Spontanean Nation! Nation!

I listen to several different comedy podcasts. Most, but not all, normally use a studio-based format, while others use a live-audience format, recorded at some sort of comedy club.

Sometimes, a studio-based podcast will do a special episode in a live-audience format. They usually present this as if it were a special treat, but I often don’t like the live episodes as much as I do the studio episodes, because the live episode usually has a different and unfamiliar rhythm. (And yet, I have no problem with the podcasts that use a live audience as their regular, week-in week-out format.)

The comedian Paul F. Tompkins is involved with several different podcasts of his own and is also a frequent guest on other podcasts. Tompkins created and plays H.G. Wells on the hilarious Dead Authors Podcast, in which he interviews other deceased authors (as played by various Wikipedia-crammed comics and actors).

But one of Tompkins’ newest efforts is Spontaneanation, a unique podcast with a two-part format. In the first part, Tompkins interviews a podcast guest, usually a wide-ranging conversation which brings up funny stories from the subject’s past and childhood. Then, in the second half, Tompkins and a team of improv comics create a sketch which takes place in a setting which has been suggested by the interview guest. They try to be as funny as possible and also to work in callbacks to funny moments or anecdotes from the interview segment. My description probably isn’t doing the show justice; it needs to be heard to be appreciated.

Anyway, Spontaneanation is normally studio-based but this week has a live episode. In spite of the reservations cited above, I thought this was one of the funniest they’ve ever done. The reason is Tompkins’ guest, Scott Aukerman, who hosts “Comedy Bang! Bang!” both as an audio podcast and an IFC television show. (Aukerman is also one of the proprietors of the Earwolf podcast network, which distributes “Spontaneanation.”) Aukerman is hilarious as an interview guest – subverting the normal interview process with weird diversions and character moments. Tompkins (who must have been absolutely delighted) keeps making remarks about how far the interview has gone off track.

Usually, the guest isn’t part of the improv sketch, but in this case Aukerman stays on for the improv segment, and deservedly so. The result is just hilarious – although not necessarily safe for work or young children. You can listen to it here:


With the play over, I finished up reading Mark Twain: Man in White: The Grand Adventure of His Final Years by Michael Shelden, which I bought on sale for Kindle a while back. I started reading it, then had to set it aside because a library book for which I’d been on the waiting list became available, then came back to it, then set it aside again while I was so busy with the play.

It’s a terrific book. As the title suggests, it is not a comprehensive biography of the great author but a look at the last four years of his life. Many readers and scholars over the years, picking up on a certain bitter edge to his writing following the death of his beloved wife Olivia, have painted a portrait of Twain as a completely embittered man during this period, an impression Shelden seeks to moderate, pointing out some of the joys and successes of this period, a period when he was held in great esteem as a beloved national and international figure.

The title, of course, refers to the white suit. If you close your eyes and imagine Mark Twain, you envision him wearing a white suit. But he didn’t begin wearing one (at least not as a year-round trademark) until the winter of 1906, when he appeared before a copyright hearing at the Library of Congress. He wanted to call attention to himself, and believed arriving out of season in white would do the trick. It did. Twain’s purpose at the hearing was to endorse the idea of extending the term of copyright protection. His two surviving children, Clara and Jean, were unmarried, and he hoped that ongoing royalties from his works would help to support them once he was gone.

The book is, in many ways, not only about Twain himself but about his relationships with Clara, Jean and another important woman in Twain’s circle, his assistant Isabel Lyon. Clara was a vocalist who yearned for a career in which she wouldn’t automatically be introduced as Mark Twain’s daughter but would be recognized on her own merits. Jean was an epileptic at a time when treatment for epilepsy was primitive. For much of the period covered in the book she was cared for in an institution, much to her aggravation and her father’s sadness. She longed for independence.

Lyon, the other major character in the book, is unique. She became Twain’s right hand, and personally supervised the construction of the Connecticut home, Stormfield, which Twain dreamed of sharing with Clara and Jean. But in some ways, their professional relationship was not as well-defined as it should have been, and she presumed a personal connection and a responsibility for protecting Twain which got her into trouble. She interfered with Jean’s treatment out of a selfish desire to keep her from being allowed to join her father at Stormfield; having Clara and Jean too close by would have interfered with what she saw as her role as Twain’s protector. Early on, she was driven by a real, intense affection for the beloved author, but she eventually fell in with Twain’s greedy business manager, Ralph Ashcroft, who had designs on Twain’s money.

