Friday, June 30, 2006


The failure of Senate legislation over “flag desecration” came as a relief and a surprise. When the vote went down Tuesday, I fully expected to experience the ultimate humiliation of living in a country that celebrates its freedoms by taking away the right to burn its flag as a protest or statement of policy — or, for that matter, for fun.

The penultimate humiliation, of course, would be that such legislation passing meant there were huge numbers of people, represented by a majority of U.S. representatives and senators, that failed to grasp the difference between protecting pieces of cloth (probably manufactured in Malaysia) and metaphorically burning the U.S. Constitution, which the pieces of cloth are intended to represent. Anyone who dies in war “for our flag” isn’t really paying attention.

And the legislation failed by only vote. Hardly encouraging, and embarrassing enough on its own, but I’ll take what victories or relief I can get.

Living in the United States is wholly embarrassing anyway, solely because our leaders are such hypocrites. Every time they get up to make a speech they unleash pieties scandalous, if not bitterly hilarious, when contrasted with their behavior. A classic came when President Bush traveled to Turkey in June 2004 to lecture about how “Suppressing dissent only increases radicalism,” a lesson so applicable in his own country and in Iraq — where his military licensed and shut down newspapers, infamously leading to savage rioting (and possibly sparking the entire insurgency) — that one wonders how Bush managed to get the words out.

More recently, in May, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice unleashed a howler on the graduating class of Boston College:

“It can be tempting ... to opt for the false comfort of a life without questions,” she told the graduates. “Unfortunately, that’s easier to do than ever. It’s possible today to live in an echo chamber that serves only to reinforce your own high opinion of yourself and what you think. That is a temptation that educated people have a responsibility to reject. There is nothing wrong with holding an opinion and holding it passionately. But at those times when you’re absolutely sure that you are right, go find somebody who disagrees. Don’t allow yourself the easy course of the constant ‘amen’ to everything that you say.”

She may have meant this as an unthinking piety, as a rebuke to students she feels are knee-jerk liberals or even as a sotto voce dig at her boss, the president, who notoriously surrounds himself with incompetent toadies and rewards them when their inbred policies inevitably fail. It doesn’t matter how Rice meant it. Her position as a toady to Bush, albeit as the most competent one, removes all moral authority she has to say such things and be taken seriously, just as you don’t want to be lectured on good diet by a McDonald’s executive or discuss the benefits of multiculturalism with a member of the Klan.

Spewing and embracing such hypocrisies seems reasonable, though, in a land where you kill a freedom because you love it and burning a flag can’t possibly be “speech” protected by the First Amendment because it’s, well, so offensive — even if this is the essence of the First Amendment; there are few cases on record of constitutional crises brought on by people asserting that bunnies are cute and love is all around us.

Or, for that matter, that black is white, up is down, left is right, that Bush thinks suppressing dissent increases radicalism or that a Bush aide thinks listening to differing points of view is groovy.

It does, however, seem bothersome in a land where — keep in mind, this is the same land — the Supreme Court affirms that contributing money to a political campaign is constitutionally protected “speech,” a position applauded by many who back an amendment that would criminalize flag burning, and the president says he got permission to tap U.S. citizens’ phones when Congress authorized “force” against Iraq. This is an assertion that becomes all the more astonishing after a reading of the resolution, and even after a reading of relevant portions of the War Powers Resolution of 1973. These documents make clear that the “speech” in which Bush is engaging in regard to his authorization to tap phones is what the average person would call a “lie.” Any member of Congress who swallows this theory shouldn’t be allowed to vote in favor of a flag desecration amendment; you must accept flag burning as “speech” if you accept wiretapping as “force.”

It is embarrassing to live in a country whose most prominent attributes seem to be the capacity to lie and be taken in by those lies. This kind of humiliation can quickly turn to anger, of course. I’m frankly angry enough, and concerned enough, to want to make a strong statement against all of it.

Perhaps burning a flag?

Tuesday, June 27, 2006


Some of the most excruciating hours of my life have been spent watching open mic comedy nights. Years later, I distinctly recall the horrible trapped feeling: sinking in my seat, my gut clenching, eyeing the exit but unable to leave without being seen as abandoning the sad, desperate people taking the stage like concentration camp victims Playing for Time.

