Tasked with following up the breakout book “Our Dumb Century”, Onion Writers Mike DiCenzo and Dan Guterman headed up a project which would be daunting all by itself. “Our Dumb World.” sets out to satirize not only the big nations of the world but almost every commonwealth, protectorate and island on the globe. I talked with DiCenzo and Guterman about how this book is a departure for the Onion, the missteps along the way in its creation and why it is not a toilet read.
I’ve really enjoyed the book. I can’t say I’ve read all of it because it’s dense. Amazingly dense.
Dan Guterman: Yeah, it took about 14 years to write.
(Laughs) Which means you started this book before “Our Dumb Century.”
DG: We did. We actually took a break from this book, whipped out “Our Dumb Century” in about three weeks and then returned to this book.
You guys weren’t there when the Onion did “Our Dumb Century”, correct?
DG: No we weren’t.
So was this intimidating to mastermind putting together a follow-up?
Mike DiCenzo: Absolutely. It started a couple of years ago when Scott Dikkers [early and current Onion Editor-In-Chief] came back to the Onion and basically just walked into the Onion and said, “We’re doing an Atlas of the world.” Especially for me and Dan, we wanted to work as hard as possible to make it a worthy follow-up to “Our Dumb Century” which both of us loved and worshiped.
DG: We both were practically introduced to the Onion through “Our Dumb Century”. I remember picking up a copy and being completely blown away by its intelligence and density and pure funniness. It was a big deal for us to do the follow-up.
As a show of solidarity with the Writers Guild of America, Improv Everywhere’s Charlie Todd has remade The Office as if it was a real documentary. Without writers, the house of cards (held up by the suspension of disbelief) doesn’t last very long.
Dig the Dwight-like character’‘s reaction to his own behavior. The great irony: an improviser making a video about how important writers are.
You can see a second episode of “An Office” here.
Filed Under Comedy Writers
It’s nice to see The Daily Show writers turn the same weapons they’ve used on the current administration to hit back against the ridiculous doublespeak of big media. The dangers of laying with satirists… they’ll bite the hands that are refusing to feed them.
The current strike by the Writers Guild of America is incredibly unfortunate. Though the internet is a relatively young medium, the writers are right to insist that they get compensated for sales/viewings on the web - particularly after making the sacrifice they made in 1988 to support the equally young at the time DVD market. There are far better sources out there for the why and the wherefores of the strike, so I’m not going to talk much about it. Readers should definitely check out Deadline Hollywood and United Hollywood, the first a good source for what’s going on and the second serving as a web arm for the writers’ voice in this mess. What I’m interested in is what might come out of this strike - by looking back at something that was part of the last.
Many say the 1988 strike set the stage for reality programming, but I think it’s arguable that it also was influential in creating the next paradigm in comedy - that being “The SImpsons.” At the time, George Meyer, who had talken a self-imposed withdrawal from the industry after stints at SNL and Late Night with David Letterman, starting toying with a photocopied newsletter called “Army Man.” At only 8 pages, it’s still coveted by comedy writers today.
“Army Man” had a ramshackle layout with several short typewritten jokes scattered throughout the page, but it was all pro when it came to the writing. I have copies of the three issues produced and each one I’ve poured over numerous times, digging into the little details - appreciate the economy of the comedy.
Here’s a taste of what Army Man was like:
That woman in the Virginia Slims ad is cute, but she smokes.
Due to the tiny volume of mail we receive, we are able to acknowledge every submission with a heartfelt personal note, and occasionally even a gift.
Okay. Here it is. The caption says, “Honorarium.” And it’s like an aquarium, only it has little trophies and plaques swimming around. Can’t you just picture it? I hope so, because otherwise I’m in deep trouble.
Army Man was begun before the writers strike, but after the first issue the strike was certainly on. And several comedy writers, who had jokes they wanted to tell, ended up contributing to Army Man - as contributor Ian Frazier relates here in this interview with Believer.
Once the strike was over, SImpsons producer Sam Simon, who was a big fan of Army Man staffed some of the Simpsons writers room with Army Man contributors including Meyer, John Swatzwelder and Jon Vitti.
Writers write. If the strike goes on for any length, they’ll start making stuff again but for themselves. Stuff like Army Man. And this time, it would be photocopied 200 times and handed among friends. It’s going to get to the rest of the world through the web.
Predictions have been that a long strike could be good for web entertainment and if the audience does go looking, and the writers are writing, they’ll find each other. There will be a direct connection between creator and audience. So a side project that’s creatively fulfilling like Army Man could become something that has demand in the marketplace. Demand that the studios could be totally cut out of.
Now of course, with broadband video maturing, that creatively fulfilling strike side project doesn’t have to be Army Man. It could be the Simpsons.