I can imagine a prestige HBO movie centering around Lyon and her somewhat sad character arc.

Anyway, despite all of the soap-opera machinations, there were joys and triumphs in Twain’s life during his final years – such as an honorary degree from Oxford, a close friendship with a controversial business tycoon, and the joy of trips to Bermuda, where Twain found both physical and emotional rejuvenation. Twain was both working on his own autobiography (some parts of which were sealed up at Twain’s request and not to be published for many decades after his death) and cooperating with his authorized biographer, Albert Paine. He enjoyed encounters with Rudyard Kipling and Helen Keller, among others.

This is a great book, and Shelden has done a terrific job of research while telling the story in a readable and compelling way. I can highly recommend the book.

Cup o’ stoopid

The day did not begin well — I overslept — but I’m not sure whether to blame myself or Procter & Gamble for this latest bit of foolishness.

I had sneezed a few times and had a little stuffy nose but was out of tissue on my desk. I decided to walk across the street to the convenience store and buy some. My first trip was cut short when I discovered it was raining, and I had to roll up the windows to my car, getting wet in the process. I made a second trip a few minutes later.

I looked, and looked, and looked, for five minutes (it seemed longer) and did not see any facial tissues, Kleenex or otherwise. I finally got in line (it was unusually busy) and asked the clerk if they carried any. He took me directly to these:

car-cup I had looked at this package at least twice, and had no idea what i was looking at. All I noticed was the words “Car Cup,” and since the box wasn’t far from the napkins and paper plates, I just thought it contained paper or plastic cups. I did not notice the tiny Puffs logo on the front or the only-slightly-larger one on the top.

It’s not a bad idea for a product — a tissue dispenser designed to sit in a cupholder — but I think the manufacturer either needs to alter the name or put a photo of the open package on the front to make it a little more noticeable as a package of tissues and not, as I’d assumed, a package of cups.

Even so, I felt pretty stupid.

Book, interrupted

I was in the middle of reading Mark Twain: Man in White: The Grand Adventure of His Final Years by Michael Shelden, which I’d bought on sale for my Kindle. A few weeks earlier, with nothing to read, I’d gotten onto the waiting list for a few books at the library lending site for Kindles, and one of them, Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America’s Gutsiest Troublemakers by Nick Offerman, suddenly became available. So I had to put Mark Twain aside and read the Offerman book while it was available.
It’s an interesting book — not for all tastes, and there were a few things that annoyed me, but I definitely enjoyed it. Nick Offerman is a comic actor best-known for playing the taciturn character Ron Swanson on “Parks and Recreation.” In real life, Offerman — the husband of comic actress Megan Mullally — is an accomplished woodworker. When he goes to visit one of his favorite authors, Wendell Berry, Berry’s granddaughters know him from “Parks & Rec” but Berry’s son knows him from articles he’d written for a fine woodworking magazine.
He’s not exactly like Ron Swanson, but the character drew on certain aspects of Offerman’s personality.
“Gumption” is a series of profiles on people the real-life Offerman admires. The list starts off routinely enough, with founding fathers, Frederick Douglass and Eleanor Roosevelt, among others. But it takes a left turn about the time we get to Tom Laughlin of “Billy Jack” fame, and some of the other honorees range from Carol Burnett to Willie Nelson.
The book is written in a humorous, self-deprecating style (Ron Swanson was never self-deprecating), but underneath the humor, Offerman appears to be deadly serious about some of the qualities he’s trying to highlight. You may not agree with all of them, and some are overstressed, which in some cases may have been intended for comic effect.
There’s an argument about religious proselytizing in the second half of the book that gets driven into the ground to the point of annoyance. Yes, we get it, Nick. You don’t like people telling you what to believe. We also get that many people who identify as Christians don’t seem to have much connection to the actual teachings of Jesus. But aren’t you trying to proselytize people to some (worthwhile) ideas in your own book?
But that’s a quibble. I gave the book a good rating on GoodReads, because I think it’s an enjoyable and provocative read.
I have not read Offerman’s earlier book, Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living. He makes reference to it in “Gumption” as having been more risqué than the second book.
Getting back to the Twain book (and I have gotten back to it) it’s terrific as well. It’s a biography focusing on the later years of Samuel Clemens’ life, which attempts to moderate the common stereotype of Twain as universally bitter and miserable following the death of his beloved wife Olivia. Yes, he was deeply affected by her passing, and Shelden doesn’t dispute this. But he points out some of the triumphs and pleasures of this stage in Twain’s life, when he was one of the most famous and admired Americans, a sort of beloved national mascot.
The title, “Man In White,” is a reference to the trademark white suit in which most of us imagine Mark Twain. But that suit did not become his trademark until age 71, at the beginning of the period covered by the book. Twain wore it as an intentional attention-getter while testifying, in the dead of winter, before a hearing in Washington on copyright issues, and it worked so well he began wearing it frequently. When he traveled to England to receive an honorary doctorate from Oxford, some people wanted to know why he wasn’t wearing the white suit.
I may have more to say on the Twain book once I’ve finished it.

