabited by Trump’s tweets is funnier and more outlandish than anything the writers could ever dream up. We’re living in a real world that looks uncomfortably like THE OPPOSITION’s invented world, and maybe it felt too on-the-nose; after all, Alex Jones frequently sounds like a comedian, just not on purpose. Maybe the format itself was too kinetic. And maybe THE OPPOSITION was simply too hip for the room. At any rate, thanks, gang, best wishes from a fan, and let’s all make sure the fight continues.

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Citizen Journalists, all. From left: Josh Sharp, Laura Grey, Aaron Jackson, Jordan Klepper, Niccole Thurman, Tim Baltz, and Kobi Libii.


The Boys (And Girls) Who Cried Wolf

May 1, 2018

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Boy, did Michelle Wolf raise a ruckus last Saturday night at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. Or, more precisely, a ruckus was raised about her. Because, man, what did you expect when you hired a topical comedian? As Judd Apatow noted, “It’s like going to a Billy Joel concert and being shocked he played ‘Piano Man.’”

Did Wolf’s set step over a line? Judge for yourself. You can read what she said here, or watch her say it here. I would recommend going directly to the source, because the set’s already being misrepresented by guess which tribe. For example, despite what you may read and hear, Wolf did not make fun of Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s appearance. She made fun of her mendacity and enabling as White House Press Secretary. True, Ms. Sanders was sitting a few feet away, and was visibly unamused, but all this has happened before, you know.

I’m thinking back to the 2006 dinner, when Stephen Colbert “bombed” by speaking truth to power. His show was brand new at the time, and not everybody realized his right-wing blowhard character, “Stephen Colbert,” was an ironic parody of windbags like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. I was in a COLBERT REPORT audience later that summer and overheard a guy explaining to his date before the taping, “You have to read between the lines of everything he says. And a running joke is his huge ego. Everything’s all about him.” The concept was still new enough to need a rundown. Now Jordan Klepper is doing the same thing to conspiracy “theorists” like Alex Jones by playing a character and trusting you to sift out the truth.

So it’s possible that whoever booked Colbert for the WHCA dinner was unaware of the gag and took him at face value. People are not always as subtly thoughtful as you may wish them to be, and conservatives are not known for their senses of humor. To the room’s apparent surprise, Colbert cleverly blasted George W. Bush while pretending to be a fawning acolyte: “tonight it’s my privilege to celebrate this president. We’re not so different, he and I. We get it. We’re not brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We’re not members of the factinista. We go straight from the gut, right sir? That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. I know some of you are going to say I did look it up, and that’s not true. That’s cause you looked it up in a book.” On he went. Watch the set here. Bush clearly did not find it funny, much of the laughter in the room was only nervous, and the first reports were that Colbert had died with a lousy bit. But then we noticed where those first reports were coming from: Fox News and other Bush promoters. When we later got a chance to read Colbert’s set, and even see him deliver it, we realized what had happened.

The prevailing attitude at occasions like this had always been, we kid you, Mr. President, but we do it with love and we’re grateful for your service. But what Colbert was saying now — and what the President was receiving — was, Mr. President, sir, we don’t think you’re doing a very good job. That’s what made the live audience uneasy. Colbert was turning on the right-wing spit for days afterward, just as Michelle Wolf is now, but when you look back twelve years later, Colbert’s remarks were both funny and spot on. The next year, WHCA overcompensated by booking the dangerous rogue mind of Rich Little.

At least Bush’d had the guts to show up. Wolf called Trump “cowardly” for skipping the WHCA dinner for a second time (in favor of a self-aggrandizing rally in Michigan) and that’s accurate. Trump’s legendarily fragile ego cannot coexist with even a smidgen of criticism; he’s still smarting from the time Barack Obama roasted him at WHCA — with some funny stuff — just after secretly giving the order to kill Osama bin Laden. Trump even refuses to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at Nationals Park, I assume for two reasons. First, he’s afraid of getting booed, which would certainly happen. Second, the 60 feet from mound to plate is a lot longer when watched by a mid-five-figure crowd, bigger than any rally he’s ever headlined — and as Trump himself might put it, “people are saying that he throws like a girl.”

