Thursday, January 31, 2008

Dane! Dane! Dane! Dane! Pain.

Stand-up comedians spend their entire lives navigating their version of “making it”: auditions, rehearsals, open calls, rejection, odd time slots, hirings, firings, applause, boos, glory, and failure. Above all, fidelity to the joke is the comic’s most diligent pursuit, and whether alone in front of the mirror or on Comedy Central, a comedian lives and dies with punch lines. They transmogrify our listless reality into irony and satire, and while elements like delivery certainly count for a lot, substantial material counts for a lot more.

Throughout the years, stand-up comics have developed a give-and-take with audiences that is essential to making comedy function properly. Just like a crowd wouldn't applaud a musician simply for holding an instrument, so too it wouldn't (or shouldn't) cheer a comic merely for setting up a joke. A joke must have direction, purpose, and a climax—the punch line. No audience should be illogically obsequious; make the comic earn it.

Herein lies the Dane Cook Dilemma—for short, the DCD. Cook is a fine comedian, if a bit over-extroverted, and his is a problem that must be an anomaly in the comedy universe: he is too well-received. In an HBO special taped in his hometown of Boston, Cook’s crowd clapped at everything he did. They clapped when he set up a joke, and they roared when he snorted. He asked a rhetorical question, something like, “And you know how much glitter sticks, right?” and they rained down applause.

When Cook wove his way to a punchline, he delivered the money shot, put down the microphone, and marauded around the stage, reveling in an elongated, enthralled standing applause. His face beaming with egocentrism, he absorbed the reception unashamedly and without pause. He less resembled a comedian than he did a triumphant porn star, surveying the seminal damage he’d inflicted.

The DCD, then, is that the audience, for all its enthusiasm, detracts from the comic experience. Try watching a Dane Cook special and thinking any differently—it’s difficult to appreciate Cook’s material when you’re fantasizing about subjecting his audience to a mass castration (girls and guys included). The sickening chants of “Dane! Dane! Dane! Dane!” that precede his appearance on stage kill any organic excitement I’d harbored for the show. It would be difficult to convince Cook of this, since his career is virtually unparalleled in the annals of comedy. Sure, Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock are legitimate celebrities, but Cook’s combination of youth, energy, and media attention have made him the first comic rock star. Not even Dave Chappelle has the same cachet—Cook does stadium tours, dresses like a pop star, and spikes his hair like that dude who played Angel on the WB. (Actually, the two of them look eerily similar. Are we sure Angel never did comedy?)

The DCD will never be solved, at least not while he is vastly popular and at the peak of his powers. Despite my issues with him, he’d be an idiot to change anything, and while somehow taming his audience would serve the greater comedic good, it would diminish his teenybopper appeal. The first rule of business is to never alienate your core demographic, yet that’s precisely what he must do to restore his hardcore legitimacy.

The vicious circle continues.

Stay Sycophantic, Dane Cook’s Audience

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

OJ Sip-Sin

“Orange juice, please.”

You can always spot the weird ones. The subtle, anxious shifting, the hurried breathing, the suspicious glances thrown about the premises—these are the odd traveler's textbook traits. A man sitting across the aisle to my left on a recent flight from Amsterdam to New York was the innovative panoply of strange. He kept on his overcoat, gloves, and winter hat for the entire flight. Twice during the trip, he retrieved his handbag from the overhead bin, sat down, and hugged the luggage against his body. After sufficiently cuddling his valise, he stowed it back overhead. Middle aged, with a receding hairline’s nascent creeping, and pockmarked leathery skin, this man—of ambiguous nationality—had my attention.

The drink cart locked its wheels at our seats. The flight attendant leaned over and asked him what he wanted.

“Orange juice, please,” he requested, in an obscure accent.
“Right away,” she sang, and squeezed the last of her juice box into a plastic cup, placing it on the tray table before him.

He raised the glass to his nose and inhaled greedily. I wasn’t, and am still not, aware of any culture that captures the aroma of fruit juice before drinking it. Still, breathing orange juice vapors is not the worst offense. But I realized he hadn't smelled the orange juice—he snorted it up his nose, then breathed it out all over his mouth, chin, coat, and shirt. Then, with the juice dribbling down his face, he poured a tiny sip into his mouth. Over and over, until the cup was empty, he loaded his nostrils with citrus, super soaked himself, and then drank.

