Wednesday, December 19, 2007

More Like American BADiators

A couple of weeks ago I went with Akela to a taping of American Gladiators, which she had scored an invite to through her kickball league. Apparently joining a kickball league for grown-ups is not only a great way to meet people and get some exercise, but also helps you get into TV tapings. Who knew?

I met up with Akela at a bar where she and her kickball friends were eating, and we headed for the Sony lot. There was a certain awkwardness driving onto the studio lot, which felt queasily like crossing a picket line. But we weren't there to work, and it was a weekend, so there were no writers picketing, so it seemed okay.

A long line of people had formed inside the parking garage. After doubling back to our car to stow away our camera-equipped phones, we joined the line, only to be notified that the start of taping would be delayed by an hour to an hour and a half or so and we were free to leave and come back later. The kickball gang adjourned to a nearby bar and returned at the appropriate time, only to spend another half-hour or so waiting in line in the very chilly parking garage. As kickballers idly tried to remember the names of the original American Gladiators, I discovered that automobile terminology seemed to be fertile ground for Gladiator-sounding names. Nitro! Ignition! Diesel! Sparkplug! Hubcap! I don't know how many of these were actually names of Gladiators, but they sounded convincing to me.

Finally, a group of us were led onto the lot... where we emptied our pockets at a security checkpoint and were herded into yet more lines waiting to enter the studio. Eventually, I resorted to playing the brick-busting Arkanoid game on my iPod as Akela cheered me on. Shortly after I started my second game, our line was allowed into the studio.

The American Gladiators arena was big, but not as big as you'd expect. Somewhere, a smoke machine filled the air with just enough smoke to make all the spotlights look impressive. And there were lots and lots of lights. Other than that, it all looked pretty cheap.

So, we took our seats in the arena, which didn't exactly seem like brain surgery. One wonders why it takes the staff hours to fill the seats with people when it seems like you might do just as well to let everyone in and say "Find yourself a seat." I mean, even if you personally assigned every individual person a seat, you should be able to get people into a room faster than this. Good grief.

Anyway, the warm-up guy was doing his duty keeping the crowd occupied with a spelling bee, which stumped a few audience members until someone correctly spelled the word "daiquiri," which, I was surprised to discover, I would not have known how to spell. The winner received an impressive Target gift card for something like $300. Next, Warm-Up Guy called on some more volunteers for a contest he called, with no small amount of fanfare, the Man-on-Man Slow Jam. He began the long process of recruiting ten guys from the audience, finding a place for them to stand, then climbing up to the bridge in the middle of the arena in order to pull up a particular song on his iPod (Couldn't he get someone to help him press play? It didn't seem very efficient that it took Warm-Up Guy five minutes to get to his iPod every time he wanted to lift our spirits with a song). All the while Warm-Up Guy continued to build up the Man-on-Man Slow Jam: "I promise you... you have never seen anything like... the Man-on-Man Slow Jam!" By the time he was through, nothing could have delivered the astronomical heights of awe and disgust described by his build-up.

In the end, the Man-on-Man Slow Jam was what it sounded like: Five pairs of guys were made to slow dance with each other, to amuse the audience with the unusual sight of two men dancing close and even touching! Eww, gross! The whole thing seemed like it would have been a bit more shocking and hilarious a few decades ago, before gay people were invented. But I guess as long as no one at the taping had ever seen one before (except for maybe some of the Gladiators), the game still worked. Some of the guys threw themselves into the gag with more explicit abandon, popping their shirts off and wrapping them around each other while freak-dancing away, while other pairs, perhaps intimidated by their competitors' rapid escalation of warfare, quickly gave up on attempting to dance at all. One pair was disqualified during voting when a guy reached into the game course, plucked a ball from the ball bin, and attempted to throw it into one of the ball baskets. As the hours wore on, Akela became more and more concerned that no one would ever retrieve the ball.

She needn't have worried. Here's why:

You would assume that when you go to an American Gladiators taping, what you will see is a reasonable approximation of the show American Gladiators. That is, you will see an episode unfold more or less in sequence: You will meet the contestants, see a few events, and end up with winners. Sure, there will be down time, and it will take a bit longer to set things up than it does on TV, but you will be rewarded for your patience by getting to watch the whole spectacle live.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work like that at all. Instead, they needed to film interviews and promos first. The interviews seemed to be conducted offstage, which suggested that there might have been a better time to film them other than when an arena full of people was waiting. The promos consisted of new host Hulk Hogan and some woman who is supposedly known from women's boxing or something standing together, flanked by the contestants and gladiators, and saying things like, "Are these four challengers ready to face your American Gladiators? The battle begins NOW!" followed by a series of flamethrowers going off around them and the battle not beginning. Meanwhile, we were all instructed to cheer enthusiastically. I kept myself entertained by yelling cheers like, "Yay! Hulk Hogan! Gladiators! Muscles! Battle! Fire! Heat! Lights! Noise! Aaaahh!" Several takes later, I began simply yelling Hogan's lines, since by then I knew them better than he seemed to. Other kickballers cheered on Helga, the stocky female viking gladiator.

Warm-Up Guy continued to promise the crowd that despite all appearances, there would be a game -- which, as the hours wore on, seemed increasingly unlikely. He attempted to placate the crowd with candy, which, like his iPod, also took him five minutes to retrieve, but this led to a new injustice. Our section was denied candy, as the scantily-clad girls in charge of distribution ran out before getting to us. Henceforth we occupied ourselves solely with cries for candy. "Candy! Candy! Candy!" we yelled in lieu of cheers and applause as Hogan performed another round of promos. Finally we got Warm-Up Guy's attention, and he gave the girls more candy to distribute. Naturally, our girl went straight to the last section that had already received candy, and squandered the lion's share of the supply giving them candy again, even as, twenty feet away, we shouted in vain that she was in the wrong section. When she finally arrived, there was little candy left and we didn't get any.

Our fruitless quest for candy was the last entertaining thing to happen. They shot more promos, this time with different contestants, and it became clear there was no chronological sense to what was being shot. Warm-Up Guy was still promising a game, but Hangin' Tough was the only event he would mention, and I began to suspect that by "game" he meant "single event we hope will satisfy you people whose time we've wasted in order to have a cheering crowd in the background of our asinine promos."

Crew members started breaking apart the ball game that sat before us, and we realized no one was going to play it. Someone finally retrieved the red ball that was vexing Akela -- and dropped it casually into the blue ball side of the bin. The rings for Hangin' Tough were on the other side of the arena, where no one was sitting, and before Hangin' Tough could begin, most of the audience would have to move to new seats. I had other plans for the evening, and I was now painfully familiar with how long it took this operation to put people into seats. Akela and I left, along with several other kickballers whose patience was exhausted.

So, my take on the new American Gladiators? It's strike filler, so it should be avoided on principle, but most importantly, it was a big stupid waste of my time and for that alone deserves to fail.

But we learned a lesson. It was one we should have known already, but some lessons you need to learn more than once. In this case, the lesson was that attending a live TV taping is supremely unworth it. When you see or hear an audience on a TV show, do not envy them. Despite their enthusiastic vocalizations, rest assured that you are enjoying the show far more than they are. They are there, applauding under duress, for your benefit, so you can enjoy the show in the comfort of your own home. They had to stand around all day to get in there, and sit through laborious set-ups and re-takes. You get the finished product.

Think about it this way: If seeing things live was so great, we never would have needed TV in the first place.

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Monday, December 03, 2007

Rich Man's Revenge

At long last, another sketch! You're welcome.



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Saturday, December 01, 2007

Central Characters In Comedies

Working on my spec pilot script during the strike, I've had occasion to think about the structure of various sitcoms, and I found myself pondering an issue similar to the one TV blogger Jamie Weinman discusses here. I had intended to blog about it, but never quite found the initiative. Ironically, it had even occurred to me that it was the sort of topic that Jamie, if he still reads this blog, would find interesting, so it was fitting, if still surprisingly coincidental, to see him post on practically the same topic.

Jamie's post is about how 30 Rock falls into the mold of shows with a weak central character. That is, a central character without a strong drive who doesn't seem to anchor the show. He draws a parallel to Arrested Development, and how Michael Bluth also failed to anchor that show, theorizing how this may be a factor in why both shows have had difficulty finding a large audience.

I wouldn't put it in quite those terms. As I see it, Michael Bluth and now Liz Lemon are characters who function exactly as they should. Both of them are characters who largely play the straight man and sarcastic commentator to the parade of eccentrics who surround them. However, I do start to wonder whether this cast dynamic is inherently one that creates cult favorites as opposed to breakout hits. Newsradio, whose lead, Dave Foley, struggled to keep a crazy staff under control, was another brilliant show that hovered near hit status for years without ever breaking out.

