Thursday, December 13, 2007

Women Whistling Songs for Me To Appreciate

Having a blog, and with it, software to see where people are coming from and how often they are reading what you write, can be a bizarre experience sometimes. Early this morning, I was searching the referring links to see how people were finding the Optimistic Curmudgeon, and I found that someone had gotten here by Googling “women whistling songs for me to appreciate.”

It was such a great, strange phrase, I couldn’t imagine the circumstances that would bring someone to type those specific words. And, after having done that, what would draw them to the Curmudgeon once they saw the link?

I clicked on the URL for the referring link, and it brought me to that search. Not only had someone skipped from that page to the Curmudgeon, it was page 86 of the results Google had brought up for that particularly odd phrase. Apparently at some point, the Curmudgeon was ranked somewhere between 860 and 870 in terms of interest to people who wanted women to whistle songs they liked.

It had changed by the time I got there, and I actually had to add the word “optimistic” to my search to see how that came together. It comes from a ludicrous tangent in my interview with Zach Galifianakis, who is wonderful with ludicrous tangents. We somehow got onto the topic of whistling and the guy who whistled the Andy Griffith Show theme song (scroll down if you’ve been dying to hear Zach’s thoughts on that).

If you read this and you’re the person with the whistle fetish, I hope the Curmudgeon didn’t disappoint you. If you keep coming back, I’ll start to ask the comedians and musicians I interview about whistling. It’s not necessarily my thing, but when the public speaks, you have to listen.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Literary Rock with Richmond Fontaine's Willy Vlautin

Willy Vlautin – a man who writes about hospital ward tragedies, accidental homicide, and every day destruction – feels lucky. He feels lucky his first novel, The Motel Life, was published last year by Harper Collins. Lucky to make a living writing, and lucky to have a band that enjoys playing together, even if he has earned the nickname “Captain Comedown” from his friends in the band Grand Champeen.

“We’re definitely not a sad sack bunch of guys,” says Vlautin, speaking from his home outside Portland, Oregon. “But I think I just write from that area, and the guys in my band are nice enough to play my songs. I couldn’t ask for a cooler bunch of guys to play with. So it’s lucky for me.”

Vlautin’s heroes have always been writers like Raymond Carver and William Kennedy, and Richmond Fontaine’s catalogue is peppered with songs full of emotional dead ends and soul-shaking despondency. But Vlautin never thought he could survive on writing alone. So he took jobs painting houses and, inspired by cowpunks like Rank n’ File, the Blasters, and X, turned to rock and roll. “If I had had more confidence I would have just been a writer, I think,” he says. “But I was a horrible student and I loved rock and roll more than anything and I didn’t even think a guy like me could write.”

Vlautin says that lack of confidence fed into some early lackluster performances, which were much more aggressive and punk-oriented than Post to Wire or Fontaine’s latest, Thirteen Cities. Those early records are still fan favorites, but there is much Vlautin would like to leave behind. “I can’t listen to Lost Son,” he says. “Number one, I used to be so shy I’d always sing drunk and you can hear it, and it drives me crazy. I guess the older I get, the more I just get kind of bummed out. I’m not as angry. That’s a pretty angry record. It’s hard listening to your old records. I just can’t do it.”

It would be easy to mistake Vlautin for one of his hard-luck characters. He eschews the hip clubs for the townie hangouts, and spends a lot of time at his local horse track in Portland, watching the races and the people and writing. “I just go there because it’s the only place in Portland that makes me feel normal,” he says. “The rest of Portland is just beyond me. I’ve always been the old man bar kind of guy. In this town it’s just hard. They keep tearing them down. I used to take pictures of every bar I liked, and they’ve torn down all my old favorite haunts. Which I guess is a good thing for my sanity.”

“Maybe I do and I don’t really think about it, but I’ve never really tried to seek out an edge. I’ve always tried to write to get rid of my edge. Maybe I don’t know the difference at this point. I don’t know.”

I used to do stupid stuff. When I lived in Reno, I used to cash my paycheck in casinos and I’d end up blowing a check. I’m not a complete idiot. So I only did that once or twice before I was like, man, you’re a loser. People say I always write about losers, but I never think of them as losers at all. I just think they’re struggling, and I’ve struggled with the same things. I’m really scared of being like that. I write about it a lot because I’m so scared of it happening to me.

A Modicum of Success

Lately, Richmond Fontaine has been successful enough for Vlautin to quit his day job. The band has found critical acclaim in Europe, driven by the English music magazine Uncut, and tours there regularly. “I think anytime a big magazine gets behind you, life’s just easier after that,” he says. “And I think in the States we never had that one big push where that happened.”

European audiences, and especially Irish audiences, tend to understand the redemptive aspect of Fontaine’s darker material. That’s something American club audiences might not respond to quite as readily, especially if they come to a show not already familiar with the band. Ireland has become almost a second home to the band. “They listen to the lyrics and they listen to the story of the song, which, for a guy like me, is like going to heaven, actually listening to the story,” says Vlautin. “So it’s been an amazing time, getting to play there. They understand what we’re doing, which helps.”

They’ve also recorded their most eclectic and engaging album yet, Thirteen Cities, and evolution from their more aggressive country punk roots. “A Ghost I Became” is a slow burn over a distant tympani beat with spare, atmospheric organ and guitar. Muted trumpet punctuates Vlautin’s busy acoustic arppegiation on “The Kid from Belmont Street.” There are even a few upbeat moments, the horns on “Moving Back Home #2” or the jangling beat of “Capsized,” belied by Vlautin’s psychologically intense stories.

“Sometimes if you’re in a bad situation like in ‘Painting Houses,’ the guy has a job with a crew that’s hiring illegals and then not even paying them. Sometimes maybe all the guy can really do is quit that job. He’s not strong enough to take it to the authorities and all that. Maybe he just realizes he doesn’t want to be affiliated with that, so he quits and gets another job. They’re trying to do the best they can.”

Vlautin credits producer J.D. Foster, with whom they’ve worked since 2002’s Winnemucca, with giving him the confidence to try new things, and also a change of scenery. “I was so excited that we would get to record in Tucson that I kind of wanted to write a ‘Richmond Fontaine goes to the southwest’ kind of record,” he says. “And I’ve always loved songs about drifters so I really wanted to write my version of those.”

Plans are already in place for a second book, which includes a soundtrack, to be released in the U.K. early this year, and Vlautin is busy doing what makes him happiest, writing a third novel and songs for a new album. “For me,” he says, “the only time I’ve ever felt I have control over a situation is writing because you’re the king and you can save who you have to save and hurt who you have to hurt.”

Monday, December 3, 2007

Mink's New Model Rock Star

Stella Mozgawa has to go outside to talk. Her Mink bandmates are making too much noise for her to communicate by cell phone for her interview on the tour bus, “The Eagle,” which she thinks smacks of 70s metal. “It’s a bus you would imagine Iron Maiden to be touring in thirty years ago,” she says.

It’s not hard to imagine Mink on such a bus. They had barely been together a year before they impressed Gene Simmons enough to land a slot on last summer’s Rockfest with KISS. Then it was an opening slot with Perry Ferrell’s Satellite Party and Lollapalooza, before they even managed to release their first album. Their self-titled debut, complete with day-glo pink skull cover art and plenty of gritty attitude, was released in August, just a year and a half after the band came together.

It seems like Mink was ready made for the term “rock star,” but Mozgawa dismisses that as cliché. “If for some reason I feel like getting drunk and vomiting onstage it’s kind of passé unless it’s done in like a corny, post-modern way,” she says. And in any case, they’re not trying to capture someone else’s idea of what a rock star should be. “We just try to be ourselves,” she says. “We love bands from the 70s and 80s, and we love modern pop music and modern rock music. We don’t really try to pay homage to it.”

