Sunday, April 30, 2006

¿Cuyo himno es, de todos modos?

(from the NY Times story headlined "Bush Enters Anthem Fight on Language"*)


*this headline sounds like it's been in a fight

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Today's lesson: Don't collaborate with anyone under 30

Last week, I enrolled in a sketch comedy workshop. Over 20 years ago, I created, produced, wrote all the material for, and performed in a sketch comedy group. I had a major reservation: that not only the students but the instructor would be much younger than I, with a corresponding aesthetic divide.

It didn't take long for those fears to materialize. At the first class, I quickly understood that I was at least a generation older than the instructor, and even more senior to the students, who were all in their 20s. When we were asked about which comedy groups we admired, the other students mentioned the State (of which the instructor was a founding member), Stella (an offshoot of the State, and probably the most infantile, embarrassingly meretricious comedy group I've ever seen -- they made the Ritz Brothers look like the Bloomsbury Group), and other assemblages who achieved notoriety in the last ten or so years, such as the incredibly overrated Kids in the Hall. I extolled Monty Python, justifiably, as the apotheosis of sketch comedy.

We were given two sketches to perform, one of which was a Kids in the Hall piece, the other written by the instructor and performed by the State. It involved a restaurant whose staff tried to conceal the fact that they had no food by ridiculing the diners. It was undeveloped and devoid of wit. Yet the students gleefully worked on it and expressed a high regard for it -- even out of earshot of the instructor. The sketches the students had brought to class were no better, yet they were received as if gifts from the comedy gods, by both students and instructor. One involved two NFL draft experts whose differences of opinion cause them to hyperbolically inflate the aptitudes of their favored players. A second was about a corporate executive who rained vitriolic abuse upon everyone he encountered (for no apparent reason), only to soften at the sight of a rabbit who occupied his office. Again, junior-high-level profanity and vituperation were substituted for wit.

Still, I wanted to give my fellow classmates the benefit of the doubt, and approached a couple of them after class. I complimented one young woman on the premise of her sketch: a man who insists to a date he met through a lesbian website that he is indeed a lesbian. As it turned out, the instructor paired me off with her and another woman as part of a collaborative assignment. To get our relationship off to a good start, and as a writing exercise, I rewrote the woman's sketch -- at least most of it -- taking it in a direction that I thought made it much stronger (and keeping in mind the class's response and suggestions). The three of us arranged to meet at Au Bon Pain. That's when things really took a bad turn.

Unbenownst to either me or the instructor, the two women were lifelong friends. Both were Jewish, in their mid-20s, from Westchester. One was short, pretty, with the ubiquitous Valley Girl/MTV accent. She brought her iMac. The other was plain and whose stomach protruded to an unusual extent, given that she wasn't terribly overweight. At first, I thought she might be pregnant, but then discounted that conjecture. I started out by asking if either had any ideas. The un-pregnant one said that her ideas were "really gross." I asked her to pitch one. "Well, it's about this old man in a nursing home who is causing trouble because he's taking Viagra and he's choking all the women in the nursing home with his [pause] cock." Oh. Right away, I knew that this wasn't going to be, "The Importance of Being Earnest." I was noncommittal.

The other woman then suggested a piece about a woman who believes her dreams are real because I had this dream the other night that my boyfriend turned into a real jerk who was like putting me down and wouldn’t it be funny if she went to the boyfriend and said, 'You asshole! Why are you being such a jerk?' and he's like 'What are you talking about?' and she's like 'In my dream you called me a fat whore...'" She looked at me, and again I expressed no enthusiasm. Finally, we settled on an idea of mine -- not the first I pitched -- about an escort service for men who want to be emotionally abused. I came up with the line about how they promise "an unhappy ending," which the women liked. So we began brainstorming. After a couple of hours we had an outline of the piece, and some of the dialogue, although we disagreed on the tone. They pushed for illogical trash-talking -- for example, they had the Escort enter the john's apartment and immediately call him a "retard" (an insult I didn't think was used by anyone over the age of 12) -- and I tried to steer it in a more subtle, elegant direction. At the end of our session, I thought we had agreed on the basic premise and tone. We would each go home and polish it, then email each other the results.

