Posted tagged ‘barry crimmins’

I wish it were under better circumstances….

June 23, 2008

George Carlin is dead, and I don’t feel so good myself….

Far greater minds than mine can tell you how important Carlin was to social satire, and far lesser minds than mine tried today.

My job requires me to watch MSNBC pretty much constantly, and they’ve been revisiting Carlin’s death all day. They talked about how his “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” routine was his most famous, of course. And they talked about how it was responsible for a Supreme Court decision. Aside from those facts and Carlin’s age, they got very little right.

The case stemmed from his “Seven Words” routine being played on a Pacifica Radio station in New York, where a man heard it while listening to the radio with his son. The father complained to the FCC, and the case ended up in the Supreme Court. One of the blabbing heads on MSNBC– I don’t recall which and honestly don’t care to try– said, “It actually ended up as a loss for Carlin, because the Court said you can’t say those words on television.”

Well, duh. Genius insight from precisely the type of vapid, witless person Carlin spent his career mocking. (And actually, you can say “piss” now. “Tits” sometimes, but rarely.)

Carlin was only tangentially connected to the Supreme Court case. He was not a party to it. The case is FCC v. Pacifica Foundation— no Carlin involved. Ergo, he could neither win nor lose. And furthermore, the case would not be considered a loss for free speech types, among whom you could count Carlin.

The Court held that the FCC had the authority to regulate decency on the public airwaves. That much is true. The Court reasoned that broadcast comes into the home and can be readily understood by children who might not be able to read the same in a book or see it in a movie theater, so the broadcaster may be regulated. However, regulation to the extent that the entire audience is always limited to receiving material acceptable for children was not acceptable to the Court. Thus, the “safe harbor” hours, from 10pm to 6am, wherein materials of a more adult nature can be aired, came to be.

The distinctions drawn by the Court color media issues that continue to this day. Cable television is less regulated than broadcast, because, unlike broadcast signals, you must seek it out and invite it into your home. (Forget for the moment that you need to buy a television or radio to receive the broadcast signal, and each is equipped with a device that allows you to tune in or tune out a particular signal….) The Internet is, to this point, treated more like cable than broadcast, though that could change.

So, yes, George Carlin’s filthy mouth did a lot of wonderful things for you and me. We get to talk to each other like grow-ups after 10pm, and we can hear Gordon Ramsey curse out diffident chefs on BBC America. And his routine will be forever recorded in the annals of the Supreme Court of the United States.

He was also a very funny guy. And he’ll be missed.

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Referencing myself here, kinda: Carlin on his motivation for going into comedy, from the History Channel’s “History of the Joke”:

“Carlin also spoke of what drove him to pursue comedy, an internalized need to prove himself. As a high school drop-out, he wanted to recapture the praise of an aunt who told him as a child, ‘Oh, you’re so clever.’

‘That’s all I really want people to say. “Isn’t he cute, isn’t he clever, isn’t he funny, isn’t he smart,’” he said.”

Yes, he was.

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An $8.5 Billion opening act.

I crashed the ACLU’s Membership Conference in Washington, DC, a couple of weeks ago. I wanted to say hi to the headliner, Greg Proops. I’ve been a fan of his for a good while, but I had a reason other than hero worship to see him. He was best friends with my dear friend and former client Warren Thomas.

When Warren passed back in ’05, it came as quite a shock to many of us, despite his being very ill for several years. There were memorials for him in NYC, where he was working for Air America Radio and doing a regular gig at Rocky Sullivan’s “Satire for Sanity” show, at the Punchline in his hometown of San Francisco in conjunction with “Comedy Day” in Golden Gate Park, and at the Improv in West Hollywood. It says a lot about Warren that there were three events held in his memory. It also says a lot that some comedy greats attended. Barry Crimmins, who gave a most moving eulogy in New York and made the trip to San Francisco (it was my great privilege to read Barry’s eulogy at the Improv, as Barry couldn’t be there), Sue Murphy, Rick Overton, Robin Williams, Debi and Will Durst, Janeane Garofalo, A. Whitney Brown, Barry Sobel, Randy Kagan, David Feldman, Bob Rubin, Tom Rhodes, Martin Olson, Kurt Weitzmann and many, many others. I got to meet many of them for the first time as we grieved over our lost friend.

But I didn’t get to meet Proops. While he was inside the Punchline keeping things going, I was outside trying to help January, Warren’s widow, keep it together.