The band members weren’t even on the same continent at the beginning of 2006. Then, early in that year, singer Neal Carlson met guitarists Nick Maybury and David Lowy and bassist Grant Fitzpatrick through their shared Australian manager, and hit it off immediately. They had already planned a tour when Carlson followed them back to Australia in May, when Mozgawa stepped in for their departed drummer.

It didn’t take them long to amass a set list, either. Mink was given a mandate by producer Sylvia Massey to write thirty songs in one month, from which they would cull an album. Mozgawa says they wound up writing roughly forty. “It was ridiculous,” she says, “but it was fun, but it was this process of not really laboring too much over something, just having it have the essence of something and just get it out there and afterwards working on polishing that and producing it, as it were. Just having it really natural.”

The album is a mix of buzz saw rock and hooky guitar pop, inspiring frequent comparisons to the New York Dolls and Sex Pistols. “There’s some more produced tracks, there’s some poppier tracks and then some rock, punkier tracks or whatever,” says Mozgawa.

And while Mink isn’t quite as raw as their trailblazing predecessors, there is something elemental about them. That emerges from the band’s chemistry – Carlson is the chief songwriter, but everyone contributes – and their focus on keeping things loose. “It’s tongue-in-cheek, it’s fun,” says Mozgawa. “It’s nothing too dramatic or political. It’s just fun and celebratory.”

Monday, November 26, 2007

The OC Archive: Zach Galifianakis at Just For Laughs 2002

In 2002, covered my first Just for Laughs Festival, tracking down local stories I could use in my Boston Globe column and getting to meet a lot of comedians who probably weren’t coming to Boston anytime soon. Zach Galifiankakis was on his third JFL, doing a few split shows with Janeane Garofalo and mulling over his options after his bizarre but extremely entertaining VH1 talk show, “Late World with Zach,” had been canceled over the summer.

Galifianakis is all over the map onstage – telling one-liners at his piano, doing quick bursts of odd characters, or interacting with the audience. Not everyone at JFL understood his humor – he had been heckled at one of the Garofalo shows earlier in the week. The show I got to see later that week was first rate. Garofalo and Galifianakis put on a great show despite sweltering temperatures at the Kola Note.

I had only just started watching “Late World” that summer when it was canceled, and I was thrilled to catch up with Galifianakis not long afterwards, sitting at the Delta Hotel restaurant. This interview was never published. I’ve included most of it here, though I did edit a longer tangent at the end where we discussed the history of whistling and serial killers. I’ve since spoken with Galifianakis for the Globe and he’s been to Boston on his own and as part of the Comedians of Comedy Tour with Patton Oswalt, Maria Bamford, and Brian Posehn. And yes, my first question was really cheesy.

What question would you ask yourself if you were a guest on Late World?

Hmm. How do you do it? Or, what’s with the beard?

Have you done the Just For Laughs Festival before?

Yeah. This is my third? My third festival. The first year I did a gala show. The second year I just did Andy’s shows. And this time I opened for Janeane. Yeah, this is my third year. I come back every two years.

I’m almost sorry that I missed the first Evening with Janeane Garofalo show.

Well, I liked it. I like getting heckled. I like it. I sometimes invite it. But I lost control of the audience and it became kind of a circus. That’s usually fine and good but you know, it’s not good for Janeane to have to swim in that wake. You know? I mean, she probably was loving it, backstage. Because I love to watch my friends not do well on stage. It’s one of my favorite things to do.

I know you said you were hoping Janeane would bomb as well.

Yeah, unfortunately, she did very well. That made me more disappointed. I was hoping that she didn’t do well, that way we could totally blame the audience. If she hadn’t done well, it would have been the audience’s fault. She did do well, so the whole night was my fault. That’s how it works.

What is it about watching your friends fail that you enjoy?

Well, because I’ve been there so many times before… I only like it if they can handle it. I like it if they can handle it. I think comics are funnier when they’re… Johnny Carson, when his jokes weren’t working – I don’t know if you remember – but he was so much funnier in his recovery to try to get out of it. I think it’s just a comic thing, that you enjoy watching disaster and awkwardness.

The Andy Kaufman factor.

Yeah, but he did it so purposely. That was his whole purpose. I’m talking about when someone doesn’t mean to do it and it happens. I have actually gone to open mics still just to watch people not do well.

You have to want to bomb in the beginning. It has to happen. That’s just part of the process. I once did a community college not too long ago. Well, a couple of years ago. And it was five o’clock in the afternoon, and some guy booked the show and it was literally kids sleeping or studying. And they put a microphone in the student common area. And my opening line was, because it was a community college, I went, “I used to go to a community college, look at me now.” I said, “I know all you guys feel bad because you go to a community college. I went to a community college. Look at me now. I’m performing in front of a community college.” Complete silence. People were Xeroxing behind me. But yeah, the bombing thing is all part of the process. But when you bomb up here, it’s kind of… Unfortunately, there’s this weird shit if you do bad up here that’s going to be judgmental because the industry’s here. Just do what you can do.

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done to try to fail on purpose or bomb on purpose?

That’s a good question. You know what, I don’t purposely do it. I didn’t mean to say I purposely do it. I like when it starts to happen, because it’s entertaining for me. But I don’t like, personally dig myself into a hole. I’m not that kind of comic. Dave Attell can do it. He can dig himself out of any hole. I’ve seen him do it. It’s unbelievable. It’s an involuntary… I don’t mean for it to happen. I don’t really provoke it to happen.

But you do invite heckling?

When hecklers heckle me I invite them onstage and I interview them. And I usually demean them in a very quiet way. As a matter of fact, I did a show in San Francisco, and this guy, I called him onstage. He didn’t heckle but he was over-laughing sarcastically. – I like that we came to this restaurant because they’re really good with the service here. -- So he was over-laughing and I picked up on it and I said to him, I call him onstage and he comes onstage, and he was kind of overweight, and it’s not good to do fat jokes. But he was a real jerk and he was a gang guy. He had like tattoos. I demean him really bad and the crowd loved it. He was really upset. And after the show, the owner of the club, I can’t remember what club it was, said, you have to go out the back door. They’re waiting for you in the front. I’ve had that happening, where there’s been some animosity towards me.

So you don’t come from the “I kid because I love” school.

I actually… Sometimes I get angry. It’s kind of like, why are you doing that? Why did you pay twelve dollars or whatever to listen to somebody and then you don’t listen to them? Just get up and leave if you don’t like it. I wish I could do that. The other night I did about ninety seconds – not even, like seventy seconds at Comedy Works.

I saw that.

I don’t mean to be a snob but…

You just knew it wasn’t going to work?

Of course it wasn’t going to work. I didn’t want to torture those people.

There was a guy named Ross Bennett who closed that show, who had a couple of hecklers, and they wound up hugging the guy afterwards and thinking he was the funniest thing. I just wonder what it is about an audience that they could get ripped that hard and then come up and hug the guy afterwards. Sometimes the audience likes the abuse.

Sometimes that happens. Sometimes the audience likes that. Why do people go see Don Rickles? They go for that reason, I think. They know they can be a target if they’re sitting up front. I’m not that kind of comic. I’m really not. But when the crowd forces me to… I just play the piano. I’m very soft. And I love to change and get completely mad at them. I think it’s a neat thing to flip, a weird Doctor Jekyll/Mister Hyde thing. But it doesn’t happen to me that often.

