Secret Pop

Aug 15, 2010

What is funny? or Please be advised, this is not going to be.

What is funny?

A long time ago, I took a class at San Diego Mesa College called "A Literary Approach to Film," taught by Andrew Makarushka. He was a really entertaining teacher. I remember him reminding me of George Carlin, and I remember him telling us he used to have a radio show (with Gabriel Wisdom, if you're from San Diego or interested in finance). We watched and discussed a lot of great films. And he gave me passes to see Joe Versus the Volcano. And I never forgot his name nor how to spell it.

That is not the purpose of this post.

Earlier today, I followed a link from a tweet by Paul Sabourin of @paulandstorm and read Robert Mankoff's New Yorker article about the #kanyenewyorkertweets meme, of which Paul Sabourin is the originator. Wow. Complicated sentence.

Anyway. Every now and then, I'll be talking to someone who shares my interest in and -- gross and unironic as it sounds to say -- passion for comedy, and I'll mention this class I took and one session when we discussed comedy. I'll cite the discussion of the levels of laughter, but I'll usually forget all but the first and the last. I'll mention that we watched The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Prizzi's Honor and Modern Romance, and then I'm off to Tangent Town.

Fortunately, I took notes in my tiny handwriting in my somewhat tiny Japanese looseleaf notebook, which you can see above. And this afternoon, I took the notebook out of a filing cabinet, and typed the notes in a Tumblr, and here they are for you and everyone, so we need never speak again.


In 1896, the Lumière brothers made a film of a man watering a lawn. In 1911, Mack Sennett wandered onto the set of a D.W. Griffith picture and ended up studying under the tutelage of Griffith himself, the inventor of film language. Sennett then decided to use the techniques he learned to create a world that was zany and skewed instead of realistic. That was the birth of the Keystone Cops and a world in which all social problems could be solved with "a kick in the rump."

Comedy vs. Humor

Comedy is based on human foibles. Humor is based on content and is therefore timely, e.g., Mort Sahl's Kennedy jokes. Comedy, by comparison, is timeless, e.g., Aristophanes' The Hypocrite. Molière's comedy The Misanthrope is still successful and funny. Whereas Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland's satire is lost, but the comedy remains. Humor changes quickly with the times and can become dated (political cartoons).

What is funny?

This is a difficult problem because laughter resides in the viewer rather than in the event. Laughter is unique to a given event, and its perception in the moment by the viewer. Laughter is evoked by situations having both comedy and tragedy. Aristotle said that the comic element is something ugly or distorted but not painful. Humans are the only animal to have this ability/propensity (i.e., laughter). There is a sadistic element to it, but a person amused by an accident is one who is afraid of it. He experiences satisfaction and glee in seeing humiliating misfortune happen to a proxy victim. Laughter's friend is cruelty, and its enemy is compassion.

The 3 Comic Elements

1. the ludicrous (out of proportion/exaggerated)
2. the incongruous (depends on discovery of mismatched characters in a normal setting or vice versa)
3. the unexpected ([a] unforeseen by viewer or [b] unforeseen by proxy victim)

The 6 Levels of Laughter

1. obscenity and/or vulgarity (basest level)
2. physical mishap
3. plot device (e.g., Cyrano de Bergerac's nose -- denotes expectation of humor)
4. verbal wit (sophisticated level -- "De rien. Il n'y a pas de quoi.")
5. situation or high comedy (depends on incongruity of characters)
6. satire (incongruity of ideas, audacious, most intellectually demanding, most risky)

So those are my notes. You already saw a picture of them. Can you believe my tiny handwriting? It's pretty unbelievable.

I don't know if this directly addresses the Kanye/New Yorker discussion, but inspiration is its own excuse. And that even sounds a little like an iterative expansion of Paul Sabourin's thesis: The context is the joke. Which maybe belongs in these notes somewhere.

May 31, 2010

This might not last forever.