I quickly accepted that this man could be anything—a serial killer, a Nobel Prize winner, a ghost, Barry Bonds. I was pretty sure he saw me staring, and since I didn’t want to be too disemboweled to fill out my customs card, I made nice. I threw him an understanding smile, as if to say, “It's cool. I snort V8.” I made extra room in the aisle when he stood. When the flight attendant clicked the meal cart next to us and offered me pasta or chicken, I made a show of elaborately pointing at the juice snorter, and demanded, loudly and selflessly, that he eat first. She, and he, obliged.

I tried, vainly, to spy the cover of his passport (or even the color) when he completed his customs declaration form. However, he hid the card behind a mountain of clothing, luggage, and assorted tray table garbage, secretively penning his information.

This is the type of person, I recall thinking, who I didn’t want to near me at passport control or next to me at baggage claim. Thankfully, I never saw him again after we de-planed. But I didn’t forget him—I went home and Googled “snorting orange juice,” and most of the results read like this, the third one down:

Link heading: “Crushing & snorting; viagra, cialis, or levitra-faster acting, any…”
Description: “If you want it to work faster. Take the powder you were intending on snorting and put it on a drink. (Tang, Orange Juice) Stir well and drink.”

Another was this, the fifth search result:

Link heading: “Methadone pills and snorting”
Description: “square shaped. Big fuckers. They are made to put into orange juice, or possibly sub-lingual (under the toungue [sic]).”

Did our mystery traveler have ED? Heroin withdrawal? I suppose we’ll never know. Was he not cuddling his suitcase, but rather sneaking pills? Let's assume that, yes, he was an erectilely dysfunctional, heroin-addicted goon from an undisclosed location, snorting his orange-juice-and-pills concoction like so many lines of cocaine.

Somehow, that makes more sense than anything else.

Stay Soft, Juice Snorter
MC Methadone

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Joy and Despair: Stranger than Diction

They sat, two broken souls trading cracks, with torsos on their knees. Taking that sullen trip from intimacy to estrangement, they shared one last revelation, though it remained unspoken: the person I am today is going to die. Eyes ran with rivulets of troubled water. Hands went limp with aches.

Soon, both he and she would begin killing the being they had become; each would painstakingly unwire the DNA they’d so meticulously developed. The tragic vicissitudes that rule relationships would leave them no choice. But both boy and girl would still be the perpetrator and the victim of their own murder, and neither had anybody to tell.

These are the days of post-love.

Despair is a tricky thing to write about. Like melancholy and rage, abject sorrow is a difficult experience, and to conjure it for the purposes of articulation in a written piece is masochistic and miserable. The sages of emotion have claimed that happiness and grief are but two opposite ends of the same feeling, and that both are equally exhilarating and addictive.

These philosophers have erred tragically, no pun intended—dejection and elation have nothing in common besides the “tion” suffix. Elation is writable; dejection is nearly impossible to grasp. For instance, a celebratory passage involving those same two lovers from above might read as follows:

They made love under the old oak, the weight of the world, for a few ecstatic instants, shrinking behind the voice of their honesty. The dust around them caromed in the wind, and as they gave themselves to each other, there was but one thing to say.
“Awesome!” he said.
“Yay, awesome!” she agreed.

A little love, a little nature, a little descriptive narrative. Easy.

Considering that those selections are so obviously different, are we really to believe that happiness and sadness are connected? Opposites are only connected semantically—we group them together in a category we call “opposites,” but they have no inherent likeness. Happiness is the product of, and impetus for, productivity, while sadness is emotional flagellation. These two states are members of the same metaphysical country club—“Club Inexplicably Overwhelming Feelings”—but, again, that is a matter of wordplay.

In practice, the chasm that separates all positive emotions from all negative emotions is wider than the bridge called “opposites” could span.

In the movie “Stranger Than Fiction,” one of Will Ferrell’s most underrated performances, Dustin Hoffman’s character tells Ferrell that every story is either a comedy or a tragedy. A comedy ends in a wedding, while a tragedy ends with death. The premise of the movie, more or less, is that Ferrell, who plays a mundane I.R.S. auditor, must work to change his life from tragedy to comedy before it’s too late.

The genius of the movie is that it doesn’t attempt, as so many movies do, to show that comedy and tragedy are interrelated. Rather, it exemplifies the notion that they are two separate, opposing forces, with the former clearly preferable above the latter. The movie repudiates the pundits who claim that misery—real, true misery—is something in which one would want to wallow.

In a world of comedy, there is little room for tragedy. And in a world of tragedy, comedy can never truly exist. There are lighthearted moments that resolve some of the pall—hence, “comic relief”—but the air of despair is pretty monolithic. It’s difficult to pen, sure, but once its intractable aura starts to pervade the air, misery stands alone.