In New York a month ago, I got heckled in a theater. I think it was fifteen hundred seats. And this woman yells, “You’re a fucking asshole!” I do this joke where, the joke is, “I have to admit that I’ve used the word ‘sand nigger’ before. But I would never call anybody from the Middle East that. The term I used it in was, ‘Get off the sand, nigger. Volleyball’s a white man’s sport.”’ It was the last joke I did after eloquent piano playing. I get up and I explain, I apologize. I said, “There was a woman last night who was offended by that joke, and I invited her back tonight to publicly apologize.” And as I do that, a woman yells out, “You’re a fucking asshole.” So a black woman comes onstage with me. At this point the audience is like, what’s going on? They don’t really know what’s happening. Then “It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white” by Michael Jackson just starts blaring, and I just start dancing, doing the robot. And the audience is like, what an asshole. But I have this flip chart on which I’ve written this apology. “It’s just a joke.” I’m flipping this chart. And at that time, the crowd’s like, oh okay. And then another dancer comes out, and she starts, and the woman I was apologizing to, the three of us have choreographed this big dance number. I designed it that way to make the politically correct audience member eat crow.

Do you think you have a character onstage that’s separate from who you are?

It’s kind of an extension. Well, it’s kind of me, but when I’m onstage, I’m more quiet than I am in real life. I just think, I like subtle humor, and I try to be as subtle as I can onstage. I think it’s just a different version of me.

I was trying to figure out the person you were on “Late World.”

[Laughs] I’m sorry, every time I hear “Late World” I start laughing.

Just because –

Not because the show was that funny, just that the experience is just bizarre. I wish I had been a little bit more myself. And I was getting that way, but unfortunately, you have to have people come on the show, and you have to be likable. I am likable, I guess.

I saw one review that had said you were a host who thought he was too good for the guests.

Really? I thought I read all the bad reviews. I’d like to read that. I called one reviewer at the Baltimore city paper one night. He had written this review – and I don’t mind bad reviews – I wanted him to come on the show and read his article and we could talk about it. And I called him crying. I was acting like I was crying. And I told him that I was so upset, I couldn’t believe he wrote these things, and to please watch that night because I was going to shoot myself in the mouth on air. And he totally started backtracking.

Comedy is kind of like music. Different tastes, you know? I wasn’t crazy about interviewing celebrities. I don’t think they’re that interesting. At one point I think they were interesting, but now it’s a machine. It’s a big publicity machine. And individuality is not really there anymore. If somebody saw me as that, I could understand that. If I had a disdain or a bad taste in my mouth because I had to plug a movie I never would go see. I mean, I never said I liked something. I never would say that. I was very honest about it. If people are gracious to come on the show, fine. But I think that’s the problem in late night television, it’s a big ass-kissing festival. Letterman used to not do that. I thought that was his appeal. But now, his show’s so big, and it’s in competition with Leno…

I viewed "Late World" as a satire on talk shows where people pretend to care.

Well, we were trying to do that. We were trying to satirize the talk show format, the celebrity talk show format. I don’t know if you ever saw the show where we did it with just one person in the audience. To me, that’s the best one we did. People thought it was creepy. I think when we did the one-person audience, it was so good. It was the kind of thing that I want to do. And in the middle of the show, I was interviewing Adam Goldberg, the one guy in the audience, we kept cutting to him, and I said, “Can we have a laugh track, please?” Because there was complete silence. And they would do a laugh track, with one person in the audience, of a group of people. To me, I was very, very proud of that one. And then we did a laugh track of a six-year old girl laughing. It was just weird. And during the show, the one member of the audience got up and left.

So what influenced you to become a comedian?

The Andy Griffith guy came to my school and he whistled. And I remember I was just fixated on that guy. Because here’s a guy who took the one thing that he was good at and made a living, traveling around whistling. That’s what people should do more often with their lives. Instead of following the norm of what we’re supposed to do. And I was like, I’ve got to somehow learn that kind of thing. Find it. And I became the world’s best skipper. And I just went around various grade schools skipping. [Laughs] That was probably the most insightful thing I’ve ever done. The Andy Griffiths theme song whistler.

I’m not sure if I should try to background check that now…

I don’t know how you would background check that, but it’s true.

“Did you inspire a kid?”

So you’d try to find him.

Sure. That must be a depressing story.

He was an older guy, I think I remember. And I think at that same thing, I got my pants pulled down at the assembly.

He was never being funny, he was just whistling. But he took naturally what he could do… He probably got two hundred bucks for a thirty minute whistling show. All right, here’s the deal. What if you found him and he was this real egomaniac Hollywood-type guy? That’s a good idea.

They tried to book him for Just For Laughs, and he was like, “How much money? No.”

How great would it be if this article comes out and you like called me, ‘The editors went nuts. They’re putting that guy on the front of the magazine’.

And he calls and is like, “Get out of the business, kid, it’s horrible. You can’t make it like I made it before. The world’s changed.”

I hear they’re opening up a new whistling club.

Wasn’t there a Rockford Files like show that had whistling?

There’s not a lot of professional whistlers. I guarantee that you could find that guy’s name. I wonder if he’s still around? I’m going to look that up on the Internet and see if that guy’s still around. My cousin would know who that guy is, too.

You know somewhere, there’s that weird, “Hit Whistlin’ of the Fifties” album in a garage sale bin somewhere.

Yeah. He and Jim Neighbors teamed up because they knew each other from “The Andy Griffith Show.”

And then Roger Miller, who whistled on Disney’s Robin Hood soundtrack. He didn’t do the clean whistle, though.

Well, there are different techniques, obviously. Bottle whistlers are hacks. These guys… [blows into a bottle of water].

The shell whistlers are the alternative comedy of whistling.

Yeah. The Alternative Whistling Show. That’s what I’m going to do next. I’m going to pitch shows where it’s just me whistling. My dad actually saw once, on the Today Show, that skipping was good for you. And he started skipping everywhere. He would start skipping to work. And in a small town, when your dad is skipping through town –My dad’s kind of overweight, too, so it’s a nice visual. A guy skipping around. It didn’t last long.

You could combine the two.

Well, they do go hand in hand. When you skip, you tend to whistle. If you’re skipping, you’re in a good mood. And if you’re whistling, you’re in a good mood. You never whistle when you’re in a bad mood. Could you imagine skipping with a really nasty look on your face? ‘”He’s a serial killer, and his trademark is that he skips.”

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The OC Interview: Harry Shearer

Harry Shearer never seems to stop moving, whether he’s writing comic novels like Not Enough Indians, taping his numerous voices for The Simpsons, laying down his radio and podcast Le Show, filming video shorts for, recording music for albums like his latest Songs: Pointed and Pointless, or appearing live. He’s working on a new book, a new CD, and a new musical based on the life of J. Edgar Hoover.

I considered myself fortunate to catch up with him for the Boston Globe last month, talking about the live show he does with his wife, singer Judith Owen, called This Is So Not about the Simpsons: American Voyeurs, which was coming the Jewish Theatre of New England. We spoke by phone as he traveled from the airport to his hotel in Seattle, covering everything from humor and the media to Shearer’s lost classic film, Teddy Bear’s Picnic, a satire of privileged folly he wrote and directed. Portions of this interview appear in the Boston Globe.

I feel like you’re taking the time out to speak to me means one more book or song or video isn’t getting done somehow.

[Laughs] No, I’m in the car, going from the airport to the hotel in Seattle. No guilt required.

How do you balance all of this – the Simpsons, the Web site, the radio show, and the book?

I’m just one of those people who is very fortunate and loves what I do. And I know that there’s a limited amount of chances to do it, so I try to maximize those opportunities that I do have.

Did Not Enough Indians come out the way you had envisioned it, the dynamic between the characters?

If it didn’t, I really misspent six years. That’s pretty much the way I wanted that book to be.

What made you take on the casinos?

Well, I was just fascinated by the strangeness of the historic 180 that happens to at least some Native Americans to going from the most despised and genocided people on the continent, they are now sitting on top of this huge money pile to the extent that they can be envied now. And I just thought that was a great historical joke that amused me enough that I wanted to toy with a little bit.