I recently rediscovered Lisa Germano's Excerpts From a Love Circus while making a mixtape. There were songs of hers I wanted to include. I included them. But not until I was on a revision of so high a number that you might wonder if I'm expecting to be paid for my product. I'm not.

I used to listen to the album end to end, over and over, all the time, during my first year in Los Angeles. I found meaning in nearly every song. Personal personal things. It was both comforting to hear someone else sing them and also sort of deflating being reminded that nothing I felt was really mine. Disappointment is so tragically ordinary. Everyone feels sad. Everyone gets hurt. Everyone feels cheated, let down, dashed. At one time or another, everyone feels like the world is sitting on their chest and they can neither breathe nor cry out. A night terror.

If you listen to an album enough and then don't listen to it for a long time and then listen to it a lot again, it's likely that it will change. It's likely that you will have changed. You might have changed so much that you don't even hear music in the same way.

That's how it is for me with this album. It's like I've taped over the previous feelings. Drawn over the previous faces. Only hints of the former remain. And even that is more a product of my propensity to remember who I was at the time than what any of it felt like. I remember what was happening around the music. I remember what I was wearing. But I don't completely remember the scorn that I was responding to. That has faded to nothing. It has lost its potency. It's a bottle of soda left open. The peppery sting of the fizz is all gone.

Oh, it's possible that you in your lifetime have never made an actual mixtape. I mean with magnetic tape on a deck that records analog sound. But I made many of those tapes. And if you did, you may recall that sometimes -- when you recorded over a tape more than once -- there would be ghosts. Faraway remnants of songs you meant to erase. This happened to me a lot, because I would work very hard to never have a tape cut off in the middle of a song, but I also didn't want there to be an excess of blank space at the end of a side. So, in some cases after finding that a track didn't quite fit, I would find another song that did. Maybe some short instrumental piece. Or If You Were Here by Thompson Twins. (Two minutes and fifty-six seconds was just right more often than you'd think.) And there might be only a second or two of empty space before the tape ran clear. And in those seconds, you might hear one of these ghosts. Maybe Depeche Mode. Something from Black Celebration. But it would sound like they were playing in an empty pool in the empty gymnasium of an empty school hundreds of miles away.

This Lisa Germano album has similar artifacts for me. Faint ghosts of what I used to feel when I heard those descending notes on what I think is a hammered dulcimer but could also be an auto-harp. Who I thought of as "hero" when she sang, "So what if your hero sells its soul." Who was doing the carrying in the lyric, "You can carry a lie till it makes you fall down." It's like a revival of a play with a mostly new cast. It's not an issue of which version you like better. But there's an argument to be made that a remake occasionally gets the casting more right than anyone expected. And sometimes it's not about which version was more apt. It's just an issue of running into it at a time when it means something to you. I guess that's the issue with most things.

The mistake is listening to anything alone and expecting that anyone is sharing it with you. Even if you put a song on a mixtape. Or a mix CD, as is now the way we do. We listen in different ways. Some people never give a song a chance. Some people don't care about lyrics. Some people don't like to listen to anything from beginning to end. I've spent my life so far gradually learning that what I call one thing is something else to everyone but me. And that there's no crime in that. Letting go the desire to control every aspect of the experience is a gift. But gifts are something I often have difficulty accepting. It takes a certain amount of back and forth.

The world revolves around you. But it revolves around me, too. So how could we see the same one?

May 30, 2010

A Headache Not Worth Having

I used to write more things down. I used to have dreams all the time and remember them. I used to stop mid-sentence and scramble to find a pen. Maybe it's something about all of this micro-blogging. I think of something and just spit it right out. There's never a chance to let the words linger a bit. See where they go. See if anything comes of them. There's no mellowing period. The immediacy overtakes the art. I've even learned to forgive myself if a tweet contains a typo. It's usually an iPhone typing gaff. And if I don't catch it before two other things have been posted, I commit it to history and accept that there will always be evidence that I might not know the difference between "if" and "of." That is an evolutionary shift.