It does not, as those sages of emotion say, love company.

Stay Sagacious, Stranger Than Fiction
MC Misery

Monday, January 21, 2008

We Need The Funk

The first big-time interview I ever did was with George Clinton (the progenitor of funk, along with James Brown and a few others. He of the Technicolor Dreadlocks fronted Parliament and Funkadelic, later combining the two in into P Funk. His Wikipedia article rocks.). At interview time, I had to work through a network of handlers to get to Clinton: Hairy J, Big Benny, MMO, etc. The interview, once I reached Clinton, should have been filmed.

He talked in a drug-addled drawl, and most of what he said was completely unintelligible. Think Ozzy Osbourne, but worse. He openly professed his insatiable appetite for intoxicants of all flavors, women of all colors, and parties of all magnitudes. When asked why he still plays music after more than 50 years, he responded, “Pussy.” He chortled and wheezed. “No…wait…[cough]…drugs…and pussy.” He ate acid in elevators and trashed hotel rooms in cities he doesn’t even remember. He claims that aliens abducted him and longtime bassist Bootsy Collins.

Since my article was slated to precede a show, I asked him if I could come backstage and see him after the concert.
“Sure. Bring some girls.” I asked him if he liked Jewish girls.
“Sure, I like girls.”
“So I’ll come backstage and bring you some Jewish girls?”
“Sure, it’s going to be a party.”

He didn’t care if what he said was on the record, off the record, or just part of some elaborate hallucinogenic episode. A few days after the interview, a friend told me that he’d seen George Clinton smoking crack in a club in Florida, which nicely complemented what another friend had told me—namely, that Clinton holds a perpetual party on his Tallahassee property, and is largely ignored by the cops. The police know they shouldn’t even bother.

Music has been connected to theater since Jacopo Peri and Ottavio Rinuccini teamed up in the sixteenth century to write “Daphne,” the world’s first opera. The ancient love story of Apollo and the nymph, Daphne, portended subsequent centuries of music with plot. Plays, lieder, concept operas, and later soundtracks and rock ‘n roll grabbed the mantle from earlier dramatic works. The last 50 years saw an epic distillation of music and mirage, from the phantasmagoria of Einstein on the Beach to the deadpan doltishness of Spinal Tap. Rock bands became more dramatic, forsaking sartorial restraint for leather, denim, and spandex.

Most mediums adopted the dramatic in tongue-in-cheek silence—KISS knew they looked ridiculous, but inherent in the gag was that nobody called them out. Hair bands came packaged with the tacit understanding that their showmanship was absurd, but talking about it too much would have broken the ice.

This caricature type of musical theater fell into the classic rubric of opera and literature: the willing suspension of disbelief. Did you really believe Gene Simmons went home with his face-paint on, lashing out his tongue in the mirror and conjuring the demonic? (He probably did, but still). We weren’t asked to believe that rock musicians were really as crazy as they seemed, and we didn’t—despite their indulgences, we knew that rock stars were normal folks, with mortgages, health issues, and diseases.

Not so for funk music. Nary does a funk song fail to mention that, a) it’s a funk song, b) we’re all having a real good time, and, c) these funketeers party all the time. Funk is not just the most self-aware genre (narrowly beating out rap, wherein only 99.9% of the songs mention something about rapping itself, the rap lifestyle, and how talented the given rapper happens to be), but it also asks of us that which no other music does: to believe that everything we see is real. George Clinton claims his life is every bit as absurd and dissimilar to the rest of mankind as his stage show indicates. James Brown seemed to be from Planet Funk, a distant polyester planet sustained on narcotics, hip flexor stretches, and subversive interview tactics.

Funk is theater, yes, but a step beyond. It’s not premised on the willing suspension of disbelief—unlike opera or plays or rock, it doesn’t demand our complicity in accepting a temporary, theatrical reality. In fact, it does the opposite: funk claims that the performers live their daily lives exactly as they appear on stage. They mow their lawns while wearing crystal belt buckles. They tie their shoes holding a champagne flute and a blunt. Renew their licenses sheathed ‘neath a velvet cape and a phallus-branded crown. They’re too busy having intercourse to have other intercourse. Funk requests, as a genre, that we, the audience, fully and unequivocally believe that the party never ends, that the excess is the reality.

Evidently, nobody believes that the poignancy of an opera is genuine—feelings fade. Nobody believes that the heave-ho of rock ballads and burners have any connection to everyday existence. But funk music asks us to believe that you could build a real life of vice and revelry—and we comply. George Clinton probably doesn’t know his own last name, but I trust him implicitly. Every story—true. Every claim and allegation—fact.