Shortly after I read it, I went to the Mohegan Sun for the first time, and I kind of wish I had visited the Mohegan Sun first, because I wasn’t aware of just how much you didn’t exaggerate, how much that was reporting.

That’s sort of my modus operandi anyway. I’m not a big exaggerator. I think that humankind is funny enough that all you have to do is observe it pretty carefully and take out the pauses and you’ve got pretty good comedy.

It seems like you had been to the Mohegan Sun.

I had in fact never been to Mohegan Sun. I’ve been to other Indian casinos, but not Mohegan Sun, nor Foxwoods. But I’ve been to casinos along the Mississippi Gulf Coast and I’ve been to the largest Native American in Southern California. They all have a lot of things in common. I just stayed in a hotel, part of a casino complex in Melbourne, Australia, and it has that same design philosophy of no right angles.

Does This Is So Not About the Simpsons have a through line, or is it more of a revue?

It’s a show that Judith and I conceived for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year and did it there for a sold-out month. The through line is basically that she’s a Brit, I’m a first-generation American, we both feel as though we know this place well but look at it slightly from the point of view of outsiders. Hence, American Voyeurs. She looks askance at the Hollywood/Beverly Hills axis and I look askance at the New York/Washington D.C. axis, and each of us do so through comedy and music, and there’s some amusing video along with it. That’s the common thread of the show.

Her mainstay isn’t comic, really.

You haven’t seen her live. Although her music is very emotional, she takes the audience from that very deep emotional place to this very funny stuff when she’s just talking between songs. It used to be a shared joke between us, Arianna Huffington saying to her at one point when she first met Judith, "Have you always been funny or has it just happened since you met Harry?"

Do you collaborate on the writing as well?

Yeah, we shot pieces back and forth and worked on it with each other. And I have to say, I was amazed by the ease with which we could give notes to each other during the rehearsal process. That speaks well for… something.

Does she ever come to you with ideas when you’re not necessarily working together?

Well, she always plays her songs, I’m the first person to hear her songs. She wants me to play bass on them so she can hear it and start thinking of arrangement ideas. She tries to bounce songs off me in their nascent stages and I always try to make her go back and finish it before she plays it for me. But she’ll say, what do you think of this.

I’m the opposite. I have this radio show and I never let her listen to anything I’m working on until it’s on the air. We’re polar opposites in that sense.

Is it that you have a certain vision for something and if you start listening to someone else’s voice you’ll sort of ruin that? Is that the idea?

No, it’s just that I want the idea to be fully realized before someone reacts to it. I never pitch, for example. I don’t like telling a shard of an idea to people, even if that’s necessary to sell it. It seems to me if you can experience what’s good about an idea in one sentence, then why do you bother writing more? Where’s the rest of it, you know?

How does the show come together, song versus sketch?

It’s pretty much I’d say slightly less than two thirds talk and video and one-third music, maybe edging a little more music than that, but that’s the ratio.

Is writing satirical songs more difficult than it seems? If you look at Spinal Tap, people might think that you set out to write a bunch of bad metal songs, but if you did that, no one would care.

Yeah. I think with those songs and the Folksman songs on Mighty Wind, we weren’t trying to write bad music, we were trying to, I think, lyrically, ambody the bad choices that those guys might make. But musically, we wanted to make them proper songs. And the reactions we get from people is that they work musically and then they hear the lyrics and realize what we’re about. And I think it’s the same with what I did on Pointed & Pointless. You’re never trying to write bad music, nobody wants to hear bad music. But music can be the carrier either soulful emotion or smart humor, depending on the lyrical content. There can be musical jokes involved, but I think writing bad music is sort of a dead-end street.

When you’re singing a satirical song as opposed to a non-comical song, are you singing it from the same place?

I don’t sing non-comic songs, so I wouldn’t know. I think, for me, since I don’t really sing as me, I’m always singing in character one way or the other. I either have a specific character like George W. Bush or a vocal character, like the guy who’s singing “Flag Burners” who’s just sort of a, if not stereotypical than at least a conceptual country & western singer from whose vantage point I can sing as opposed to anything that might be considered me. I don’t know how I sing. I only know how a character sings. So, for example, when George W. Bush was singing “New Orleans Whole,” the hardest thing for me is, that’s a really insinuating rhythm track, and I was really having to get his arrhythmia into it.

Are you someone who watches the news and gets angry and yells at the paper or the TV?

No, I do my yelling on the radio. I mean, I don’t yell. I have an outlet so I don’t have to yell. But I must say, given the state of… I guess I still watch as much news, I tend to watch less American news, American TV news than I used to. There’s just a certain amount of times you can tell they’re not really interested in telling me anything I need to know and you can react against that, and if you have the capacity to move along to something better, you do.

I think you actual reach more people by making them laugh, and then at the other end of the laugh, a thoughtful “hmm” might occur. My primary business is making people laugh. Judith was saying to me when we got off the stage in San Francisco, because we hadn’t done the show in a while, since January, she was sort of exhilarated by how much fun it is to just be onstage and make people laugh. There’s nothing exhausting or draining or frustrating about that. And if you’re in this to try to have any other result, that might be frustratig. If you’re thinking you’re going to change the world, maybe you’re going to get something like what the academic was talking about. I’m an entertainer, first and foremost. If an audience is entertained, then I’ve done my job and I’m happy. If they’re happy, I’m happy.

Mort Sahl said political humor has to draw blood to be effective, so I imagine there could be some friction there.

Well, you know, humor is the anesthetic while you’re drawing the blood. I feel, and certainly some of the reactions people have had to “All Backed Up,” and even that song is kind of nasty, is basically saying before you mythologize this big fat drug addict, take a look. So that’s got some teeth to it as well.

You were one of the few guys Mort Sahl was actually complimentary towards, as far as current satirists.

That makes me very glad. I started out as a huge fan of Mort’s, I’ve never stopped being a fan of Mort’s, I was at his birthday celebration in Los Angeles. To me, he has something that’s extremely rare, which is the gift for taking a nuanced observation and turning it into an impeccably crafted joke. He is maybe the best joke writer that I’ve ever seen in satirical comedy. When I was a kid, I sort of had a smart ass view of joke writing, which lasted until I ran into Rodney Dangerfield and watched him edit his jokes, and watched the care and the work, the craft that went into joke writing at his level. And Mort’s at that level or higher in terms of just the craft of joke writing. No wasted words, basically like poetry, just taking out every syllable that doesn’t belong until you’ve got the minimum number of phonemes to get the job done. He’s really, really spectacular at it.

Do you have a dim view of satire at the moment?

I’ve always had a dim view. I think we’re in a classic second term presidency of satire, in the sense that, in the first term, it’s only the people who are paying close attention who are doing jokes about the president, whoever that happens to be. And by the second term, it gets very jokey and very easy and very late night, because we all know now, oh, he’s dumb, he’s horny, he’s old. And that’s when Newsweek does a cover, “Satire is Back!” exclamation point. I’ve seen that cycle a few times, as has Mort. And I think we’re in another one of those. And a lot of what people call satire isn’t, it’s just topical comedy with those sort of easy templates as reference points.

Why did you go to New Orleans for the "Crescent City Stories" pieces on

I went down there because I was trying to counteract the news media spin on the situation, which has been to relentlessly tell victim stories, as opposed to a less mono-emotional view of the situation. If you watch the news media you’d never have the idea of the sassy, hard, tough sense of humor that New Orleaneans have maintained through all of this. The news media tend to show people being sad about it. I wanted to show people in their sort of three dimensionality in New Orleans. And I thought that was something I could add to the conversation.

Are there any plans to release Teddy Bear’s Picnic on DVD?

Yes, I bought the rights back to it, and I do plan to release it on DVD. We’re working on that right now, as a matter of fact. Probably sometime next year.

It seems like it’s still appropriate or even more appropriate now.