So I grabbed him by the elbow at the Washington Convention Center and introduced myself: “I was Warren Thomas’s attorney just before he died.” The look on his face was at first a bit surprised, and then became very warm. We shared a few brief words, and then parted so he could do his set. As he walked away, he said, “Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Warren.” “Same here,” I said.

So Proops went up and did a very entertaining set, drawing laughs from the assembled lefties who keep the ACLU in paperclips and notepads. (He drew one shocked gasp when he suggested that Dick Cheney’s use of “hogwash” as an interjection was befitting of someone who strides to his horsedrawn carriage on a stairway made of Negroes. “Come on, ACLU. It’s called satire,” he chided.)

One of those donors was Proops’s lead-in. The speechmaker who preceded Proops was a multi-billionaire you may have heard of: George Soros. Not bad for a warm-up.

Eat My Shorts

March 28, 2008

A few short notes:

Jon Stewart is reportedly spending his time away from Comedy Central’s world news headquarters doing some old-fashioned good guy stuff. The Washington Post‘s “Reliable Source” reports that Stewart has quietly been visiting wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans at Bethesda and Walter Reed hospitals. Stewart received the USO Merit Award for his frequent visits, which WaPo reports began in 2004.

Stewart reportedly does it to get out of the theoretical and into the reality of the war in Iraq. “If anything, it’s made me angrier. . . . You can be for the war, against the war, but you can’t be uninformed about it. To see the human cost is part of the equation,” he said.

Stewart has not actually gone to visit the troops in Iraq because, he said, “I’m chickenshit.”

I wonder how many “real” journalists and pundits have spent time with the people whose lives they speak so cavalierly about on television and radio and in print. Has William Kristol cast a shadow on the floor of a burn ward? Has Brian Williams or Soledad O’Brien spent time in the physical therapy room with soldiers learning to walk on prosthetic legs? I’m not trying to be a dick about it– I’d actually like to know.

Good for Jon Stewart, I say.

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Saturday Night Live is bathing in the rich glow of media attention since its return from the Writers Guild strike. The media-love-Obama/hate-Hillary sketches, Sen. Clinton’s appearance, Tina Fey’s pronouncement that “bitches get stuff done,” and Clinton’s post-SNL wins in Ohio and Texas have led to some serious hand-wringing about whether the old guard of TV satire has surrendered its street cred to back Clinton.

SNL honcho Lorne Michaels has defended his product on both coasts, telling the New York Times‘ Bill Carter, “I’m sensitive to the suggestion that we’re in the service of Hillary Clinton this year…. That obviously is not the case. We don’t lay down for anybody.”

Matea Gold writes in the Los Angeles Times, “[T]he show’s writers were divided when Clinton’s campaign called and said that the candidate was interested in making an appearance on the show March 2, right before the Ohio and Texas primaries. ‘Some people thought it wasn’t a good idea,’ Michaels said. ‘Would it appear partisan?'”

I can answer that: Yes.

Satire is dicey business, and the satirist always risks looking like a partisan. The vast weight of seemingly pro-Clinton material in those first weeks back from the strike, when comedy-loving Americans were aching to see how SNL would re-enter the fray of the campaign, gave a strong impression that it was, in fact, giving her a hand.

Writes Gold: “‘The show happens too quickly for any of us to have an agenda,’ added [co-head writer Seth] Meyers, who donated $1,000 to Obama in January. ‘And our egos as comedy writers are too big to ever let our own political loyalties get in the way of a joke. So we aim for whatever is the richest to be satirized on any given week.'”

Choosing what’s ripe for satire is an editorial choice, inherently laden with value judgments borne of one’s biases, conscious or otherwise. As a veteran of TV news, I can tell you that the work of simply getting a show on the air every night makes partisanship difficult. But not impossible. When you’ve got a week to do it, I’m guessing it’s a bit easier. Still, Michaels told Entertainment Weekly, “We can reflect something, but I don’t think we affect the course of human events.”

I think Michaels is being willfully naive there, as Jon Stewart and his colleagues are when they say they’re just doing a little comedy show. Too many studies have shown that young people in particular turn to comedy shows as a source for news. The simple act of satirizing something affects the course of human events. That’s the whole purpose of satire.

To quote Mark Twain, “No god and no religion can survive ridicule. No church, no nobility, no royalty or other fraud, can face ridicule in a fair field and live.”

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In case you missed it, the New York Times had a very good profile of Eddie Izzard last week. Check it out.

