Saturday, March 17, 2012

"Foiled Again": The Evolution of Comedy Writing

If you read Shakespeare with any regularity, well, you are exactly the type of person I expect enjoys this kind of website.  But more importantly, you're probably frequently struck by how different Shakespearean comedy seems from our own.  Except, of course, for the minor detail that somehow the guy who has managed to stay in print for four centuries included more dick jokes in his plays than appear on the front page of Cracked.  Still, the biggest difference in the comedy is how little of it there actually is.  Acting troupes are forced to fluff it up, using tone and pratfalls to get to the lowest number of jokes per page that a modern audience will accept.  What you think is a hilarious joke about horses just wasn't that funny to someone who actually had to brush lice and shovel hundreds of pounds of equine shit every day.

"You mean to tell me, I don't have to use my hands?"

Candide is a riotously funny book, but the entire thing consists of droll observations and, by at least one count, seven jokes that someone would politely smile at if you were to recite them at a cocktail party.  In fact, as you move closer and closer through history to the current century, you'll find that the jokes start piling up to the point where Saturday Night Live is comprised entirely of pithy one liners and fourth wall breaking giggles.  It's as if we can't enjoy comedy unless we never have a chance to stop laughing.

We stopped laughing about nine years ago.

A page from your sitcom spec script with only one or two jokes is going to be thrown in the trash like invitations to a party at Carrot Top's homeless shelter.  That is, unless you can find a way to throw in another pop culture reference or three that can be mined for laughs.

So why is that?  Novels are much, much longer now in 2012 than they were in 1912, despite what those hefty tomes on your English professor's bookshelf suggest.  Fifty thousand words was plenty a hundred years ago, but now consumers aren't satisfied unless they get at least 1,800 pages.  

Why do we tl;dr our comedy then?  Unfortunately, and I hope I haven't led you on like Tucker Max at a sorority party, I'm not a social psychologist and I have absolutely no evidence for any of the next five hundred words or so.  But I do have ideas.

*Our attention spans are short.  Really short.  Odds are that you have at least three browser tabs open right now.  Even as you read this, you are wondering if your significant other has gone to sleep so you can Facebook stalk your ex.

*We really hate coming down from a high.  If you pick up Les Miserables and sit down to read, you enter with the expectation that you are going to be depressed.  It's in the title.  When you watch a Michael Bay movie, you expect everything to be blowing up all of the time.

So when the talky-bits start, you fidget and look around to catch people playing Words with Friends at the theater.

With comedy, you expect to laugh.  We don't have "very special" episodes any more for the same reason no one gets a colonoscopy from a camera attached to a katana.  It isn't fun, and there is always the threat of rectal bleeding.

*People digest information faster.  Esprit d'escalier was a huge problem for earlier generations.  Now?  That average fifteen year old has at least five comebacks for any given situation thanks to her parents' Adam Sandler films.

She also has terrible taste in movies.

Whereas the Renaissance and medieval audience for comedy could reliably expected to walk out of the dirt, mud, and excrement soaked theatre laughing because they finally got the bit about the goat, modern audiences already knew the punchline before the pudgy friar finished talking.

*In fact, if you haven't noticed, the proliferation of "in-jokes" is exponential.  The rise of viral media and the omnipresence of pop culture virtually ensures that at least a majority of a show's audience knows exactly why it is funny to have the female lead eye a blue plastic cup warily in front of another women while glancing nervously at the camera.

*There are more jokes.  Blame twenty-first century irony for a lot of this, because self-referential humor exploded around the time that Family Guy was brought back from cancellation purgatory.  That isn't to say it didn't exist before, just that you can't buy a pack of smokes without running into nine terrible referential lines any more.

 "Wil-lem. Da-foe. Wil-lem. Da-foe." 

Moreover, it stands to reason that if something was funny to our ancestors, say, someone getting whacked in the head, that it might linger as humorous for most of us today.  Sure, a lot of the comedy from ancient Greece is as unintelligible as George Lucas' dialogue, but just about everyone knows to laugh when Oedipus finds out that he's been sleeping with his mom, right?

*Expectations have been raised.  I'm not bemoaning the death of subtlety in humor.  When I read Christopher Moore, I'm not sad because I think Vonnegut did it better.  In many cases, the trend has produced increasingly clever writers who are forced to work and demonstrate actual talent instead of a thin veneer of sarcasm.  But, more often than not, comedy is now a team effort.  Even the stand-ups, working the wasteland of the washed over nightclub scene, have teams and workshops in order to come up with enough material to fill a ninety minute special they'll probably never perform.