Since so many of my favorite shows have been built on this dynamic, I think it's safe to say that I enjoy it a great deal. But it seems like many hit shows are built around a central character who is the source of the show's zaniness. Take Homer Simpson of The Simpsons or Michael Scott of The Office. Or even Weinman's example, Charlie of Two and a Half Men. I argue that what sets these characters apart from the likes of Michael Bluth and Liz Lemon is not that they are stronger characters or have clearer agendas, but that they are each the main comic engines of their respective shows. Michael Scott and Homer Simpson are idiots whose stupid decisions actually create story and generate jokes. Charlie is a boozehound sexaholic who always follows his worst instincts. These characters are the joke, whereas Michael Bluth and Liz Lemon are reacting to the joke. (Interestingly, The Office has a character, Jim, who fulfills this very role, and perhaps succeeds by wisely not making Jim the central character.)

Are there any hit shows in which the central character plays sarcastic observer? Bob Newhart's shows were successful and from what I've seen, they seem to fit this mold. The one that comes to my mind is Seinfeld, which itself took years to win an audience. But that show's cast was small enough that the other, bigger characters regularly carried their own stories. Also, unlike the perpetually aggravated Liz Lemon, Michael Bluth or Newsradio's Dave Nelson, Jerry seldom seemed to be at the mercy of the other characters.

Is there something about the format of a show hinging on a central wacky character that makes it more broadly appealing than a show in which a central character plays straight man to a large cast of wacky characters?

First, obviously, a show built around one wacky character is easier to understand. It's easier to "get" that The Office is a show about a clueless boss, or Two and a Half Men is a show about a sleazy guy, and pick up the rest of the nuances of the show as you go along, than to have to learn the specific quirks of many different people who are all funny for different reasons (though The Office does include this element as well).

Second, I think some people find it unpleasant to watch the one sympathetic character on a show beset by others who make that character's life difficult through no real fault of their own -- that was a complaint I heard at least once by a first time viewer of Arrested Development.

But why does the 30 Rock/Arrested Development/Newsradio model seem to yield cult hits? Perhaps it's a certain type of person who can relate to it. Everybody can feel superior to Homer Simpson and laugh, but if you like Michael Bluth, does that mean that you consider yourself to be an island of sanity fending off the weirdoes who surround you? Is there something about these shows that appeals to people who are smart, or think they are smarter than others, or, intelligence aside, simply identify themselves as not fitting in with other people? Perhaps. But then again, surely most people consider themselves the straight man in their own lives.

Can anyone think of more examples of each type of show to either bolster my point or refute it? The straight man as the lead, surrounded by wacky types, versus the comic/idiot character as the lead? Obviously the examples that spring to my mind are culled from my own favorites.

And in case you're wondering which model I'm using in my pilot? It's the straight man as lead. But after giving this topic some thought, perhaps next time it won't be.

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Quarterlife Follow-Up

Our Quarterlife spoof from a few weeks back has attracted the attention of the webmaster of the official Quarterlife site and the show's creator, Marshall Herskovitz. See it featured on the official Quarterlife page here. Yes, I was making fun of them, but never let it be said that I'm not willing to sell out for attention.

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Strike Two

Just thought I would link to a couple of strike related videos. Both of them are pretty widely posted, but for those of you who consider me your source of information about the entertainment industry, here is a video that does a good job of explaining the writer's strike. It uses charts and graphs and other assorted graphics that make the point better than I could on my own.



And here is a video of the writers from The Office discussing the strike from the picket lines. Everyone has made a big deal about Steve Carell backing the strike as a supportive actor, but it's seldom mentioned that, as briefly referenced in the video, Carell is a writer (and thus, Guild member) himself. In fact, he was the credited writer on this week's episode.



The "promos" excuse is pretty flimsy, but I think it is especially lame when you consider how the industry treats piracy. If watching a full episode of a show can be considered a "promo," how is that different from someone watching a full episode from Bittorrent? Couldn't that be considered free advertising? It's generating interest in a show, and the network doesn't even have to pay for bandwidth! Only in that case the networks and studios would insist that their content has value and that someone should not be able to watch it without them receiving money for it. So why doesn't the writers' content have value when the network re-uses it? Their stance on when content has value online is completely hypocritical and self-serving.

One argument I've heard, and which honestly made me think, is that none of the below-the-line crew on TV shows and movies makes any residuals for their work. They do a day's work for a day's pay and that's that, yet they suffer when writers strike for residuals that they will never receive.

I really had to think about this: Why do writers deserve residuals? On the most basic level, what Steve says is true; no one is really entitled to anything more than people are willing to pay. But why do writers have a legitimate argument for receiving residuals?

I guess what it comes down to is that our society has decided that artistic work and related intellectual content has value, and that a person who does creative work should have certain rights connected to the content they create. No one would dispute that musicians and songwriters should receive more money when they sell more music. Most people think it's unfair that record companies take as big a cut as they do. Yes, it takes a lot of people besides writers, actors and directors to make a show or a movie. But many people, from manufacturing to promotions, have a hand in making a record a hit, yet they don't receive royalties either.

Now, I'm sure this comparison is not quite fair. Plenty of crew contributions to a show, from art direction to set design to prop building, involves a certain level of artistry and creativity, yet for some reason their contribution is not considered "creative." But in any case, that line has been drawn somewhere, and it hardly seems an argument for making the creative contributions of writers ineligible for the rights afforded other artistic creations.

On a more practical level, writing is an unstable profession. Writers spend tons of time writing things on spec for no money at all before they can even get a job in the first place. And then again between jobs. So it's helpful, if you've actually had some success, to have money coming in while you write for free between jobs.

For me, of course, this is all theoretical. Residuals are something that I only hope I will collect someday. But the thing about this battle is that if the writers lose, they'll pretty much never get paid residuals ever again. The internet is the future of content delivery, and the studios and networks need to admit that they have to figure out some way to pay writers for it. If they don't figure out a way to make money from it, the industry has no future anyway -- not paying writers is not the factor that is going to make or break that. Either there is money to be made on the internet or we'll all starve together.

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Think Positive

Finding the time to edit this took longer than I expected, but here it is. My mom may not want to watch this one. There is a lot of swearing in it. Seriously, like wall-to-wall swearing. Constant profanity. She should really probably not play it. (If she does, she should know that it is all Mike's fault.)

Ryan, on the other hand, should love it.



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Thursday, November 01, 2007

Strike

If you’ve been following Hollywood news (and who doesn’t?) you know that there is a writers strike that, failing a miracle at the negotiating table, is due to happen any second now. All over Hollywood, writers have been scrambling for the past week to scrape together scripts before the strike deadline. Yes, that is sort of counterproductive to the disruption that makes the strike threatening, but it also hard to avoid when you have to obey your bosses until the strike actually happens.

Anyway: I was playing my own home version of the strike scramble, trying to get as far through an adaptation spec as I could before the strike hit, when Friday I got a call from Cartoon Network. With days to spare, they decided to order a few extra Jimmy’s Head scripts, and I was being brought back on board as writers’ assistant for a week (or less, depending on if and exactly when the strike begins). So, employed once again, however briefly, I came back to work on Monday and we set about creating four new scripts in three days. The race against the strike began in earnest. These are interesting times, to be sure.

Speaking of Out of Jimmy’s Head, you may have noticed that I have failed to write any additional commentary posts. I don’t think I will write any more of them; I think the one I did write came off as long-winded and not particularly entertaining. With any luck, perhaps I can get on the DVD commentary and do it that way. This commentary in blog form idea seems ill-conceived. I have way too many random facts that aren't related to anything in particular.

Also, yes, it's been a month since I have posted a sketch video. We attempted one early in the month, but it suffered from technical difficulties. We have since rewritten and reshot it and sooner or later I will edit it.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Literal Videos

Not too long ago I declared that, where story-driven songs are concerned, I prefer music videos to be as literal as possible. When I'm listening to a song that tells a story, I picture the events happening, and if there is going to be a video, I am disappointed when it fails to depict those events. For example, nowhere in the video for Pink's "Get This Party Started" was she seen gettin' flashy in her Mercedes Benz. What gives?

Fountains of Wayne excels at songs with stories that evoke very specific visuals, and their "Stacy's Mom" video is a good example of one that takes the song fairly literally (even if the kids are disturbingly younger than I would have guessed). Anyway, I didn't realize until today that there is a video for "Someone to Love," the single off their album Traffic and Weather from earlier this year. The fact that it features Demetri Martin is a bonus, but I also love that it tells the story almost exactly as I'd pictured it.