Speaking of girls, Michelle Wolf. I didn’t find everything she said funny, but I could also say that about Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, even Lord flippin Buckley. Any comic who’s at all edgy is taking a risk with every joke. But, especially after the Colbert incident, if you aren’t aware of a comic’s body of work before you hire her, then any blame is on you. What is fairly irritating here is the faux outrage and abject hypocrisy. Wolf was “disrespectful”? Trump is permanently dripping with louche contempt and schoolyard meanness: these juvenile nicknames, cruelly mocking a physical handicap, treating women as pieces of meat, constantly punching down at people who are (temporarily, always remember) less powerful than he. Where is his dadburn respect? Wolf was “vulgar”? Again, the pussy-grabbing shithole in the Head Shed is Numero Uno among that rapacious gang of bottom-feeders who are his colleagues. When Trump does his best every day to delegitimize the very notion of White House correspondents, maybe we’re talking about a different kind of relationship, and perhaps some more acerbic words are in order. Even from a frickin comedian. 

There was something else unexpected about Wolf’s performance, probably what brought some caustic comments even from representatives of non-fake media like the New York Times and NBC. Michelle Wolf took them down too. “You guys are obsessed with Trump. Did you used to date him? Because you pretend like you hate him, but I think you love him. I think what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you. He couldn’t sell steaks or vodka or water or college or ties or Eric, but he has helped you. He’s helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off of him. If you’re going to profit off of Trump, you should at least give him some money, because he doesn’t have any.” It’s fun and games when politicians are in the crosshairs, less so when it’s you yourself — and deep down, White House correspondents know they actually do have a lot to answer for.

As Sarah Huckabee Sanders explained to those same correspondents after Trump seemed to question Rex Tillerson’s intelligence, “He made a joke. Maybe you guys should get a sense of humor and try it sometime, but he simply made a joke.” Maybe everybody should try it sometime.


Room & Bird

September 18, 2017

Most of us have our lists of favorite movies, and I’d wager no two lists of, say, the top 25 are exactly alike. However, we’re less inclined to make lists of the worst movies we’ve ever seen, because it’s our natural tendency to try and forget ’em, despite the best efforts of the gang at MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. Today I have two for you, so beautifully bad that they break through the looking glass: I expect you will thoroughly enjoy watching each of them. They’re both available to rent on Netflix, and they’ve both been heckled by my MST3K-veteran pals at RiffTrax, but you don’t need their help. Just hit PLAY, sit back, and ponder the depths of determination and delirium that got these two particular movies made.

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I first heard of THE ROOM in 2010, seven years after its release, by reading a Harper’s piece by Tom Bissell. Roughly halfway through, I had to start reading again very carefully from the beginning, just to make sure I wasn’t the victim of a practical joke (the issue date was August, not April!). For what Bissell describes as a “post-camp cult film” had actually attracted a devoted midnight-screening audience since its release, the same kind of groundswell which propelled THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW — which I must emphasize is a legitimate movie with professional levels of production and performance, in stark contrast to THE ROOM — only with slathers of irony, akin to putting a tablespoon of wasabi into your mouth. I’ll try to describe it for you, but I won’t get any closer than Bissell’s best line: “It is the movie that an alien who has never seen a movie might make after having had movies thoroughly explained to him.”

The auteur of THE ROOM is a man who calls himself “Tommy Wiseau.” He desperately wants to be a movie star like his idol James Dean, though he has a slightly vampiric look and speaks somewhat broken English with a distancing Eastern European accent. (To hear Tommy’s voice for yourself without seeing THE ROOM, call the film’s hotline at (323) 654-6192.) After frustrating failures in scene classes and fruitless attempts to get auditions, he writes a “play” intended for the stage — which begins with an “external shot.” Ladies and gentlemen, meet Tommy Wiseau.

