Monday, March 30, 2015

Book Review: 101 Hamburger Jokes

Today, we're going to review a book: 101 Hamburger Jokes, by Phil Hirsch.

At first glance, thing are looking up. The gag on the cover is pretty solid: a medium burger! Ha! The tag line ("meaty jokes to be devoured with relish!") is corny enough but at least gives us an idea of what we're in for.

Sadly, it all goes downhill from there.

First, off, it's notable that this was written by one person. This was back before the internet, so there wasn't someone who was scraping internet sites looking for jokes about hamburgers. There was literally one guy who sat down one day at the typewriter and pounded out exactly 101 jokes about hamburgers. What can we say? It was the late 70s. That sort of shit happened.

To be fair, the illustrations were done by Don Orehek, so that meant that ol' Phil could concentrate on burger jokes and didn't have to dither around with ink and paper.

Things start off strong:

What is the hamburgers' most familiar song? "Home on the Range"!

Not bad. Next one is about the same:

When do hamburgers most enjoy watching TV? During prime time!

OK. A little awkward--that's a punchline looking for a joke--and I could do without that condescending underlining, as if only slack-jawed morons would be enjoying a hambuger joke book. Yeah, "prime" is a word used to grade meat, we get it. You don't have to be a slaughterhouse jockey to understand jargon like that. But otherwise it's not a bad joke.

But check out the third joke:

How do you make a hamburger green? Find a yellow cheeseburger and mix it with a blue one!

Now, stop the train, here. What? That joke doesn't even make sense. Why would 1) anyone ever want to make a hamburger green, and 2) is there really such a thing as a blue hamburger? They made a saving throw with the yellow cheese on the burger, but...what sort of setup is that? It's not even a hamburger joke, that's a "what happens when you mix primary colors" joke. Why would you ask how to make something that doesn't exist, and the punchline be something that also doesn't exist? Madness!

It just gets worse. I'm not going to run through all 101 jokes, but let's take a random sample:

Can you use the word "tenderloin" in a sentence? Burgers "tenderloin" faster than pizzas or hot dogs!

Why do burgers laugh when you surround them with pickles? Who knows--maybe they're picklish!

Who is a hamburger's favorite comedian? Milton Broil! (Berle)

THANKS FOR EXPLAINING THAT, PHIL! I thought there was an actual comedian out there named Milton Broil. Also, is there a pun with "tenderloin" that I'm missing? I mean, I get that they're trying to say "Burgers tend to do [something] faster than pizzas or hot dogs." But what is the something? Lie around? Loiter? Lean? I don't know, and all of the answers are equally unfunny.

Most of the jokes (I'm not going to be an asshole and put that in quotes) rely on puns, and that's OK--I'm appreciative of a good session of wordplay. But there's only about a half dozen terms he uses, and just re-uses them in different ways. It can be quite tiring. There's only so many ways you can re-word "Well done," "hot dog," "bun," "meat," and "loin."

There's also a lot of jokes that aren't really jokes at all, even in the lame-pun category. Take a look at this classic:

Why does Farrah Fawcett-Majors love hamburgers? Who knows--but we just wanted to mention her name!

Just remember, folks: there was a time in America in which it was culturally acceptable that simply name-dropping Farrah Fawcett was the minimum threshold required to quality as a joke. This is why ISIS exists.

There's also a section called "Rare Vampire Jokes" (get it?) which include these gems:

Which singer's records do they play at hamburger joints in Transylvania? Fang Sinatra's!

What did the Big Mac say when the Vampire attacked him? "You're a pain in the neck!"

How many burgers do you feed a ferocious, 14-foot-tall vampire? All it wants!

What the hell? These aren't even hamburger jokes! They're lame vampire jokes with an unsubtle hamburger reference thrown in. Did Phil run out of steam around joke 80 and just say "Screw it, the kids won't figure it out?" That's hardly professional. I was promised "101 Hamburger Jokes," not "A Modest Amount Of Hamburger Jokes Plus Some Other Stuff That Ultimately Add Up To 101."

But it's not all bad, of course. Here are some halfway decent jokes that stood the test of time:

Who can you always rely on in Burger Land during an emergency? Hamburger Helpers!

What kind of girl does a hamburger like? Any girl named Patty!

Which burger is famous for his long nose? Cyrano de Burgerac!