Fountains of Wayne - Someone To Love (hi)

Add to My Profile | More Videos

Tip: Stop the video as soon as the song fades out or you'll be greeted with loud, glitchy static at the end of the video.

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Friday, October 12, 2007

Out Of Jimmy's Head Commentary 1: "Talent Show!"

Out of Jimmy's Head episodes have been piling up, and I've yet to write anything about them. Hope you have them memorized, though, because I'm going to start from the beginning:

Episode 1: "Talent Show!"

The Title

When the show was still called "Re-Animated," this episode was titled "Re-jected: A Story of a Talent Show." Originally all the episode titles followed that format, so we had a several-page-long list of every word starting with "Re," compiled by last summer's intern on the movie. After the show title changed to "Out of Jimmy's Head," the "re" titles went out the window. The new titling scheme was simply to include an exclamation mark in the every title, but that seems to be an affectation that no one else realized we were doing on purpose, so the episode titles on the internet, TiVo listings, and the world at large don't have them.

General Thoughts

This was one of the first episodes written. We chose it to air first since it provides a nice vehicle to introduce a bunch of the kids at school who make up the recurring supporting cast. One problem with the movie were that jokey supporting characters like Animal-Loving Kevin never had a formal introduction, so it was difficult to make the connection between, say, a llama in science class or the duck on the field trip and the sleepy-eyed kid invariably sitting next to them. Most reviewers just seemed to notice the odd presence of animals in these scenes, which was fair enough, since we never actually got a close-up of Kevin or any character saying a line like "Hey, that Kevin sure likes animals!" We sought to remedy this in the series, hence Dad's line "So, Animal-Loving Kevin, whaddaya got for us?" along with scenes that make Kevin's relationship with the duck crystal clear. Incidentally, the duck singing opera was a weird joke that really came alive for us onscreen. It was a favorite moment for the room from the first cut we saw. We all especially like the shot of the blond boy extra looking moved--perhaps the one example of an extra acting and actually making a scene better.

Also (re-) introduced in this episode is Becky, a boring, nerdy girl whose attitude-laden T-shirts ("Superstar," "Man-Eater", etc.) make promises her personality can't match. In the movie, she appeared in several scenes but was pretty much mute. Like Kevin's animals, the T-shirt gag was practically a background detail that was never hit very hard, and probably unnoticed by all but viewers with the sharpest TVs. We still don't hit the T-shirt gag hard here at all, but then again, there may not be a good way to make a person wearing an incongruous T-shirt into a really hard joke. The main difference is we've resigned ourselves to no one ever noticing it.

Along with Becky, we meet Gramps, the school's oldest student. Gramps is played by John Bliss, who is the mean old dead company founder from Andy Richter Controls the Universe. He is very funny. We would have loved to use him more, but there were fears that kids viewing the show can't stand the sight of the elderly.

Another character from the movie, re-appearing here, is Easily Excited Kid (known on Wikipedia as Enthusiastic Kid and "Yeah" Boy before being deleted entirely from the characters page). In the movie, he would thrust his fist in the air and say "Yeah!" at every opportunity, even when others did not share his enthusiasm. It was perhaps the only supporting cast running gag that actually came across, and actually played pretty well. In the series, EEK (as we often call him in scripts) has graduated to delivering full sentences, though he still punctuates them with his trademark catchphrase. Incidentally, this kid actor loves his catchphrase. When the movie screened last fall at Cartoon Network, I remember seeing him at the theater, saying "Yeah!" to anyone who would listen. At this point, he also seems to add it to his lines whether we write it for him or not.

Also returning is Logan, the cool kid who makes fun of Jimmy in the first scene. This kid is cool. If you talk to him, just the way he carries himself, the way he talks, instantly makes you feel like an uncool loser.

The Writing

"Talent Show" also seemed like an appropriate first episode because the story had a strong focus on how the cartoon characters were influencing Jimmy's life. The original ending had Jimmy simply telling bad jokes to get back in Tux's good graces, but it was felt that Jimmy throwing away his shot at popularity just to win back an imaginary friend seemed a bit too depressing, and perhaps not all that much fun to watch. The addition of the musical number makes it at least spectacular for the TV audience, if not Jimmy's audience, and the tying in of the Robin story lets us feel that Jimmy has at least gained some real-world advantage by publicly humiliating himself.

Another change was to tie in Sonny's failed plot via the dimensional vortex, to up the stakes of Tux running away. Briefly, a version was considered in which Sonny would succeed in capturing Tux and torturing him by putting him in terrible cartoons. Robin would discover this, download Tux onto an iPod, and bring it to the talent show where she would tell Jimmy what happened and Jimmy could upload Tux back into his head. Ultimately it was decided that this might be a little too complicated. You know, it being the first episode and all. Besides, we can't show iPods.

(Side note: Because we are a kid's show we are not allowed to show or name recognizable brand name products, including iPods. So every time we write a joke that calls for recorded music, sounds, or a personal stereo device, we then have to write "MP3 player." Trouble is, the only MP3 player that is obvious and easily recognizable, and thus ideal for making a joke "read," is an iPod. And you can't sub in a Walkman or tape deck or boom box because kids don't use those anymore. Hence, the Sonny joke in this episode where he blames Mittens (his bag of money) for saving up for an MP3 player, and we see Mittens wearing big stereo headphones. The joke originally called for white earbuds, but we couldn't do that.)

Jimmy's rap was difficult. We were very worried about straying into the territory of shows that include rap but are clearly written by people who know very little about it, especially because we knew very little about it. At one point we toyed with changing Jimmy's act to "Snaps" style insults but it was felt that that would come off as too mean-spirited. To lessen the cheesiness, I pushed hard for giving the rap a more contemporary flow, with internal rhymes and less predictable rhythms--more Eminem than Fresh Prince, as opposed to the "da da da da da da da da da da RHYME / da da da da da da da da da da da RHYME" thing you always see on bad TV sitcom raps. That helped somewhat, but the idea that the school loves Jimmy's rapping is admittedly still a pretty big buy.

Music and Animation

The music for Tux's big number was composed to match our lyrics by composer Paul Buckley, who quickly and impressively turned a bunch of fairly arbitrary lyrics into a credible, even catchy, show tune. And of course, the animation came out great. Under Matt Danner's guidance, the slightly redesigned cartoon characters can do squash-and-stretch (an animation term that means pretty much what it sounds like), and some clever Flash techniques allow them to make animation that pushes the models farther and looks less like Flash and more like traditional animation. All of this makes the animation much more loose and dynamic than it was in the movie. The characters go off-model a lot more, too, which seems to have upset a few viewers who were fans of the original movie's character designs, but also allows for much funnier and more expressive characters. Even some of the show's most avid haters have admitted that the animation shines.

Deleted Scenes

There were last-minute trims to this episode to make Dad less mean. These included Dad saying to EEK, "Breakdancing, huh? Pretty lame talent," and Dad introducing Becky as "Some girl who's so unremarkable I can't even remember her name, so let's just call her... Becky!" I suppose it makes the joke of Becky's boringness less clear, but the loss of this gratuitous meanness doesn't seem to hurt the episode any. Fortunately, Dad's funnier mean lines, like "You believe in yourself! And that's what's going to make your act so unintentionally hilarious!" still remain. Also cut at the last minute: A tag featuring additional footage of the duck singing opera.

In the scene where Craig eats Mom's dehydrated pasta pellets, then takes a sip of water, at one point a cut came back where someone had added a special effect of Craig's stomach expanding cartoonishly. This was not in the script, and we were not particularly fond of it. This footage with the effect appeared in some of the ads and promotion for the show, though we had it removed just in time for the episode to air. At least one person online has spotted the discrepancy between the version in the ads and in the episode.

We had written, and shot, a scene introducing Too-Tall Brian, a tall boy whose head is always out of frame (seen in the movie following Craig's declaration that "everybody loves a tall guy"). Brian's talent was that he could spin his head all the way around, which he proceeded to do offscreen, resulting in uncomfortable sound effects and the crowd's disgusted reaction. The special effect employed to create Too-Tall Brian consists of having an extra stand on a box just high enough to make someone appear impossibly tall. Trouble was, as shot, you could clearly see the guy's knees, making it very obvious that we were looking at a guy standing on a box. Brian was cut and would never return. It's just as well; any shot in which he had to interact with another character tended to be cumbersome to execute. One relic of this gag remains, though: Tux's line "I haven't seen a head spin like that since my ex-wife--she was an owl!" is intended to be a reaction to Brian's act. Without it, the joke is really apropos of nothing, but somehow it kind of works anyway.

