Laughing Matters — Bloom County: Hunting Wild Liberals

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

When I was still living in my humble little Central Wisconsin college town, in the first half of the nineteen-nineties, my favorite record store (which, it should be noted, is still my favorite record store), stocked print copies of Village Voice among its outlay of music magazines. Its newsprint meatiness was recognizable from the weekly alternative paper that I routinely picked up when I was a high schooler in Madison, Wisconsin, but it was mapping out a whole different cultural and political world. I bought Village Voice when I could, marveling at the wonders of New York City from a distance.

It’s been ages since I held a print copy, but I imagine it’s shrunk down the way that all newspapers have. Today’s news that the venerable publication isn’t all that surprising, but it’s heartbreaking, heralding an occurrence that somehow feels even more significant than the end of an era.

In a fantastic New Yorker piece on the rise and influence of Village Voice, journalist I.F. Stone is quoted in reference to the haphazard distribution scheme in the early days of the newspaper. “I’d like to read you, but I can’t find you,” he told one of the Voice columnists. Sadly, that sentiment is about to become even more true.

Also, it’s about to become much tougher to hunt liberals.

bloom county

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

Laughing Matters: The Ben Stiller Show, “Low Budget Tales of Cliched Horror”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

I swear I’m not going to make this recurring feature into nothing but a showcase for comedy sketches from The Ben Stiller Show.

Well, I’ll try not to. That might be a more realistic promise.

I spent much of today gradually, reluctantly coming down from the high of being on the radio at my broadcasting alma mater, WWSP-90FMWWSP-90FM, the student-run radio station at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. My mental acuity dulled and wistfully directed elsewhere, I flailed around a bit for what to put here in my little corner of the digital world today. Eventually, I started thinking of instances of radio in pop culture, for which I’ve long had a strong affinity. Seeing a radio station turn up in a movie or a television show, no matter how ridiculously, always gave me a little thrill.

That joy included the sketch “Low Budget Tales of Cliched Horror” on The Ben Stiller Show, even though the radio setting was hardly the target of the satire. Instead, it expertly mocks the syndicated horror anthology television series that were weirdly prominent for a stretch in the late-nineteen-eighties and early-nineteen-nineties. And it takes a little swipe at Talk Radio while it’s at it, which I also greatly appreciated at the time.

And he’s actually wearing headphones while on the air, a detail most visual depictions of the medium opt to omit. It’s no wonder I enjoy it as much as I do.

Laughing Matters: The Ben Stiller Show, “A Few Good Scouts”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

For reasons that are probably obvious, a certain sketch from The Ben Stiller Show has been on my mind today.

Since I have previously written about precisely why this sketch — and everything from the one and only season of The Ben Stiller Show — delights me so, I will let the splendid parody speak for itself.

Laughing Matters: Sniglets

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

I would be overjoyed to report that my formative experiences with comedy were edgy and cool. There were certainly some personally favored selections that skewed to the countercultural — Andy Kaufman, Richard Pryor, Saturday Night Live when it still fit into that category — but I was often responding to some embedded silliness rather than anything truly subversive. In short, I was always a dork.

Few things prove that premise more decisively than one of the recurring comedy bits I committed to most fervently in the early nineteen-eighties. Not Necessarily the News was a surprisingly long-lived sketch comedy show on HBO. Amidst the usual parodies, character-driven bits, and simple skewering of the events of the day, the show provided a platform for comedian Rich Hall to introduce “sniglets,” which he defined as words that don’t appear in the dictionary, but should. In practice, they were sort of like malaprops infused with logic and applied to the minutiae of life.

When I confess I was all in on sniglets, I’m not kidding. It was one thing to eagerly await the appearance of the inevitable sniglets segment on each episode of NNTN. I took what little money I had and directed it towards acquiring all of the slim paperbacks that assembled the various made-up words into mini-compendiums, tediously regaling my classmates with personal favorites.

I still have a lot of affection for the sniglets, if only because the bit speaks to the little word addict inside of me. Much as I admire the politically ferocious boundary-pushers, more gentle, punny humor has its place, too.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

Laughing Matters: Portlandia, “The Dream of the Nineties”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

I can’t claim that I stuck through Portlandia through it’s entire run — including the pending final season — but I have tremendous affection for the comedy series co-stewarded by Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein. Although I didn’t have intimate knowledge of the scruffy metropolitan area it satirized when the program launched, I recognized a generational identity within the comedy.

My swath of the American experience — largely forgotten about in the social energy around both the arrogant authority of the baby Boomers and the misplaced scorn heaped upon the millennials — was briefly known as “the slacker generation” before “generation X” took hold. I always thought the former designation was more telling. We were the ones who formulated the dream of the nineties. Like a lot of the music that Brownstein signed her name upon, I sometimes felt like this early Portlandia sketch was written just for me and my people.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

Laughing Matters: George Carlin, Class Clown

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

carlin

It’s not accurate to call the nineteen-seventies the heyday of comedy records, not when the prior decade saw the smash-hit album The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, elevating a guy who’d recently been a Chicago advertising drone to both Best New Artist and Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards. That doesn’t even get into the likes of Vaughn Meader and Allan Sherman tying up the top spot on the Billboard album charts for weeks at a time.

But comedy albums remained a very viable product in the Me Decade. From my perspective as a wee fellow trekking through my single-digit ages, comedy albums were a mark of adulthood. When I was dragged along as a necessary but largely ignored accessory at adult parties, I stealthily took note that there always seemed to be point when the chatter died down a bit and the room was turned over to a comedy record dropped onto the turntable. Usually the host — or, rarely, person who brought the record along — got to enjoy some transferred comedic glory, as if they were the one delivering the jokes.

A few years later, when I was finally buying my own records, that association between adulthood and comedy albums lingered. While my peers were devoting their music-purchasing pennies exclusively to whatever bands seemed cool at the moment — well, and Weird “Al” Yankovic, who occupied his own rare and prime place on the music world firmament — I made sure a portion of my modest budget went towards recordings of stand-up masters. That means one of the very first albums I bought with my own dollars was George Carlin’s Class Clown.

Released in 1972, the album is especially significant because of the inclusion of the routine that prompted me to pick this over other options: “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” Two months before the album hit stores, Carlin was famously — or infamously, perhaps — arrested at Milwaukee’s Summerfest for performing the bit, and six years later it stood a key evidence in the landmark Supreme Court case FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, prompted by a complaint about a DJ playing it on air. I didn’t really know all that when I bought the record. In the manner of the early teen boy I was, I just took pure delight in Carlin spending so much time talking about dirty words.

Now I can appreciate the levels of characteristic brilliance Carlin brings to it, including sly shots at ridiculous social mores, explication of the frailties of language, and the expert mix of bawdy and intellectual observations. Carlin delivered greater, more philosophically imposing material later in his career — in his inspired final phase — but the material contained on Class Clown still stands as compelling evidence in the argument for Carlin as one of the all-time stand-up greats.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.