I think the problem with that movie is that it was ahead of its time in the sense that a reluctance either on the part of the audience or the media that were filtering on behalf of the audience – I tend never to generalize about the audience, I think it’s easier to generalize about the media – to laugh at the ruling class, to use a term of art, in those days then their might be now.

Why do you think the chemistry between you, Michael McKean, and Christopher Guest persists so well through the years?

We’re three entirely, shockingly different people who are amused by a lot of the same things and share a sort of similar comic taste palette, the best way I could describe it. We’re all amazingly different as humans, but I think we all love the idea of comic work that kind of lets the audience discover the joke, as opposed to being hit over the head with it. And we are all fans of sort of working as characters and working as deeply-defined characters, as opposed to, “Here’s a funny hat! Look who I am now!” You know? I think of it as disappearing behind the character. I did this Dick Cheney video for, and somebody said it took them half the video before they realized it was me, and that was like, ‘Yes! Thank you. That’s what I want.” That’s how I know I’ve done a good job. And I think we all share that aesthetic. And we all love to play music, I think that’s a very deep bond among us. We really love to play music. That’s why we’ve done two musical projects and it’s why we’ll continue to go out and play music together. I used to not want to respond to questions about, “What is it you really like doing?” But I think it’s become clear to me over the last few years that my, and I think all of our favorite things to do is to play music.

Where do people recognize you from most often?

Spinal Tap and the Simpsons, although I’m always amazed when I’m in New Orleans, which is my adopted hometown, people recognize me for my radio show down there, even though it’s not heard there.

It’s on podcast now, which it seems to me that the technology has caught up with what you’ve been doing for years.

It’s the one place where I’ve been an early adopter, is of all that kind of technology to get the radio show out more broadly because of the odd recalcitrance of stations in certain cities, like Boston. A show that has that particular sensibility has much better coverage in the heartland than shall we say on the northeast coast, which I find peculiar. But there you go. That’s why god made the Internet.

It seems like you have a business model that you can really use the Internet to drive, the same way, if you look at people who made themselves cottage industries like Frank Zappa or, later on, like Ani DiFranco.

I relate to those people in the sense of, I’ve always tried to work as autonomously as I possibly can in whatever medium I happen to find myself in at the time. And the Internet allows for a lot of autonomy right now. That may be temporary. There are no guarantees.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Live Review: Comics Come Home XIII

If you’re Denis Leary, you’ve just seen your FX series, Rescue Me, renewed for a new season with twice as many episodes as previous seasons, your Red Sox have just won their second World Series in three years, and you’re celebrating the thirteenth year of your annual charity event, Comics Come Home, which benefits the Cam Neely Foundation for Cander Care. So what is there to be angry about? Well, you’re Denis Leary, so you’ll find something.

Opening the show Saturday at BU’s Agganis Arena, Leary said that, after his fiftieth birthday this year, he was going to try to turn over a new leaf, to try not to spew hate on those who don’t deserve it, until he saw Paul McCartney’s ex-wife Heather Mills on TV. He marveled at amount of money he heard she was asking for, saying, “Ringo was in the band and he didn’t get that much fucking money.”

Most of Leary’s ire Saturday was directed at celebrities and senators. Amy Winehouse and Larry Craig both had their images shown on two giant screens as Leary blurted his immediate thoughts, a burst of sunshine, as usual. The high/low point came when Leary showed an infamous paparazzi photo of Britney Spears getting out of her limo sans undies, with a star over the naughty bits. Leary asked the screen operators to show the picture uncensored, after which a picture of Bobby Brown came up on the screen. Just when you thought it was safe, there was the pic, uncensored, about twenty feet high. “That’s actual size, by the way,” Leary commented.

Leary then went into an extended riff about his own penis, perhaps just to balance the genitalia content. Suddenly self-conscious that his son was present, and had played guitar with the band during the opening, Leary said, “My son’s backstage right now goin’, ‘That’s my dad.’”

But as much as Leary’s star has risen over the past few years, Comics Come Home is rarely about him, and more about the talent that show attracts. Joe Yannetty had a great set of local humor, managing to make old premises like the Big Dig and driving to the airport fresh and funny. “Have you been to the airport to pick somebody up lately?” he said. “There’s a platoon of State Troopers, ‘Don’t stop! Don’t stop! Don’t stop!’ She can’t walk that fast! She’s right there! She’s got bags.”

Faux band Crack Hip Hop made a surprise appearance, wringing a surprising amount of laughs out of a song in which they count from one to one hundred. Artie Lange opened his set by declaring himself a Yankees fan, and then explaining to a round of boos presumably from Red Sox fans, “We have something in common. We both hate A-Rod.” Jim Norton, coming in hot with a new HBO special and bestselling book, and Medford native Robert Kelly, who’s set to release a new Comedy Central CD/DVD within the next coupel of months, both turned solid sets.

And it wouldn’t be Comics Come Home without Cambridge native Lenny Clarke, and the crowd started cheering at the mere inference that he was coming up. “I’m gonna bring out a fat guy, how’s that?” said Leary. Apparently, due to his many sitcom appearances and his role as Uncle Teddy on “Rescue Me,” Clarke provokes a similar reaction in New York City now, too, something that troubled Leary. Citing how much Clarke is a Boston guy, Leary said, “That pisses me off in a way. I love Lenny, but it’s wrong for people in New York to love Lenny.”

Clarke, who actually walked out a bit slimmer, got laughs out of the recent scandal involving Duane Chapman (a.k.a. Dogg the Bounty Hunter) and his phone message racial slurs, and a riff on smoking bans and illegal immigration. Clarke’s said he’d help the effort to curb illegal immigration by handing out cigarettes at the border. “They will be thrown out of this fucking country by sundown.”

The biggest splashes of the night were the two first-timers, Pete Correale and Mike Birbiglia. Correale’s best bits were about drinking, delivered in a pained, sarcastic Long Island accent. “A guy I went to high school with calls up recently and says, ‘My wife and I are having a party, but there’s no alcohol,’” said Correale. “I’m like, ‘Then your having a meeting.’” He also took exception to the idea that if doing shots to get drunk might make you an alcoholic. “If you do shots for any reason but to get drunk then I think you’re kind of missing the whole point of the shot,” he said. “Very few people have ever done a shot of whiskey and went, ‘Mmmm. It’s delicious. I love the way it burns your throat on the way down.’”

Mike Birbiglia is the comic to watch for. Leary, a graduate of Saint Peter-Marian High School in Worcester, saved a little ire for Shrewsbury native and St. John’s High School graduate Birbiglia in his introduction. Apparently Birbiglia, making his first appearance at Comics Come Home, was unaware of Leary’s alma mater, and asked if he could mention Birbiglia went to Saint John’s when Leary brought him out. “We hated two things – the nuns, and fucking St. John’s High School,” said Leary, busting his chops. “Please welcome to the stage a guy who’s taping his third record-setting fucking bullshit Comedy Central faggoty-ass special this week, a very funny guy, Mike Birbiglia.”

Birbiglia was on the spot and responded with material about going to a Catholic high school, and then a Catholic college. “They didn’t sell condoms on campus to teach us a lesson – to save up for the abortion,” he said of his college. “If you put a bunch of 19-year-olds in dorms together they’re not going to be like, ‘I guess since we don’t have condoms we’ll just play Pictionary!’”

Drawing mostly from his two albums, Two Drink Mike and his recent My Secret Public Journal Live, Birbiglia did his “A” set. Though he doesn’t often do political material, his “Whiffleball Tony” bit, comparing George Bush to an overenthusiastic guest at a cookout who starts a preemptive hamburger-chucking war with the neighbors is one of his funniest, mostly because Birbiglia’s good-natured everyman stance makes it impossible to call it a partisan attack. People in the crowd that night will surely be watching for his next special, which should air early next year.

