Greg Boose of Chicago wrote me about an event featuring three legendary National Lampoon writers - Anne Beatts, Chris Miller, and Brian McConnachie and offered to summarize it for me (and you). Here’s his report:
Anne Beatts approached the small stage at The Hideout on Chicago’s north side without a smile. In fact, she looked kind of annoyed. Josh Karp, biographer of Doug Kenney and moderator for the evening, engaged her in conversation until she seemed to relax. While Beatts flipped through tagged issues of National Lampoon magazines and laughed with Karp, Chris Miller, perhaps the magazine’s dirtiest writer and the known true force behind “Animal House”, found his way to the stage. He was trailed by the tall Brian McConnachie, who created the hysterical magazine parodies “Guns and Sandwiches Magazine” and “Negligent Mothers.”
It’s rare to have these three together for a reading. I’d guess there were about 200 anxious people in attendance Monday night, but I also once guessed there were 252 pieces of candy in a jar when there were over a thousand. A lot of dudes, though. Older dudes. Older dudes with beatnik glasses who were totally prepared to show each other that they definitely remembered this article and that cover.
After some introductions, Beatts showed off some of her past NL work through a projector - among her work is the pictorial “Hitler in Paradise” and the famous Ted Kennedy/Volkswagen ad. She then settled in to read the story of how she became a part of one of the most powerful magazines in America (“on her back”), how she won over its boys club, and how it came to be that she was dropping acid with two of the most brilliant humor writers on the planet on the eve of Jim Morrison’s death in Paris.
McConnachie, a man closer to seven feet than six, bearded, straight-faced with excellent delivery in his recounts of National Lampoon lore and later with the audience’s questions, read a story that he wrote specifically for the night titled “The Ding Dong Hoodlum Priest.” Loud laughs. Many paragraphs were interrupted by applause. He went on to play an audio clip from a musical he wrote in 1974 entitled “Moby!” where John Belushi plays a lonely Ahab.
Chris Miller took over. Starting with an anecdote about how he showed up to work one day at his corporate job to find all his furniture missing (he was fired), he then shared how his sex-focused stories first appeared in National Lampoon (one was handed off to Doug Kenney by an editor at Playboy). Miller went on to tell some you-would-not-believe stories from his fraternity days at Dartmouth that were too over the top to appear in Animal House (but that should be in his recently re-released book, “The Real Animal House”).
Miller’s short story of the night was about a telephone collector calling a broke young man by the name of Bernie Boom-Boom. To avoid talking about the overdue bill, Bernie lies to the woman on the phone saying that he is the bass player in her favorite punk band. The collector gets excited. Really excited. Starts confessing to being at every show and watching the bulge in his pants as he plays. The story turns strange when a pair of female lips appear in the earpiece, and Miller goes on to read such great lines as “His balls were throbbing like small hearts.” By the perfect end there wasn’t a pale cheek in the bar.
Josh Karp did a nice job moderating between the writers and was able himself to deliver some compassionate stories about Doug Kenney he learned over the years while compiling research for his 2006 book, “A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever.”
The audience took advantage of the question-and-answer period. One question that came up and up again was if they were impressed with any of the comedy out there today. None of the NL alums seemed willing to drop any names. Miller said that the comedy pool is diluted now and that their magazine was once able to pull the best talent in the country together in its pages. There was Internet mentions. Somebody brought up The Onion. One guy wanted to know more about Miller’s slight mention of the masturbating competitions that went on in his frat house.
Time to go. A band needed to set up. Carried instruments made their way toward the stage and the crowd dispersed to let them through. I wanted to quickly thank Beatts for the fun night, but was blocked by a tall, expressionless fan-boy with a see-through mustache who brought forth a gym bag bursting with his entire library of old National Lampoon mags and other books for Beatts to sign. He swung it out in front of her and mumbled. She didn’t seem too thrilled - she looked kind of annoyed again. While I waited, I caught a quick glimpse of one of her first autographs to him that started: “I’ll never forget you…”
Here’s a nice clip from the night Greg sent along too. It’s part of Anne Beatts reading. I always find it enjoyable to watch funny people make other funny people laugh. Because it’s so rare.
Greg Boose lives in Chicago. He still has all ten of his toes. You can read some of his online work at gregboose.com.
The brilliant Comedy by the Numbers joke scientists Gary Rudoren and Eric Hoffman have made a short little PSA about joke stealing.
My favorite part: the casually referenced imaginary (or at least, underpublicized) feud between Jerry Seinfeld and Jim Breuer. And because they transposed the accused and the accuser in the previous two examples, you have no idea who’s supposedly stealing from who. Well, you have some idea.