*Of course, some of it is just awful.  I can't stomach the thought of being forced to watch most of NBC's current line-up, and Fox has degenerated to the point that I couldn't find a use for it in the smallest room of my house.

*If you laughed at the last comment, you know why I miss sophisticated humor.  If you didn't, you probably don't know what all the fuss is about.  More than likely, Shakespeare would enjoy most of what we find on television and in the theater.  His ability to adapt to the changing taste of his audience is legen, wait for it.

"Dary.  He's going to say, 'Dary'."

But however much the Bard gets out of Barney, he would rue the day we ever cloned him every time he sees a new Happy Madison release.

Without saying a word, Katie turned and left the room.  She got in her car and drove to the teleportation pad.
Her last words before disappearing were: "I swear, I'll never disagree with an OT again."

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Best Flavor

I am finishing up Michael J Sullivan's Riyria Revelations and am pleasantly surprised by the quality of the story.  While I wholeheartedly endorse the series, the more interesting thing to me is the author's interview.  Most specifically, this:

           "For years now I have heard few...lament that repetitive theme....they are tired of the same old hero-               
            vanquishing-evil and want something new.  Something more real, more believable.  Which to me 
            sounds like someone saying they love chocolate, the just wished it wasn't so chocolatey and that it 
            tasted more like vanilla."

Having an established genre author admit to the feelings he describes is akin to NASA spontaneously admitting that we faked the first moon landing.

"Are you sure the wind rippling isn't going to give it away?"

It drives me insane that every new speculative fiction I pick up spends a thousand pages developing a deep, resonant theme that parallels the real world.  And there will be no MacGuffin.  If I found myself wanting to read Atlas Shrugged again, I would gouge my own eyes out with a rusty spoon.

As seen in the last reasonably tolerable Kevin Costner movie.

So, you see, I don't want to read it, I get suckered in by Tor's shield on the spine.  Then I read 300,000 words of political intrigue, conspiracies, and judiciary debate about the rights of the parasite wurms of Arenon IV.  All I really wanted was a wizard burninating some orcs.

Sullivan goes on to defend his own work, which makes his Oz-like unveiling a little less impressive.  But ultimately, the idea that someone can't just write a boring old hack n' slash novel is depressing.  Joseph Campbell described thousands of concurrent mythologies that all feature similar elements.  They endured because they were entertaining and popular.  We can read them today because they are always fun.  No, KJ Parker's Engineer trilogy isn't better than Brook's Shannara work.  But it is worth spending the few days it will take to finish the books.

Similarly, the constant quest to destroy any hope we might have that our future generations will even know what a poem is has become mindbogglingly stupid.  I've got a list, here's the order of the list that it's in.

It goes Reggie, Jay-Z, Tupac, and Biggie, Andre from Outkast, Jada, Kurupt, Nas, and then me.
1)  Poetry can rhyme
2)  It can even be iambic
3)  Nothing on your tumblr can be considered poetry.
4)  Poetry does not have to be spoken in front of an audience of students with suspect scruples.
5)  If you are doing a "slam" or "reading," keep in mind that talking like William Shatner does not turn your 
     diary into poems.
6)  Punctuation was invented for a reason.*
7)  No one likes an ampersand.

*This.  This is why.

I'm thankful that the bow-legged, greasy, bastardized version of poetry exists at all, but I'm not going to invite it in for dinner, because I don't want it to mess with my kids.  I don't have kids.  I once wrote a fifty page critical evaluation of Frank Herbert's Dune so I know all about sucking the fun out of a good story.  I just don't want that to become the only real way of interacting with a book.

The way the publishers and the market treat stories with too much cliche isn't like complaining the chocolate is too chocolatey, it's like banning chocolate and forcing everyone to enjoy their damn vanilla.

"You will like it, or you will be forced to keep publishing on Smashwords."

Monday, March 12, 2012

Cats, Internet, Get Your Cat Picture Here!