That last one was thrown in for all the classy intellectuals browsing the meat-based joke section of the local library. 

But that's not enough to save this book. Everything can be encapsulated by the back cover: there's a drawing of a snooty-looking hamburger, complete with top hat, cane, and monocle, sticking his nose up in the air. The joke?

How does a Burger acquire good taste? With a little seasoning!

That's it? That's the showstopper? That's what you're putting on the back cover of your book to move copies off the shelf? It even just barely makes sense--even back in the 70s, using the phrase "seasoning" for refined upper-class snobbery was already a bit of a stretch. There's some decent jokes in there, but they chose something devoid of sense and humor as the marquee knee-slapper.

Still, I can't be too hard on the book. It was a product of its time, I suppose. I'd like to say I'm not its target audience, but that's an excuse. And yet I still recommend it for one fact and one fact only, and that is due to this joke along with the accompanying illustration:

What do hamburger say on Monday morning? "Well, it's back to the old grind!"

It makes structural sense, it's a decent pun, and it actually has something to do with hamburgers. More importantly, it shows a cheerfully-sketched hamburger willingly trotting off to what will be the certain death of fellow hamburgers, gleefully grinding them to a pulp for a paycheck.  It's a sad commentary of the malaise of the Carter administration, as well as a proper dose of reality subtext in a tome peppered with frankfurter jokes.

Puns, perspective, and pathos? Now, that's a joke we can all laugh at.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Million Little Inconveniences


I had a very rough morning.

Not in like a Michael Douglas Falling Down type of morning, but one that’s just irritating enough as to make the rest of your day obnoxiously bad. You hate to complain about it, because you can look around and see other people in worse situations, but…c’mon.

So my task for the morning was to buy a bottle of Diet Pepsi for breakfast. Yes, I often drink pop for breakfast because nutritionally balanced breakfasts are for suckers.

Well, my place of employment has a few options: a few vending machines scattered about on the first floor, a cafeteria, and then a sort of coffee shop.

Well, since I have no sense of perspective or priority in my life, my preference is to buy from the vending machine. Why? Because the bottle is $1.50 in the vending machine and $1.59 at the cafeteria due to sales tax, and that nine cents is that important.

So I went through my pockets and found two quarters and pulled a greasy bill out of my wallet. I went to the vending machine and slid the dollar into the slot and plunked in my quarters. I press the button and—nothing. Sometimes in the morning the machines are out of stock, and sure enough, the machine blinked back at me with an ominous “OUT…OF…PRODUCT” message in scary blue letters. Of course, in return, I get nothing but quarters, so I get to walk around jingling like a Christmas elf for the rest of the morning.

So I go to the nearby cafeteria instead and grab a bottle. Then I look at the line, which is at least ten people deep, all with hilariously complicated breakfast meals in Styrofoam containers whose cost have to apparently be added up on a broken abacus. While waiting in line, for what was clearly a few hours, I glance over and see that the vending machine guy is talking with the clerk at the coffee shop; clearly, he’s done stocking at least the other machines in the building and working his way down. Huzzah! I’ll go there!

So I hoofed it down to one of the other vending machines. It’s not a long walk, by any means, but it’s about a minute or two. I get there, and I press the button first—it should tell you if it’s in stock or not before you put your money in, and it’s done this correctly 100% of the time that I’ve ever done it in my life. It says it’s in stock. Yay! I put my quarters in, press the button, and…OUT OF PRODUCT! What the hell, technology? I specifically asked you a very specific question and you lied! Are you one of those assholes in those logic puzzles where one vending machine always lies and one vending machine tells the truth, and you can only get your pop by giving money to the right one? And what was the vending machine guy doing? He’s supposed to be the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus rolled into one, and instead he’s just a soda tease!

So I hoof it back down to the coffee shop, where at least the line is only a few people deep, and I finally get my drink. No problems, either, except for that pesky nine cents.

And that’s how I spent my stupid morning taking fifteen minutes to get a stupid bottle of Diet Pepsi.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Why the Internet Has Ruined Everything For Everyone Ever

The internet is a wonderful place. People are better connected, business can provide personal service in an efficient manner, and the increase of total knowledge is at the fingertips of nearly everyone. What's not to love about the internet?

And yet there's something unfortunate about how we've taken the greatest invention of modern times and ruined everything.