Not so with this blog of mine. Even today, if I happen across a post from years ago where "going" is spelled "giong," I fix it and republish on the spot. Preserving quality for a posterity that is ironically bound to be less expansive and perhaps less attentive than the ones who read what I tweet. Although one could argue that having a great deal of attention for a second or two at a time does not constitute occupying a place of great meaning in people's lives. It's the ones who sit and listen for a while. The ones who wish there was more. Those are the ears worth whispering into. Those are the ones who will hear now and yesterday and sometime later today and be able to tie it all together, context being a precious, precious thing that nearly never accompanies a status update. Those are the ones who would notice if you were tweeting in a series. They wouldn't require the two of three.

But notebook time was a different time. The notebook was a staging area for something more complete. And I would review what I'd written without waiting so long that my handwriting became illegible to me. And I would fill the notebooks up before they began to disintegrate in my handbag. The notebook was a place I would remind myself to make more of things later. And, in general, I would follow through. That is becoming less the case.

These end up being ways for me to feel the vitality in me ebbing. If I sit with a pen poised over a blank notebook page, I might wait for hours and find that nothing seems worth saying. When I was in high school, and we were required to sit and write in a journal for a half-hour period every day for one semester, I often filled those pages up with song lyrics. Because I couldn't think of anything else to say. All my angsty teenage musings and I couldn't make sentences of them. But I could remember the lyrics to songs I liked. And I usually liked them either because they made me feel forlorn and romantic or because they said things that sounded dirty to me. So those are the words I wrote. No one was ever going to read them. It was more an exercise in penmanship than in anything else.

And in some ways, it's a kind of code. A way to say, "I'm feeling something," without having to say what it is. And if anyone gets wise, you can just point out that it's a song and that you didn't write it, and there ends accountability. Anyone who presses you further either doesn't understand social cues or really, really cares about you.

The notebook I carry still contains sporadic history. There's the bit I wrote when I was waiting for that guy, the first time we went out and he was a little late. There's the thing my friend said that made me want to launch a line of greeting cards. There's the mini-diary I kept the first time I flew to New York for my current job and everything seemed so pre-perfect.

I've managed to sunburn my front half pretty well. Tomorrow I will set out in search of balance. And the outcome will be damage in symmetry, but damage just the same.

Apr 6, 2010

The silence was mandatory. And, in retrospect, advisable.

Blogger's recent location-change requirement for FTP subscribers, despite the offering of some lickety-split-sounding migration tool, actually ended up preventing the use of my blog for all this time. And maybe that was for the best. I don't remember feeling as if I had so much to say, but who knows what I might have blurted out. Instead the past month has been somewhat like one of those dreams where the murderer is coming for you and you want to scream but you can't. In this case, the murderer was Blogger, and the silent scream was WordPress, because that fucker hasn't been any help either.

Anyway, cheers. I'm back on again. For whatever it's worth.

Mar 7, 2010

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Sometimes when I lie very still, I can't feel my arms or legs or any part of my body. I can't even feel my teeth. With my eyes closed, I'm floating in the vacuum of space, slightly surprised I'm able to breathe.

Upon waking this morning, after seeing Alice in Wonderland the night before, I realized I had been dreaming in that theme. I was trembling and you held me, but I was tall and you were small, and there was no magic cake in sight.

I also realized that there are birds that sound like rain. The dogs always sound like dogs, but the birds -- the birds can sing a variety of songs.

Mar 3, 2010

The Disingenuousness of Polite Encouragement

Last summer, my neighbor told me she would be gone for a week. She was going camping with her daughter. I said, "Oh, that sounds fun!" But I didn't mean it. Not truthfully. To be terribly honest, it doesn't sound like anything but the opposite of fun to me. But it's not my job to burst my neighbor's bubble. She doesn't need to know that I'm afraid of possums and raccoons. She doesn't care that I don't know what poison ivy looks like. She was probably only telling me so she could blame me if her place got robbed. And I was just being polite in the way that we are polite to each other in our fraudulent little society of liars. And if you think I'm wrong, please cite the last time you said, "You look AMAZING!" to someone and meant it.