I finished my draft early the next morning and was fairly satisfied. I tried to include at least one or two of each of my collaborators' better lines, in an attempt to be collegial and not be perceived as solipsistic. They had no such compunctions. Without consulting me, Ms. Valley Girl/Westchester decided to rewrite the piece the way she initially wanted it: short, vulgar, inane, and illogical. Although I don't know this for a fact, and the emails the three of us exchanged do not substantiate it, I believe the two conspired to break our agreement and rewrite the piece, dismissing me in the process. (That they clearly demonstrated that they were in unison against me, the outsider, was clear from the way one positioned her computer, only allowing her friend to take over the keyboard when she went to buy a cup of coffee.)

I wrote to one of the women the following:

Well, I guess you and I disagree. (I haven't heard from Jesse.) I see this as a realistically played piece. There's no reason a sketch has to be two minutes, and much great sketch comedy is, as you put it, “realistic" (think: Nichols and May). Also, don't underestimate the audience. The fact that initially they're exactly sure of the characters' motivation can intrigue and involve them. Any seeming ambiguities in the writing could be sharpened by the actors and the direction. You may be right that my vision of it may be too subtle and more appropriate for a one-act play, but the other way is too much like a hitting the audience with a blunt instrument. Too many of the lines -- calling someone a "retard" and a "hag" and describing them as smelling like "a decomposing raccoon carcass covered in horse shit and piss" – are obvious and too vulgar for my taste. Vituperation and invective, in and of themselves, are not a substitute for wit.

To which her friend (who must've been forwarded my message) replied:

If you'd like I’m sure we can take your name off of our version. By the way, what is Nicholas and May?

First, they offer (threaten) to take my name off the piece. Except it was my idea, my structure, and the best lines are mine. Second, the great mystery of Nichols and May continues to stymie Gen Y. Animal, vegetable, or mineral?

Here is what you have -- another example of the younger generation at its most typical: Ignorant, ahistorical, and with a self-satisfaction totally inverse to the quality of their work. It's the literary equivalent of a two-year-old whose parents dote on every last fart as if it's been handed down from Mt. Parnassus. If these women -- overentitled Westchester Jewesses -- ever pulled a deceitful stunt like that on the staff of an actual TV show, they wouldn't last the day. Yet these two -- who have written a grand total of three sketches between them -- saw fit to lecture me -- the guy with book and major magazine credits who has produced his own comedy group and collaborated with Emmy Award winners, and who's been a professional writer for 30 years.

It's astonishing, really. But this is America, circa 2006: a mediocracy.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Thee Will, Thee Will Rock You

A friend and I were commiserating about the current ADD generation -- the young people who can't withstand a second without some sort of sensory assault that they define as "entertainment." You can't attend a baseball game without being bombarded with mascots sliding down water chutes, scoreboard races between electronic subway cars, and thunderous snippets of inane rock and rap songs. God forbid that during a lull in the action, the idle spectator -- who has his choice of trying to analyze the pitch sequence, study the defense, and any one of the other hundreds of nuances of the game -- be abandoned to the crowd noise, ambient sound, and worst of all, the stirrings of his inner self.

iPods are another manifestation of our involuted narcissism. Why need people listen to music 24-7? Especially atrocious pablum that they'll discard in six months? It's as if it's not an MP3 player but an IV or oxygen line, instead of just a portable device for listening to music and tuning out their immediate surroundings -- and their fellow man.

We're raising our children to live in a completely mediated environment. Work, home, in traffic
-- kids must have TV, video games, cellphones with cameras, and a DVD player in their parents' gas-guzzling SUV.

This obsession to be perpetually distracted from the here and now comes with a price. But before the society realizes it, it will continue to insinuate itself in every corner of our lives. Classrooms, doctors' offices, even churches...

MINISTER: Uh, today's sermon will be from the Book of Isaiah, book one, verses one through twenty-two...

As Minister flips through the Bible to find passage, we hear pounded over the church loudspeaker: "We will, we will rock you!"

And courtrooms:

Jury: Your honor, we find the defendant guilty.