THE ROOM is an effort to produce an intense personal drama about a love triangle, but it is written, directed and lead-acted with such monumental incompetence that it turns in upon itself and becomes a thing of fascination. The writer has no idea how to fashion a single scene that makes any sense, let alone a feature-length plot. The star actor can barely remember the simplest line, forcing the production to use the first acceptable take it can possibly manage. The director is completely clueless about any aspect of staging, camera movement, continuity, or guiding a performance. Tommy Wiseau is the diametrical opposite of a natural. He makes Ed Wood look like Orson Welles.

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If it all sounds like something you’d be better off avoiding, please read THE DISASTER ARTIST, a book by featured actor Greg Sestero and journalist Bissell, and you’ll be dying to see THE ROOM. As well you should. In fact, you might want to do it before December, when a feature film based on the book appears, directed by and starring James Franco as Tommy. (He reportedly stayed in character between takes, in a bit of warped good sense.)

The book — and, I presume, Franco’s movie — cuts back and forth between THE ROOM’s hilarious production phase and Tommy’s backstory, or at least as much as can be gleaned by Sestero, his somewhat reluctant best friend in America. Even to those who know him best, Tommy is a man of mystery. His very age is in dispute. As the author well understands, those few crumbs Tommy drops about his earlier life have been provided by an unreliable narrator. Yet these same crumbs are vital food for our curiosity: as Sestero writes, THE ROOM is “so incomprehensible that you find yourself compelled to watch it over and over again. You become desperate to learn how (if) on earth it was conceived: Who made it, and for what purpose?”

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Tommy’s one-sheet (l.) and James Franco’s fake for the DISASTER ARTIST movie.

THE ROOM is a product of almost superhuman determination. It is also a vanity project. Tommy got rich enough somehow — the source of his money remains unclear — to bankroll the $6 million budget personally, and he goes to extremes and beyond. What tugs at you while the film runs is that the crew behind the scenes are evidently real movie people: the camera’s in focus and the sound is clear. It’s just that they, along with a handful of not-untalented actors who have been sucked into the project’s maw, have absolutely nothing to work with.

They were, however, working with Tommy’s own equipment, purchased — not rented, as anyone else would do — from Birns & Sawyer to the tune of a million bucks. Cameras, lenses, Arriflex lighting equipment. For reasons we still do not understand, Tommy decided to simultaneously shoot THE ROOM in 35mm and digital HD. He ordered a mount that could hold both cameras at the same time. That meant hiring two different crews and using two different lighting systems that did not agree with each other, constantly forcing the DPs (Tommy ran through two disgusted cinematographers and finished the film with a third) to split the difference. Tommy wanted to be the first filmmaker to shoot this way. He never pondered why nobody else had preceded him.

The ROOM shoot is studded with examples of such amazing idiocy, but as you work your way through the book and get to know Tommy a little better out of context, he gains a human dimension, much like the obsessed Wisconsin filmmaker Mark Borchardt of the documentary AMERICAN MOVIE. The difference is that Borchardt has no money — and his knowledge of what he needs to do on set may be crude, but it’s still light-years beyond Tommy’s.

THE DISASTER ARTIST ends with the world premiere of THE ROOM, which of course bombed in a house Tommy had papered, then went on to gross $1800 — yes, that is four figures — during its original two-week LA engagement. But two young film students noticed it, encouraged others to come — as I hope you discover, it is mesmerizing in its surreal way — and before long alternative comedians like David Cross and Patton Oswalt, and eventually the general public, became believers. At midnight screenings, they use ritualistic synched reactions like a ROCKY HORROR crowd. The flick has played and is playing all over the world: Tommy has even started referring to it as a comedy. Against all odds, he has managed to become famous.