Maybe if a camping trip was planned by someone who really knows how to camp and is really good at it, I'd end up not loathing it. Maybe if the centerpiece of the camping trip was a two-night stay at a five star hotel.

But if you left it to me to plan a camping trip, I would just come up with ways to make it feel like it wasn't a camping trip at all. Because I can't think of anything less appealing than being outside all the time and learning why everything is all wet in the morning and not knowing who has recently peed on the spot where you are now about to pitch a tent.

I can make pancakes and steak on a Coleman stove. And I can remember to buy all the right booze. There is virtually no end to the number of travel size shampoo bottles I can offer you, and I buy only the most luxurious t.p. You want me as your supply officer. But you don't want me as your captain where camping is concerned. And you don't want me in your tent. Unless you like the delicate art of complaint. And let's face it, if you're inviting me somewhere, you probably do.

Feb 14, 2010

Year of the Eye of the Tiger

Today was my first visit to San Diego in 2010. A longer absence than usual. Truncated by the same reason as nearly always. In a recent email, my mother invited me to come to a Chinese New Year dinner with the family, and she adorably and somewhat passive-aggressively said: "We have not seen you for so long. Your dad and I like to have you here as long as we can. I hope we are also your Valentine. :)" This is the form of guilt I find most irresistible.

Usually, Chinese New Year's most noteworthy impact on my life is a slight urge to go to the post office and buy year-of-the-whatever stamps. Back in 2004, I was on this mail art kick, which I unashamedly attribute to watching How to Draw a Bunny and getting all caught up in the genius of Ray Johnson. In addition to buying a photocopier and a lifetime's worth of art supplies, I bought far too many year of the monkey stamps as a means of supporting my plans to send random letters and little arty things I made to various people I knew. I did it for a while. Sent letters around the world and across the country. Sent a bunch to my sister. It never really kicked off a movement, as I might have hoped. I think the only person in the lot who sent me something in the mail was my friend Geoffrey, love that he is. In the end, I was left with a lot of extra stamps. And I seem to have misplaced the little address book I was keeping. So the mailing of stuff won't reinstate itself without at least a little bit of leg work.

So this year, I don't really care that it's the year of the tiger especially, but I do care that it's something new. Time is linear, but the way we experience it is largely cyclical. And these occasional markers are as good an excuse as any to kick yourself in the pants and say, "Hey, how about doing things a little differently this time?" You don't get to unlive or undo. But you can certainly start over. As many times as you like, really. Maybe you can even get it perfect eventually. As long as part of what you change is the way you define perfect, and as long as you learn not to throw away too too much when you're doing your spring cleaning.

I'm not drinking glasses of whole eggs for breakfast. That would just be taking things too far.

Gong xi fa cai, people. Possibility is as much about what won't happen as it is about what will. But in either case, it all begins with the walnut shrimp.

Feb 7, 2010

Towards the Memory of a Better Prom

I did not have one of those longstanding boyfriend-girlfriend things in high school. A lot of people I knew did. And at the time, I probably envied them. But through the filter of my more experienced recollection, I look back on those scenes and assume that I wasn't feeling especially left out. Even though they were 15 maybe 16 years-old, my classmates in relationships became like old married couples. The girls became practical, dour. And they expected things. The boys had to think ahead to bring a second jacket, in case girlfriend required first jacket over the shoulders of her cheer sweater. The boys had to be careful not to talk to other girls. Not to look at other girls. The girls had to be careful not to tell their blabber-prone friend the details of their various dissatisfactions. I remember seeing them talking to each other at their lockers, these coupled up ones. It never looked fun. It often looked angst-ridden. And at the time -- as I was listening to The Smiths and The Cure and David Sylvian -- maybe it was the angst I envied. But I think about it now, and I have to wrinkle my nose. I had my crushes to depress over. But I didn't have this boyfriend-girlfriend thing. This "let's hold hands even though neither of us seems to like doing that" thing. This "I'll just wait in your car while you're at football practice" thing. At the time, having someone expect you to be waiting outside for them at the end of the day seemed like something I would have wanted. Looking back, though, I'm relieved I never narrowed the field in that way. (At least not until the absolutely very end of my senior year. And at that point, half the time we weren't in school anyway.) I compare it in my brain to going exploring and stopping at the first place you see that seems different and just staying there. You don't know you're just steps away from the unattended entrance of the world's coolest abandoned amusement park. You don't know that you could walk five minutes and see an original Van Gogh. You don't know there are restaurants that don't have microwaves in them. How could you know? You've settled in right here. In this little alcove that inadvertently provides shelter in the event of rain but doesn't appear to have been designed for that purpose.