Exploding scoreboard shoots fireworks into the air while a neon image of Justice points an accusatory finger at the defendant.

And the last thing you want is to be lying on an operating table and have your surgeon bouncing in wearing an iPod.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

God's FAQs

1. Do you exist?
Answer: No.

2. What is the meaning of life?
Answer: Please refer to the manual, page 788.

3. Will my new Intel-based Mac run Windows?
Answer: There is no simple answer. Reaching the nirvana of running the two most popular desktop operating systems on one machine is a lot harder than you might expect.
The good news? Plenty of people have been working to break down the barriers, so it should only be a matter of time before Windows shows up on the iMac's 20-inch widescreen display.
Then again, I said the same thing about world peace.

Friday, April 21, 2006

American Idol: 9-11 Terrorist Edition

Our government – you know, the Deciders – are so incompetent that almost five years after 9-11 the only suspect they’ve been able to apprehend is a guy with a death-wish-cum-thirst for celebrity who has made what amounts to a hyperbolically false confession. Zacarias Moussaoui, who has been called “the Barney Fife of Al Qaeda,” had only the most tenuous connections with Al-Queda and the actual hijackers and nothing to do with the actual 9-11 plot. What he is guilty of is a desire to be famous at all costs. You know: “American Idol - Terrorist Edition.”

We’ve seen people go on crime sprees in a desperate attempt to get attention. Moussaoui is just taking it to the next level: to pretend to conspire to blow something up just so he can get on television.

Ironically, Moussaoui’s craving to have our attention fill the yawning crevice inside him dovetails perfectly with the needs of a government desperately seeking a stooge for a show trial.
They have no evidence that he participated in the 9-11 plot. Instead his indictment consists of a collection of factoids such as “In or about March 2001, ZACARIAS MOUSSAOUI joined a gym in Norman, Oklahoma.” Tell-tale sign of a terrorist: He likes Nautilus. Which is also the name of a submarine...You do the math.

The best way to view Moussaoui's incoherent grandstanding at his trial is that it's an audition. Soon, the FBI will be besieged by camera-hungry clowns claiming to the 21st hijacker or the underwear bomber, insisting that they had intimate knowledge of a nefarious plot to fly blimps into the Empire State Building or drive bumper cars into the Washington Monument. All part of a new reality show called “America’s Most Wanted Terrorists,” in which these fame zombies will vie for cash prizes, the attention of millions, and the death penalty.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Warranty not available in Metropolis or Gotham City

Yesterday's Times ran a story on how corporations are now using product placement in comic books. DC and Marvel Comics have struck deals with major carmakers such as Pontiac and DaimlerChrysler in an attempt to reach the "ever-elusive" young lout demographic. Spider-Man may be able to scale skyscrapers, but he can't escape Madison Avenue's marketing ghouls.

Citizen: Help, Spider-Man, the Green Goblin is destroying our city!

Spider-Man: Hold on, citizen. I'm on my way in my brand-new Dodge Caliber. The bold styling, crossover design, innovative features and affordable power of 2007 Dodge Caliber offer Dodge attitude packaged with capability, versatility and fuel-efficiency. It's got an advanced four-cylinder, 24-liter engine with dual variable valve timing that delivers world-class timing, durability, and efficiency. You get 172 horsepower at 6,000 mph and 165 pounds foot of torque at 4,200 rpm. 23 city, 26 highway. Mileage may vary. Limited warranty not available in Metropolis or Gotham City... O.K. I'm here. Where's the Green Goblin?

Citizen: Too late. The city's destroyed. Thanks a lot, Spider-Man.

Also, the comic book publishers are creating titles specifically for the 20-something Maxim crowd. Here are some of their proposed titles:

Frat Guy: Solves crimes while crawling in a pool of his own vomit.

Testosterone Twins: They don't let their compulsion to grab every ass in sight deter them from fighting evildoers. Just don't look at them the wrong way, Jack...

Doofus: Yeah, he likes math. And attends sci-fi conventions. But if you think that thingamajig on his shirt is a pocket protector, think again, arch-fiends!