Do I believe he was abducted by aliens?

If James Brown came from another world, then why couldn’t George Clinton pass through for a few days?

Stay Cynical, Funk Doubters
DJ Daphne

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Lost in Amsterdam

[Editor's Note: Pictures coming when I get a chance to upload the stuff from my digital camera. Might be a couple of weeks.]

The train from Schiphol Airport is painted like a lime-green Creamsicle. It is packed, yet completely silent, and the overwhelming heat provides an uncomfortable backdrop for an IKEA city. In Amsterdam, beginning with the airport and working all the way around the horseshoe-shaped old city, everything looks like it came in a box with a trendy Swedish label. Cars, warehouses, apartment buildings—even the weather—look store-bought and self-assembled. The airport has a meditation center, a massage center, a kids’ center, and a miniscule casino. None of the web sites I’d perused, nor the drug-addled tales I’d heard, talked about the one glaring characteristic that trumps all else about Amsterdam: it’s really, really hokey.

As I disembark from the train at Centraal Station, I mutter, “I hope this isn’t one of those polite countries,” yet confirm my fear with every encounter. Tram drivers laugh too loudly at my jokes. The museum of sex is chaste, proper, and boring. As I pass a sign that says, “Ultimate Party Wishes You a Good Time,” I know that my maiden voyage to Amsterdam will be a lot less grungy than I’d like.

I cut through the red light district and into a bar, a dim, smoky hole named “Lost in Amsterdam.” Apropos, indeed, since I am psychologically lost in this would-be den of iniquity. The Polish bartender pours absinthe over a pulverized spoonful of sugar, and sets fire to the concoction until it caramelizes. He thrusts the smoking crust into a waiting glass with the balance of the absinthe, sending flames dancing about the rim. When the fire dies down, I put back the warmth, and a soft numbness travels from my throat to my feet. I feel a bit queasy, and then a bit drunk. This encapsulates my whole trip: absinthe, the romanticized, allegedly psychoactive, and largely illegalized libation of Bohemian and French artists, is simply licorice-flavored alcohol. No green fairies, no visuals, and nothing psychoactive. The bartender tells me how to say “I’m lost” in Dutch (phonetically, “Ick Ben Ferbvolt”), I light up a second shot, give the bartender 15 Euros ($22) and two DayQuil, and go looking for the cheese market.

Contrary to very popular belief, Amsterdam is not a lawless, perverse oasis, teeming with legalized vice. It is not strewn with the pleasures whose very indulgence would warrant arrest in other parts of the world. Sure, the prostitutes beckon like mechanized mannequins from store windows in the red light district, and coffee shops and bars have a marijuana and hashish menu alongside their food and drink offerings. Cocaine dealers walk the streets (coke isn’t legal), audibly advertising their wares. Yet, the reprobation is strikingly sedate, and lacks for boisterousness what it has in substance—or substances. Innumerable arcane laws and bylaws govern these practices, such that the initial glee of, “Oh man, they sell pot here!” speedily morphs into, “So let me get this straight—you’re allowed to grow one pot plant per person, with a maximum of five per household? And if you go over, you get evicted?”

Police raid each cannabis-friendly bar exactly three times a year to make sure the patrons are of legal age and that the quantities of marijuana are within legal boundaries. It’s legal to sell pot in these designated shops, but commercial growing is illegal, and, as mentioned above, doing so can impede one’s housing options. One may smoke in the designated shops or at home, but nowhere else. Prostitution is legal, but is highly administrated by the state. Freewheeling Eden it is not: Amsterdam is about as anarchic as a laboratory.

Things like magic mushrooms are actually quite blasĂ©—a hallucinogenic tourist trap, in fact. They’re regulated, taxed, and closely monitored. The strong ones come with warning labels, and upon purchase the store clerk provides detailed instructions on dosage size and safety precautions.

In spirit, Amsterdam is far more subdued than the average urban center. Perhaps this is because it doesn’t ache under the press of as many unfulfilled desires, and so doesn’t have any restless energy to expel. More likely, though, it is because of the economy. Amsterdam is a social democracy, meaning that financial solvency is relatively easy to come by. Blinding wealth is rare—as is poverty—but comfort is almost a given, and that manifests in ways that the typical capitalist mind could never comprehend. Yes, this is a gross, nation-wide generalization, but a huge percentage of the populace is guaranteed some amount of money, socialized health care, and comprehensive social welfare should they need extra assistance. Those staples in hand, Amsterdamians don’t distinctly divide work and play, since the attitude towards labor is much more lax. They have little to gain and little to lose. Call it complacency or call it cafĂ© culture, but that looseness leaves room for regular doses of prurience and narcotics. Amsterdamians don’t party when they party—they’re halfway partying all the time.