Okay, "ruined everything" is probably a bit of an overstatement, but not by much. While you can easily find the awesome on the internet, it's also easy to stumble upon its seedy underbelly. I mean, have you ever read a newspaper article and accidentally scrolled down to see the comment section? It's like a cesspool of ignorance and bad judgement, except that would probably be unfair to cesspools.

Let's take a look at some of the things that the internet ruins on a regular basis. First, let's look at perfectly acceptable pop culture icons. I've already written about my annoyance that the internet has taken one of our icons of innocence and joyfulness, Kermit The Frog, and turned him into a passive-aggressive asshole. But tomorrow it will be something else, some other beloved character that should be nothing but kind and decent and will be turned into the modern-day equivalent of Calvin pissing all over a Ford logo. Even today, Facebook feeds are full of blurry pictures of Minions--you know, the incredibly cute creatures from the Despicable Me movies--and turned them into horrible, petty jerks who spout off bumper-sticker insults.

I've long maintained that the internet--rather than bringing us all together--actually does the opposite. The literal worldwide connection that everybody has with everyone else is overwhelming, and thus, instead of expanding our horizons, we retreat to our comfort zones and surround ourselves with those who already think and feel and believe exactly like we do, which is incredibly easy.

In previous generations, you were more or less forced to engage your ideas with other people. Your ability to bounce ideas off of individuals was limited to who you knew, and chances are you knew a relatively wide range of personalities; moreso if you went to college or the armed forces. If you had a stupid opinion, you were probably going to have it challenged by someone at some point, and while you may not change your mind you were at least exposed to different viewpoints. No, not everyone was like that--it's very easy, especially in small towns and in certain regions, to be surrounded by like-minded people, but it was far more common to normalized your opinions.

Today if you have a stupid opinion, you can easily go online and find hundreds, if not thousands, of people who will back you up, and you can easily isolate yourself so you only ever engage with people who agree with what you already have. Thus you will never critically question your own beliefs. If hundreds of people in the internet agree with you, how could you possibly be wrong?

And the internet, in its quest to be efficient (and rightfully so), also has the effect of exacerbating this isolation. When you search for things on Google or shop for things on Amazon or bid on things on eBay, your computer tracks you, finds out what you like, and tries to refine your searches and behavior to match what you want. At first glance, this is awesome--the internet is going all the hard work. And yet that also means you'll never be exposed to new things or stumble upon something different yet awesome, which has the exact opposite effect of what the internet should be doing. (This is especially true when dealing with political issues--you often get caught in a circular feedback loop, since your search results will respond with things you already believe, giving you the perception that everything everywhere agrees with you.)

I'm a decidedly enthusiastic consumer of the internet age and social media; the far does, in fact, outweigh the bad. But let's all not pretend that the bad doesn't exist, and in fact the trends may be adversely affecting the younger generations who have not been exposed to any other system. There's a certain value in stepping away from the isolated world.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Blurred Copyright Violations

So apparently, Blurred Lines, the creepy summer anthem from a few years ago, was found to be suspiciously similar to a Marvin Gaye song from a few decades ago.

I've listened to both (sadly in the former, noncommittally on the latter) and, well, I just don't see it. Well, hear it, anyway.

Now, the normal caveats apply: I wasn't in the courtroom with the people who deal with the actual laws and listen to the actual technical parts of the songs. I'm sure there's a lot of information that I'm not getting. And yet, from an outsider's perspective, it's extraordinarily difficult to listen to both songs and think they have anything more than the most fundamental basics of music theory. At the very least, if this is copyright infringement, so is every single song in the Top 40 for the past half of a century.*

Copyright is a funny thing. In our guts, we understand why mechanisms get patents, but it's a little more difficult to understand the legal protection of intangible things like ideas--which, in the end, is what novels, music, and artwork ultimately is. It's more difficult given the longevity of creative work; a thing will only last a certain amount of time, but an idea is forever, for better or worse. And so the western world has sort of teased out this more-or-less arbitrary set of rules as to how long an owner can control something before it belongs to the ages.