By the end of the night, Leary’s voice was wrecked, but he still struggled through his show-ending tune, “The Asshole Song,” another staple of Comics Come Home. The audience seemed to appreciate hearing it, but after a two-and-a-half hour marathon, it was time for the audience to go home.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Movie Review: American Gangster

There is a fascinating story behind American Gangster. Unfortunately, director Ridley Scott waited until two and a half hours into movie to start telling it, and then spent about ten minutes telling it.

As with any fictionalized account “based on a true story,” it’s hard to imagine what parts of American Gangster are really true to real life events. The movie’s twin foci are Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a black gangster who revolutionizes the heroin business in the late 60s, early 70s by buying directly from the source and underselling his more established competition, and Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), and impossibly honest cop charged with cleaning up New York City’s illegal drug trade. Scott takes his time developing both characters, bringing them closer and closer together as Lucas gets bigger and Roberts pieces together the city’s criminal pecking order from his New Jersey post.

The story is familiar to anyone who has seen Scarface, Goodfellas, Mean Streets, New Jack City, or any number of gangster classics. And American Gangster might have been ranked favorably to any one of them had it come out a couple of decades before. As it stands, the story arc is predictable, garden variety hubris. Lucas challenged the existing structure, shakes things up, gets to the top of the scene, and then falls. Washington and Crowe are pitch perfect playing familiar characters – the menacing, ambitious monster behind a cool, friendly façade and the dedicated but flawed everyman hero.

Ridley’s story unravels neatly, with only a couple of minor faults. The story of Lucas’s wife, Eva, feels extraneous and the role leaves little for Lymari Nadal to do but stand around looking lithesome until she has to react to occasional danger. And Roberts’ transition from cop to lawyer is quick and jarring. You wind up wondering how he went from lead investigator to lead prosecutor on the same case, if there isn’t some rule about self-interest that would prevent such a thing.

But the court sequence is the most interesting story. Yes, the montage where Lucas becomes a cooperative witness seems a little too friendly (I could imagine the Partridge Family’s “Get Happy” played in the background and sent off to VH1 as a promotional tool). But Lucas reveals a bit of himself in the beginning of the interrogation scene, about his family’s abuse at the hand of crooked police officers, that could have been a powerful bit of knowledge for the audience to have two and a half hours earlier.

Once Lucas is convicted, we get the subtitles finishing off the story. We learn that Lucas’s testimony led to the arrest of about 150 people involved in the drug trade, and that despite being sentenced to 70 years, he was released in 1981. And when he got into trouble again, Richie Roberts, who had left the prosecutor’s office, was his defense counsel, and that the two remain friends.

American Gangster is a passable action movie with some extraordinary performances. But it could have been an incredible character study about two extremely different people and the reasons why they become friends. Their interaction during the initial trial, and their relationship afterwards, is fraught with friction and dramatic possibility, and the potential for something that seems a little less standard the story Ridley ultimately decided to tell. At more than two and a half hours, you would think there would be enough room to tell more of that story. For now, you’ll have to rely on Google and a few books on Lucas for that story.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Mean Creek -- The Definition of Sound

The best way to Mean Creek’s sound is simply to listen to them. It’s easy to forget the obvious as a writer, always trying to find whatever perfect key is going to unlock the correct feelings in a reader about music they’ve never heard. Back in August, I wrote about Mean Creek for an item in the Boston Globe’s Sidekick section. I got their debut album, Around the Bend, and three-song EP in time to listen through exactly once before I had to describe their sound. This is what I came up with – “Mean Creek's folksy Simon & Garfunkel harmonies anchor a sound that alternates between jangling and overdriven guitars.”

But once I saw them at the gig I had previewed, I realized there was a lot more to them. There is a hyper-emotive, atmospheric aspect that remind me of the Shins. There are droning guitars like the shoe-gazers, and elements pulled from a multitude of other sources that, taken together, make for an original sound. It seems Spin had to invent a word for them in their review of a show with Straylight Express. They called them “country-core,” which sounds to me like Gwar in overalls playing electric banjos. If you’re reading this on Tuesday, November 6, you’re in luck. You can go see them open for Sea Wolf at the Middle East Upstairs and describe their sound for yourself.

I caught up with Chris Keene (vocals, guitar) and Aurore Ounjian (vocals, guitar, harmonica) by e-mail about the show.

I never heard the term “country-core” until the review. Do you identify with that? I hear elements of folk, especially in the harmonies, guitar-centric indie rock like Built to Spill,

The term "country-core" is new to us. We're definitely influenced equally by folk music like Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger, as well as rock bands like Nirvana, The Pixies, and Buffalo Tom.

Are you a different band from gig to gig? Seems like you’d be equally comfortable on a bill with heavier bands or doing an acoustic set in a listening room.

I think we're the same band gig to gig. Live we get really excited about playing and it can get really loud and energetic. Our songs fluctuate a lot between being really soft and really loud. We hope the diversity is a good thing. We love playing with really heavy bands, and really soft bands, and will hopefully continue to be able to play with both.

Do you consider yourselves a political band? You don’t necessarily make that obvious, but you can hear it in songs like “Not to Dream.”

We definitely don't consider ourselves a political band. Songs like "Not To Dream" are really just personal songs just like all our other songs. Whenever we sing about anything that is remotely political its main purpose is to express how our environment makes us feel, and how it affects us, not so much trying to send some sort of political message.

Is the new EP part of a larger project you’re working on?

Originally it was going to be released as a 3 song EP, but we will be recording more new songs before the end of the year and we're in the process of figuring out the next step, and what makes the most sense to do with all our new material.

What kind of response have you gotten opening up for Straylight Run?

All our shows with Straylight Run have been absolutely incredible. They are a great band, and their fans are absolutely amazing. It's mostly a teenage crowd and they are unbelievably supportive of every band that plays. They come to the show early and go right to the front of the stage as soon as they get into the club. When we toured the UK with them we sold out of every copy of our album we brought with us. It's inspiring to see people that excited about music.

Do you think the Sea Wolf gig will open up a new audience for you in Boston?

We really hope so. That's the main reason we like supporting national touring bands in Boston, and just in general playing with all different kinds of bands. In the past its worked out well, so hopefully it will continue to be that way.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

OC-Ed: Random Thoughts

I try to stay away from random thoughts on this blog, but here are a couple of things I’ve been thinking about the past week.

If I have the story straight, Attorney General nominee Michael Mukasey isn’t sure that waterboarding is illegal torture. That seems dumb enough on the face of it – the worlds are mutually inclusive – but it gets worse.

President Bush and others in the Republican camp don’t think it’s fair to grill Mukasey about it because he hasn’t been briefed about it, so he can’t know if it’s torture or not. So, to sum up the administration’s official position on waterboarding and torture in general:

1. We’re not torturing anyone.
2. Only people with high level clearance can be briefed on whether or not waterboarding is torture. By the way, we’re not doing it, but only people with high level clearance to official U.S. policy will have access to the specifics of how waterboarding is done.
3. In other words, we know it’s torture, but Mukasey can’t possibly know until we tell him what we’ve (not) been doing and he reads how it’s (not) been done in great detail in the official record, so it’s unfair to ask him about it.

There you have it, clear as day. Stop asking Mukasey about waterboarding.

On a completely different note, I heard something during Game Three of the World Series that amused and puzzled me. I’m a fan of Warren Zevon’s music – the dark sense of humor, the grasp of history, the baritone to falsetto dripping with sarcasm. So anytime I happen upon a Zevon song in an unexpected place, it’s a pleasant surprise. His words are important. He was good at words, had a folkie’s appreciation for them and paid attention to them.