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I can only hope that in the movie version Franco treats Tommy with the empathy he deserves and plays him as something broader than a cartoonish object of ridicule. Meanwhile, I urge you to enter THE ROOM for yourself, making sure to pick up your jaw off the floor at regular intervals, and swirl, sniff, and savor. You are experiencing the awesome power of sheer will.

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“You are tearing me apart, Lisa!” Tommy’s James Dean moment.

In January 2009, I was walking down Park City, Utah’s Main Street during the Sundance Film Festival when a…car…festooned with phony crows and feathers, with loudspeakers broadcasting bird calls, drove by, attracting gawkers wherever it went. On the side of the car was a banner reading

BIDEMIC
SHOCK AND TERROR

I would learn to watch for this car, which made its lonely path down Main Street dozens of times during the fest. It was promoting an ultra-low-budget picture which we later found out was actually called BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERROR. That’s right, the signage on the promotional car, the only way this film’s producers could possibly position themselves before the Sundance crowd (or so they hoped), misspelled its own title. But was it really a stroke of genius instead? We all noticed it. We all silently added the poor missing R.

Then I saw the movie. It was not a stroke of genius.

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It was easy for director James Nguyen to overlook the typo, because like Tommy, English is not his native tongue. A Vietnam-born software salesman, Nguyen shot the self-financed BIRDEMIC on weekends over seven months, then spent several years looking for distribution. Also like Tommy, Nguyen fervently believed that he was producing a great work of art. Inspired by Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS (and, he says, APOCALYPSE NOW), Nguyen contemplated a romantic thriller with an ecological message. What he achieved was instead a mess — but, again like Tommy, the sheer ineptitude becomes entertaining all by itself.

Let’s start with the “birdemic,” though Nguyen doesn’t. In fact, the first bird attack won’t appear until about halfway through. But it is a master class in preposterous visual effects. Before that comes a romance between a Silicon Valley software salesman (!) and a wannabe model, utterly barren of chemistry or even nuance. At first it’s curious, then it becomes fascinating. Meanwhile, ecological anomalies begin happening behind their backs. Finally, when the tension reaches fever pitch — shock and terror! Or so we’ve been promised.

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“Can they get in?”

Nguyen also shares with Tommy a gobsmacking inability to even comprehend, much less explore, the language of film. Scene-setting is done using a series of slow pans and crane shots, like you might see in a better movie, but they continue long after the scene is set, eons after it’s been nailed frickin down. When bids — excuse me, birds — mass outside the motel where they’ve just spent a snuggly night, the girl (who is actually movie-star-pretty but gets no help from the script, the director, or the rest of the cast) peeks out from the drawn curtains to see an eagle hovering outside. She goes back to the bed to sit by the boy. “Can they get in?” she asks. He stares at the shut curtains, moves his focus back and forth for a few seconds, and replies, “Not at the moment.” He hasn’t seen any birds. Rather, his motivation is, that’s what it says in the script.

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A “bird” “attack.”

The bird scenes are the pièce de résistance. Cheap video matte effects are re-used to the point of redundancy: a flight of birds travels from left to right, then the same effects shot is flopped and the bird group comes back in the reverse direction. Identical hovering birds are liberally scattered throughout. And these birds dive to the sound of turbines and spit fire or something, at which point the buildings below them emit what looks a little like computer-generated smoke and fire but couldn’t fool an attentive five-year-old.

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“Birds” setting “fire” to some “buildings.”

I’m aware that this all sounds terrible, but like THE ROOM, BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERROR passes through a creative portal that, say, MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE — the worst movie I’d ever encountered until I saw THE ROOM — can’t penetrate. MANOS has nothing to offer but boredom and its makers are clearly passionless. But Tommy Wiseau and James Nguyen actually think they’re shooting terrific movies when they just might be in over their heads. Their stoic struggles actually do wind up legitimately entertaining the audience — two miracles which prove that thing called “movie magic” is hardly monopolized by the suits in Hollywood. They’re each sui generis, each tons of fun. Do yourself a favor. Two favors.