It's not a perfect system, but it's a necessary one, and one I more or less agree with--people should be rewarded for their work, ideas or not. The current laws seem a little out of whack--Disney keeps strongarming the copyright law writers into extending it to the point of absurdity, and eventually we'll have to come to the slow realization that the world will have to accept Steamboat Willie fanfic as legal. I'd rather reform it rather than extend it--say, characters who are still having active material being produce continue to be protected, but the works themselves fall into public domain sooner. So, for example, the movie Star Wars itself might fall into public domain, but as long as they keep making Star Wars movies Darth Vader is still protected. That might get sloppy, but I think it's worth exploring.

Anyway, the point of this is that copyright cases like the Marvin Gaye/Robin Thicke one are difficult to defend, because creativity can be...nuanced in how it is derived from other works. In this case, the contribution from one to the other (and for such a short period of time) makes the case almost laughable. Still, the answer isn't to toss out all the old copyright laws, but to reform them.

And thus ends my incredibly sexy post about copyright law.


*Or, more accurately, anyone who isn't an African-American blues singer from the Depression Era.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Player One Joins The Game



I am, in nearly every sense of the word, a nerd. Sure, there are some gaps in my interests—I really have close to zero interest in comic books, for example, and I find nearly all anime to be lame—but by and large I have subscribed to nearly the entire list of acceptable facets of nerd culture. 

That said, I like to at least pretend that I’m reasonably moderate with my interests. Sure, I’m a fanatic about certain things--like Team Fortress 2, Sid Meier’s Civilization, board games, geocaching, or the old INWO CCG—but I like to pretend that I’m not obsessed with any of them. Relatively speaking, of course.

That said, I just don’t get video game culture.

I’m not talking about someone who simply likes video games. Video games are a big business; they generate more revenue than the movie industry, for starters. Everyone is a video gamer now, as anyone who plays Candy Crush can tell you. (And they have, because they beg me to give them lives on Facebook every single day. Every. Day.)

What I’m talking about are people who loooove video games. They can’t wait for each new release. They complain bitterly when a button on a controller is moved when the new generation is announced. They voluntarily watch videos of other people playing video games. Writers who mess with a character are heaped upon with scorn. If you don’t make a sequel the exact same thing as the original players complain that it was ruined and if you do make the sequel the exact same thing players complain they were ripped off. The perfect video game is whatever came out when they turned 11. So help you if you get into an argument about who makes the best console game system.

And it is a culture. A generation, maybe two of people feel the same about video games and older generations felt about books and movies. It was like that one video game was made just for you, just like every preteen is the very first person to ever understand the lyrics of a Led Zeppelin song and now they are a combination of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and the Oracle of Delphi at the ripe young age of thirteen.

Hey, I get it. Everyone has their thing, and if it ain’t hurting anyone else, why should I care? And there’s a certain level of validity to that. I got things that I obsess disproportionately about, too. (Just ask my poor wife. Hopefully you have some time.) Still, I feel like the video game industry is hostile to people like me; I wouldn’t consider myself a “casual” gamer, yet I couldn’t fathom actually paying cash money for a PC specifically built for gaming. I do like certain titles that come out but if I have to wait three months for the price to drop in half I am perfectly happy with that.

But, you may ask, how is this different than people who love movies, or cars, or sports, or television? People get stupid about those things, too, and spend too much money on them. In many ways, it’s not all that different, really. But there are a few things that seem to set it apart. Time invested tends to be higher for video games, especially given the large number of formats, systems, and titles that get released. (Movies can be watched in two hours; most video games can be replayed for weeks, months, and years.) Second is the demographic: the enthusiasts in this hobby tend to be frustrated, angry teenage boys with little ability to translate context into reality or have any frame of reference to compare anything to.* (I should know because I used to be, and some would stay still am, in this demographic.) There’s also a permeating attitude that the normal rules of media consumption no longer apply to video games; I’m willing to chalk this up to the fact that a lot of video gamers are…shall we say, less experienced in how society works and how businesses operate. Finally, there is a horrid streak of elitism (casuals vs. hardcore) that reinforces every bad stereotype of the video gamer. There is always some sort of elitism in any hobby, naturally, but video games haven’t had quite the cultural longevity to let the snobs get away with it for very long without coming across as tantrum-struck fanboys.

There is still debate about exactly what video games are. Roger Ebert famously declared that they were not art, while most video game enthusiasts obviously feel otherwise. (I am mostly in the middle; I think there’s a spectrum between “simple coding” and “near-movie experience” that is not easy to define, but I think a line delineating art from non-art does exist.) I generally view games as “interactive content,” where the user has the freedom to “create” the minutia of a plot, while the creator/programmer restricts the range of options available to force the story they have written. This narrative would be much different from, say, Tomb Raider or Bioshock than it would be for Angry Birds, but generally speaking that is the experience for most gamers.