Largely because of these experiences, I’d always thought a good way to do comedy would be to tell the audience at the start of a set that laughter was not required or requested — that the comedian simply had some thoughts to share, and if any struck the audience as funny, well, it should go ahead and let loose. This technique has its own drawbacks, which I understand not from trying standup comedy, but from adhering to a kind of Antioch approach to sex: Basically, if you talk too much about what you’re about to do, the spontaneity drains away, leaving only awkward self-consciousness.

The right comedian could still make this work. The wrong comedian would be as screwed as ever.

I’m not talking just as a long-ago audience member. Despite the ancient scarring, I recently immersed myself in local comedy — standup, sketch and improv — and had far more positive experiences once I removed myself from the brutality and tragedy of the open-mic night. (Oddly enough, many comedians say they did great their first time on stage. Then they go chasing that high, more often that not with cruel results.)

When I see bad comedy now, I still wince, my gut still churns a little with discomfort, but I’m able to take a more analytical and less visceral view of it.

I know now, for instance, that “bad comedy” doesn’t necessarily mean comedians aren’t giving you good stuff. They can send out into the audience perfectly funny bits, honed on stages from Dorchester to Worcester for weeks or months, that usually sail out straight and true to perform astonishingly graceful, daring and clever midair loop-de-loops before bowing out with a flourish of enchanting fireworks. But in some places those perfectly funny things just plummet to the ground, one after the other, flailing around and grunting faintly as everyone looks on in horror. This happens where there’s bad comedy feng shui, where some slight jiggering of the comedy club equation — the space between tables, the brightness of the lights, the number of people in the room and lord knows what else must be plugged in as variables — afflicts an audience’s willingness to laugh with a muteness that prevents it. It’s possible to get laughs in The Thirsty Ear, the hidden pub at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but attempting it isn’t for the reckless, the amateur or the unlucky. The Thirsty Ear may be the Mount Washington of Cambridge comedy clubs.

It’s also a good venue for observing what comedians do wrong. Destructive or unproductive practices can be missed in a more forgiving room, where laughter can echo or come reflexively long after the funny has stopped, providing cover for a blank or bad stretch. In the Ear, though, every line, every bit, every act-out (I use this comic jargon to show I’ve been paying attention) has to pull its weight.

So while I’m really just a dilettante with no right to speak, largely based on my slogs across the Ear’s comedic desert, I’d advise comics to avoid the following:

“Ladies.” This word is delivered knowingly, winkingly, as a follow-up to revealing a particularly unappealing or off-putting aspect of a male comic’s behavior or persona. For instance, that he’s an engineer. “Lay-dees.” Or that he’s seven feet tall and weighs 410 pounds. “Lay-dees.” This can actually be a funny thing to say, but it’s overused, and trotting it out merely makes the comic look unoriginal. This is no particular comic’s fault; but the word, and ideally the whole self-deprecating shtick behind it, needs to be retired for a while. As an alternative, just don’t be the second or, god forbid, third comic to use it in a single night.

“It’s good. Good stuff. Good times.” [Repeat.] These nonsense phrases come mumbling out as a comic tries to shift gears, but they unfortunately just suggest that the gears are slipping — that, in fact, there’s nothing at all going on inside a comic’s head and, thus, nothing to listen to. This is because these phrases are simply sardonic validations the comic is using to comment on his own material, and they probably wouldn’t be used at all if what was taking place on stage deserved validation, sardonic or otherwise. “Good times,” especially, is something people say because they’ve heard other people say it as ironic commentary in times of mordant distress, and that’s how anybody even slightly versed in humor will take it; using the phrase not only looks like thievery, and lazy thievery at that, but suggests that the user has missed the fact that the irony only works as commentary on what the comic sees, not what the comic says. “We used to take turns clubbing baby seals. Good times” is entirely different from telling a joke that gets no laughs and following it up with “Good times,” just as saying “That sucks” is different from saying “I suck.”