I’m not sure how close we are to this yet. I think the key would be getting a writer-created show sold through something like iTunes. Or some micro-payment structure equivalent to what ZeFrank did with the show and Jonathan Coulton does on his site. I can see this more likely in some ways for a sci-fi show, which has cult audience that will be loyal to something - but with many writers also being the performers in comedy, they have a chance to go beyond cult - attracting a general public who’s missing new work by them.
But if I was among the producers, I’d be looking to solve this faster, before writers start writing for themselves. Because it seems like to me, the longer this is drawn out, the producers resistance to giving up a residual looks like a risk at giving up the entire pie.
Note: If you want to see more joke from Army Man, Maud Newton typed up a bit of it a while back, here’s a larger version of page 1, issue 1 and The Believer put issue one in the middle of the book, the same issue where they interviewed Meyer and Fraizer.
I’d love to put all the issues online myself, but I’d rather have some kind of permission first. However, after the jump, you’ll find my favorite cartoon from “Army Man” ever…
Yesterday the California Supreme Court finally heard the case of Amaani Lyle, a former writers’ assistant on “Friends” who has sued Warner Brothers for an environment of sexual harassment. Among the conditions mentioned in the lawsuit were drawings of vaginas, ruminations on the sexual habits of Courtney Cox and Jennifer Aniston and, my favorite, the character of Joey as a rapist. Smoking Gun has the full complaint. According to this article in the LA Times, the justices seem to be favoring the writers right now.
I’ve been firmly on the writers’ side, allbeit queasily at times, but one fact mentioned in the court makes me absolutely certain that the claim is without merit: she was told she would be working in an environment where sexual explicit talk would occur. Two of the Supreme Court justices noted it during arguments. Warner Brothers lawyer also makes a compelling point that breaking a story can require “going down blind alleys”, making it difficult to know what will finally make an episode work. In fact, one anecdote about sex with a prostitute ultimately created material that found its way into a script. (The case itself perhaps even made fodder for Lisa Kudrow’s ill-fated “The Comeback”) The lawsuit never alleges, to my knowledge, that Amaani was directly sexually harassed, i.e. propositioned or asked to perform sexual favors. Even in a free writing environment like a comedy show, I would expect that form of sexual harassment to still be prosecutable.
Hopefully here’s where the lawsuit will get nipped in the bud. The Supreme Court is only deciding whether a lower courts decision to let the case continue on to a jury is correct. Though I think a jury trial would ultimately fall Warner Brothers way, I imagine it would be hard for a jury to sort out why an uncensored writing environment is necessary. The California Supreme Court has 90 days to decide.
Update: The NY Sun covers the story as well, detailing more of the arguments. In particular, there’s mention that sitcoms stay white and male because this behavior is allowed. I agree with the ideal of more balanced staffs, but the job of comedy writing requires people to say taboo things. I have several comedy writing friends who actively make jokes about each other religions, sex lives, etc. It’s part of the gig. A level of decorum needs to be set, but it can’t be set by the courts. When a joke goes to far afield of the writer process is the head writer’s job, not a lawyer’s. (Also, adjusted post title - the actual lawsuit is getting a poor reception from judges - hence unfriendly.)
Filed Under Comedy Writers
Thanks to a comment on my previous post by Tony, my new favorite reader, I got alerted that the Channel 4 special featuring a conversation between Ricky Gervais and Larry David is now available via BitTorrent. Still watching, so I’ll have impressions later, but here’s the link to the torrent:
Download Ricky Gervais meets Larry David.
UPDATE: Finished watching the whole thing now. The focus of the show is clearly more on Larry David, with several clips from Curb Your Enthusiasm shown throughout. Ricky Gervais is doing the interviewing here though it’s far more of a conversation than a rapid fire barrage of questions (which actually makes a very funny aside as both talk about the horrible habits of interviewers).
What struck me the most from the show is that Larry David has been lazily mislabeled a misanthrope. In conversation, he’s constantly talking about connection - connections with interviewers, audiences, between characters. There’s definitely a desire to be selective and for some distance, but only because he recognizes what connections are real and which are unreal. The choice to outline scenes for Curb Your Enthusiasm and let the actors come to the joke naturally makes incredible sense now… real humor comes from connection.
Ricky Gervais also has some great observations, particularly after what sounds like a unendurable night at the Comedy Store, where every comics’ catchphrase was “what the fuck?”, and all have un-unique ethnic experiences. Ricky talks about wanting the “right laugh” - not caring if the wrong people laugh. It’s very close to what Patton Oswalt talks about with comedy not being needy.
Larry David kids that he’s comfortable doing the interview because it’ll never be seen in the US. Even with it available on the interweb, let’s hope HBO, Comedy Central or BBC America make him uncomfortable.
More: Time Out London story.