All this said, I can’t feel but left out. I read video game articles or browse the magazines and I am constantly astounded at the amount of moral outrage people are able to produce for things that matter so very little. I see petitions being raised to make Character X do something. People don’t like the ending to Mass Effect 3 and the internet is flooded with outrage and scorn, and then feel vindicated when the company does, in fact, change it. I hear people say a video game "changed their life," and upon playing it the writing seems to be at best on par with a C-grade straight-to-video rental.

I suppose, in the end, it’s not so horribly different than anything else. Sports fanatics can be pretty obnoxious; gearheads can be elitist and argue endlessly about shit that doesn’t matter, and movie snobs often make me want to punch them in the face (metaphorically, of course). It’s just that video games haven’t quite built up the cultural cache to get away with a lot of the obnoxiousness. Sports, cars, movie theaters—they’ve all been around for nearly a century, and the mass market versions of these have spanned many generations. Those facets of culture have elders, they have a rich history, and they have built a diverse library of perspectives. Video games, on the other hand, have really only been a mainstream hobby for one, maybe two generations at most (and only in the last five years or so would it be considered anything close to mainstream.)  Video games haven’t gotten to the point where the user base is diffuse enough, and its history isn’t diverse enough to support all of the baggage of being an elitist, mouth-breathing train wreck of a support system. It certainly won’t take long—maybe in the next 20 years or so, when the people who played the first Pokemon game become grandparents—but it’s not quite there yet.

The Pledge: Video game fans are kinda dicks. Sports fans, car enthusiasts, and movie buffs are also dicks, but at least that stuff has been around for a while that they can get away with it. Video games need to grow up.

*I know the actual demographic for video games is much different: the average video game player is in early- to mid-thirties and is no longer simply a male audience. But I'm specifically talking about the enthusiasts who, by force of their fanaticism, are the face of video game culture. 

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Prosper

I, like a lot of nerds, enjoy Star Trek. So the passing of one of Star Trek's icons, Leonard Nimoy, is sad, if not exactly unexpected.

As far as Star Trek goes, though, I'm more of a Next Generation guy--it debuted when I was around 11, which is the sweet spot for watching dorky things in the 1980's. Unfortunately, DS9 bored me and by the time Voyager and Enterprise came around I just didn't have time to get into them, so my spectrum of Star Trek consumption is alarmingly limited.


That leaves, of course, the original series (TOS). I've always had mixed feelings about that series: on the one hand, it's an enjoyable series that does a pretty good job of producing entertaining, thoughtful plotlines centered in a sci fi universe, all while utilizing a fantastic set of characters and actors and establishing a rich foundation of backstory. On the other hand, the scripts were wildly uneven, the production values iffy at best, and it screams "60's" right in your face. Watching it can sometimes be a chore.

And yet, Star Trek is important. It is sometimes easy to forget the impact it had on our culture. It wasn't just a weekly hour-long nerd-wank session on a major network. Star Trek deliberately aimed at breaking barriers and pushing culture forward, all under the aegis of being sci-fi. You had one of the first African-American females as part of a main cast; you had an Asian who wasn't a martial arts expert or a coolie or Mickey Rooney; and even the inclusion of a Russian in the almost-hot Cold War of the late 60's was fairly important. (Thankfully, we had Klingons to act as stand-ins for the Russkies.) Add to that the fairly easy allegories that could be made using alien races as proxies for whatever social issue needed to be addressed, and stir in some decent writing and you can see why it had such an impact.

Well, maybe not so much. Expensive to make and with ratings that were modest at best (although it did exceptionally well in the lucrative young male demographic, a science that was just then gaining traction), it barely stayed on the air for three years before unceremoniously cancelled.And while Star Trek was innovative, it certainly wasn't the first to push boundaries by transplanting hot-button issues into science fiction; The Twilight Zone and other similar anthology programs were doing it a decade earlier.