In some ways, I think growing up is just the act of revising your wants. All those things you thought you needed. All those things you knew you had to have. Looking back at them from years away almost demands the making of excuses. I don't know that many people who can talk about those tender, temerity-filled teenage years and say, "This is who/what I loved," without having to immediately offer, "Let me explain..." Life mostly ends up being the many ways you push yourself towards the things you convince yourself must happen. You rewrite the musts over and over. But the pushing itself is written in indelible ink.

Jan 23, 2010

Keeping Things Whole

A while back, I watched Waking the Baby Mammoth, in which paleontologists study the remains of the most perfectly preserved woolly mammoth ever found. And as I watched them take her apart, I realized that I hated watching them do it. It might be the same thing that makes it hard for me to cut up a book for a collage if the book is perfect or part of a set. I treasure the completeness and know that once you've started cutting, the wholeness can never be restored. "Whole" is an absolute. Once it is diminished, it is no longer. Once you've taken something away, "whole" requires an adverb.

I've spent a lot of/too much time in my life thinking about the irretrievable messing up of a perfect thing. Things that go on your permanent record. Things you do that make it so you can never say "never have I ever" anymore. (Drink.) It's misplaced concern, I'll grant you. But it is a thing I think. Sometimes it works better for me when something brand new or perfect gets marred in some way very soon after it comes to me. It takes the pressure off. Next time I buy a new car, I should nick the bumper on something right away. That way I can loathe its imperfection but no longer feel a prisoner of my desperate desire to prevent it.

Maybe second chances are folly. We like to pretend we can put things behind us or unfeel things we've felt. Maybe after a severe brain injury. But in the absence of that...I guess I don't know.

I forget very little. And frankly it's only a strength when it's valuable to remember something. But in a way, it's like paying for storage month after month for a thing that you'll only take out once or twice ever again. Just to look at it. Never to use it. Never to put it to work earning back all that rent you paid. I would forget many things, if I could. I would put a lot of things out of my mind and never give them an opportunity to transport me anywhere. Especially not back to a place of insecurity or hurt. I'd like it to be more like in Dickens. Where, having been transported, you can just stand off to the side and watch yourself objectively and maybe not actually BE in the moment all over again. Where's the fun in that. Those ghosts never take you back to any places you want to go. Scrooge doesn't proudly survey his favorite orgasm in any of the versions I've seen. And I feel like I've seen all of them.

The sun's back out. The sky is a solid crayon color of blue. Sometimes it feels like the world joins me in my desire to have something to look forward to.

Jan 13, 2010


I was looking back at the earliest of my blog entries. They go back to September of 2001, right before I got a new job and moved from San Diego to Los Angeles and told myself I was starting over, when really I was just starting.

From my corner office on the 6th floor of the City National Bank building on Wilshire and Fairfax, I had a pretty enviable view of Century City in one direction and the Hollywood Hills in the other. And whenever I thought, "I should write something," I'd usually just have to look through the glass to find something to say. Homeless guy this. The clouds that. A doubledecker bus filled with Austin Powers lookalikes. It wrote itself. I guess having an office with a window that looks out on the rest of the office instead of a bustling, piss-soaked sidewalk is as viable an excuse as any to explain away the dearth of inspiration I have been feeling.