I return to Schiphol Airport on an identical lime-green train, three back-to-back two-seater benches my only scenery for most of the half-hour ride. Most city residents speak fluent English, so I talk for a few moments to a college student about what she’s studying. At the airport, I pay 3.50 Euros ($5.15) for orange juice.

Ick Ben Ferbvolt.

Stay Salacious, Amsterdam Legends
DJ Dutch

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Happy New Year?

For anybody who thought that my ability to be idiotic wasn’t stronger than the weather, I offer New Year’s as proof. The weather in New York was below freezing, and beneath my jacket I wore just a button-down shirt. When I arrived at a party on Manhattan's Upper West Side, I took off my jacket and began drinking a Jack and Coke. Followed by a Jack on the rocks. Then, just Jack. Before long, I was making outrageous claims to anybody who would listen (I used to live on a fishing boat, I’m running for public office, etc), and standing on the balcony in my very spilled-on, very thin shirt. While everybody else was wearing overcoats, I overcame the elements with a cunning combination of alcohol and talking loudly. I ushered in January 1, 2008 with daring abandon.

I got really, really sick on January 2nd. I could hardly breathe out of my nose, my sinuses were pushing out of eyes, and my skull felt ready to explode horizontally. My voice was hoarse, and I couldn’t sleep. My lone venture out of the house was for vitamins and miso soup. A waitress at the Japanese restaurant recognized me, and, as I collected my two helpings of soup and vegetable dumplings, she said, “You look really pale. It must be cold outside.” Not wanting to engage in conversation—and only able to speak in groans and mucous—I whispered, “Yeah, it’s cold,” took my food, and went home. As I crawled into bed and laid wide awake and coughing until five in the morning, I told myself that things could not get worse.

I got really, really sick today, January 3rd. All the original symptoms were either the same or worse, and I also developed an inter-cranial pounding that made every minute of every hour feel like a bad club in Tel Aviv. My joints ached. My eyes were half-squinted (I have an issue with keeping my eyes fully open in the first place—we’ve termed this DES: Droopy Eye Syndrome), and I was sweating like a porn star because I was so over-hydrated. Worst of all, I’d only gotten back one grade from this past semester, so I had nothing better to do than sit in front of the computer and press “refresh,” hoping for some good news. By the close of business hours, all I had was an earache.

Maybe it’s the DayQuil, maybe it’s that I finally put on pants, or maybe all the Vitamin C supplements are finally kicking in, but I feel remotely energized for the first time in a while. There are napkins in my nostrils and sad Neil Young songs have a strange, comforting appeal, but hope exists for the first time since I told someone at the New Year’s party that I hope to travel to Madgascar to ask the natives whether being included in the game “Risk” has boosted national morale.

In my heightened state, I got to wondering if, perhaps, my illness is cosmic payback for telling so many people so many untrue facts about myself at the party. I rationalize my tall-taledness by pointing out that, a) none of what I say could in any way harm or offend myself or others; and, b) my lies are always so outrageous and unbelievable that no sane person would believe them. The first half of that rationale has proven true, as I have yet to damage somebody either with something I say or with the revelation that what I’m saying is not true. The second, however, is not always the case. Last year, a woman I’d just met, a kindergarten teacher from Seattle, believed me when I said that I controlled the Mars Rover. I added that I spent my days in a cramped, dark room with graphing paper and calculus problems, and used a joystick to move the Rover according to my calculations. She thought I was quite remarkable.

I don’t think I’m pathological, for a few reasons. First, I don’t feel compelled or driven to lie—I lie out of choice. Second, I don’t lie about trifling details. I’d never say I was 23 instead of 22, I’d never say I was born in the spring instead of the summer, nor would I tell people that I had a different major. Anything picayune or even basic gets the truth treatment. I only tell completely outsized, ridiculous lies, and with regards to minimally important matters. Last, I don’t lie to people who are close to me. I might spin a tale at a party full of strangers, but I would never, for instance, tell my roommates that I paid the rent if I hadn’t.

I don't tell lies. I tell whoppers. They’re absurd. Totally transparent. No reason to stop.

I’m sick.

Stay Sick, Me
MC Malady