Man, that was long. I could go on, but I shouldn't. See, this is why I put off writing a commentary for so long.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Emails With My Mom

My Mom:

You can still help people by calling for help. Don't walk into a trap yourself.


Subject: Fwd: Fw: New Rape Scam, please read
In Beware....

This was passed on to me by a friend:

Sunday afternoon around 5 PM, I headed to the Target in Wheaton, IL where crime is very rare and is mostly like bikes being stolen. It was still light outside and I parked close to the entrance. As I got out of my car and began walking towards Target, an older lady shouted to me from the passenger seat of a car parked about 30 feet away.

"Ma'am you must help me, help me please, help me Ma'am!" I looked her in the eyes and started to walk towards her when all of a sudden I remembered an email my Mom had sent me a week or two ago, about rapists and abductions using elderly people to lure women.

I paused, memorized the license plate, and immediately headed into Target to get a manager to come help this lady just in case something was up. While the woman manager headed out there, I kept a close watch just because I was curious what was wrong with the lady and wanted to make sure nothing happened.

As the Target lady walked toward the car and got very close to the old woman in order to help her, the back door flew open. A large man with a stocking cap on jumped out and stuck a gun to the lady's stomach and shoved her into the backseat of the car.

I yelled out, "call 911" several times. Just as I was saying that, a policeman who happened to be on the other side of the parking lot--and who saw the entire thing happen--raced over to the car. He was able to stop the car and arrest the male as well as the old lady who was involved in the scheme.

By God's grace everyone was all right--including myself--although I think we were quite shaken up. Like many of you, I would not in a million years have left an elderly person who was yelling for help if it weren't for the e-mail I had read last week. So I wanted to pass this along so you all can be aware and remember that you really can't trust anyone these days. You just never know when something like this could happen. I would have never dreamed it to happen to me especially on a Sunday afternoon at a Target in a "safe" area!

It definitely was not a coincidence that my mom sent the email just a few days before this happened. Please be careful, and always be aware of your surroundings. Just because you don't go over to help someone, does not mean you have to leave them in trouble, but don't go ALONE; you really don't know what kind of criminal activity might be going on.


Me:

http://www.snopes.com/crime/warnings/wheaton.asp

My Mom:

I didn't really believe it to be true, however, someone reading the story can get the idea. Now it is proven to be false someone else can try it without people suspecting it. You can never be too careful.

Me:

I knew you were going to say that. That is the rationale for everyone who forwards false warnings. Maybe I should invent a horrible story and email it to people, and then everyone will have to be afraid even though I made it up because now someone could get the idea.

Speaking of which, I heard that street gangs put poison on shopping cart handles and if you touch your face while you're shopping you could get very sick and die. Tell everyone you know.

My Mom:

You are not supposed to touch the germ infested shopping cart handle and then touch your face. My friend Dee always wears disposable gloves for shopping carts and gas pumps.

Me:

Your friend Dee = insane.

I did not account for the high level of craziness that already exists among you and your friends, no doubt a result of the scare-tactic emails you all forward to each other and believe wholeheartedly. I guess I will have to come up with a more ridiculous story to get a reaction from you.

My Mom:

You can never be too careful.

Me:

Yes you can. By putting gloves on just to use a shopping cart. That is being too careful.

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Friday, September 28, 2007

Quarterlife

Have you heard about Quarterlife?


A show about a group of twenty-somethings coming of age in the digital generation. And a social network about what it means to be creative, to pursue a passion, to make a difference in the world, or just to find a place in it. Coming to MySpace November 11th and quarterlfe.com November 12th.


Finally!! As a young creative blogger growing up in the digital generation, it's impossible to watch this trailer without feeling like it's ripped from my own life:

Quarterlife Trailer

Add to My Profile | More Videos

Seriously! It's like they've been spying on me:



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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

End Of Jimmy's Head

Well, today was my last day at Out of Jimmy's Head, unless there is a second season. Shooting wrapped yesterday, and we cleaned out our offices. It is pretty sad, actually. Kind of like the last day of a school play or something, except that in this case it means no more paycheck. I can't complain too much, though. I've been employed since November working on it, which in TV is a pretty long gig. Plus I got a pretty generous parting bonus from the writers. It was a fun show to work on, and the episodes have been coming out quite nicely. I suppose in most jobs I will not get a chance to get this comfortable in one place.

For those of you who have been wondering, that is a vinyl wrap on my car, not paint, so it will come right off.

I have been thinking about doing some kind of series of commentary posts about the episodes. Are you guys actually watching them? Would this be something that anyone is interested in?

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Out Of Jimmy's Head On iTunes


Out of Jimmy's Head is now available on iTunes, so now those of you without cable have no excuse for not watching it. Well, I guess there is still the excuse, "I don't want to pay money to buy your show on iTunes," but let's not sink to that level, shall we?

Also, the show's creators, Adam and Tim, have a cheesy interview online.

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Friday, September 14, 2007

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Starbucks

Haven't had a chance to compress a 4:3 version to upload to YouTube yet, but I'll add that link once it's ready. For now, those of you who can use the Crackle version can check out the sketch that threatens to put us on a terrorist watch list.



Update: That Crackle player seemed flaky, so I've embedded the YouTube video instead.

Update madness!: Or you could watch the Vimeo version. I actually find that Vimeo's player is the clearest and the smoothest. Although the site itself, while attractively designed, is a bit of a pain to navigate.

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Monday, September 10, 2007

Set Your TiVo

So the show I've been working on for the better part of a year now is about to premiere this week on Cartoon Network. Out of Jimmy's Head (formerly Re-Animated) airs its first episode this Friday at 7. Sure, you could think of it as a kids' show, or a blasphemous deviation from Cartoon Network's focus on animation. But you could also think of it as a show from the writers of such beloved favorites as Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends and Futurama.

And plus, I worked on it.

So again, Friday at 7, on Cartoon Network.

You can also check out a preview of the first few minutes of the first episode here.

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Sunday, September 09, 2007

Off The Grid

First, we had a hiatus week while Mike was out of town. Next, we shot a sketch that was not fit for the viewing public. Finally, we managed to shoot a sketch and I went all week without finding the time to edit it. But now, after an unintentionally long hiatus, sketches are back! Or at least, this one is:



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Saturday, August 25, 2007

MyFace.com


What is this site? Is this an actual MySpace wannabe, a knockoff preying on confused middle-aged people who barely know what computers are and can no longer remember the names of things, or is it a joke? When you Google myface.com, you mostly get a bunch of people making reference to it as a made-up site that they don't realize actually exists. If it's not a joke, why would they use a picture where all the people, especially the most prominently featured ones, are so incredibly ugly? Seems like a bad move for a site whose name draws your attention to their faces.

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

High School Musical 2

Having invested the time necessary to watch the first High School Musical, I thought I might as well check out the second as well. I don't know if it's just that I've gotten more accustomed to the style of HSM, or kids' TV in general, or that having seen one, my expectations are more well-calibrated, but High School Musical 2... is really good.

Yes, it's a Disney Channel movie, and yes, it's brightly colored, broadly acted, and saccharine sweet, but somehow, this time... it works. High School Musical 2, brimming with the confidence that goes with being a smash hit success, ups the ante and improves on the original in every way. Where the first movie opened with a dull, obnoxious karaoke duet of a low-energy, generic pop ballad, the sequel jumps in with both feet, kicking things off with a huge ensemble show-stopper. Sure, the song is still pretty generic, but at least this time it's high-energy, impressively choreographed, and, well, fun. Along the way we are reintroduced to our cast, including several minor characters I didn't even realize I remembered. There's something nice about that attention to detail, that affection for characters like the songwriting girl from the first movie, or the jock who likes to cook -- obviously it's there to please the audience, kids who watched the original so many times they've absorbed every detail -- but I just liked how it seemed to respect every character, no matter how small.

The story is better too. The main conflict of the first movie always felt false -- as cliquey as high school is, neither jocks nor nerds would flip out just because one of their own chose to audition for the play, nor are drama queens like Sharpay treated like school royalty. But by taking place over the summer, this movie avoids any school-related phoniness you might try to find. (The drama teacher character that I hated so much makes a return, but it is brief, and the adults that the sequel introduces in her stead are, mercifully, far less hammy.) And Sharpay's sinister scheme to tempt Troy away from his friends and girl by dangling a great job and a potential scholarship in front of him makes for a more interesting conflict anyway.