Not the one McCartney was singing about

Jet is a new Internet startup that has been getting a lot of attention — it’s sort of a cross between Amazon and Costco/Sam’s Club. There will eventually be a membership fee, but right now if you go there you can get a free six-month membership. The six months don’t start until you actually place an order.

The pricing is a little strange — most items have a price but also say that your total order will be discounted by such-and-such, so I suppose the real price is the first number minus the second number. But the discounts are fluid — they go up the more you order. Orders of $35 or more (and that $35 is figured before the discount, which is good) ship for free. Grocery and household items tend to have two-day shipping, and they have other items for sale as well.

You get an additional discount for using Visa or MasterCard instead of AmEx or Discover. The company claims it’s selling you everything at cost and will make its money exclusively from the membership fee.

I just ordered some non-perishable groceries — stuff I would have bought anyway, and just barely enough to cover the free shipping — and once you figure in all the discounts, the prices seem good. My order before the discount was more than $35, so it qualified for free shipping, but after the discounts the total order came in at just under $28.

Jet had been in an invitation-only beta test but is now public. When Amazon did its big “Prime Day” promotion a month ago, some commentators speculated that Amazon was worried about Jet in its rear view mirror and wanted to try to get more people locked in as Amazon Prime subscribers before they got the chance to sign up with Jet.

DISCLOSURE: Like many websites, this blog is part of the Amazon affiliates program, which means I sometimes have product links in blog posts and get revenue when someone buys from them (which does not happen very often). As you can tell from the above, I don’t let this arrangement affect my content.

this was my jam

I’ve enjoyed participating in the music sharing service This Is My Jam, and I always thought it would catch on.

The premise was simple – as often as you liked, but at least once a week, you would pick a song as your current “jam.” You could share your jam over the major social networks, or put a widget displaying it on your web page. You could follow people whose tastes in music you admired, and like or comment on their jams. Or you could just go to the web site and browse to see what jams were popular.

Unfortunately, the site never quite caught on – or maybe they never figured out a good way to monetize it — and they sent out an e-mail a week or two ago saying that they would soon suspend the ability to choose jams. The site will continue as an archive of past jams, but I went ahead and deleted my account, for security reasons, since I don’t see much value in the archive.

I can – and sometimes do – use the share function in Spotify to post a social media link when the mood hits me, but I really liked the concept of This Is My Jam and will miss having to pick a song every week.

how he got in my pajamas, I’ll never know

Well, it was a little over a month ago that I was complaining about never getting to see most of the Paramount Marx Brothers’ films, and now I can’t complain anymore.

This Friday, as part of TCM’s “Summer Under The Stars,” they’ll be doing a day-long tribute to Groucho, which will include all of the Paramount Marx Brothers movies I wanted to see. I have already set my DVR accordingly.

Someday, I’d like to see this fellow, about whom Mark Evanier frequently gushes at his blog:

hail, hail freedonia

“Duck Soup” (1933) airs tonight at 7 p.m. Central on Turner Classic Movies, as this week’s installment of the family-friendly summer series “TCM Movie Camp.”

Marx Brothers fans – and I’m definitely one – know their work can be divided into two distinct eras. From 1929 through 1933, Paramount released films featuring four Marx Brothers – Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo. “Duck Soup” was the last of the movies the boys made for Paramount. Now, many people – and I’m definitely one – consider it their best, but at the time it was a flop, and Paramount dropped the Marx Brothers like a hot potato.