The story went on to say that companies also are targeting the aging Baby Boomers with the same superheroes. So we can expect to see strips like "Senior Batman."

Mayor of Gotham City: Batman, I've called you in because the Joker, the Riddler, the Punster, and the Unknown Comic have joined forces to create a consortium of super-villains who use wordplay to commit heinous crimes.

Batman: Yeah, I got my own problems. The sciatica's acting up. I haven't moved my bowels in two weeks. And do you think that good-for-nothing Robin ever calls?

Are there aliens on the Supreme Court?

"Supreme Court Considers Insanity Standard," intoned a headline in today's Times.

Who better?

The story explores the touchy legal issues of what surely will become known as the "alien defense."

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Supreme Court justices rarely talk about Martians. But on Wednesday, extraterrestrials were at the heart of a case brought by a schizophrenic teenager who says he killed an Arizona police officer because he thought the lawman was a space alien.

Court members repeatedly [referred] to the unusual facts of [defendant] Clark's case, signaling that they are likely to rule very narrowly. He was a popular football star until he became convinced that aliens had taken over his town, Flagstaff, Ariz., as a ''platinum city'' and that his own parents were aliens.

Here's my favorite sentence, a classic example of the Times' irony-proof style:

Justices David H. Souter and Stephen Breyer both mentioned Martians.

You know those liberal justices -- taking the side of Martians and their human sympathizers.

Or maybe they were referring to Scalia and Thomas.

It's clear that the D.C. Nine agonized over it:

Justices John Paul Stevens questioned whether someone who thought he was on a mission to kill space aliens could receive the death penalty for killing a person instead.

By this logic, if he killed an alien, he would receive the death penalty. So, in summation: Kill alien, death penalty; kill human, no death penalty.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Location, location, location

Today's Times has a feature about the increasing number of "high net-worth" individuals who are buying elaborate family mausoleums. These grandiose testimonies to pretension beyond the grave cost from $250,000 to well over $1 million. One such monstrosity was described as a "Greek-pillared neo-Classical style structure of white granite, [with] a granite patio, a meditation room, doors of hand-cast bronze and a chandelier. The family name is carved and gilded above a lintel..."

There's nothing like building a tomb that says, "Look at me; I'm a Greek god." The god of orthodontry.

And what's with the meditation room? Where does this guy think he's going after he dies -- Marin Couny?

The story describes "Cedar Park Cemetery, a 300-acre site in Paramus, N.J., that offers burials in mausoleums where crypt space is priced the way urban real estate often is, by neighborhood and floor."

And even better, it's got a doorman. You know, to keep out the riffraff.

To better cover this trend, the Times is thinking of merging the "Real Estate" section with the "Obitiaries."

Saturday, April 15, 2006

The jihad against Mister Softee

Like many people of my generation, my childhood memories include summer nights punctuated by the sounds of baseball games buzzing from transistor radios, chirping conversation of stoop-sitting neighbors, and the hypnotic lullaby of the Mister Softee truck. As a child, the song -- which sounded like an amped-up version of a music box -- was a herald of a sugary treat. Mister Softee's main competition was the Good Humor company. (A friend who grew up in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, says his territory was staked out by Bungalow Bar, which he described as "a low-rent version of Good Humor." It was driven by a disreputable-looking man who was later found to be selling drugs out of the back of his truck.)

Bungalow Bar drug pushers aside, that was a more innocent time. The Good Humor man is on Prozac, and Mister Softee has become a pariah, at least in New York City, where Mayor Bloomberg cited its trucks and that same treacly tune as one of Gotham's greatest noise polluters.

For over a year, Mister Softee executives -- I envision them as guys in suits and ice cream cone heads -- negotiated with the mayor and city council, at the end of which time they reached a compromise: M. Softee would not be violating the new noise pollution code as long as its trucks were moving.

Well, this is little solace for my brother, who had been kept awake three straight nights by "eardrum-shattering music" auguring the truck's imminent arrival on his block in Astoria.

One night last week, he couldn't take it anymore. The Mister Softee music was loud enough to wake up not only him and his wife, but their two-year-old son. Who then wouldn't go back to sleep.