Zac Efron remains rather frustrating to watch. He's a fine dancer, but his impossibly generic good looks, too-perfectly tousled hair and fake tan don't change the fact that he's an awfully bland lead. But everyone else seems better this time around, and Sharpay's gay brother -- always one of the stronger members of the cast -- even gets a chance, in a very satisfying subplot, to grow past a stereotype into a character with self-respect.

The production numbers are impressive, much bigger and more ambitious. The songs, while still nothing special, are more energetic, less frequently dull, and more tied in to the characters thoughts and feelings, as songs in musicals should be. My main complaint is that most of the songs drop that pop music filter over the vocals so that they sound like someone's singing into a tin can. This is bad enough in a heavily processed pop song, but when characters are supposedly singing to each other live, it's not only artificial but distracting.

It also feels like there's perhaps one epilogue song too many -- at the end of the first, I felt a warm satisfaction, by the end of the second, I felt exhausted. Even so, it's hard to begrudge the movie for that second number's self-congratulatory ebullience -- for the most part, I have to say, it's earned it.

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Friday, August 17, 2007

Friday, August 10, 2007

Earthquake

Last night there was an earthquake at about 1 AM. It was a 4.5 originating near Chatsworth. There was some light but very noticeable shaking here in West LA. When it hit, I was watching videos on YouTube. I leapt from my seat and ran to a doorway, but not before taking a beat to register what was happening, then pausing the video I was watching.

As I stood in the doorway waiting for aftershocks, the horror of the situation slowly dawned on me: Not the light earthquake that had transpired, but the fact that had it been worse, I might have been killed in the midst of watching a video of a stranger dancing. How sad, how empty and hopeless that would be!

Now, after this startling event, how could I go back to my computer, sit down, and actually continue this trivial activity, the futility of which had just been thrown into sharp relief?

The answer: With frightening ease.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Greatest Card Trick Ever




Trying out the Crackle.com embeddable player. Our Guardian Angel video is featured on the comedy channel there. If Crackle doesn't work for you, or if you need a plugin and don't want to download one, you can check out the new sketch on YouTube as usual here.

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Thursday, August 02, 2007

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Tom Watching "Lady In The Water"

After a week on hiatus, there will be a new sketch... later this week, when I finish editing it. In the meantime, enjoy this video, made while Tommaso was in town for Kevin's wedding.



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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Guardian Angel



Re-edited! With some trims to speed up the awkwardly staged middle section and some extra razzle-dazzle at the end.

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Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Transformers Post

I can see how, in the right frame of mind, someone might find Transformers trashily enjoyable. I had expected that I might. In fact, despite my lukewarm anticipation for the movie, upon consideration, I realized that I was probably the ideal audience for it. I grew up with the toys and have fond memories of them, but I am by no means a purist and I don't really care if they tweak the mythology in adaptation. And I'm always ready to forgive a stupid action movie, as long as it's awesome.

The fact that I ended up seeing the movie with a Transformers purist might have dampened my forgiveness somewhat, but the fact remains that ultimately, the movie failed to really excite me much. Granted, the Tranformer effects are pretty amazing. The robots are intricate and their integration into the reality of the movie is seamless. You get taken out of the movie by bad writing and poor editing, sure, but you never get taken out of the movie by unconvincing effects. it really looks like these robots are clanking around in the environments we're looking at, and it's surprisingly easy to let yourself forget that they are effects.

Aside from that, though, the action is choreographed and shot so indifferently that it's hard to get involved in any of it. There are few moments that engage you on a level that can genuinely be called excitement. There are no stand up and cheer action moments where, either through your attachment to the characters and story, or through some especially clever staging or shooting or stunt work, you sit up and smile and say, holy shit, that was fucking badass.

Two moments come close: One is when Optimus fights Bonecrusher on the freeway, and a sword comes out of his arm and Optimus decapitates Bonecrusher, and Bonecrusher's head crashes to the ground. Hooray! Optimus finally did something heroic. But it's a little weak because the fight wasn't that long and we couldn't really tell what was happening in it. Heck, the transition from getting tackled on a flat section of freeway, cutting straight to them tumbling through a cloverleaf interchange was jarring enough, never mind the rest of the fight.

The other near-awesome moment comes as the movie segues from a Bumblebee-as-Herbie movie into a Transformers movie. Bumblebee comes to Shia's rescue as he's being chased by Barricade. Bumblebee fights off Barricade, turns into a Camaro, and Shia and the hot girl jump in. Bumblebee takes off. Barricade runs after them, jumps, turns into a fucking Mustang in mid-air, and fuck yeah, it's on. Barricade vs. Bumblebee, Mustang vs. Camaro, this movie is finally moving and it's time for an awesome car chase. Only it isn't. There isn't an awesome car chase. Cut to night (Even though, wasn't it still basically morning when Shia left his house getting chased by Bumblebee? Did they chase all day, and we didn't get to see it?) and Bumblebee is sneaking around as Barricade continues looking for them. And then the kids get out of the car and the robots have it out off screen. What the hell? I guess I can understand holding back on the robot fight, since we'll have tons of that later, although it is kind of a cheat. But to leave us hanging on a car chase and a robot fight, just when the movie finally had my blood pumping? Not cool.

I didn't mind the movie's slow start or the Shia LeBeouf teen story. I thought it could have been kind of fun. But I did think Shia's character was kind of an asshole--crassly auctioning off his family heirlooms to buy a car. Then again, his dad put him in a stupid position. If you want to teach the kid to earn money for his own car, give him more than a couple days to do it or you're just setting him up to either hock priceless heirlooms or get mixed up in a bank heist.

The Shia/Bumblebee scenes were very Herbie, which I enjoyed, but the radio gags were stupid. What would Bumblebee do if there wasn't always some station playing exactly the songs he had in mind? And the scene leading into the scene mentioned above, in which Shia tells Hot Girl, "Not now, I'm being chased by my car," was kind of funny.

Oh! The fact that all the Transformers can scan for whatever they're going to turn into by themselves was dumb. So Bumblebee can scan anything and instantly he can turn into that? He can just alter the shape of all his parts at will, just morph into whatever? Then why even be a Transformer? He's basically the T-1000. Why bother with all those complicated moving parts? If you can magically change shape, why bother mechanically changing shape?

Speaking of this, smooth job with the GM product integration. When Jazz literally scans a GM showroom for a shiny new Pontiac Solstice on a revolving pedestal with the name of the car printed on it? Very subtle.

Apparently when Hollywood movies make a hot girl smart, they no longer have to bother with the phony smart accoutrements, like glasses or hair in a bun or frumpy clothes, they now just hand us a supermodel, put her next to schlumpy guys and say "She's smart!" Kind of like the hot girl scientist at the Center for Poorly-Safeguarded Sand Experiments over in Spider-Man 3.

Bay tries to show us that he's in on the joke, that the movie is self-aware about its ridiculousness. Unfortunately this just results in a bunch of ham-fisted comedic moments that provoke eye-rolls more than laughs. Now, I love dumb action that's in on the joke--but I prefer it when a movie is confident enough in its audience that it's not constantly elbowing me in the ribs. Stop being so jokey all the time and let me enjoy the ridiculousness for what it is. The farcical scene in which Shia tries to conceal the robots in his backyard is a reasonably funny idea (though it unfortunately forces the Autobots to be buffoonish before they've built up any credibility), but it's at least twice as long as it needs to be, considering that it's repetitive and narratively pointless. When, in Transformers' most egregious gag, Bumblebee pees on John Turturro, it's just embarrassing.

But ultimately the movie fails because the action sequences are too uninvolving to matter and too uninspired to impress. In fact, throughout the action, it's not clear whether Bay is even trying to involve us in the story. How else to explain that when Jazz in rent in two by Megatron, we don't recognize that it's Jazz, nor is it even established that Jazz was fighting Megatron. Not that we would have felt anything for him, since his entire role thus far has been two lines of embarrassing ebonics cliches played for cheap laughs, but Bay doesn't even try. Would it be that hard to have a close-up? To at least attempt to imbue the movie's only noble death with any feeling whatsoever? As it is, you blink and you missed it, despite the fact that it's perhaps the only event of any real narrative import in the entire chaotic and nonsensical action sequence that makes up the third act. Certainly it's more important than sending vulnerable Shia to climb a random building to deliver the MacGuffin Cube to an easily destroyed military helicopter for... what purpose exactly? The third act has not a single goal that makes any sense. And the fights are mostly unwinnable--it's a lot of robots and humans shooting at each other to no effect whatsoever. One reason the earlier Optimus/Bonecrusher fight stands out is that it contained discrete events and ended with a decisive victory. Would that more of the fights contained such fundamental building blocks of a satisfying narrative.