But let's stop beating around the bush, here. Star Trek has stayed in our consciousness for a number of reasons, but one of them was the trio of characters (and their actors) that headed the show. William Shatner took James T. Kirk and made him into the able archetype of the action-oriented, aggressive captain and took exploring new galaxies to their logical conclusion. In addition, the logically-minded Spock, portrayed by Leonard Nimoy, and the cranky but diplomatic McCoy (DeForest Kelley), in combination with Kirk became an almost perfect triumvirate of personalities that many other television shows and movies copied.

It's easy to oversell it, of course. Star Trek took the brunt of a lot of jokes in its time, laughing all the way to the bank but never really being able to shake the whole reputation of being a nerdy, unpopular genre. It took decades of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and a few generations of video games and role-playing acceptance before converting into an acceptable, mainstream cultural phenomenon.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Bad, Bad Movies

Tonight is the 87th Academy Awards ceremonies, where all of the glamor and glitter and cocaine-off-of-the-backs-of-commodes all concentrate in one place, so average Americans can watch rich people give other rich people awards.

Of course, let's not forget the bad movies as well as the good.

A lot of people have a fascination with bad films. At first glance, it seems weird--who would voluntarily watch something horrible? But I think a lot of people look at a final product and realize that thousands of people worked on it, and not one of them stepped up and said "Wait a second, what the hell are we doing here?"

There's also the type of bad movie to look at: some movies are "so bad, they're good" and then there are just bad movies, and finding that nearly invisible line between the two can be a challenge.

Granted, there are different types of bad movies:

  • Movies where there is a failure on all fronts. Production values are bad, casting is atrocious, and the writing makes no sense. You actually don't see this happening all that much anymore; at the very least on the production value standards technological costs are so low even the barest of budgets can get decent props, sets, and cameras. Gone are the days of things like Plan 9 From Outer Space where they were literally grabbing junk from random places just to put on a show. Still, there's enough stuff out there were naive or unprofessional directors straight up can't get their act together. 
  • Movies where the genres are mixed. This might be a thriller that also tries to be a romantic comedy, or an action flick that tries to make a political point, or a historical drama that tries to reinvent history to appeal to a modern audience. It's not impossible to pull off, and when it does it's brilliant, but it's very difficult. You'll also see a lot of people see this work once--and then all copycat attempts to duplicate that success are garbage.
  • Movies with an acting misfire. These often star perfectly capable actors and actresses that either can't quite pull off what the writers and directors are trying to do, or the actor is branching out into a genre they just aren't going to fit in with.
  • Intentionally bad movies. These are often horror movies or gross-out comedies,where the bad writing, situations, and productions values are done with a wink at the audience.
  • Finally, there are movies that are just a mess. These are the most common nowadays, where the production values and budget are average-to-high, it has a lot of big names, there's a large cadre of directors, writers, studio representatives, and money men involved--everybody who has a stake in the movie are all there, and not one of them steps back and thinks that it's a bad movie. The badness of the movie is amplified by the fact that these are all professional people with huge budgets and all sorts of talent at their fingertips, and they still produce a complete pile of trash. And so it gets wide distribution and a huge marketing campaign and then audiences hate it and it becomes the subject for ridicule. 
This last one, in my opinion, is the most fascinating. There's probably a part of it that enjoys the fact that big, powerful people get embarrassed by something they think is great. But another part of it is just the fact that the power structure of Hollywood is so farcically out of touch that no one can say "This is a bad movie" without there being repercussions. If you're an underling telling a big-name director that he is creating a bad movie, that's a one-way ticket to not working in Hollywood anymore. If you're the executive who expresses reservations about a project, you're painted as a betrayer.

There are a lot of poster children for this sort of thing. Heaven's Gate, directed by Michael Cimino, is probably the most notorious, mostly because it had actual repercussions in the culture of Hollywood. If you are unfamiliar, the story is about the Johnson County War in Wyoming between land owners and immigrants. This was during the days in which New Hollywood reigned. When a large number of director-driven (as opposed to studio-driven) movies became smash hits in the 60s and 70s and easily became the "future" of moviemaking, studios adapted, giving directors a huge amount of money, resources, and leeway in how they wanted to make their movies. It produced a lot of classic movies, such as The Godfather, Bonnie and Clyde, and Apocalypse Now. But like most things, directors became more and more demanding and more and more difficult, and the returns on the movies were beginning to make less and less money.  