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3/14/18: As I hoped, the movie plays Tommy’s story for laughs but remains empathetic, even letting him end in triumph at the world premiere as the discomfited crowd starts giggling and finally erupts in applause (this did not happen: it was a long slow slog to notoriety). The most amazing part is a post-flick sequence in which a split screen runs genuine ROOM scenes alongside Franco’s recreations: god knows how many times his cast and crew rolled the original to get the pacing just right. Just before that, Tommy gets his own moment on the big screen, the one he dreamed about.


Tomorrow Is Another Day

April 1, 2017

donaldtrump_aap_030814.jpgAfter a great deal of anguished thought, I have a confession, and I hope you don’t take it the wrong way. I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that resistance won’t work. I’m sitting the rest of this presidency out.

President Trump — appalling that I even have to write that — is nevertheless ensconced in the office, and he has his pals all around him. They’re every bit as inexperienced and incompetent as he is, but it’s still the @realWhiteHouse, and there’s nothing we can do about that.

Remember that at this moment he and his minions have their thumbs on the scale everywhere. All three branches are his: executive, legislative and soon judicial, once he can get off his ass and pack a few district courts.

In case you’re gloating over the Trumpcare flameout, don’t. This repeal-and-replace business isn’t over. Tea Partiers hate Obama and anything he ever touched more than they love their constituents, even the sick ones. Especially the sick ones.

Legislators are already salivating over the tax code that they’ll soon be able to rewrite any way they want to. Guess who’ll get their taxes cut. You got it! But you can’t do diddly squat to stop it!

Foreign policy? Who needs it? The most powerful guy in the world is the only one who can’t get his “mind” around the fact that we’re interconnected. It’s not just World War III you should be freaked about. It’s the slow erosion of the US’s position as leader of the free world. There’s no more moral high ground. Soon there’ll be no more economic high ground as the world’s brightest minds, the keys to our future, gradually choose to base their careers in a place where they feel welcome. Sad!

Other countries are not quaking with fear over Donald Trump. They’re laughing at us, and enjoying a big bad bit of schadenfreude as Prissy Prom Queen America finally gets what’s coming to it. Their sainted Constitution has finally bit Yanks in the ass. They got screwed by their own rules and regulations. How can you lose by three million votes in public and still take power? Inquiring dictators want to know this clown’s secret.

Once it all sinks in, you too may come to understand that the cards are stacked, the dice are loaded, the game is rigged. Resistance is futile: the frickin Borg are more empathetic. So there’s only one logical course of action. Regroup for the next election, sure, because tomorrow is indeed another day, absolutely. But for now, don’t squander your energy. Just give up and wait it out. I feel so much better now. Think about it, man. You can too.

Look anywhere, up and down the political spectrum, for another solution. Read anything you like and see if you can find any variance from my grim prognosis. I myself am tired of deception, hidden messages to the political base, inappropriate cheerfulness on a golf course or any other kind of levity while the world is going to hell. I’m throwing up the towel and I won’t waste another second worrying about Donald Trump. No, sir. Not today.

4/2/17: Though I stand by nearly everything expressed in this post, the notion that you should capitulate to the Trump catastrophe was written in jest. I don’t want anyone else to “take it the wrong way.” I tried my best to make the piece appear plausible, but I may have gone too far, and for that I apologize. I thought I’d left enough breadcrumbs (“look anywhere, up and down,” “hidden messages to the political base,” “levity while the world is going to hell,” “throwing up the towel,” categorizing the post as Humor), but I was wrong. The ultimate “tell” is this: anybody who knows me knows I would never ever ever advocate giving up or even shutting up. There is one more blatant indication that the post was intended as a prank which I’ll leave for you to find.


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