“Okay. It’s funny to me.” This can be good. It also risks sounding like a comic is insulting the audience, making it them versus him, and unless that’s the comic’s thing, it’s a bloody awful thing to do. It makes the audience defensive, which gets them thinking of why the comic is wrong and unfunny rather than giving the benefit of a doubt that something really was funny and missed the laugh it deserved. Finally, it gives the audience a chance to think, “That’s the problem — it’s funny to you, not to us.”

“What else do I got? Yeah … so …” [Looks at watch.] Ugh. Death. This is a cruel world, and nothing sparks an audience’s collective alarm like the suggestion that the person on stage isn’t in control. Jim Morrison, Billy Joel and Ralph Garcey couldn’t get away with it, and you can’t either. The audience will feel trapped, and your hesitation will make it feel agitated as well. Add in a cover charge or a two-drink minimum and you’ll have actual anger to deal with.

Most of these unfortunate phrases are used to fill in time to get from one joke to the next, and the rest is defensiveness springing from the same source: The laughter of the audience is supposed to cover the transition from one joke to the next, and when it doesn’t, the comic stands revealed as inadequate.

Don’t let it happen, comics. Never let the audience see that you’re uncertain, grasping or desperate. Smile as you sink. Connect your jokes with friendly patter, not subconscious mutterings. Relieve your watchers from the need to feel anxious for you, and maybe of the need to laugh at what you’re saying. You may not make it as a comedian, but you’ll save many people from years-long horrors that have them running for the exits before you can even hit the stage.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


There’s an atypical and extraordinary post over at Go Fug Yourself, which usually restricts itself to pointing and laughing at celebrity fashion faux pas. The domainatrixes at Go Fug Yourself — the name refers, of course, to something being “fugly,” or “fucking ugly” — tend to stick to giddy gasps of horror when the beautiful and famous transgress or clucks of tongue when they wander into a few common danger zones: bad plastic surgery, bad fake tans, tops that compress breasts into pancakes or let them droop like, well, Kirsten Dunst. And so on.

The bloggers never lost the power to amuse, but I’d stopped expecting to be surprised. Their site’s post about the Lohans was unexpected and bracing.

Using the paparazzi shots that flood daily through Go Fug Yourself’s electronic filing cabinets, the site shows how Lindsay Lohan has clearly wandered into a danger zone far greater than that of the “bedazzeled boots” of Teri Hatcher or red mess Maria Bartiromo wore to suggest “the local brothel’s patient schoolmarm.”

“You can’t ignore that spaceyness in her irises,” blogger Heather writes to Dina Lohan of her starlet daughter. “It’s there. They’re not connecting … Do you not see? How are you letting this happen?”

The site achieves true urgency and poignancy in warning Dina Lohan that her daughter is in trouble. “LOOK AT HER,” Heather writes. “Something’s either missing or overmedicated or has been beaten into submission.”

The case seems damning just scrolling from one out-of-it shot of Lindsay Lohan to another, but the post ends on a shot of her clutching harshly to her younger sister, Aliana, perhaps protectively, perhaps for balance. “Know what scares me the most?” Heather writes to Dina Lohan. “That you have more of them to ignore. I can only hope they don’t get sucked into the vortex. How creepy is this photo?”

The post is a tour de force, and, again, totally unexpected.

Go fug for yourself.

Friday, June 09, 2006


In the past few years Disneyland has added hotels and a Toontown, turned its parking lots into a Downtown Disney shopping district, created an entire neighboring park called Disney’s California Adventure and shut down its hoary Pirates of the Caribbean ride for a movie-inspired revamp.

The park is still the — self-proclaimed — happiest place on Earth, though, and its trash cans still impart the oddest of messages to visitors. Dispersed at roughly one-meter intervals throughout the park, they all ask that visitors “Waste Please.”

The park’s recycling bins merely reinforce the grammatically and environmentally suspect nature of the trash cans. The recycling bins, of which there are about two to every 12 trash cans, urge visitors to “Recycle Please.” There’s no misreading “Waste Please,” then: Waste, please! Mickey says “Waste!”

Hard to believe this peculiarity hasn’t been noticed over the past decade or so. The only other thing that hasn’t changed in the park, apparently, is the “It’s a Small World” ride, which is just as clunky, earnest and maddening as it has been for 42 years. It may inspire people to take high-powered rifles into towers, but at least it doesn’t ask them to be profligate and thoughtless.