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Maria Bamford is really, really funny. Silly, weird and so, so funny.

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Barry Crimmins has been under the weather for the last while, and when you live in northwestern New York “under the weather” takes on a whole new meaning. But Barry Crimmins on a bad day is funnier and smarter than you and I could hope to be. Read the last several posts. From his sickbed… check it out.

Quotes, frogs and blogs.

March 1, 2008

Some of you might have gotten here by way of link from the comic’s comic. A few days ago, its author, Sean McCarthy, posted on that site about the similarity between the name of this blog and Dead-Frog.com, a site run by Todd Jackson. Both Todd and I reference the line by E.B. White quoted above, a well-known quip that frequently gets tossed around when people talk about humor.

Sean’s tone seemed a bit sharper than the situation called for, so I sent him an email asking him to dial it back a little. I explained myself, pointing out that I had Googled the phrase “killing frogs,” and nobody was using it in connection with a comedy blog. I hadn’t seen nor heard of Todd’s site before I picked the name, and White’s humor quote has been part of the public sphere since 1941, when he published his book on the subject, A Subtreasury of American Humor. As an academic, being accused of plagiarism is a very big deal, even if it’s light-hearted. Sean was kind enough to post an explanation, and I appreciate that.

I also contacted Todd, and assured him that I have no desire or intention to step on his toes. He has earned a good reputation with his website, and he deserves to keep it. The site is very impressive and very professional, with Todd’s musings, industry news, reviews, discussion forums, and ads for comedy goods and services. It’s no geek-with-a-modem-and-an-ax-to-grind blog.

Which is where I come in. My interest in this blog is purely academic. Ironically, I started it to avoid having my ideas usurped in the academic field. I study satire as a cultural phenomenon and talk publicly about my research quite a bit, so getting my words into print somewhere is the only way I can be assured of getting proper credit for ideas I’ve developed. It’s kind of childish, but that’s academia for you.

Stylistically and substantively, Todd’s website and this blog could hardly be more different. All that links them is a shared general topic and the White quote. I think reasonable folks would agree, anyone who would confuse Todd’s site with this little dog-and-pony show has no business using the internet unsupervised.

Nevertheless, Todd explained that he earns a living with his site, which he started in June of 2004, and asked if I might consider changing the name of this blog.  He, understandably, wants to keep the cache he’s built up with his site, and thought there might be some leakage with my site.

I gave it a lot of thought. He asked nicely, not making demands or threats and being reasonable, and I don’t want to take money out of another writer’s pocket. (For the record, I don’t intend or expect to make one red cent from these postings.) Still, many of my friends in the comedy world and the academic world have been kind enough to link to this blog, and I’ve gotten a fair amount of traffic. I didn’t want to have to contact all of them again and ask them to change the links that they had been kind enough to put up in the first place. I think the look and content of our sites are very, very different.  And I really like the White quote.

So I called my old pal Crimmins. Barry Crimmins has been around the comedy world for more than 35 years, and as the founder of Boston’s Ding Ho comedy club was notorious for his merciless approach to joke thieves. I figured he would help me clear up my thinking.

Barry’s short answer was, “Fuck it. Change it. What do you care? Who are these people? Why do you have to deal with this?” (If you know Barry, it’s always best to picture him aggravatedly rubbing his forehead when you read his quotes. It just feels right.)

I explained to him the situation and assured him I wanted to do the right thing, but that I was having a philosophical discussion with myself about what, exactly, the right thing was. “Dead frog” is different from “killing frogs.” A professional, commercial website is different from a pissant blog. Neither of us could legitimately claim intellectual right to a quote that’s been part of the public conversation for nearly 70 years.

As we talked, Crimmins wanted to see the sites we were discussing. I told him about the original post on the comic’s comic. He asked, “Which one?” Googling the phrase “comics comic” had turned up a page of variants, including comicscomicsmag.blogspot.com, which Barry had confused with thecomicscomic.typepad.com. Easy mistake, I suppose, with coincidentally similar-named blogs….

He then wanted to see Todd’s site, so I told him to go to “dead frog dot com.” Which he did. “What is this? What is he talking about?” he asked incredulously. I asked, “Dead hyphen frog dot com?” “No,” says he, “deadfrog dot com.”