On stage, though never in the movies, there had been a fifth Marx Brother, Gummo (real name Milton). In the interim after the boys were fired by Paramount, Zeppo (real name Herbert) left the act and joined Gummo in starting a successful talent agency. Zeppo didn’t really have much of a comic persona anyway; he primarily played straight man to the others.

MGM, where boy wonder Irving Thalberg was still in a leading role, hired the three remaining Marx Brothers – Groucho, Chico, and Harpo – and their first MGM movie was 1935’s “A Night At The Opera.”

Zeppo isn’t the only difference between the Paramount Marx Brothers and the MGM Marx Brothers. At Paramount, the boys were more anarchic. But Thalberg – and those who followed him – put more of a story to the brothers’ comedy, and usually had them helping someone out. They were trying to help out young lovers in “A Night At The Opera,” trying to raise money to keep a hospital open in “A Day At The Races,” and so on. In some ways, this undermines the anarchy – part of the fun of the Paramount Marx Brothers is that lunacy is their first priority, and the plot is an afterthought.

Granted, “A Night At The Opera,” their first MGM movie, is one of their funniest – probably because of Thalberg’s craft as a producer. But Thalberg died during the making of “A Day At The Races,” and fans are in general agreement that the MGM Marx Brothers movies go downhill fast from there.

The trouble, of course, is that TCM’s parent company owns the MGM library, so TCM can show the MGM Marx Brothers movies as often as it likes. It has to pay for the rights to the Paramount Marx Brothers movies (strangely enough, it has to pay Universal, which at some point bought the rights to much of Paramount’s classic-era library). TCM shows “Duck Soup” fairly regularly, as well as “Horse Feathers,” and occasionally “Monkey Business,” but hardly ever shows “Cocoanuts” or “Animal Crackers.”

Enough of my quibbling. “Duck Soup” is on tonight, and as I said earlier I think it’s the all-time best Marx Brothers movie. The movie takes place in the fictitious country of Freedonia. The country is badly in debt, and its wealthiest citizen, Mrs. Teasdale, won’t loan it any more money unless Rufus T. Firelfly (Groucho) is appointed leader. Meanwhile, the ambassador for neighboring Sylvania is up to no good and hires Chico and Harpo as spies.

DISCUSSION QUESTION: Whose faith is more misplaced – Mrs. Teasdale, who for some unexplained reason thinks Groucho can run a country, or the ambassador, who thinks Chico and Harpo can overcome their ADD long enough to collect any useful information?

Anyway, this is a Paramount Marx Brothers movie, so as I indicated earlier the plot isn’t really that important. The movie is loaded with all sorts of humor – from verbal jousting to the famous (and completely silent) mirror scene between Groucho and Harpo. It’s just funny, at so many levels.

The Spoils Before Dying

If you missed “Eric Jonrosh’s ‘The Spoils of Babylon'” last summer, I feel sorry for you. But the good news is, “The Spoils Before Dying” starts next month on IFC.

“The Spoils of Babylon” was, supposedly, the magnum opus of novelist-turned-producer Eric Jonrosh, filmed at the height of the miniseries craze in the late 70s or early 80s (think “Rich Man, Poor Man,” or “The Thorn Birds,” or “The Winds of War”). Jonrosh adapted his biggest novel for the screen. But the network wouldn’t air it, and so it sat in a vault for years until last summer, when it was broadcast for the very first time, with each episode personally introduced by the bloated, bearded Jonrosh, along with his personal remembrances of the cast and the challenges faced during production.

Only that’s not it at all. There is no “Eric Jonrosh”; the fellow who introduced the miniseries last year was actually Will Ferrell wearing a fat suit and a fake beard and doing his best impression of latter-day, past-his-prime Orson Welles. “The Spoils of Babylon” actually starred Tobey Maguire, Kristin Wiig, Tim Robbins and Haley Joel Osment, although they were given fake actor names in the opening credits of the first episode, to tie in with the pretense that this whole thing was shot in the 1970s. It was a hilarious parody of the potboiler miniseries genre, with brilliant performances by the four leads and various guest stars including Val Kilmer, David Spade, Jessica Alba, Michael Sheen and Molly Shannon.

