Friday, March 21, 2014

Happy Mark Sanchez Day!


And from this day forward, March 21st will be known as Mark Sanchez Day. And there will be much rejoicing and good cheer. And possibly presents.
And we will use this day to remember the Five Commandments of drafting quarterbacks:
1. Thou shalt remember that the Pac-12 in general and USC in particular has always made quarterbacks look much better than they really are, and thou shalt no longer be seduced into the belief that players like Todd Marinovich, Matt Leinart and of course, Mark Sanchez have any place in the NFL, no matter how highly they are touted in college.
2. Having failed to follow Commandment One, thou shalt not compound thy mistake by offering that terrible quarterback a ridiculously bloated and long term contract, tying your team’s fortunes to failure for much longer than necessary.
3. No matter how good thy quarterback looks eating a hot dog, wearing a woman’s hairstyle, or posing for GQ, thou shalt not be fooled into thinking he has a “winning attitude,” and better days are just around the corner.
4. Thou shalt not abide a head coach who falls so head over heels in love with said quarterback that he tattoos said quarterback’s image onto his wife. Such a head coach will be discharged immediately.
5. Thou shalt always remember these commandments and this day, and keep it Holy.
Happy Mark Sanchez Day everybody!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Arrivederci, Sochi



Here it is, my somewhat delayed, doubtless long awaited, biannual Olympics report! Here you’ll find my analysis of some of the best stories of the Sochi games! So, without further ado….

1. The Venue



Sochi was the story before the games had even begun. We westerners have always had the same view of Russia since the Stalin-era, that of a cold, dreary, bleak place, with men in fur hats and women in babushkas lined up around the block in the snow hoping to get their daily ration of bread, toilet paper or vodka. I’ve been to Russia, and it’s changed a lot since those days, but you wouldn’t know it from the first reports out of Sochi. Tales of warnings against drinking tainted water, malfunctioning or missing toilets, beds, or other amenities in local hotels, and so forth blanketed the social mediaverse.

Once the games started though, it seems that things were not so bad. Even a slight malfunction in the opening ceremonies was quickly forgotten and even played for laughs at the closing. Few complaints were heard once the games began in earnest, and most importantly, the games went off without a hitch. No attack by Chechnyan rebels, no bomb threats, no disappearing athletes—not even that many doping or cheating scandals. And it’s not like there wasn’t plenty of unrest that could have led to political uprising (Crimea, anyone?), so, whatever you think of Vlad Putin, you have to give him SOME credit—he pulled it off.


2. The Ukrainian Women’s Biathlon Team



Speaking of the Crimea situation, props have to go out to the Ukrainian Women’s biathlon team. Amidst massive unrest in their country, with the threat of the former motherland’s aggression looming over them, these four women, Olena Pidhrushna, Vali Semerenko, Vita Semernko, and Juliya Dzhyma bore down and collected the second Winter Olympics gold medal in Ukrainian history. Instead of turning their guns against Russian oppressors, they turned them on dime-sized targets and won gold in the 4x6K biathlon relay, striking a blow for national pride in the heart of the country that seems to be threatening it the most.

3. Speed Skating-Dutch Treat, American Horror Story


The Dutch have been known for speed skating for some time, but their dominance truly reached fruition in these games. The Dutch men won everything but the 1500m, where they came in second, but where their women picked up the slack, sweeping their version of the race.  One of their women even picked up an extra medal in short track for good measure. Speed skating ended up comprising the entire Dutch medal haul from Sochi, which was just fine, since they collected eight gold, seven silver, and nine bronze, putting them near the top of the medal leader board. In contrast, the fairly well-funded and highly touted men’s team, led by Shani Davis, collected….none. (One if you count their lone silver in short track). Some are blaming the USA uniforms, which were specially designed for Sochi with a vent in the back that was supposed to improve the aerodynamics, but probably should have been tested more extensively before being put into use in the most important competition in four years. Regardless, the Dutch have come a long way since Vancouver, when an embarrassing error by a Dutch coach caused their star Sven Kramer to lose his premier event (chronicled in my Vancouver recap). This year’s Dutch embarrassment was provided by Coach Jillert Anema, whose anti-American rant seemed to overlook the fact that outside of speed skating, the U.S. performance put the Dutch to shame.


