Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Comedy By the Numbers: The Interview

Comedy how-to books are often either dry and humorless or so completely focused on mechanics they miss the most important thing you need to be funny – comic inspiration. Eric Hoffman and Gary Rudoren have written a truly amazing book in Comedy By the Numbers, published by McSweeney’s. It’s simultaneously a satire of how-to books and a useful compendium of all things comedy. They explain everything from sight gags to race humor, breaking down the principals and providing a loving history of stand-up comedy, all with the constant realization that no book can make you funny. And if that weren’t enough, they’ve provided a few video lessons over at Super Deluxe.

I caught up with them by e-mail recently to talk about the book and comedy in general. Thankfully, they do not take my comedy geek questions too seriously.

Do you think you have to be a die-hard stand-up fan to get anything out of the book?

ERIC: Hopefully there's enough there to satisfy any taste. And if a reader doesn't know who an Edgar Kennedy is (the King of the Slow Burn Routine), then maybe they'll check out one of his films and become a fan. That's a happy little story, isn't it?

GARY: Not just stand-up, I think you need to be a die-hard “I like to laugh” fan. We hope people who love stand-up, improv, sketch comedy, making fun of other’s flaws, Jews, the elderly, funny names...etc... will find this book valuable if only to discover more ways to laugh. If you aim to be a professional funny person, you should know your bits & shtick – sometimes if only to avoid them.

Are there any comedy books you consider valuable?

ERIC: Some of our friends have written some great books on comedy. I think the best "how to do comedy" books are the ones that tell you how they made your favorite comedy shows or movies. The Mr. Show book is a great one for that. Sid Caesar's autobiography is quite inspirational - all the "Your Show of Shows" stuff. As far as just straight on comedy books, all of the Python publications are top notch.

GARY: I echo Prof. Hoffman’s choice – Kudos to you, Eric. Also I would add to the library; early National Lampoons, MAD Magazines, Woody Allen’s short stories and essays and also a great book by Garry Marshall called; Wake Me When It’s Funny.

Did you find your editors at McSweeney's were comedy fans? Did they understand what you were trying to do?

GARY: We’re not just going to say they were great because they’re going to read this interview. Dave Eggers and Eli Horowitz were incredibly supportive and we appreciated the fact that they trusted their gut to say that if it was funny and smart to them (a McSweeney’s trademark I think) then it will appeal to a bigger audience. They don’t exactly do focus groups over there.

ERIC: McSweeney's knows what they're doing, comedy-wise. We were on the same "page" as it were from the very beginning. It was a really fun process.

There's an obvious appreciation for comedy history in the book, along with a dead-on satire of all the little tricks and habits. Was that purposeful? Was it hard to strike that balance?

ERIC: There were a few pieces that were thought to be a little too "tributey." There's also a lot of what you would call "dumb" stuff. But that's how we wanted
it, for the sake of variety.

GARY: I think it was important to let the reader know that we were not just two smartasses making fun of the latest comedy fad. We’ve been immersed in this for a long time, have a great mutual appreciation for the process and part of the vibe of the book that we were shooting for was to point out to the casual reader that there ARE some comedians who think all you need to do to make something funny is throw in a hackneyed stereotype. Hopefully, some of the youngsters who buy the book (and it’s totally recommended for kids or anyone who has $14), will learn more about the history of comedy before they repeat it. I’m sorry, this answer could have been funnier, I know.

Do you make a distinction between highbrow and lowbrow comedy? I know others have asked similar questions, but it seems like the best stuff (Woody Allen's "Sleeper" or "Love and Death," Monty Python's "Life of Brian" or "Holy Grail") balance clever material with an unabashed appreciation for a fart joke or someone falling in the mud.

ERIC: That's the very formula we tried to emulate. Everything from pathos to crap jokes.

GARY: Nick, you might have unwittingly inspired Eric to come up with a new marketing slogan for the book! Thanks! I’m sure there are dry definitions out there distinguishing between “high brow” and “low brow” but I think you just named a few great comedy examples that play around with both so-called styles (which because of the inherent cleverness in THAT, could let one label the whole thing as ‘high brow’) – I would also add Mel Brooks to that list for so much of his work. Proving yet again, that the Jews are incredibly funny. Monty Python, if they had had a Jew in their group, would still be working today if you ask me!