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A Bright Idea To Share With The World

You know how every so often your wireless router doesn't work, and you have to unplug every cord in the modem, unplug every cord in the router, then sit there like an idiot for twenty seconds trying not to mix the cords up in your hand, then plug everything back in? You know how this is pretty much standard operating procedure for resetting a router that's not working, and depending on the vagaries of your Internet signal, you may have to do it anywhere from every few weeks to once or twice a day?

Well, if this procedure is so common and so frequently necessary, why isn't there a button for it? Why isn't there a button on the router and on the modem that performs the function of shutting off the connection to all those cords, so I can wait twenty seconds and then turn it back on? Would that be so hard, considering that it's the only way to reset a connection and resetting a connection is something that people constantly have to do?

Is my technological ignorance causing me to overlook something? Is there a reason this incredibly logical and useful feature doesn't exist? I don't turn my TV on and off by plugging it in and then pulling the plug again. I don't start my car by twisting two wires together and stop it by untwisting them. Somebody please invent a button for this. That's all I ask.

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Friday, July 13, 2007

Get Smart

I can't get enough of the new Get Smart teaser.



It's simple, but funny, and played surprisingly, effectively dry. Steve Carell is the perfect choice for Maxwell Smart, and sells each of the three gags in the teaser brilliantly. The phone booth gag has a wonderfully modulated build, and all three gags succeed on Carell's performance as he subtly clings to his dignity for as long as possible.

A fan site script review is worrying, but the teaser is so encouraging, with its attention to detail in the phone booth, the fitting choice of gags, and the loving use of the theme song, that it's hard not to get excited.

Get Smart was one of my favorite shows growing up, and in its too-brief run on Nick at Nite, it influenced me a great deal. A huge portion of the videos I made as a kid were pretty much direct rip-offs of Get Smart; particularly a series redundantly titled "Secret Spies," in which I portrayed Agent 53 and my sister Agent 28. I would say more but I don't think it's necessary.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Monday, July 09, 2007

Taiko DS



I want this. Just look at how delightful it is.

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Wednesday, July 04, 2007

What's Wrong With America

That's an appropriate title for an Independence Day post, right?



Warning: Again, little bit of cussin'.

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Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Live Free Or Die Hard: The Long Post

The latest Die Hard makes for a solid enough action movie, with some preposterously wonderful action sequences and likable performances from Bruce Willis and Justin Long. It's good and very enjoyable, but there are plenty of areas I could quibble with that could be better or more Die-Hard-y.

Spoilers may follow.

I saw one fan review with the complaint that the movie doesn't get started fast enough, what with the opening credits sequence and all--I don't completely agree. I think the story gets started very quickly--in fact, McClane's introduction feels rushed, but more on that later--the problem is that there are opening credits at all. This movie would have been just fine had the opening played exactly the same, except with the Die Hard title smashing onto the screen minus all the names.

Speaking of the credits, we didn't need the goofy letters changing and disappearing conceit, which plays into the hacker movie cliche that is the movie's biggest weak spot. When they first announced that Die Hard 4 would be about hackers breaking the country's infrastructure, the immediate thought was, Great, a bunch of scenes of people typing fast intercut with complex animated windows and scrolling green code on black background, with the occasional message box spelling everything out. And Live Free or Die Hard absolutely is that, only with a decent action movie somehow stuck in between. Basically Justin Long gets all the big typing scenes, and McClane's job is to fight their way to places where Justin Long can type, then keep fighting while he's typing. Pretty good strategy as far as hacker movies go--at least we're not counting on the typing scenes to generate excitement. But still, those computer screens and their phony interfaces do kind of take you out of it, constantly reminding you that this is a world that could only exist in movies.

And then there are the settings, like the United States Cyber-Security office, which has walled lined with flat-screen monitors and steel railings and cement and glass walls, just like every other high powered government agency in movies. If there even is such a department, you know in reality it's a bunch of cubicles in a very boring building somewhere.

The action itself takes place in a series of industrial areas or top secret facilities, which means a lot more cement walls and nondescript piping and metal walkways, which I think hurts it a little. One of the great pleasures of Die Hard with a Vengeance (whose sprawling scope makes it the most comparable entry in the franchise) was the New York atmosphere, which, to a non-New-Yorker like me at least, felt relatively authentic. The random industrial/top-secret passageways, with their blue and green tint, are as action-movie generic as the computer screens. Location is important in the Die Hard films, and this one fails to generate a strong sense of place.

Back to McClane's intro: I would have liked to glimpse a bit more of his life before the mission begins, or at least why he's come to visit his daughter when she's out on a date, or how he found her, or something. His entrance here is weird and it's not clear why he's there at all. Also, "Rutgers" is clearly USC, and you could feel the LA audience scoffing when she goes to her dorm in the library building.

Kevin Smith has a cameo as a hacker, and he is not as painful as I would have thought. Some reviews have complained that without his cursing as a crutch, he is nothing special. That is true, but watching him use that crutch has lost all its allure for me, so I'm fine with watching him rant clean. He actually does just fine with what's demanded of him. Considering how bad his acting used to be, it appears he's at least grown more as an actor than he has as a writer or a director, and I would not be upset if he decided to just be a mediocre character actor rather than an overrated auteur. Smith's character, however, lives in a hacker palace with a split-level floor and high ceilings, filled with screens and vintage arcade games. McClane laughs off this "command center" as a mere basement, but it really is more like a command center. Per hacky hacker stereotype, he still lives with his mother, but who can blame him, since her basement is the size of an underground parking garage?

Die Hard with a Vengeance eventually escalated to a point where McClane was surviving all manner of impossible falls and punishment. This movie gets to that impossible level a lot sooner and does a lot more of it, leading to the impression that this everyman character has become something of a superman. Personally, I don't mind that as much as I mind the movie-ness of all the rest of it.

McClane's daughter is unexpectedly great, to the point where you wish she had a bit more to do. Plus she actually looks like Bonnie Bedelia, which makes the character resonate that much more. Maggie Q is awesome, and is hot whether she's beating up McClane or getting punched in the face. Timothy Olyphant gives a strong performance but his character is unfortunately too generic to make much of an impression. His relationship with Maggie Q, and his reaction to her fate is understated and powerful. Not the part where he throws stuff off his desk, but just the look in his eyes. I wish they'd done more with that.

Also! One of the parkour guys from the amazing District B13 pops up. At first his acrobatics feel bizarrely out of place. Once I realized who it was, it made sense, but his big scene at the end is over all too quickly.

McClane's big catchphrase moment finale is actually fairly small, but also awesomely cool. It does bug me, though, the way he delivers the Yippee-Ki-Yay. This Slate piece does a great job of analyzing what made the first Die Hard's Yippee-Ki-Yay moment so inspiring:


When terrorist-slash-exceptional thief Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) taunts hero John McClane (Bruce Willis), "Who are you? Just another American who saw too many movies as a child?" and asks this "Mr. Cowboy" if he really thinks he stands a chance, McClane's answer—"Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker"—marks the moment that McClane, an everyman, assumes the mantle of America's archetypal heroes: Roy Rogers, John Wayne, Gunsmoke's Marshall Dillon, and others who have been so vital to American boyhood. Unlike the many action-movie one-liners that are rooted in the hero's narcissism, McClane's stems from our collective wish-fulfillment. He is not referring to himself, not suggesting an "I" or a "me" but an us. And considering the European Gruber's appreciation of fashion, finance, and the classics, McClane's comeback acquires an additional subtext: Our pop culture can beat up your high culture.

In John McClane's stance, there lies a bravado that bridges two American traditions. "Yippee-ki-yay" summons America's mythic, gunfighter past, while "motherfucker" belongs to the modern action movie. Seen in this light, the line also recalls the macho cinema of the 1970s, when Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, and Don Siegel helped create the action genre while continuing to trade in Westerns.

...That Willis does not employ the same deftness in the sequels is a pity. The phrase is most effective not as a buildup to some hammer punch, but as one seamless unit of defiance.


In Live Free or Die Hard, the line is used not only as a "buildup to some hammer punch," but as a self-referential quote. McClane delivers it with a self-awareness that "Yes, this is my defining catchphrase." Only in real life, no one has one of those. By this point McClane is treating himself like the iconic character that he is, but he shouldn't be so aware of it. Like the production design, it's another touch that makes the world of LF/DH (there, Zack, I used it) a little too movie-world.

Vegas Vacation is another fourth sequel, one that followed long after everyone thought the series was over. And besides not being written by John Hughes and not being funny, one of its missteps was to spend the third act telling us what made the Griswolds a great family. It got self-conscious, as though the new shepards of the franchise had tried really hard to analyze what made the previous movies tick, and were so thrilled with what they discovered that they just had to share it with us. Except that the old movies never bothered to tell us why they were good, they were just good in that way, and that was enough.