But I’m convinced no one has ever listened to the words of “Excitable Boy,” seemingly one of the more popular tunes marketers and programmers have taken out of context to use as background music. I’ve heard it as musak. I’ve heard it as incidental music. And during the Series, it was outro music behind a quick interview on the way to a commercial, conveniently cutting out before the vocals started. So before it winds up in a Burger King commercial, here are the lyrics, for your consideration:

Excitable Boy
Warren Zevon & LeRoy P. Marinell

Well, he went down to dinner in his Sunday best
Excitable boy, they all said
And he rubbed the pot roast all over his chest
Excitable boy, they all said

He took in the four a.m. show at the Clark
Excitable boy, they all said
And he bit the usherette's leg in the dark
Excitable boy, they all said

Well, he's just an excitable boy

He took little Suzie to the Junior Prom
Excitable boy, they all said
And he raped her and killed her, then he took her home
Excitable boy, they all said

Well, he's just an excitable boy

After ten long years they let him out of the home
Excitable boy, they all said
And he dug up her grave and built a cage with her bones
Excitable boy, they all said

Well, he's just an excitable boy

Friday, October 26, 2007

Howard Frank Mosher -- An American Writer

Howard Frank Mosher is, in the best sense, an American writer. He captures the thrill of the frontier and the bitter friction between progress and tradition with a keen sense of his characters’ emotion and their place in a historical timeline. And he takes a particular setting, his beloved Vermont, and paints a visceral, nuanced picture in the imagination in his novels and short stories, including his latest, On Kingdom Mountain. Three of his novels have been made into films by director and fellow Vermonter Jay Craven, the latest being Disappearances starring Kris Kristofferson. I caught up with him by e-mail to talk about his extraordinary body of work.

You set up a lot of early expectations for a sort of feel-good rural anti-authority story in the beginning of On Kingdom Mountain and twist them all the way through. To some extent, that’s just what any author does to create a good story, but you seem to be purposefully destroying clichés (from the resolution of Kingdom Mountain road dispute to Henry Satterfield’s fate).

First and foremost, I’ve always regarded myself as a storyteller. In order to keep the story and characters of On Kingdom Mountain from being eclipsed by the preservationist theme of the book, I set the story in 1930, long before the term “preservationist” existed, and left the resolution of the story open-ended.

The level of historical detail is amazing in many of your stories. I’m thinking of things like measuring off dam partitions or how the Duchess’s gun functions. How much of this do you know from direct experience and how much do you have to research?

I’m an avid outdoorsman, and I’ve worked in the woods as a logger, on farms,
and for newspapers and magazines. Along the way, I’ve picked up a lot of information that has been useful. While I’ve done a fair amount of historical research on topics ranging from the great New England log drives to the Lewis and Clark Expedition, I like to write the early drafts of my books first, then incorporate the research later, in order to fit the research to the story instead of the story to the historical details. Also, I invent a lot of history-much to the dismay of my historian friends.

How much of the Vermont timeline (floods, political movements, treaties, etc) is true to life in the books?

Most of the Vermont timeline – the Great Flood of 1927 in Where the Rivers Flow North; the Prohibition-era rumrunning in Disappearances; and the French Canadian immigration in Marie Blythe – is fairly accurate. That stated, I’m an inveterate inventor. For instance, in On Kingdom Mountain I move the famous “St. Albans Raid” of 1864, in which 21 Confederate soldiers rode out of Canada and stole nearly $100,000 from several banks in St. Albans, Vermont, 50 miles to the northeast, and recreate the raid in my fictional Kingdom County.

You reuse a lot of names, Covilles and Kinnesons. In your mind, do all of these characters exist in the same setting? I could imagine, for example, Pilgrim, lost in On Kingdom Mountain, wandering into another of your short stories.

The Covilles, Kittredges, Kinnesons, Allens, and a host of other “Kingdom
County” characters from my stories do all exist in the same setting. Pilgrim Kinneson, Miss Jane’s uncle in On Kingdom Mountain, missing in action in the Civil War, will reappear in my next novel, Walking to Gatlinburg.

Are you trying to get to everyone’s story in the state eventually?

I’m trying to get to the story of as many of the great Northeast Kingdom (Kingdom County) individualists, whom I met and knew back in the 1960s and who dated back to the Depression and Prohibition eras, as possible.

When were you first inspired by Vermont?

I was first inspired by Vermont on the day my wife and I arrived in Orleans, about twelve miles south of the Canadian border. We had driven here from central New York to interview for a couple of teaching jobs. It was the last day of April, 1964, and we were just 21. Right in the middle of the main street were two guys having a fist fight, which they suspended to let us by. When I rolled down the car window and asked them for directions to the high school, they piled into the back seat and directed us there – then they got out and resumed their fight in the middle of School Street. We knew we’d come to a frontier.

Are people surprised by the mix of culture in Vermont – the French-Canadian influence, the traditional blue bloods, the rural traditions all battling within Vermont society. Not sure what comes to mind when the rest of the country thinks of Vermont.

There’s a wonderful mix of culture in Vermont, but also an insidious tradition of latent racism and xenophobia. In 1968, a black family moved to Irasburg, where we live – the first African American to settle in the town. Their home was attacked by nightriders with shotguns, and they were driven out of town. It was the kind of event I would have expected to happen in Mississippi in the 1930s but not Vermont in the 1960s. The racist attack inspired my fifth novel, A Stranger in the Kingdom. What’s more, until quite recently, there was a great deal of prejudice against French Canadians in the Kingdom. I think much of the country regards Vermont as picture-postcard perfect. What I’ve learned, over my 43 years in the Kingdom, is that racism and xenophobia are, sadly, universal.

Do you ever hear from people who visit Vermont because of your books?

Occasionally, readers from elsewhere in America do visit Vermont to see where my stories take place. Usually they’re baffled. The geography is quite different from the settings in my books. Not long ago, I visited Faulkner’s home in Oxford, Mississippi. Suddenly, the tables were turned. When I looked for Faulkner’s town and countryside, and didn’t really find them, I realized that the only place they really exist is in his books. The same is true about my literary locale.

No question so I’ll ask my own. Who are your favorite writers? Answer: Shakespeare, Dickens, Mark Twain, Jane Austen.

Do you collaborate with Jay Craven on the film versions of your work?

Jay Craven has consulted me closely about each of his films based on my stories. I love his movies. His vision, however, is entirely his own. I believe he is unexcelled at casting his films, directing them, and exploring the complex relationships between the characters.

Are you and Mr. Craven neighbors? I know he does a lot of filming within a few miles of his house.

Yes, Jay and I are Northeast Kingdom neighbors.

I don’t see a lot of writers capturing the sense of wonder and adventure that you capture so well. Do you think a lot of writers stay away from that?

With the notable exception of first-rate suspense writers like James Lee Burke andElmore Leonard, many “post-modern” American writers concentrate on exploring the inner lives of their characters. I’m a bit more of a traditional storyteller. Books I love best – Lonesome Dove, Cold Mountain, Richard Russo’s just released masterpiece, Bridge of Sighs, in which, for a whole town, the great American dream goes about as wrong as it possibly can yet still seems worth pursuing – tell a great story and explore the psyches of their wonderful characters. That’s the best of both worlds.

I’ve heard from a book rep that you’ve already finished the next book, which he says is you best yet. Care to offer a quick preview?

Yes, thank you. My next book, Walking to Gatlinburg, is the story of 17-year-old Morgan Kinneson, who, in 1864, does in fact walk from “Kingdom County,” Vermont, to southern Tennessee, down in the Great Smoky Mountains, in search of his older brother, Pilgrim, missing in action. Talk about non-stop action and adventure. Walking to Gatlinburg is a Howard Frank Mosher adventure novel to rival my first novel, Disappearances. Of course, the first major review of Disappearances, back in 1977, was headlined “Vermont Writer Should Disappear.” I nailed that review up to the side of my barn, blasted the smithereens out of it with my sixteen gauge shotgun – and kept right on writing.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

John Oliver is an Optimistic Curmudgeon

John Oliver’s job on “The Daily Show” is to take what’s essentially bad news – the collection of half-wits running for president, terrorism, racism, et cetera – and make fun of it. Considering that he is dealing with the same news cycle as network news programs, his first reaction to tragedy has to be to find comedy in it somehow.