You can't believe everything you read on the Internet.  In fact, unless you want to buy a new computer, the best course of action is normally to assume that everything on the Internet wants to steal your identity, freeze your bank accounts, and have conjugal relations with your closest friends and lovers.  There are no magic pills that will increase the size of you or your gentleman friend's appropriate anatomy (if there were, there would literally be no other advertisements during the Super Bowl, and someone would be able to buy Sweden).  No one actually needs your help to recover a lost fortune.  There are no easy tricks to getting thin or having whiter teeth (although not eating or smoking can help, I don't personally recommend not doing either of those things). 

But when I tell you that the following image is one of the most adorable things you will see today, you can trust that I'm not after your Social Security number.  Instead, I only ask that you download my novel, and I'm not even really asking that, there's just a neat sidebar that conveniently has a picture of the book's cover that also takes you right to where you can order your own copy.  I know how hard it is to grasp the concept that someone in the vast miasma of faceless forum jumping actually cares about how much you smile today, but I do.

In fact, there's even the possibility that you steal this picture, slap a funny caption on it, and become instantly rich when your insight into the feline condition makes its way through cyberspace to the overcrowded desks of cat-lovers across the globe.  If that happens, wouldn't you say I'm nearly the best friend you don't know on the 'net?  You would, right?  I need a friend.  My cats spend most of the day doing things that aren't nearly as huggable as the two pictured below.  When they do manage to find time to cheer me up, it's never happens until after they sit in a circle around the litter box while I shovel their poop into plastic bags.  At that point, it is clear to me who is entertaining who.

What I'm saying is, when you get a chance to jumpstart your happiness with a double helping of adorable, you should take it.  Unless it comes in the form of a blinking, flashing, wiggling pop up ad.  Or a strangely grammatically incorrect e-mail.  Or a tweet from someone who joined up only a few hours ago.  Really, I guess, you should probably only rely on me and the following picture.

The first thing that came to my mind when I saw this was to question how much the orange-furred cat weigh that his or her tiny paw is enough to send rippling spasms of pain through the grey kitty.  Maybe the Garfield-style kitten is Garfield-sized.  Or it could be a ninja cat.  More realistically, I guess the cat could have learned pressure points from a Vulcan.

Then I realized that the cat on the right might just be yawning, except that the sheer terror on the face of the orange fuzzball suggests that he or she is about half a second from fleeing for his or her life.  I have never found myself fleeing from someone who was yawning.  Just the one time that I was being chased by a narcoleptic banger near Harlem.

Maybe the grey cat is roaring, imitating something he or she saw on television like most children are prone to do (for this reason, I do not allow any of my cats to watch "The Lion King" or the under-rated Val Kilmer classic, "The Ghost and theDarkness").  The power of his or her primal howl is enough to brush back the hair of the smaller feline on the left.  It could send paroxysms of fear that reduce the orange animal to a shaking, quivering, cowering mass.  While on safari, by which I mean while listening to the tour guide at Busch Gardens, I once had the opportunity to come face to face with a roaring tiger.  I chose not to take that opportunity, because I have no desire to wet myself in public.  That hasn't been funny since, what, tenth grade?

Possibly the least cute option would be if the cat on the right is belching, having just finished his or her allotment of canned tuna for the afternoon.   More than once, it has happened to me that one of my furry companions just can't help but attempt to recite the ABC's instead of quietly expelling the fragrant gas into a remote corner of the apartment.  If that's the case, I can certainly understand the other's reaction, since cats, while they tend to have impeccably shiny coats, do not seem to care nearly as much about dental hygiene.

Even if the last turns out to be the impetus for the captured image, it is still quite adorable, as who among us has never laughed at a baby gurgling on her parent's shoulder at Chuck E. Cheese, just before leveling the dining area with the kind of acrid stench that makes even the robot animals pinch their nostrils.  And maybe the cat on the left is just performing one of those all too infrequent dental check-ups, the equivalent of asking someone to feel your breasts to make sure you don't have cancer (this happens, like cat teeth-brushing, only about one thousandth of the time that it should, if you care for my opinion).

You may giggle harder if you visit a tweenage angst-ridden blog, or if you hop over to Cracked to get your fill of list-based humor for the day, and I have to recommend checking out GatheringMagic for your gaming fix, but when it comes to cute, this kind of adorable is all sold out in stores.  With such a limited supply, it only makes sense that we all take the chance we have now to look at that picture again.  Now that I look at it, maybe the grey cat laughs like Danny Devito's Penguin.

You wouldn't like it if he was laughing at you, either.