Heaven's Gate was the final straw: it cost $44 million to make (swelling from its original $12 million budget) and ended up making a paltry $3.5 million. It bankrupted United Artists (or, rather, they were bought out before that could happen) and destroyed Cimino's reputation, which had been on the rise after the Best Picture-winning The Deer Hunter. It ended that era of Hollywood, and studios quickly took control back from directors and managed their movies (and budgets) more closely.

The thing is, the movie isn't bad, really--the acting is capable, the production values are decent, and it's not unwatchable. And yet it is a bad movie, because it's eminently boring, there's no reason to want to actually sit down and watch it, and to see all of the talent being poured into such a huge undertaking just baffles most people. And this is the sort of thing that happens most frequently now--while there's a lot of bad writing and bad acting and bad ideas still being produced in Hollywood, there's at lease some sort of quality control to make sure it's not something like a bad 60's sci-fi flick with set pieces falling down and actors who are their brother's chiropractor.

Still, there's plenty of bad stuff to go around. I recently saw The Room, which defies all description and fits none of the categories above. It's the sort of thing that's entirely enjoyable to watch and yet is clearly a bad movie. The actors are all capable if mediocre--except for the star, Tommy Wiseau, whose broken English and over-the-top acting and complete disregard for inflection and timing come across as laughable. The main plot of the movie--a guy whose friends, one by one, betray him--isn't bad, except that none of the plot makes sense, dozens of subplots are introduced and immediately forgotten, and weird scenes depicting things that no one in the history of the world has even done (like throwing a football back and forth while jogging) make the entire experience seem like a bad fever dream.

Anyway, when watching the Oscars tonight (or, like me, reading about it on Monday), just take a moment to remember all of the horrible, horrible movies that these same people also made.


Saturday, February 21, 2015

Why I'm Glad Jon Stewart Joined The Daily Show, And Why I'm Glad He's Leaving

So, last week, Jon Stewart announced that he is stepping down as the host of The Daily Show.

I was one of the early adopters of The Daily Show. When Comedy Central debuted the program in 1996, the state of news satire in America was pretty abysmal. You basically had Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live, and...well, that was it. Sure, you had some attempts like Not Necessarily The News and That Was The Week That Was, but those were modest successes with a limited audience.

Being an avid consumer of current events back in the day, I ate it up. I wasn't a huge fan--Craig Kilborn, the original host, was kind of a smug prick, and the guests and format were a little too Comedy-Central-Centric. (Most guests were basically comedians who had Comedy Central shows.) Still, the writing was sharp enough and the genre so barren that it was still eminently watchable.

After Kilborn left and Stewart took over, the show revitalized itself. Sure, it still followed roughly the same format, but the attitude was different, the writing cleaner, the range of subjects broadened. It became a proper news satire source and not just a mash of comedy bits held together with dorky jokes about the news. Guests and topics no longer felt like they were simply vehicles for Comedy Central routines. And, most importantly, they cultivated what would end up being a dream team of writers and performers: Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Rob Corddry, and Ed Helms, to name a few, all of whom have gone on with successful careers. From about 1999 to 2004 or so, there was no greater example of satire on the airwaves than The Daily Show.

Unfortunately, around that time, something changed. I don't know if there was any one specific point in which it did, but if I had to choose it would be Jon Stewart's appearance on Crossfire. During this interview, Stewart called out hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala as being bad for political discourse, calling them partisan hacks in a combative and uncomfortable segment. While some think of it as a brave calling out of the loud, obnoxious debate programs that permeated the air, others (like myself) feel it was a absurd for Stewart to do this on their program in the manner that he did. Clearly Stewart was there to be a comedian--since, you know, that's what he is and claimed to be--and when he used it to unexpectedly attack the hosts it was not only hypocritical but in poor taste. He was simultaneously acting as an expert on news discourse, and when they counter attacked he just claimed to be a comedian, apparently hoping that his comments would be taken seriously enough to have an impact, but not so serious that he had to accept responsibility as a journalist. Had Stewart been invited on to discuss the state of media, I think it would have worked out fine, but he chose instead to take the opportunity to make a childish ambush.