4. Satisfied Countries


Although things didn’t go as expected for everybody, especially the U.S, which saw Shaun White fail to live up to his hype, the men’s hockey team flame out, and the aforementioned speed skating team crumble, there was something for almost everybody to be proud of. The Russians didn’t dominate cross country as they had hoped, but they did live up to expectations as the host country and take home the biggest medal haul. The Dutch, as mentioned, crushed speed skating, their national sport, and Canada maintained their national pride too, winning Hockey and Curling in both the men’s and women’s divisions. And, never fear, the U.S. took home plenty of medals as well, in freestyle skiing and snowboarding, alpine skiing and more. And by the way, did anyone miss Lindsey Vonn?


All in all a successful Olympics I think, and plenty to look forward to in Rio in two years.


Monday, January 06, 2014

What Is Humor?


I was watching a recent episode of the Big Bang Theory where Sheldon attempts to create a unified theory of humor. The joke in this idea comes from the fact that Sheldon has little to no concept of humor or sarcasm. Inherent also, however, is the implication that humor is just “what’s funny,” and can’t be quantified. However this is completely untrue.

Humor of all kinds can be boiled down into one simple concept: Subversion of Expectations. That is the essence of humor. A joke or a funny situation sets up a given expectation with its premise, and subverts that expectation with its punch line. For example, take the following joke: (Note: To see the joke answers, please highlight the area next to the A:)

Q: What’s worse than two hangnails on the same hand?

A: The Holocaust.

We’re given an expectation that the answer will be of a similar degree to the question. We would expect an answer like: a hangnail on each hand, or three hangnails on one hand.  But the true answer is completely out of proportion to the question. Thus we are surprised, and we laugh.

Maybe.

This particular joke is complicated by the fact that it is completely bereft of cultural sensitivity. Thus, if you are connected to the culture of the answer, you may find it offensive, rather than funny. Or you may find it funny, but feel guilty. However, this guilt and discomfort is also a part of humor. The famous line “Comedy equals Tragedy plus time” has its basis in truth. We laugh to protect ourselves from our existential terror, the so called “Morbid humor,” but when a tragic event is far enough away that we can assuage ourselves by parodying it varies depending upon the event and the audience. And, as a friend of mine once said: “Every joke is at someone’s expense.” 

Note that humor comes from subversion of expectations, not destruction of expectations. For example.

Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?

A: To use a washing machine.

To be sure, this is not the answer we expected, but it’s also not one we could have arrived at by any permutation of logic, so it’s not funny. The true answer to this joke, “To get to the other side,” is also not funny, but only because every child has heard the punch line, so this answer meets expectations. If you had never heard the joke before, you would expect a more deterministic reason for the chicken to cross the road, so the simple answer “to get to the other side,” would be surprising and funny. It’s a diminishing of expectations, the opposite of the humorous technique in the first joke. The point however, is that it’s an answer that can make sense in the right context, even if it’s one we didn’t expect.

Jokes can also use subversion of expectations to build an increasingly complex network of humor, setting up new expectations with the first subversion, and then subverting the new expectations, as in the famous “Monkey Routine.”

Q: Why did the monkey fall out of the tree?

A: Because it was dead.

Subversion of expectations. The answer makes sense, but it is the most out of proportion of all the possible answers.

Q: Why did the second monkey fall out of the tree?

A: Monkey see, Monkey do.

Our expectations are subverted once more. We expect an extreme answer and get a simple one.

Q: Why did the third monkey fall out of the tree?

A: Peer Pressure.