And you should check out the Comedy by the Numbers book. It’s everything I fear this blog will become one day - pedantic, formulaic, pretentious - except it’s funny.
In an effort to promote his excellent book Prank the Monkey, author John Hargrave of the humor site ZUG attempted to pull off a nigh-impossible prank at the Super Bowl. The plan: sneak in over 2,000 lights to spell out a secret message during Prince’s halftime show. His account of the Super Stunt is impressive, full of details of how he and his confederates manage to work under the noses of security and avoid detection and, quite possibly, jail time. The logistics, material and planning required $40,000 of Hargrave’s own money to even get a shot at pulling it off.
So why didn’t you ever heard about it?
Because ultimately, despite circumventing security and distributing their lights to the audience, the message wasn’t legible. Attendees appear to have just grabbed a light rather than one meant for their particular seat. It’s a heartbreaking end to something that would have been a rousing achievement.
Hargrave seems to muddy the issue, describing it as a code that would lead people on a chase to find out a message (which turned out to be zug.com, probably what it was supposed to be in the first place). But who would know there was a message in the first place in all that mess, save for ZUG visitors? Spending 40 grand to reach his own captive audience for a scavenger hunt would be insane.
Some of his readers have said that it would be more interesting to have John come clean about the failure of the prank and his feelings behind it. Talk about the experience of executing something perfectly, only to have it go wrong because of a human factor outside of your control. I’m inclined to agree. It’s epic stuff - the ultimate cosmic joke played on a genius prankster. There’s nothing wrong with making a lemon into lemonade for his readership, but when he talks about a movie being made of the prank, this is the twist at the end that would make a brilliant film. (To be fair, he flirts with this idea when he talks in the end about how risk is essential in life.)
It doesn’t help that John has a video that postures that the media is trying to cover up the success of his prank. If there’s no unexpected message there’s no proof that he did it. In the eyes of the media, almost doesn’t count in pranking. In the parallel he makes the terrorism, almost does count. The media loves fear, but the anticipation of joy? They don’t know what to do with that.
That said, Hargrave has pulled off some incredibly wonderful pranks, including one where he signs his credit card purchases with scribbles, cartoons and “I stole this card” in an attempt to see if anyone would actually call him on it. I think about it whenever I’m signing for something. It’s worth picking up Prank the Monkey, even if his “super stunt” to promote it didn’t pay off.
Scribner has announced that they’ve bought memoir by Steve Martin about his years as a stand-up entitled “Born Standing Up.” There’s also a suggestion that the book will be a “portrait of an era”, although to my understanding, Steve Martin was a star before the comedy boom. It could be interesting to see exactly how someone made themselves into a stand-up star in the post-Vaudeville, pre-Comedy Club days. In some ways, I’m sure some of the comedy boom could be pinned to his rise as he was one of the first artists to show how big comedy can be by playing stadiums, something that was unheard of for a comedian.
Despite how you might feel about his film career (or as some argue, his writing), the book promises to be a fascinating look behind the creation of a stand-up. I remember seeing a BBC special on Martin where he described how he came to his approach to stand-up. He described how he decided, in the wake of the turmoil of the 60s, that he was going to be “silly” on stage. It sounds like it could just be observation that comes from the benefit of hindsight. But considering Martin’s philosophy background and how perfectly he fit the era, I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
“Born Standing Up” is expected in 2008, but no release date has been set.
Filed Under Print
John Cleese’s recent announcement that he’s retiring to focus on teaching comedy to the next generation got me thinking about what kind of a teacher Cleese would be. He’s obviously has a lot to impart but what will his book on comedy history be like? What’s the core of Cleese’s Comedy 101?
One of my favorite books on comedy is, in fact, not a full book at all. But rather 17 pages from a psychology book Cleese co-wrote with Dr. Robyn Skinner entitled Life, and How to Survive It. The book unfolds as a conversation between the two and in the course of their discussion on laughter they touch on a variety of works, including, surprising to me, Charles Darwin. Darwin apparently thought laughter was caused by being in a situation that forced two contradictory postures or emotions, with the tension of attempting to hold them both exploding into the tell-tale rapid exhalation of air through the vocal cords.
The theory that Cleese finds most useful was from the French philosopher Henri Bergson and his book Laughter. Bergson says:
Laughter is a social sanction against inflexible behavior, which requires a momentary anaestheia of the heart.