Did you get a lot of suggestions from other comedians? I know some are mentioned in the acknowledgments, and it seems like every comic would have one or two hacky comedy concepts they'd want to vent about.

GARY: Early on, when we were putting the list together, some friends & collaborators at The Annoyance Theatre in Chicago, like Matt Walsh, shared our obsession with putting together this list – and it was just a list at the time – of bits, shtick, characters, devices, etc. that so many comedians use. Eric and I later come up with the idea to deconstruct them and create a book trying to explain comedy as if it were an easy formula. Maybe it’s arrogance, but we purposefully didn’t reach out to other comedians for some of their ideas because we felt we were on the right track. Bob Odenkirk, who is not only incredibly funny, but really is a student of and KNOWS comedy, was instrumental in pulling us through the process, but also very respectfully hands off – most concretely, he contributed a phony bibliography that is hilarious. Naomi Odenkirk, who is really responsible for getting the book deal rolling and who was a constant source of editing feedback, was our sounding board and bullshit meter as the book progressed. Is this answer long enough? Sorry, Eric, no time for you to say anything.

Do you guys get to perform together much anymore, given that you're in different cities? Are you working on material for Super Deluxe?

ERIC: Sadly, the various book performances have been the only time Gary and I have performed together in years. And working with Gary is very much like
slipping on an old comfortable toupee. It's a very safe place.

GARY: I guess I’m the old comfortable toupee in this scenario – fine, I’ll take it from you Eric. Along with the live shows, the Superdeluxe videos were a lot of fun to shoot. We’ve got some ideas for more ways to expand the universe in which the “Prof.” and the “Dr.” bring comedy to the masses... stay tuned.

Did you plan the video shorts while you were planning the book or after?

ERIC: Right on the heels of finishing the book we cemented the "deal" with Super Deluxe and began writing right away.

GARY: Yeah, somewhere towards the end of the book, the “what if” idea came up to use these videos to promote the book – and it was a no-brainer for us because we agreed on the style right away. Bob Odenkirk, who directed them, gave us some feedback to tighten them up and was on board with the style. Neil Mahoney, a cameraman and editor who Bob works with, and Bob really nailed it in the final cuts of the shorts.

Would you collaborate on another book? Is there more to be wrung out of this concept?

ERIC: Well, comedy does come in threes, so it would make sense to do at least two more. Maybe an entire book on mirror routines? I can dream.

GARY: The book started out as a pamphlet, so I’ve been thinking that we should do a couple of more pamphlets first, then work our way back up to a booklette and then a tome of additional comedy bits. I’ve already catalogued, for future reference, the “Genius Who Lives At Home With His Mom.” (i.e. Will Ferrell in Wedding Crashers; Kevin Smith in Live Free or Die Hard; and Anthony Anderson in Transformers)...oh, and also, the great comedic bit; “Snapping Rubber Glove” (this bit always gets a laugh from the audience who is glad they are not the character who is about to get cavity searched, you know, in their anus – also combines well with a #144 from our book (The Double Take))

What else are you guys working on now?

ERIC: I'm working on the latest Snuz Brothers shorts with Jay Johnston for Super Deluxe. (www.superdeluxe.com/sd/series/snuz_brothers/) We're in the sound effects stage, which is the most fun of all the Snuz stages. They should be ready in a few months. Also, I'm working on a few things with Bob Odenkirk. Is it childish to refer to them as "top secret"? I hope not, because that's what they are. And I have a bit in "The Brothers Solomon," which Bob directed. Hilarious movie and a lot of fun.

GARY: Just yesterday, Sept. 10th, I was working on watching my children being born. Twins! The Rudoren name will live on. I can already tell that one of them has a highly developed sense of irony. Comedy wise, I’ll be boning up on those knock-knock jokes the kids love...they still love them, right?

Friday, September 7, 2007

Paul's Not Dead

I buy new Paul McCartney albums because I’m glad he’s not dead. Not the greatest reason, I know, but I grew up a Paul McCartney geek, a big Beatles fan who bought everything Beatles related that made it to the shelves. This was the eighties. John was dead, George never toured, and though I loved Ringo, as both a drummer and a music fan, McCartney was the one guy I thought I might get a chance to see someday.

Alas, McCartney never came to Rochester, NY or Buffalo to promote Press to Play, Off the Ground, or Flaming Pie. And since I’ve been in Boston, I could never pay the ticket price when he came through on one of his mega-stadium tours. But I can manage to pick up the occasional new release.