My brother then quickly dressed and ran downstairs and into the street, where he angrily confronted the driver. "I let him have an earful. Clearly, his perfunctory response of 'Sorry, buddy' did not reflect the true terror I struck in his heart." Despite the apparent ineffectuality of his protest, he promised to "banish this scourge from my neighborhood forever."

What's changed since our childhood? Have we become hearing-sensitive curmudgeons? Or has Mister Softee, jacked up the volume in an attempt to be heard over the iPods and video games that preoccupy this generation of kids?

On the other hand, what can you expect from a bunch of people with ice cream cones for heads?

Passion Plays

My favorite story from Friday's USA Today concerns the various worldwide commemorations of Good Friday. Here's an item that leaped out:

"In Mexico City's working class Iztapalapa barrio, nearly 5,000 people participated in a Passion play in the baking sun. In the role of Jesus was 24-year-old Cristian Ramses, who dragged a 210-pound cross for three miles while other actors jeered at him. Earlier, he was whipped by actors in Roman military uniforms."

Afterward, he fired his agent.

And in the same story:

"Catholics marked Good Friday with other rituals, including one in San Pedro Cutud, Philippines, where at least seven Filipino devotees were nailed to a cross, organizers said. The Lenten ritual is opposed by religious leaders in the Philippines but it has persisted to become one of the country's most-awaited summer attractions."

Why would I want go all the way to the Philippines to watch people nailing themselves to a cross, when I can go around the corner leather bar and see the same thing?

You know what they say: To someone with a hammer and a cross, everything is a crucifixion.

And speaking of summer attractions, what could beat a ride on Mission: Space, the Disneyworld attraction that simulates a NASA rocket launch? Well, don't tell that to a family of a German tourist, the second person within a year who died after a spin on it. This woman apparently thought she was Werner von Braun and could withstand the ride, which subjects its willing victims to twice the force of gravity. We yawn at global warming, terrorism, and nuclear proliferation, but please, will somebody or something please SCARE us?

Friday, April 14, 2006

Wake up, Indian Maoists, it's not 1936 anymore

The front page of today's Times featured a story about Maoist guerrillas who are wreaking havoc in India. Marxist morons, Hel-lo! Your "revolutioanary struggle" is so 1936. The Chinese haven't followed Mao's teachings for at least 20 years -- nobody has, not even Kim Jong-Il, the Last Communist Standing. (Now, there's a reality show I would watch. "Tonight, it's the Sendero Luminoso of Peru vs. the Communist Party of Nepal. First event: brainwashing the peasants...")
Why even the deposed Gang of 60 rehabilitated themselves and became comedy writers.

You get the feeling these people have been cut off from world news, like those Japanese soldiers in the jungles of South Asia who never got the word of their country's surrender. And you'd be right: They're a few thousand renegades who have been living in a remote forest.

If they had any sense, these Indian losers would follow today's Chinese leaders and start making cheap flammable children's toys and clothes for the Gap while buying up the exporting country's treasury bonds to hold its economy in a death-grip. But I guess that's not easy when you're living on nuts and berries and dodging tigers.

Now, they could be practicing Maoism ironically, as a kind of kitsch gesture -- the way Westerners wear Che T-shirts or the couture designers who a few seasons ago wrapped their mannequins in Mao-inspired pantsuits.

That would be cool ... except for the violence.

The comedy sweatshop

This week, there was a story in the Times about call centers that handle McDonald’s drive-through orders. You order your burger in Tucson, and Namu from Bangalore takes it. Whatever happened to cow-worship? Another victim of globalisation. Home Depot’s going to use something similar – a speaker attached to the shopping cart that you use to contact a call center for shopping advice. Or, knowing the average American, directions. “Rigoberto, listen, I’m lost in aisle fourteen-J.” “That’s hardware, sir. Send a flare…”

Who knows -- some day they might adopt that technology to show business. I'll be working in a comedy sweatshop, where thousands of comedy writers making eight bucks a day have to churn out gags by the hundreds. Their bosses would have software that would time their productivity, and every so often a red box would pop up on the screen – “Bush gag needed in Sector 6!” And I'd have 1.75 seconds to come up with it.