Cleese proceeds to break this down and his description of the first part of the phrase on “inflexible behavior’ I found particularly revelatory. The idea is basically this: when a person holds a particular point of view longer than it’s appropriate to hold it - approaching the situation mechanically rather than flexibly - there’s potential for humor. Cleese illustrates the idea with Jack Benny’s “Your money or your life” sketch, where cheapness is the attitude retained for too long. And you get insight into how it’s shaped his own work, with mentions of how inflexible behavior played a role in both Fawlty Towers and A Fish Called Wanda.
He continues with Bergson from there, sharing how our sympathies with comedic character have to disappear for a seconds and touching on humor uniting/dividing qualities. In some ways, Skinner and Cleese arrive at a grand unified theory of funny. It’s impressive stuff and it’s on pages 71-87 of the hardcover edition, in case you’re browsing a bookstore and want to give a quick read.
As for experiencing the former Python’s teachings first hand, Elephant Larry‘s Alex Zalben once took a course with Cleese while attending Cornell. He told me:
When we took a master class with Mr. Cleese, his tweaks and edits were tiny little pieces of directing and switching of words that made the sketch we were performing infinitely better. It was little tiny things like having an employee character drop a pen at a certain point, so that when they get called on by the boss character, you can do more of a take, emphasize the line in a different way, and take something that was just a regular plot beat in the sketch, and turn it into a huge laugh line.
When someone brings in a sketch, and all it needs is a few minor tweaks, or some playing with on stage, we still tell each other, “You just have to Cleese it up a little bit.”
So even with the short time we spent with him, he made a major impact, and taught us an incredible amount.
For those who can’t experience his insights first hand like Alex has, I hope John Cleese does expand those 17 pages into something that’s illuminating about both humor as well as the man himself, possibly the greatest humor mind of his generation.
Peter Hyman recently penned an article in the January issue of Spin (unfortunately NOT available online) which focused on the trend of stand-ups forsaking comedy clubs for touring more like indie-rock bands. The piece also revealed the circumstances behind Mitch Hedberg’s death last year, causing some of the late comic’s fans to complain about opening old wounds.
Along with authoring The Reluctant Metrosexual, a very funny collection of essays, Peter Hyman is a stand-up himself and host of a new talk show series at NYC’s Makor. The first installment starts tonight at 7PM and is entitled “A Laughing Matter: A Comedic State of the Union”, where the current comedy world will be discussed by humorist Andy Borowitz, stand-up Eugene Mirman and CBS Vice President of Development Lisa Leingang. Tickets are $12 in advance and are available here or call (212) 601-1000.
Peter and I recently corresponded over email about Mitch Hedberg, his Spin piece and, of course, tonight’s show.
The piece was originally conceived as a profile of Mitch Hedberg but changed into a piece on stand-ups preferring indie-rock style tours rather than comedy clubs. Do you feel the noise from the revelation of the circumstances behind Hedberg’s death would have been blunted if you could have done the fuller portrait you intended?
No. I don’t think so. If anything, a fuller profile might have provided more context for that revelation. I’m not suggesting that in any way I would have deigned to try to determine why Hedberg did what he did. There’s no way to ever know. All that I saw fit to do was to factually state what I had learned from official sources, because I believe that there was an unanswered question regarding his death. A longer profile would have painted a fuller picture and the news might have, to some, seemed more fitting in such a piece. However, I was not trying to make “noise” in any regard. My intention, and my obligation, was to report the truth. How that truth is received by any audience is beyond my control. But, simply having some awareness that a certain segment of the audience might be upset by the revelation is not reason enough to avoid printing such facts.
Usually when a novel trumpets that it’s “laugh out loud funny”, it’s the kind of funny where the characters have twisted themselves an ironic situation that’s makes you inwardly acknowledge “oh, yes, the characters have put themselves in quite the amusing predicament.” But no laughs. One book that did live up to those promises was Christopher Buckley’s “Thank You for Smoking”. There’s many hysterical scenes in that book, including (spoiler) an attempt to kill a tobacco lobbyist with nicotine patches (a bit NewsRadio, another old favorite, concurrently did). So I’ve had high expectations for the film adaptation, and even with the bidding war from this year’s Toronto Film Festival, I’ve been waiting for a preview that shows they didn’t fuck it up.
The first trailer gave me a lot of hope. Aaron Eckhart appears to have a perfect handle on the sincere insincerity required for a lobbyist of an addictive, killing product. Writer and director Jason Reitman seeming to laying out great material grounded in reality, letting the exaggerations play subtly. No release date is set yet, but it’s be sometime after Sundance, as it’s an official selection of the festival.