Which brings me to the latest disc, Memory Almost Full. Thanks to his Starbucks synergy, McCartney has made a big dent in the charts since he released the album last month. You can buy a glorified danish, a bucket of caffeine, and Paul McCartney’s soul all in one place.

It may seem a bit childish to accuse McCartney or anyone of selling out at this point – that boat seems to have sailed at this point, never to return. But Starbucks? Why not just give everyone a free download with their Happy Meal. And McCartney may want to rethink the close-up in the new iTunes commercial where he’s tripping along with a weird, blue face and basset hound eyes singing “Dance Tonight.” I can’t tell if he’s happy or paranoid or maybe just stoned. Well, okay, probably stoned.

But despite all the publicity and posturing around McCartney, the reality is that the music isn’t bad. There is always just enough of what I love about McCartney – still one of rock’s most talented melody makers, bass players, and singers – to make me glad to have him around.

McCartney still has a wet weakness for drippy ballads, “See Your Sunshine” and “Gratitude” fit that bill here. They are sweet, breezy, and disposable. Listen to more than one in a sitting and you’ll get a stomach ache like you’ve gotten a batch of bad fudge. There’s a difference between silly love songs and just plain crap, and McCartney has always had a problem drawing that line.

It seems like more of the same when the strings kick in on “Only Mama Knows” before McCartney rips into a classic Wings guitar riff. And there’s a little dirt under the fingernails in the story, about a bastard child wondering why he was born and if he’ll ever meet his father.

“Mr. Bellamy” is odd little story song, with the title character standing on a ledge, apparently contemplating suicide, with McCartney providing the voice of the main title character and the workers on the ground trying to coax him down. It’s a nifty piece of pop with an angular piano melody set against a bouncing vocal melody. But then, Genesis covered this ground more effectively nearly forty years ago on Nursery Crime’s “Harold the Barrel.”

“House of Wax” is a complex and engaging soundscape (just don’t listen to hard for the lyrics), and “Nod Your Head” manages to be heavy and goofy at the same time, trafficking dissonant guitars and keys. And McCartney sings it like he means it – he really wants all of you to nod your heads. Okay, Macca, just for you, just this once.

If you’ve ever been a McCartney fan, it’s hard not to get sucked in when he hits that Little Richard falsetto at the end of “Vintage Clothes.” And you can feel what’s been tugging at him when he sings, “Don’t live in the past, don’t hold onto something that’s changing fast” and then dives right into the nostalgic “That Was Me,” a great head bobbing rocker. He lets loose with his classic wail toward the end, singing, “When I think that all this stuff can make a life, it’s pretty hard to take it in.”

“Feet in the Clouds” completes that trilogy, and it’s almost a plea for help. McCartney has been very public about wanting to preserve his legacy, thinking he’s getting short shrift with all the continuing Lennon worship. It’s clear he wants to be cool, too, but the irony is that when he tries so hard to show what he’s done and what he’s still capable of, it sounds forced and he winds up looking like a wanker. “Feet in the Clouds” is pleasant, happy sounding melody – contrast that to the lyrics, which sound like something McCartney might actually repeat to himself every time he hears Green Day sing “Working Class Hero” – “I’ve got my feet in the clouds/I’ve got my head on the ground/I know that I’m not a square/As long as they’re not around.”

And for the contingent out there who don’t actually give McCartney his due, let’s be clear. This is the man who wrote both “Helter Skelter” and “Eleanor Rigby.” His ripping guitar break on “Taxman” is pure rock and roll. He pushed the Beatles into weird places on Sgt. Pepper and provided simple, sublime melodies for everything from “Hey Jude” to “Blackbird.” And again, there’s that voice and that bass. Rock and roll would not be the same without him. He would have to be the most insecure guy in rock history to question that, but that’s always been part of his motivation. It’s what led him to write and record “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road” for the White Album, and that was at the height of the Beatles’ popularity.

It’s a shame McCartney will probably never get past worrying about his legacy. Most musicians would kill for his toolkit. And his true talent isn’t fading as much as it is just buried by his worst instincts. But as long as Paul’s not dead, there’s a chance I’ll get to see a flash of that, and even that little flash is enough to keep me coming back.

Keep swinging, Paul. I’m pulling for you.