And we'd reiterate labor history -- there would be attempts to set up a Comics' Union (this has actually been tried, with predictably futile results); strikes; scab gag writers brought in from the WB; silent protests in which the writers only would write set-ups, no punchlines; the comedy writers would become members of the Teamsters; their leadership would become corrupt; guys with names like Sal "Power Tool" Provenzano and no discernible gag-writing skills would show up in the writers' room for "The King of Queens"; the union would protest as Fox shows employed illegal aliens to write gangs for their new sitcoms. (These seasonal workers would write gags during pilot season, then return to Central America to harvest bananas.)

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Test-screening Al Queda videos

One of the top stories from today's USA Today was the release of a video starring Al Queda's deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahri. Oddly, the video was dated November 2005. The story went on: "It was not clear why the video was not released soon after the date it was allegedly filmed."

I know why. They were test-screening it. Focus grouping it. Sending it back to the editing room. It's all about marketing.

Here are some of the viewer responses that they filled in on their "Comment" cards:

Mr. al-Zawahri should wear a white turban.

Mr al-Zawahri should wear a black turban.

The background is white in one shot and red in another. Continuity!

He should threaten terror attacks in Lichtenstein. It would be a total surprise.

Lose the beard.

You had me at "Zionist enemies."

What's got Hollywood afraid is not terror attacks, but Al Queda's iconoclastic business model. Not only do they give the product away, but there's no advertising! There are no Variety grosses for "Death to the Great Satan, Volume 38." There is no festival circuit for jihad videos, no awards show. The people involved do it not for money, but hatred. It's an attitude we should see exemplified more in our own entertainment industry.

Today's Times headline: Car bombs may lead to cuts in life expectancy

Don't you love the New York Times? And the pompous, self-important way it advertises itself? As if you'll grow a new brain if you subscribe. I love that line in their TV ad when an astonished Yuppie woman exclaims, "The news of the world, brought right to my door!" Yes, Jessica, it's called a paper route. " ("Really?! I thought this spaceship dropped my paper from the ionosphere.")

But while the Times thinks of itself as a news organ of cosmic significance, giving the clueless masses the real scoop, what it really is, is an in-house newsletter for the ruling class. A way for Ivy-educated aristos to send love letters to each other while implicitly endorsing the Darwinist crony capitalism they call the "free market." (This is true of the publishing world in general, especially of tonier publications such as The New Yorker, in almost every article of which you can expect to see a sentence like this: "I know [subject of glorifying profile] from our days at [Harvard][Yale][the Council on Foreign Relations]." Often, they'll preface this with the words: "Full Disclosure." No shit, Sherlock.) So it's no wonder why they all took a pass on the Iraq invasion.

The Times people -- I'm including the readers, some of which can only aspire to the upper class -- have concocted their own shimmering parallel universe that bears only the faintest resemblance to what I'll call "prole world." They remain hermetically protected from the consequences of cataclysmic decisions being made by a handful of old, vampiric, mostly white men, but assuage what pangs of conscience they still retain by say, traveling to a Third World country and writing about it. Illegal war? Capitalist exploitation of sweatshop labor? Soul-destroying consumerism? Storm the op-ed pages! "What's happening in Darfur is such a tragedy. It's so terrible that it may win me a Pulitzer!!"

This drift out of Earth's orbit also explains the plethora of “Duh!” headlines that use convoluted, pseudo-elevated language to describe facts that are transparently obvious to a four-year-old. Like: “Car Bombs May Lead to Cuts in Life Expectancy.”

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Church of the Left Hook, or Last Priest Standing

I used to be addicted to Diet Coke. Now I’m addicted to regular Coke, which is even worse. You see, Diet Coke is a gateway cola.

A friend just invited me to a Muay Thai boxing match next week. He says he’s into “blood sports.” He has ringside seats for the “bloodsport,” which is being held in the basement of a church. I guess the Catholics are really desperate for funds. They’re renting out God's house for violent, semi-illicit combat. Whatever happened to bingo? What’s next – cockfighting? I can see the sign outside, white lettering on black – “Today’s Sermon: “Turn the other cheek.” Tonight: X-treme Steel Cage Match.”