By this point, our expectations are so tangled we don’t know what to expect, and so an answer that is neither simple, nor extreme, but still meets the parameters of the joke, that it is unexpected and can still be arrived at logically (even though it almost certainly never would) is perhaps the funniest of all.

This joke also observes the Rule of Three, which states, for reasons too complicated to go into here, that no more or less than three permutations of the same joke provide maximum humor. You will find that sitcoms that employ runners, or a joke that repeats, will generally do it no more than three times: the first to establish the joke, the second to establish that it is a running gag, and the third to finish off the joke before it becomes expected. The idea of a runner, or a stand up comedian’s “callback,” both follow the idea of subverted expectations. We expect that the joke is over, so when it returns later and somewhat out of context, we are surprised and amused.



What about something like slapstick? When we see our clown walking carelessly towards the banana peel, we know exactly what is going to happen. He’s going to slip and fall. It’s exactly what we expect, and yet we laugh. Why? In this case, it is our visual expectation that is subverted. That is, every day, we see people walking down the street. It’s very mundane and boring. When someone suddenly stops that activity, goes flying, and takes a tumble, it subverts our visual expectation, if not our cognitive one. As Krusty the Clown once remarked regarding the “pie in the face” gag, “It only works if the schmuck has some dignity to begin with!” We know the pie is going into a face, what’s funny is the subversion of our typical visual experience that a dignified person won’t appear with a face full of pie.

I believe if you analyze any kind of humor, be it slapstick, political satire, joke, situation comedy or standup routine, you will find that at its heart lies the subversion of expectations. If your joke isn’t getting a laugh, you probably haven’t set up the expectation well enough or subverted it effectively. Take my Blog….


….PLEASE!

Friday, November 08, 2013

In Which the Sandman Returns; and Matters of Interest to Lunatics Are Discussed.


As I’m sure is true for almost any comic book fan of any longevity, I responded to news of a new Sandman series, with unfettered delight. No “Before Watchmen” this, no ghoulish exhumation of a completed story best left to rest (although that turned out better than anyone could have hoped for, I think). Nor did we need to expect comparisons to an aging rocker, hoarsely belting out classic hits to middle aged moms and dads reliving their youths. For this Sandman series would be penned by its original creator, Neil Gaiman, who by all appearances is at the height of his powers, having continued to produce quality work consistently since the tale of Dream of the Endless first ensured Gaiman's place among the Pantheon of Comic Book Gods such as Moore and Miller twenty-five years ago. We have every reason to expect that this new Sandman series will be everything we could have hoped for.

Having just read issue number one of The Sandman: Overture, I feel confident in saying no one will be disappointed. The story picks up just where the original series left off… and just where it began, in true Endless fashion. All our favorites seem to be in play, including Death, the Corinthian, and of course, Morpheus himself.

No spoilers here, I’ll only say the story opens with a reminder that there are truly infinite worlds and infinite stories to tell, and the first chapter closes by reinforcing that fact in what may be described as a fairly staggering way. Although I didn't do this myself, too eager to get to the new story, I suspect an evening or two dedicated to re-reading the original series in its entirety before digging into this fresh tale will be quite rewarding. In any event, if you are a fan of comic books, Gaiman, or literature, there’s no question this series is not to be missed.

While picking up Sandman, I also stumbled upon the latest offering by Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn, entitled simply, as is the Luna wont, “Alex + Ada.”  Luna, of Luna Brothers fame, has been co-creator of such unforgettable works as Girls and The Sword, and his artistic style has a kind of haunting realism that is perfect for the type of stories he chooses to tell. “Alex + Ada” is no exception in this regard. The premise is hardly original; it’s probably one of the most classic science fiction tales: In a world where technology has advanced to the level where Artificial Intelligence and robotics are the order of the day, a lonely soul is presented with a robot clearly designed for companionship purposes and all that implies.