Well, “The Spoils Before Dying” will be the same thing — not a sequel to “Babylon” but supposedly a “fully restored” adaptation of a different (and just as non-existent) Eric Jonrosh novel, this one with more of a film noir feel:

I cannot wait.

people say they monkey around

My sister got me a DVD of Head (1968) for my birthday. I’d seen bits and pieces of it once, but I’d never watched the whole thing until tonight.

“Head,” of course, stars The Monkees — Davy Jones, Peter Tork, Mickey Dolenz and Michael Nesmith. It came out right after the cancellation of their TV series. It was directed by Bob Rafaelson and co-written by Rafaelson and Jack Nicholson – yes, that Jack Nicholson – right before the two of them went on to make “Easy Rider.” (Rafaelson, in fact, had been an executive producer of the Monkees’ TV show, and directed some of its episodes.)

The Monkees were, of course, not the type of organic band that comes together in high school or college. They were cast, by TV and music executives, as characters on a TV show, to be TV’s answer to the Beatles. But the Monkees weren’t satisfied with just being TV characters. They were discouraged at first that they had no control over their music, but they pushed for and eventually got that kind of control. You can’t blame the Monkees for having been cast; they at least had musical talent, and the ambition of being something more than an assembly line product. Even John Lennon defended them in an interview:

“They’ve got their own scene, and I won’t send them down for it. You try a weekly television show and see if you can manage one half as good!”

The TV show “The Monkees” is family-friendly – so much so that reruns of it ran several times on Saturday morning TV back when the networks put children’s programming on Saturday mornings. (Kids, ask your parents.) The TV show owes a lot to the Beatles’ movie “A Hard Day’s Night,” with a little bit of the rebellion toned down and a little bit of slapstick thrown in. The musical numbers from both “A Hard Day’s Night” and “The Monkees” set a template that would be followed by music videos a dozen years later, and Michael Nesmith, working as a director in the period around 1980, is considered one of the innovators of the music video format. It was a proof-of-concept show he produced for Time-Warner Cable which led to the creation of MTV.

“Head,” which came out about the time that the Monkees’ TV show had been cancelled, and at a time when conventional wisdom cast doubt on the band’s future, is more psychedelic than “The Monkees.” There’s no real story – just a series of bits and pieces, jumping here and there, to and fro, with musical numbers mixed in.

It was a failure at the time, but I found it to be a lot of fun – and there’s some fun meta-commentary about the Monkees’ own struggles to break out of the box in which they’d been put. Toward the end of the movie, they’re literally trapped in a box. They’re also battling a Jolly Green Giant-sized version of actor Victor Mature, and at least one critic has pointed out that this is probably a not-so-subtle jab at RCA Victor, the Monkees’ record label. (RCA had also been their TV employer, since it was the parent company of NBC.)

If anything, “Head” reminds me less of a Beatles movie than it does of two other bits of psychedelia I’ve seen from that same time frame: Skidoo (1968) and Good Times (1967). “Skidoo” is Otto Preminger’s attempt to make a drug culture movie, and it has a bizarre cast including Jackie Gleason, Groucho Marx, Carol Channing, Frankie Avalon, Burgess Meredith and Cesar Romero. Skidoo attempts a plot, but just barely.

“Good Times,” not to be confused with the 1970s sitcom starring Jimmie Walker, John Amos and Esther Rolle, stars Sonny and Cher. It’s not very good as a movie but it’s a lot of fun if you think of it as a variety show – or maybe just a series of music videos. The plot, which is really just a framing device, is that Sonny has signed himself and Cher, playing fictionalized versions of themselves, to a movie contract with a powerful and vaguely-sinister studio executive (George Sanders). Cher is skeptical about the idea, but Sonny tries to convince her by brainstorming possible ideas for a movie, which turn into fantasy sequences built around musical numbers. There’s a western, a Tarzan movie, and so on.

“Skidoo” is one of those things you have to see once just for the novelty of it, but it’s not really a very good movie per se. “Good Times” isn’t a very good movie either, but I’ve watched it more than once just because the musical numbers are so great, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

“Head” seems like it’s in the same vein as “Skidoo” and “Good Times,” but it ends up being quite a bit better than either of them – maybe because it was trying, not just to pander to what producers imagined the youth demographic wanted, but to make a statement. The Monkees may or may not have hoped that it would be taken seriously as a work of art, but in any case it was a statement of defiance, an attempt to show that they were something more than sitcom characters.