Similarly, LF/DH labors too much to tell us about what makes McClane who he is. Why he's a hero, the sacrifices he's made, what it's cost him. He's the guy who acts when there's nobody else there to do it. Well, duh. We know that. That's why we're here. Enough with the self-aware analysis of the Die Hard mythos. That's the job of critics and bloggers. Your job is to enact it, not to spell it out so that we know you know.

Also! The plot, particularly the bad guys' plan, is dumb and/or unbelievable in ways that Steve sums up well, but I guess my expectations were low in that department.

So that's Live Free or Die Hard. The title is perfect, the action is cool, Bruce Willis is badass and so is Maggie Q, Justin Long is funny and the daughter is well-cast. This was the sequel I was most excited about this summer (though guardedly so) and overall it did not disappoint. I had feared worse. It could have been better, but it's not bad and overall more enjoyable than Die Hard 2.

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Thursday, June 28, 2007

Calling in Sick

Now, I'm not saying this sketch is all that great, but I would characterize my performance as a tour de force. For those of you who don't speak Spanish, I believe that translates to "tour of force."



Warning: Contains some coarse language. May not be suitable for parents.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Monday, June 18, 2007

Shout Out & Constructive Criticism

The most recent round of Squelch alumni, including Simon, Aaron and John, are kicking off Daily Squelch, a noble foray into the wilds of daily updated web content. The concept as it stands is not unlike Dan Freedman's Modern Snail experiment of a couple years back. That site aspired to be a Drudge Report of comedy: crass and irreverent comedic headlines linking to the day's actual news stories.

Daily Squelch appears to follow a similar mold, but with a more manageable number of headlines, generally smarter jokes, and one actual full-length fake news article per day. So far the three man (?) team appears to be living up to their rigorous posting schedule.

I applaud any effort to build the Squelch brand and they have my best wishes, although (as I've told Simon) I do hope they branch out soon from the newsflash format into something more distinctive and original. I know that's easier said than done, but still: Maybe something in the popular "short dialogues in different situations" Squelch genre? At the very least, they need to abandon Courier as their body font as soon as possible, because it's kind of hard to read the words under all the ugly. Even Drudge doesn't expect you to read whole pieces written in it.

Well, sometimes he does, but usually they're just a paragraph followed by the word "developing." That doesn't count.

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Last Comic Standing

Last Comic Standing is a show I've always been curious about, but never actually watched. I think I saw an episode from late in the first season, then managed to catch the finale last season.

Now, finally, I'm catching the kickoff. The new season premiere apparently aired some time in the last few days, and for the first time since I got TiVo it didn't get beaten out by higher priority programs. I started it up and discovered to my horror that the season premiere is two hours! I hate two hour episodes of reality shows.

The first part of the show is the obligatory American Idol auditions segment, where we get to enjoy the freakshow, with a few worthwhile comics mixed in. I don't think it works as well here though. I'm no singer, but singing a capella to three people sitting at a table judging you seems to make more sense than performing comedy to three people sitting at a table judging you. I don't even know how you could feel like you were performing with a crowd that small. I don't know how anybody could feel funny in that environment, and it certainly seems like it would be hard to judge. With only three people, everything feels like bombing.

I guess you know when someone is bombing because that's when the editors splice in cricket noises. Don't worry, they do it repeatedly.

In any case, this segment of the show is basically like a heavily truncated open-mike night. In some ways, it's a relief to have judges there to shoo the disasters off the stage, but on the other hand, the protracted suffering is an essential part of the experience of watching bad stand-up. You can't really appreciate how bad a comic is unless you're stuck watching with no way out. But whatever, they've got a line of people around the block, so they've got to move it along.

At some point, a middle aged woman from Connecticut with an uncanny resemblance to Nancy Pelosi comes up, and tells the old joke about how same sex marriage is no big deal, because when you're married it's always the same sex. Ugh. It was hacky when Robin Williams used it in Man of the Year, and it's no funnier here. At least the Nancy Pelosi lookalike, unlike Williams' character, isn't trying to pass it off as trenchant straight-shooting campaign trail wisdom, but the fact that the judges are shown laughing uproariously at this and sending her on to the next round is even worse.

At the very end of the audition segment, Arj Barker shows up. He's not the only polished, experienced working comic to be dropped in among the freak parade, but he's the first one I recognize. It feels weird and unfair to watch a comic whose work I respect and enjoy be judged by three past contestants whom I've never heard of and whose taste I'm not sure I trust. The arbitrariness of it really strikes you.

They move on to the next segment, where the selected comics perform for an audience. We glimpse some people we haven't before, and we get a clips just long enough to see each person do about one joke. Arj Barker does his bit about how down vests are useless because you never wake up and find that your torso is freezing but your arms are really hot. Nancy Pelosi does a bit about how white kids in Connecticut listen to rap music. It's implied that this is incongruous, because only black people from the ghetto should ever listen to rap music! She complains about the kids taking her Aretha Franklin and Billy Joel tapes out of the kitchen stereo and replacing them with rap. She demonstrates by sort of performing what seems intended to be a snippet of rap, complete with jerky hip hop gestures. Then, in her own voice she cries: "I'm making a salad!" driving the point home about the inappropriateness of rap to salad-making settings in New England. For this she wins the audience favorite award and the Capitol One No Hassles pass to the next round, and I sit up and say aloud, "What the fuck?"

No one in the second hour (during which the auditions move to other cities) outrages me nearly as much, and there are some good comics in the mix. My main source of outrage is just that watching the show has now taken up a second hour.

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Hot Rod

I'm not particularly a fan of Andy Samberg, but I don't hate him either, and I'm willing to keep an open mind about his first movie with the Lonely Island gang.

I have a weird admiration for the Hot Rod trailer. This is not an ambitious movie, but it is a movie that is exactly what it sets out to be.

Unabashedly simple, it seems to have been built around the basic idea of staging as many failed stunts as possible. There's not a lot to these gags -- just a ramp, an overconfident idiot, and a slapstick disaster that transpires pretty much exactly as you expect it to. Indeed, in the big ramp gag that has carried over from the teaser into the latest trailer, the characters loudly acknowledge that the ramp has not been reinforced, and Samberg proceeds with the stunt anyway. But there's something about the straightforwardness of the staging -- the glee with which they toss a dummy around, and the dogged obviousness of every failed stunt -- that makes the moments funny precisely because they are so ridiculously predictable. Here is an deluded fool who is doomed to fail, and here he is failing. There's something pure about that.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

War

War stars Jet Li and Jason Statham, and as such, looks fucking awesome. How is this the first I've heard of a movie that looks this fucking awesome?

Also, the trailer for The Ten has some funny moments. It's hard to tell how the movie holds together, but with a movie like this, my guess is that it's not intended to.

Rise: Blood Hunter doesn't look good, but it does take balls to advertise the fact that a movie is from the writer of Gothika, which is not something you'd expect anyone to boast about. In any case, it makes you wonder what Michael Chiklis is doing in it and wish that somebody would make a tough-chick movie for Lucy Liu that is worth watching.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Dirty Car

My car is dirty, and there's nothing I can do. I park on the street, and we live in a neighborhood where the streets are lined with what are apparently very pretty glue trees. Every night the trees tar and feather my car with sap and flower blossoms, and the next day the car is filthy again. Two days after a wash, it looks like I haven't cleaned it in months. I can barely walk down the sidewalk without the bottom of my shoes being coated with these petals that just won't scrape off.

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Paprika

Stephanie was out of town this past weekend, so I went to see Paprika at the new Landmark Theater on Pico, the biggest, newest art house theater in LA.

It's pointless to explain the plot. It's a lot of stuff about reality and dreams intersecting. If the trailer looks cool to you, go for it. If you feel the need to know a story, this is not the movie for you.

Sometimes it's nice to see a movie at a theater alone, especially a movie you don't know much about or you'd have trouble bringing somebody to see. When you're alone, you can fully absorb the movie and let it fully absorb you. It's just you and the film, alone in the darkness. And afterwards you can just let it percolate, without the awkward silence where I always feel obligated to say something about how the movie was, when really I'm still processing it, replaying scene in my head and sorting out my thoughts.

Paprika was enjoyable. It's by Satoshi Kon, whose Perfect Blue and Tokyo Godfathers I liked a lot. The atmospherics are really effective, ranging from urban landscapes to sumptuous and disturbing dreamworlds. The movie excels at depicting dream logic as it really is, with locations that change without warning and characters that switch places or change form from one shot to another. All the toying with the dream world versus the real world is not quite as thought-provoking as I would have found it in high school or college, but it's still a great ride if you're willing to throw comprehension to the wind and embrace the dreamy illogic.