Although the scenario is familiar, there is something about Luna and Vaughn’s approach to the story that makes it feel entirely new. There’s that artwork of course, and hauntingly lifelike is naturally perfect for a story about android love. There’s the fact that Alex, although pining away for his lost girlfriend Claire and seemingly despondent, is an unwilling participant in the experiment, his robot having been a gift from a wealthy and well-meaning grandmother. There’s also a foreboding sense of doom foreshadowed by a news report of Artificial Intelligence run amok with disastrous consequences a year before. Little is revealed in the first issue, but it’s more than enough to have you wanting to learn more about Alex, his strong connections to the technology that no longer seems that far beyond our own, and what his relationship with his new potential robot paramour will be.


In my estimation, if you’re looking to get into comics, back into comics, or just add two new quality books to your lineup, these two are a great place to start.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Top Ten Rejected Choose Your Own Adventure Titles



Choose Your Own Adventure books were a popular series of books in the 80s and 90s as one of the first mass media examples of interactive role-playing games, long before RPG games like Skyrim and World of Warcraft were even an inkling of a possibility. The simple concept placed you in the role of an adventurer in different scenarios, and your choices would dictate the story, by telling you to turn to a certain page to continue the adventure depending upon the choices you wanted to make. Gamebooks like these were great at stoking a child's imagination at the time, and there is even talk of a CYOA movie in the works today.

What's little known, however, is that there were several ideas that were considered for Choose Your Own Adventure, and then dismissed for various reasons. Here then, are the Top Ten Rejected Choose Your Own Adventure Titles:

10. Journey Under Grandma's Quilt

9. Trapped on the Couch!

8. The Island of Elvis Impersonators

7. Audit!

6. Bathroom City

5. You Are a Cannibal

4. Adventures in Slave Trading

3. The Mystery of the Irregularly Shaped Mole

2. You Are a War Criminal

And the Number One Rejected Choose Your Own Aventure Tile is........

1. Your Code Name Is Hitler

Thank you! Good Night!


Thursday, August 08, 2013

How "How I Met Your Mother" and "Coupling" are the Same Show

Some years ago, the BBC decided to create their own show to compete with "Friends." Their answer was a show called "Coupling," a funny and clever show about a group of twenty somethings and their awkward sex lives as they try to figure out who they are going to become. It became a big success in the UK, so much so that NBC decided to create their own version, as they had done with "The Office." The attempt was a dismal failure, and that was the end of the experiment.

Or was it?

Not long after, Carter Bays and Craig Thomas emerged with a brand NEW show called "How I Met Your Mother," about a group of 20 somethings and their awkward romances as they try to figure out who they are going to become. Despite the fact that creators of both shows claimed the idea was based on their own lives and relationships, and that both shows experimented with traditional sitcom structure, both shows have only been thought of as "Friends" knockoffs, and no comparison has ever been drawn between "Coupling" and "How I Met Your Mother."

Until now. Follow this little photoessay and judge for yourself.



 That's just the beginning...


And this:



And my personal favorite:


Am I on to something here or not? To the best of my knowledge, the creators of "How I Met Your Mother" have never acknowledged a debt to "Coupling" for inspiring their show, or even an awareness of the prior show's existence. Neither has anyone else. Not to take away from the creative efforts of everyone who has worked on HIMYM, which has turned out completely original scripts as far as I know. But it seems to me some sort of acknowledgement of its clear predecessor is due, no?

Saturday, February 16, 2013

5 Cover Songs That Are Better Than the Originals

I am normally not a big fan of cover songs. I particularly hate when people try to cover Beatles songs. So does Aimee Mann, God bless her. But every once in awhile, lightning strikes, and a cover successfully redefines a song and makes it better than its original. Here are five that I think did just that. Or maybe it's just that they're more up tempo than the originals. Well, you be the judge. Originals first.

Hazy Shade of Winter - Simon & Garfunkel vs. The Bangles





I Will Always Love You - Dolly Parton vs. Whitney Houston





My Way - Frank Sinatra vs. Sid Vicious




Twist and Shout - The Isley Bros. vs. The Beatles




Hurt - Nine Inch Nails vs. Johnny Cash