A little research finds that deadfrog.com was created in 1999. Not to be confused with deadfrog.net (created 1996), deadfrog.us (copyright 2004), and certainly not deadfrogrecords.com (created 2001) or johnny-come-lately deadfrogbrewery.com (created 2006).  The point is not to cast any aspersions on Todd, but to show that there are a lot of site names more similar to his than mine.  So the accusation (which did not come from Todd) was, in my opinion, unfair and gratuitous.

I’ve now had a few days to discuss this with Crimmins and some other comics and writers whose opinions I value. I want to give Todd a fair shake. I’m not here to ride anybody’s coattails or pick anyone’s pocket.

The controversy over joke-jacking (well reported by Larry Getlen at Radar) and who owns a bit, and whether you can own a premise, Cook vs. C.K., Mencia vs. Rogan, Leary vs. Hicks, etc., etc., all play into my thinking. I don’t want to be the guy who lifted Todd’s “bit.”

At the same time, I have strong feelings about free speech and intellectual property and who owns words and ideas and concepts and what happens when you surrender your rights. If I change my blog name, am I tacitly accepting Todd’s “ownership” of the White quote? And what does it mean if I do? So my interest in this is bigger than merely changing the name or not. Clearly, I’m thinking too much about this.

What do you think?

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Update 03/05/08: In the end, I decided to keep the name.  I have no hard feelings about this situation or against Todd, who was a gentleman throughout this whole procedure, which was not fun for either of us I’m sure.  I respect Todd and the things he does on his website, and I recommend you read it regularly.  We’re doing different things, and he does his thing well.  I’m just giving my pissant two cents on the goings on that affect my research interest.  You ask me what’s happening in the world of comedy, I’m going to send you to Todd at Dead-Frog.com.

Killing frogs?

February 16, 2008

Welcome to my blog. I’m very excited to start this new endeavor, and I hope you enjoy reading it. Mostly, I hope you’ll think it’s entertaining and interesting, and worth coming back to visit.

But what, you may be asking, is this “killing frogs” thing about?

It comes from a quote by E. B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web and co-author of The Elements of Style. There are several versions of it, but the one with which I am most familiar is, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”

All due respect to the late Mr. White, I and hundreds of other professionals commit significant parts of our lives to thinking seriously about comedy. Humor is an integral part of human discourse, and it has significant meaning in many different ways. Academics from diverse fields of research investigate how humor happens, how it impacts our lives, and how it informs what sort of society we live in. Psychologists, linguists, rhetoricians, anthropologists, sociologists and many, many others turn an analytical eye to answering the age-old question, “What’s so funny?”

By profession, I am a college professor and writer. By training, I am a journalist and attorney. By habit, I’m a punster and wise-ass. By choice, I’m a comedy wonk.

By that, I mean that like everyone on Match.com, I love to laugh. But more importantly, I’m interested in why I laugh. And why you laugh. And what it means that we laugh at some things and not at others. And what comedy means to modern American society.

My particular interest is in political and social satire. I’m intrigued by the notion that making people laugh also makes them think, and that through laughter, we may change in some small but significant way our corner of the world. The great satirist, and my dear friend, Barry Crimmins says, “Humor is a great way to smuggle serious information to people who otherwise wouldn’t hear it.”

Looking at the popularity and social impact of performers like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, Crimmins’ words are demonstrably true. Satire informs as it entertains, and can help change the society it mocks. Stewart and Colbert are not merely comics, but high-profile social commentators and media critics. They and others like them are helping to open people’s minds by challenging the status quo, carrying on a lineage that goes back at least to the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes (ca. 400 BCE).

Satire and other forms of social and political humor have been at the cultural core of American arts and letters, even if they are marginalized or unrecognized in their own time. Mark Twain, Will Rogers, the Marx Brothers, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks, Crimmins, Warren Thomas, A. Whitney Brown, Jimmy Tingle, Will Durst, Janeane Garofalo…. The list of American humorists who have drawn the attention of audiences to social and political issues of their day is a long one.

And their contributions should not be minimized. Forests have been felled to provide paper for books about Bob Dylan, and properly so. His music influenced an entire generation. But humorists like those named above also have swayed people, and it’s my interest to see that their work is given the same attention. It is art to craft a joke. It is transcendent art to craft a joke that enlightens as it entertains. That artistry should be given its due.

To that end, I hope to post at least once a week about issues in the world of comedy. Sometimes more than once as the muse, or the news, compels it. I plan on commenting on the goings on in the intersection of news and comedy, post interviews with comedians and comedy writers, and with any luck at all, occasionally be funny on my own.

I hope you’ll join me. Could be fun.