The entire problem stems from the fact that around 2004 or so Stewart transformed The Daily Show from something that was a satire of everything to a vehicle for commentary and ideology. Oh, don't get me wrong--good satire has the pleasant side effect of calling out the rich and powerful on their bullshit where traditional journalism can't. But two things converged to make the satire less effective. First, Stewart and the staff took to criticizing all other news outlets, and then when those outlets turned it around against them they claim that they're just a comedy show. You can't just say, "Oh, we are strictly a satirical organization whose sole purpose is to be funny and shouldn't be held to the same journalistic standards as the regular news, except for those times when we want to make an accusation, where we want you to treat us like an academic source."

And that's the biggest issue that I had with The Daily Show. They wanted the good stuff (being taken seriously as a organization when they critique people via satire) but not the bad (their news stories were biased, slanted, used cherry-picked statistics so they could make a funny point). Everybody kind of took The Daily Show's popularity as an excuse to make accusations that under any other circumstance would be the exact sort of thing The Daily Show would get angry about, and if they were criticized they would throw up their hands and say "Can't you tell this is all just a joke?"

There was a glimmer of hope after 2008. Even though I had long stopped watching The Daily Show by that point, I always defended it. Good satire pokes fun at the powerful and influential, and during the height of its run the people in power were the Republicans. It only made sense that their targets would be ideologically slanted. But when the Democrats were ushered into power--mildly in 2006 and then fully in 2008--it was clear that The Daily Show wasn't ready to move on. Old, stale jokes from previous election cycles were trotted out, dusted up, and shook at towards the audience, hoping that they wouldn't notice that the writers couldn't bring themselves to make fun of the party and ideology they so clearly adored. Regardless of what side of the political spectrum you are on, satire is most effective when you can make fun of both sides. Otherwise, it's just ideological masturbation. When you're creatively bankrupt enough to not be able to make fun of your own side, the effectiveness of your satire is greatly diminished. Oh, sure, they still made fun of Democrats once in a while; I'm not saying that the show became a relentless anti-conservative machine. But it was clear that the satire against their preferred party was weak, mute, and without bite.

Exhibit A for this sort of thing would be Last Week Tonight, a similar show on HBO starring former Daily Show correspondent John Oliver. It's almost like they took everything that was wrong with The Daily Show and magnified it--every story is a hypersensationalized distortion of any sort of reality. The stats are all skewed, the framing of each issue is slanted to an absurd degree, and the delivery is wrapped up in a sort of douchey faux-intellectual mock horror. You know that guy who goes to college for the first time and suddenly discovered politics and then uses every single logical fallacy in the book to prove that he's right? That's exactly what Last Week Tonight feels like. It almost feels like a satire of satire news shows, except that no one is in on the joke.

Ultimately, I think it's a good thing that Stewart is leaving. I'm glad he did what he did, but it was clear a long time ago that satire has progressed beyond stale Bush jokes and getting upset about the Tea Party, yet Stewart is still sitting in the back corner table wailing away about it while the rest of the world has moved on. He brought a fresh perspective into a vast wasteland of a genre, but it's time now for someone else to do the same to him.

Friday, February 6, 2015

George Washington Totally Wanted Peanut Butter Pie On His Birthday

So last year I entreated my readers to start a brand new tradition: making a delicious peanut butter pie in honor of Presidents Day.

I laid out my case in the post linked above, but last night during a fever dream I totally thought up another perfectly 100% valid reason why we should all make peanut butter pie a Presidents Day tradition:

1. George Washington Carver was named after our first President, George Washington.
2. George Washington Carver also invented peanut butter.*
3. Ergo and therefore and QED, peanut butter pie on Presidents Day makes the most sense ever.

 

Oh oh oh and 4. I just thought of this 4. George Washington Carver is black and February is Black History Month and he invented peanut butter so now it's not only awesome but now school children around the nation are legally obligated to make peanut butter pie (and epipen cocktails, I presume) and bring it to class.

 So--you guys have two weekends to spread (ha!) the word and get yourselves out to the grocery store. Peanut allergists get your placards out for your Presidents Day Protests (or just get some Nutella as a similarly suspicious substitute). And everybody get ready to indulge in a new and tasty American tradition.

*I know some people will claim that George Washington Carver did not, in fact, invent peanut butter, but those people are stupid and wrong.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Trivia Crack Category Conversion Chart


Geography = History
History = Meaningless Dates
Sports = Soccer, Volleyball, and Michael Jordan
Science = Obscure Medical Terms
Art = Pop Culture
Entertainment = Hunger Games Questions