“My instinct is always no, oh, that could be funny,” he says. “There’s something funny in that. Well, wait a minute, let’s just let the gravity of the reality sink in. then we can trivialize it.”

Watching the news, it’s easy to think the world is in the worst shape it has ever been. And, as the cliché goes, if you’re not upset, you’re not paying attention. But taking a historical perspective (read Voltaire’s Candide), it seems things have always been pretty terrible, and you wonder if you just need to ignore the worst of it to preserve your own sanity and trust the world will keep turning, an idea I brought up with Oliver. “You’ve just got to have some half-hopeful voice saying, let’s hope our gardens grow at the end of the day,” he says. “That’s pretty much all you can hope for.”

That’s when I brought up the idea of being an optimistic curmudgeon, a philosophy that seems to resonate with Oliver. “I think that’s the best way to be, though,” he says. “That’s the only to balance it out. There’s no point in being cynical all the time. But equally, blind optimism just seems willfully inappropriate.”

Oliver says that’s why he has always been a political comic, going back to his days in stand-up and writing for the BBC in his native England. Comedy has been his way of dealing with more serious issues (Will Kaufman wrote an excellent book about this dynamic, called The Comedian as Confidence Man: Studies in Irony Fatigue, which is now out of print). “I guess that has always been my coping strategy with the world,” he says. “If I can’t laugh at something, I don’t really know how to relate to it. That’s kind of got even more entrenched working here. Because now, when you see the news, something terrible,

I interviewed “Daily Show” correspondent John Oliver for this week’s Comedy Notes column in The Boston Globe, which you can read in the Friday, October 12 edition. We did wind up addressing the philosophy of the optimistic curmudgeon, so I thought I’d include that detail here. See the Globe for a more in-depth story.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Ken Carlson and The Comedians magazine

I first heard about The Comedians magazine when their editor, Ken Carlson, contacted me about a profile of Boston comic Tim McIntire he was writing. I was excited to hear about any magazine that would write a lengthy profile of a comic that I knew so well from the local scene for a market outside of Boston. Shecky and Punchline are both great publications – I’ve had some great conversations with Brian and Traci over at Shecky, which is a great industry resource for comics, and I occasionally contribute to Punchline.

But The Comedians has its own niche, with longer pieces on a few bigger name comics like Mario Cantone and Jim Norton but also great, lesser-known acts, at least on a national scale, like McIntire and Matt McCarthy. (If you notice a New England bias, that’s partly because Carlson played rooms like the Comedy Studio and Portland’s Comedy Connection when he was a comic, before the demands of grown-up life forced him to put it aside). The Comedians is also a fascinating peek inside the New York City scene, where the print version is mainly distributed, but Carlson will sometimes stray as far as Israel for comedy to interview comics like Yonatan Friedrich.

I caught up with Carlson by e-mail recently to talk shop about comedy and his vision for the magazine.

Did you set out to create a local New York magazine for comedians, or have your plans always been for a wider audience?

When I started the comedians, I wasn't quite sure of the path it would take, but I am happy with its direction. One night last summer, I was sitting in the back room of an ordinary Lower East Side bar watching a free comedy show. One after another, the host introduced these really talented comics with solid credentials (this guy wrote for "The Chappelle Show", this guy recently appeared on "Late Night with David Letterman", this woman was on "Live at Gotham", etc). At that moment I knew I wanted to develop something that would focus on creative comics and try to discuss their craft in an honest way. It's certainly a niche product, but not solely intended for comedians. While New York represents the center of stand-up, so many of the acts work nationally, so it has appeal in other markets.

How did you get in touch with Yonatan Friedrich in Israel?

Yonatan is a comic from TelAviv who contacted me. He liked the website and reached out to me. We emailed back and forth a few times and I thought it would make for an interesting story to get his perspective on stand-up. We ran that article over the spring and I received a lot of positive feedback from it. That was one of those instances that opened my mind a bit to include more than just comic interviews with local performers and reviews in the comedians. Now we feature improv groups, humor columns, foreign comics performing in NYC like Glenn Wool, a Canadian working out of London, and industry professionals.

That's something that fascinates me - how stand-up comedy is perceived and created in countries that don't have a tradition of it. How do people even conceive an act in that kind of environment, and how do you judge expectations?

You have to take a few things into consideration. One, certain cultures are incredibly uptight about controversial material. Look at America where we have "freedom of speech," but comedians have been lambasted and arrested for what they've said on stage. But while jokes about car bombs or the holocaust may get you into trouble here, in Israel, it's something that has affected every single family and thus more acceptable, as I understand it, because the comic shares the common background.

How did you make the move from Internet to paper?

The first couple of issue of the comedians were published online and in print. The website and the copies I handed out for free acted as sort of a test to see what people thought. People were very complementary about it so I decided to move forward. I focused on the print because it's written with print in mind and I thought it would stand out against all the websites. It's a bit of a throwback. One comedian I spoke with said it reminded him of an engineering journal from the 50's. I like printed materials. They give the reader a sense of permanence.

How do you choose who to cover? Is there a specific set of criteria?

There are a lot of smart, creative comics that perform in New York. I try to feature those that generally reflect the entire comedy scene.

Do you see yourselves competing with online mags like Shecky and Punchline?

Not at all. There's plenty of room for media outlets of all forms. Shecky and Punchline are two good ones. It comes down to content and point of view. A lot of websites treat stand-up in a goofy, immature manner. From the start, I have tailored the feature articles in the comedians from in-person conversations I have with the artists. The majority of the text are the comics' words, not mine. I'm not terribly interested in their bios or backgrounds. I want to know what they think about their craft.

What's your view of the stand-up timeline - who created stand-up, when were its golden years, what the scene is like today?

Stand-up started with Mark Twain. If you combine the performances of Twain with the antics of vaudeville and the nightclub era comedians like Bruce, Rickles, Dangerfield or early Pryor, you have the current form. As far as deciding on what the golden years were or are, it comes down to how old you are. As a baseball fan I'm partial to the players I watched when I was a kid - Rice, Fisk, Yaz, etc. It's the same with comedy. My folks are convinced Jack Benny was the funniest man ever. Today, the kids dig Dane Cook and Dave Chappelle. Many comics will tell you Louis CK is their favorite, but half of this country has never heard of him because he's never had a long-running network sitcom like Seinfeld, Ray Romano, Rosanne, or Kevin James.

There's a stereotype that comedians are actually often anti-social or irretrievably pessimistic. What's your view of that perception?

I wouldn't say anti-social. They can be a bit guarded and apprehensive in certain settings. If you take into account that many of them developed their sense of humor to deal with problems at home; then once they move up everyone seems to want a piece of them, it seems understandable. Really good comics give their audience a sense of who they are and I think that can create unfortunate circumstances as well. That's why most comedians' friends are other comedians. I wouldn't say pessismistic either. Jaded certainly. What successful comic gets up there saying everything is great in my life and nothing is wrong with the world?

What's your view of comedy competitions - good or bad for comedy?

I don't put a lot of stock in them, but I don't suppose they do any harm. If they get exposure and some of the sponsors' money for talented performers, I'm all for that. I'd have more respect for a performer who's spent the last twenty years making than someone who wins a contest.

Do you think the mainstream would ever accept a magazine focused mainly on comedians?

I doubt it. The only exception would be for a major player, like Comedy Central, to use it as a support mechanism to promote their shows. But they have their website which is more in tune to their younger market, so why would they bother?

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. ( 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?