Like many anime features, it suffers from a bit of what-the-fuck overload near the end (though in a movie like this it at least fits), as well as some character twists that maybe could have been set up better. Does it all culminate in scenes of out-of-control Akira-style growths, giant-scale monsters and chaotic, near-apocalyptic destruction? Yeah, but it's still more consistently pleasurable and satisfying than many other anime features that share the same conventions.

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Monday, May 28, 2007

Spider-Man 3

Finally saw Spider-Man 3 this weekend. I could relate its flaws but they would be news to no one, and John August has done a fine job cataloging the various plot contrivances here. Some of August's solutions would require breaking from the comic book source material, but the real, sensible solution would have been to not have two movies' worth of story shoehorned into one movie.

That said, I enjoyed the movie just fine, although going in with lowered expectations and a purposely heightened willingness to suspend disbelief no doubt helped.

POSSIBLE SPOILERS FOLLOW:

I even enjoyed the "evil" Peter Parker montage, although I do think they overplayed their hand a bit and dragged it on about three times longer than it needed to be. It's pretty much the same scene as the "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" montage from Spider-Man 2, when Peter gives up being Spider-Man and sees his life improve... sort of. Just as that montage undercut Peter's improved life with reminders that he was still a klutz and a loser, this one undercuts his overconfidence with endless shots of women reacting to him with disgust. Which, given his hairstyle, makes sense, but still, I felt like it would be nice for his character transformation to actually work a little bit. Even his cruel ploy to bring Gwen Stacy to the jazz club blows up in his face, and ends up feeling more foolish and ill-conceived than mean.

One of the worst parts was when the butler told Harry the thing that Peter should have told him a long time ago. To give Peter credit, at least in this one he tries to say that Osborne killed himself. I was waiting the whole second movie for someone to bring up that simple fact. But I was so relieved that someone finally got through Harry's illogical Spider-Man blame that I was almost willing to forgive the fact that it came at an overly convenient moment from a character who had no way of knowing the information nor any reason for withholding it as long as he did.

But the very worst part of Spider-Man 3 is by far the Uncle Ben retcon. My favorite sequence in the first movie is when Peter lets the thief go, then discovers that the same thief has killed Uncle Ben. It's a good use of coincidence, one with grand, tragic consequences, and the action scene that follows, with Peter swinging after Uncle Ben's car in a rage, is both viscerally thrilling and wonderfully emotional. The Flint Marko addition to the story spoils all that. Peter is still sort of responsible for Ben's death, since he dragged him into town to pick him up from the wrestling match, but less directly responsible. Flint Marko might have killed Uncle Ben whether his partner escaped or not. Or maybe not. Now it's all muddled. Not to mention, the logic of a two-man robbery where one guy is solely responsible for the getaway yet doesn't procure a car ahead of time is dubious at best.

The end of the movie is also very soft. Not just the deus ex machina solutions to defeating the villains, although those were bad too. How do you resolve your plot when you've set up powerful, unbeatable villains? This movie offers two ways out--one, invent a weakness out of thin air with only the most tenuous of setups, regardless of whether that weakness makes any sense; or two, forgive the villain so you don't actually have to beat him. But sorry, I was going to talk about the real ending, the Mary Jane ending. The previous two entries in the series ended on very clear notes: Peter rejecting Mary Jane in favor of his responsibility, and Mary Jane getting together with Peter, only to realize the struggles that lay ahead. Considering that Peter spent the whole movie planning to propose, it would have been nice to end on a more definite resolution of any kind. At least something more than just, Hey, I'm back.

Hey look, I ended up listing a bunch of flaws anyway. But I don't mean to be griping about the movie. My purpose in mentioning these things is simply to support my point, which is that I enjoyed the movie okay in spite of all this. So if you are in as forgiving a mood as, say, Spider-Man is when Flint Marko apologizes to him, you may just be forgiving enough to have a good time at Spider-Man 3.

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

Font

As someone who likes fonts but doesn't know that much about them, I found this Slate piece on Helvetica absolutely fascinating. I know, sounds boring, but it's not. I notice fonts a lot, but Helvetica is so ubiquitous that I never really identify it when I see it everywhere. I love the story behind it, and the confirmation that Arial is literally a cut-rate alternative.

I also like that there's an anti-Comic-Sans movement out there. Shame about the merchandise, though. I understand the necessity of including the Comic Sans font on their shirts but that also makes designing an attractive shirt impossible. For me, the most aggravating thing about Comic Sans is that it doesn't actually look like comic lettering at all. It's an insult to comic lettering, is what it is; comic lettering as imagined by someone who hates comics and has never read one. The photo gallery is also amusing in light of the site's manifesto--the implicit criticism of every sign pictured is somehow hilarious.

Also, this site takes to task anachronistic typesetting in movies, something else I've occasionally noticed but never to this extent, with this amazing depth of expertise.

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Monday, May 21, 2007

"Snorg" Is "Groans" Backwards, Almost

Hey, are you the kind of asshole who repeats catchphrases from movies and shows funnier than you are as if you are clever even though you didn't think of those jokes yourself? Well, now you can wear T-shirts that do the same thing. Just think, if you were just a little bit more of an asshole, you could have been the guy who thought up a whole website that sells T-shirts with references to funny lines and ideas from other people's movies and shows that you technically don't even have the rights to. Brilliant!

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

Transformers



The new Transformers trailer is up*, and it's exciting enough that nerds all over the internet seem to be ready to forgive Michael Bay.

One of my biggest initial disappointments with the Transformers movie was hearing that Bumblebee would not be played by a Volkswagen Bug. Isn't that the whole point of his name? Someone told me that part of the reason was that they wanted to avoid reminding people of Herbie.

It's easier to see why after watching the opening scenes of the new trailer, which could easily be straight out of a Herbie movie. Shia LaBeouf picks out a used car while a salesman tells him, "A driver doesn't pick a car, a car picks the driver...there's a mystical bond between man and machine," and in the next scene, the car drives off on its own. If he were sitting in a Volkwagen, the comparison would be unavoidable. As a little tease/homage, a yellow Bug is parked next to Bumblebee in the used car lot.

Now that I see it, Bumblebee as a vintage Camaro is actually pretty cool. So cool, in fact, that his later form as a new Camaro feels unnecessary, a crass cash in. As do all the GM-branded Autobots. A new Camaro is not as cool as a vintage Camaro, unless you're GM and want everyone to know how cool the new one is. I've always thought that cars gained a certain coolness from being featured distinctively and prominently in a movie, but once you start advertising that connection with explicitly commercial tie-ins, you ruin what makes it special. If you're an auto company, even if you are lending your vehicles as a commercial tie-in, you'd be better off not making it so obvious. Don't run commercials about the GM Autobots. That would have made your cars feel cool, but now it just makes the Autobots feel like sellouts. Did they all really have to be GM cars? Did Optimus Prime sign an endorsement deal? At a certain point it takes you out of the movie.

James Bond driving BMWs meant nothing, because we knew that he was only driving them because BMW had paid. The Cadillacs in Matrix Reloaded could have gained a certain cachet from being in a cool car chase (if the movie had been good), but it was really obvious that they were only there as a brand tie-in. It's not like the heroes drove an awesome car that happened to be a Cadillac, it was just some car they grabbed in a garage. And the fact that the heroes and the villains drove Cadillacs made the brand tie in even more obvious and meaningless. Why get greedy? It's not the number of cars featured, it's the quality of the appearance. If it feels too much like a car commercial, you've blown it.

How on earth are they going to justify Bumblebee being updated from a vintage Camaro to a new Camaro that's not even on the market yet? He's going to get wrecked, and rebuilt, and they seek out blueprints from the GM factory? I don't know, it seems a little forced. In the trailer, it appears that he has his new form by the time Shia meets Optimus, which you'd think would be early in the movie.

Aside from the choice of vehicles and my theories on automobile/movie tie-ins, this trailer is a lot better than the ones we've seen before. The Shia/Bumblebee scenes finally allow us to connect a little bit with at least two of the characters, which helps create the impression that there is some scrap of story and context for all the mayhem that follows.

*Incidentally, how awful is Yahoo's new non-Quicktime trailer page? If you don't take the time to get the HD version, you get this fuzzy streaming clip seemingly designed for people who hate sharpness and detail. You can barely see the human faces, let alone the robots. What's the point of this terrible proprietary player? It's still not embeddable or anything.

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