I've had phases. Sometimes I would write about what I was doing and say nothing about how I felt. Then I would write about what I felt and say nothing about what I was doing. Maybe this is the phase where I'm doing nothing and feeling nothing and the obvious result is a reduced urgency to tip tap type it out. In the marketing and public relations world, there are various positions taken on what constitutes an announceable event. You don't want to overreport. You don't want to be one of those companies that issues a press release to say how much you love summer or to remind people that "lunch" is a fun word. But you also don't want to keep too quiet. Lest people forget you. Or assume you're working on something you're ashamed to talk about. It's hard to imagine what that could be in these modern times. Porn is utterly mainstream. Dropping out for a year to live on your disability settlement is like a generational rite of passage. Even prison has become commonplace and banal enough to not keep you from getting to second base with a lady if you meet her at a bar in Silverlake. It might even be a selling point. The shame of just not having anything interesting to say is on a separate scale. A more shameful scale. And a far less rebloggable one.

These days, I have my best ideas on the treadmill or in a movie theater or while driving. And I command myself to remember and write them down. At which time I often find I'm lacking a pen. That can be as literal or as figurative as you like. It's true in both directions.

Jan 7, 2010

It comes in waves.

I saw three white balloons drifting up into the nighttime. Past the moon. In front of the stars. I don't know who let them go, but I felt sorry for their goodbye.

Jan 4, 2010

She said "yes."

I had a dream the other night, but enough nights ago that we can accurately say "the other year." I was in Culver City. I kept having the answers to geeky questions, and I kept not getting credit for it. And there was this pall of injustice and urgency hanging over it all. Everyone was getting something they wanted. I was just watching it happen. And despite my frustration and an overwhelming feeling of being left behind, I kept it all to myself and offered my congratulations. A bystander, making notes in a journal, saving the commentary for later, when -- after rigorous editing -- it might be palatable to judging eyes without revealing the subdermal layer of "it's not fair."

Say what you will about Jung and Freud, but some dreams are so easy to interpret, you might as well have read their transcript in a fortune cookie. And if anyone ends up turning two-line dream synopses into a fortune cookie's insides, I expect a healthy share of the profits.

Jan 3, 2010


The moon came down to meet me. Like the inside of a cooked egg. The part of the yolk, both yellow and grey. You have to be careful not to overcook eggs, you know. But I won't decline a cooked egg, under any circumstances. I'm very forgiving that way.

I looked at the moon the way I always look at the moon, when I see it. Expectantly. Hopefully. Once a great source of inspiration. It's so easy to write lyrical little turns of phrase about things that are persistently, prettily present. That's why thousands of years of writers have written about the moon. Many of them calling it "she." And why they write about stars and the sun and mountains that haven't yet come down. It's easy to treat them like gods. They're always there. But me? I wrinkle my nose at things that promise permanence. Even pens.

But I keep seeing the moon from the same angle, from the same point of the compass, from the same street. With the same dog leash in hand. Passing the same neighbors. The ones who always seem to be frying onions. The ones who have everything but curtains covering their windows. The ones who turned that little shoebox of a house into such an adorable little opposite-of-an-eyesore.

And now I look at the moon and it's all so very the same. A postulate. How I long to see something new. Even when I am looking at something that can't possibly be. It's all so very the same that I find I often don't even look anymore. I feel my poetic leanings crusting over, as if I'm one of those storybook work-a-days who tunes out the world and never realizes they're riding on a subway train made of gold. Oh, there's a fable to be written about me and my kind. Tin joints covered with that reddish, brittle coating that comes from the rain and the salt air and a terrific flood of weeping. Oil can. Oil can.

I lay my fingers across the keyboard, and there's this paralysis. Do I not know what to say? Do I not want to say what I'm thinking? Am I actually thinking anything? Maybe that's the primal arrogance of me. Believing I should have something to say, whether I seem to or not. And that was just the primal self-deprecation of me, in case you didn't notice. I'm very good at making sure no one thinks I really believe I'm worth listening to. Just in case.

I may actually be making a formal sport of saying nothing in five hundred words or less.