"Will you all please kneel for the ring announcements..."

How far will they take this?

MONSIGNOR: So, Father Flannery, how was the gate tonight?
PRIEST: Great. The Black Mass really packed ‘em in.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Consumer immortality; Congressional records

"Intense re-tightening gel." "Anti-aging water." Skin care in a bottle. Immortality through consumerism. All Mephistofeles has to offer the American middle class for their souls is a Sharper Image catalogue. So they can spend the rest of eternity shopping. (One circle of Hell Dante neglected to include.)

Why just today, on the N train I overheard one young woman say to her two friends, "I took the 'What kind of Converse are you?' test. I was multcolor Converse." This was undoubtedly the first test in her life she'd ever taken voluntarily. Perhaps the first test she'd ever passed. (Is it possible to fail? To be NO kind of Converse?") Most likely, she wouldn't have used the same amount time it took to take the Converse test to, say, write her Congressperson.

I mean even I, the most politically cynical person I know, write my congressman. In jail. I have to smuggle my letter in a chocolate cake. But hey, that's Washington. Soon Congressional terms won't be two years; they'll be five to ten. With time off for good behavior.

Of course, they'll be in the kind of prison that has an 18-hole golf course. High ceilings. River view.

PRISON GUARD: Warden, the prisoners are rioting on the patio! They sent back the squab!

The only time we're likely to ever see prison reform is when enough politicians are sent there.

Friday, April 07, 2006

An award show for rants

Two things I've noticed about blogs: 1) everyone and his dog has one; and 2) many of them are nothing more than extended rants. It seems that far too many people use their blogs as some kind of anger-management therapy, and often the entire raison d'etre of a blog is to let the reader know just how pissed off Blogger X is by Microsoft XP Service Pack 2, the most recent episode of "America's Next Top Model," ("Vanessa was robbed!") and, especially, his lousy job.

A basic Google search revealed the following: "Rants of a Marketing Executive," "Stevey's Drunken Rants" -- not to be confused with "Stevey's (presumably sober) Rants," "Rants of an Aged Gamer," and, perhaps most disturbingly, "Rant Air: Rants of an Airline Pilot."

"Welcome to Rant Air. This is your pilot speaking. You know what? I'm sick of flying! The long hours, the pressure to make time, the shoe-bombing nuts. And don't get me started on the airlines! Sometimes I feel like saying 'To hell with it,' bringing this hunk of tin down, and shoving it to the Man ..."

I'm not above ranting myself, but I usually do it in private -- via emails or vocal outbursts to long-suffering friends. My rants are usually about one of two subjects: the Bush administration, or how the Yankees screwed up that night's game. (Example of the latter: Earlier this week I emailed a rant to my friend Richard, the subject line of which was "I refuse to let Scott Proctor ruin my life." Proctor is a relief pitcher of astonishingly consistent incompetence who blew a game against the Oakland A's.)

Ranting has become such a universal activity that it might be America's new national pastime. One deserving of its own awards show. They'd probably call it something like the "Raving Lunatics' Image Award." There would be separate categories for people who rant to others and those who rant to themselves in public. Interspersed with musical numbers -- rants set to show tunes, like "Arggh! Those 'child-proof' bottles are impossible to open!" You can imagine a typical acceptance speech: "Thanks for giving me this award. You know what really ticks me off, though? The gift bag ..."

This would signal the end of blogalization as we know it.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Snitching for dollars

You people with your spam filters (the ones who reroute my brilliant e-newsletter "The Virtual Comic" into your "Deleted Items" folder) don't know what you're missing. Then again, you're not a comedy writer.

You see, unsolicited emails provide a steady stream of inspiration for the absurdity-oriented. Let's take one I received today, from Matthew Lesko, who I'm sure you know from his exclamatory infomercials that shill his books and tapes on how to take advantage of government largesse without bribing a lobbyist or Congressman. The subject line of this email is "Make $10K From The IRS Turning In Your Tax Cheat Neighbor." The email goes on to say:

If you see your neighbor buying a new $50,000 Mercedes on a teacher’s salary or you overhear that nasty no-good co-worker brag talking about how he never pays his taxes, well then government financial guru, Matthew Lesko, says: “STOP being Mr. Nice Guy and bank big money while you help the IRS collect back taxes.”

My initial thought was: How brilliant! He's going Stalin one step further. Uncle Joe got the entire Soviet population to inform on each other through fear and intimidation. But this is America, not the U.S.S.R., where when it comes to motivators, fear and intimidation are second only to cash. Soon we'll have neighbors and colleagues watching our every move. "Hey, the Fresh Direct truck just pulled up in front of Jim's house. How can he afford it as a freelance comedy writer? HE MUST BE CHEATING ON HIS INCOME TAX! Quick, call the IRS Snitch Line!"

And if the cash reward (15 percent of what the IRS collects from the tax cheat on whom you informed) isn't enough, Lesko appeals to patriotism: "Go and do the right thing for your country!" Lesko's pitch doesn't end there. In a cheeky, playing-both-sides-of-the-fence gambit, he also offers "free legal help to fight the IRS (thanks to your nosy neighbor!)." So: Snitch but be not snitched against!

Of course, the success of Lesko's "Snitching for Dollars" scheme is based on a rather unrealistic conception of law-breakers as audacious braggarts.

"Yeah, not only do I cheat on my taxes, but you should see the sarin gas tank I've got in my garage! Speaking of which, are you free this Saturday? I'm hosting an Al-Queda meeting..."

Ultimately, Lesko's scheme is loopy with contradictions. But then again, anybody who takes financial advice from a guy wearing the Riddler's costume deserves what he gets.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The truth button

Ruminating on the closed-captioning for the hearing impaired got me thinking of other special viewing and listening options available to today's consumer. There's the "SP" button, which I thought automatically translated everything into Spanish, including the commercials. "Pienso Arby's." But then I discovered that only certain programs offer simultaneous Spanish translation. Usually sports.

(Speaking of which, I read where ESPN is going to start telecasting dominoes games from the game's Hispanic neighborhood hotbeds. What's next -- "Cockfight of the Week"?)

Still, I wondered why some minority groups get to watch customized programming. Why isn't there a remote button for people like me -- you know, disaffected intellectuals who actually read something other than their cell phones? Why can't I push the "S" for "smart" button, instantly elevating all television programming into a more rarified realm? ""Tonight, on The Simple Life, Paris and Nicole debate Planck's constant." Even better, on my ideal remote, there would be a "T" button for "truth," so that when I put on the news, Paula Zahn's lips will be moving, but the caption will say, "George Bush is a fucking moron, the Alfred E. Neumann-esque tool of the rapacious capitalist elite. America is becoming a police state and an international pariah. The Christian Right are befrocked Nazis. I sold my soul to become a celebrity teleprompter reader." And the commercials: "SUVs are deadly crash vehicles that flip on a dime." "This drug causes heart attack and stroke, just like Vioxx did." Now that would be worth paying an extra $3.95 a month on my cable bill.

Closed captioning

I feel for the hearing-impaired. Not because of their impairment. (They wouldn't want my pity, anyway.) No, it's because they're not getting a true understanding of their television programs. I happen to watch a lot of hearing-impaired, closed-captioned TV at my gym. (I just gave you the impression that I work out at a special hearing-impaired health club. Not true. The closed-captioning has been activated to prevent what would be a cacophany of TV soundtracks in the cardio room. After all, do you really want to hear "The Apprentice" while you're working out? That's enough to cause a lot of heart rates to rise to the "Please Defibrillate" level. A lot of stationary bike accidents.

I was watching (or more accurately) reading "The Apprentice" at my gym last night. The premise was that two teams of soulless, semi-articulate junior exec-manques had to create an ad campaign for Arby's new "all-natural" chicken sandwich. Only the caption read not "Arby's," but "Arm Yeast." Which was more accurate. So maybe the hearing-impaired are getting the truth, and we of sound ears are being deceived yet again by the MSM.