Archive for the ‘Pop culture’ Category

My apologies. The blog’s been dormant for a while. A bunch of stuff came up — primarily a new job — and I was obliged to put it on the back burner. But I’d like to start it back up. So how about I begin with a new, original novelette, presented to you for free?

Here’s the deal. I have a young, talented friend named Frank who portrays a character known as “Cuddles McSpanky” at haunted attractions. He knows I’m a writer. At a recent party, we got into a discussion about our mutual love of horror and noir. And we agreed that it might be fun if I tried writing a story featuring his character. I found myself really getting into it. To my surprise, the short story I initially intended to write somehow expanded into a novelette.

I tried including it in my short story collection, “The Devil’s Kazoo Band Don’t Take No Requests,” due out from Codorus Press early in 2016. But my publisher told me we’re a bit late in the process for that.

So I figured, what the heck. I wrote it mainly as a fun project anyway. And I’d like Frank to be able to share it with his friends and followers. So here it is, presented as a freebie. Enjoy. Share it, if you’re so inclined. And if you like it, keep an eye out for “The Devil’s Kazoo Band Don’t Take No Requests.” Or check out my Pushcart-Prize-nominated debut novel, “The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report.” You can find Cuddles McSpanky’s page here. And if you’re REALLY brave and/or crazy, you can go see him in person here.

For the record, this is a work of fiction and is not intended maliciously. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any other resemblance to actual events, groups or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

So here goes:

 

THE LEGEND OF CUDDLES MCSPANKY

By Tom Joyce

Based on a character created by Frank Paul Staff IV

 

 

Somewhere in the night-darkened pines to Kevin’s left, chainsaws buzzed like mechanical hornets. Followed by screaming.

Startled, a cluster of girls in Kevin’s group let out screams of their own, giggling at themselves immediately afterward. The Trail of Terror at the BloodShed Farms haunted attraction in Pierce Township, N.J., followed a snaking trajectory, frequently turning back on itself. Intermittent cries from the densely encroaching pines on either side signaling that the group ahead had encountered whatever as-yet-unseen horror would ambush Kevin’s group next, be it zombie, vampire or psychopath.

An unnerving effect, Kevin had to admit, jangling his already jangled nerves.

Kevin trailed behind a dozen or so teens and adults venturing through October darkness punctuated by pale lights on poles set at infrequent intervals along the paved path. Wishing that the night’s errand was already over. He yanked the brim of his baseball cap down lower on his forehead and pulled the hood of his sweatshirt tighter about his face.

(more…)

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Mr. PeabodyNote from Tom Joyce: This is a piece from writer C.I. Kemp that ran in a recent issue of “The Speculator,” the newsletter for the Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers, which I am re-posting here with Kemp’s permission. In retrospect, the connection between Mr. Peabody and H.P. Lovecraft seems obvious, in light of the fact … in light of the fact … Ah hell. I give up. There is no rational explanation for this. C.I. Kemp is freakin insane. Enjoy.

 

Peabody’s Improbable History: H.P. Lovecraft

by C. I. Kemp

LovecraftIt’s common knowledge among horror aficionados that H.P. Lovecraft was strongly influenced by the works of Lord Dunsany and Edgar Allan Poe. There was, however, another individual without whose assistance Lovecraft would never have achieved the fame he did. Now at last, it can be told:

Note: If you’re one of the few who had a deprived childhood and grew up without ever seeing an episode of “Peabody’s Improbable History,” please check it out on You Tube before reading further. That way, you can appreciate the deathless prose that follows with all the seriousness and respect it deserves.

FADE IN
Opening animation to PEABODY’S IMPROBABLE HISTORY accompanied by theme music.
DISSOLVE TO:

1. INTERIOR: Peabody’s lab.
Peabody is standing in front of the the WABAC Machine, Sherman by his side.
PEABODY
Hello there. Peabody here. (Gesturing) Sherman and WABAC there. Sherman is a boy. The WABAC – a time machine.
SHERMAN
Where are we going today, Mr. Peabody?
PEABODY
Set the WABAC for the year 1926.
SHERMAN
And the place?
PEABODY
Providence, Rhode Island, where we’ll meet that illustrious horror writer, Howard Phillips Lovecraft.

2. EXTERIOR. A street scene in Providence, RI.
PEABODY (voice-over)
In less time than it takes to tell, the WABAC Machine transported us to Lovecraft’s doorstep.
An angry mob is gathered outside a house. They’re throwing rotten fruit through the windows and shouting in anger. From inside the house comes a loud discordant singing:
LOVECRAFT (voice-over)
Lullaby and good night! La la la la la la la…
SHERMAN
Golly! What’s going on, Mr. Peabody?
PEABODY
I think it’s time we found out.
PEABODY (voice-over)
Sherman and I entered the house and found…

3. INTERIOR – Lovecraft’s bathroom.
Lovecraft is standing before a large bathtub, holding a piece of sheet music and singing off-key. In the tub is Cthulhu, happily splashing about, playing with a decapitated rubber duck, making unintelligible gurgling sounds. The walls are plastered with the remains of thrown fruit as are Lovecraft’s face and lapels.
PEABODY (voice-over continues)
…Lovecraft singing to a many-tentacled, winged, big-footed sea monster.
LOVECRAFT (to the tune of Brahms’ Lullaby)
Go to sleep, go to sleep… Oh, it’s no use, I’m ruined!
PEABODY
Why the long face, Mr. Lovecraft?
LOVECRAFT (gesturing at his gaunt face)
Why, I was born with it.
PEABODY
No, no, I mean, why so unhappy?
LOVECRAFT
Oh, it’s because of him (gesturing at Cthulhu)
PEABODY
I don’t understand.
LOVECRAFT
Well, listen to this. (Clears throat). “In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”
SHERMAN
Why, that’s wonderful!
LOVECRAFT
Yes, but I can’t use it.
PEABODY
And why is that?
LOVECRAFT
Well, one can’t dream unless one is asleep, right?
PEABODY
Right.
LOVECRAFT
And one can’t sleep if one won’t go to sleep, right?
PEABODY
Also right.
LOVECRAFT
Well, I can’t get him to go to sleep!
Camera shifts to Cthulhu who is squeezing the rubber duck. The duck flies out of his tentacles…
Camera shifts back to Lovecraft.
…and hits LOVECRAFT in the head before bouncing off-screen.
PEABODY
Well, your singing doesn’t seem to be bearing fruit.
LOVECRAFT
Oh, I wouldn’t say that. (He picks a remnant of fruit from his lapel and starts chomping.) May I offer you an apple?
PEABODY
No thank you. What I mean is your lullaby doesn’t seem to be making him sleepy.
LOVECRAFT
You’re right. Perhaps some Nelson Eddy show tunes? When I’m calling youuuuuuu…
PEABODY and SHERMAN are wincing, covering their ears. CTHULHU is holding his tentacles to where his ears might be and is making some very unhappy gurgling sounds.
PEABODY
I think not. Might I recommend some more traditional methods?
LOVECRAFT
Such as?
PEABODY
Warm milk has been shown to be an effective sleep inducer. Why not try that?
LOVECRAFT
Excellent idea!

4  EXTERIOR – A nearby farm
PEABODY, SHERMAN, LOVECRAFT, and CTHULHU are standing outside of a barn.
PEABODY (voice-over)
I directed Lovecraft to a nearby dairy farm. Naturally, a simple glass of warm milk could hardly have any effect on a creature Cthulhu’s size…

5  INTERIOR – Barn
An assembly line of cows goes past Lovecraft, seated on a stool, as he milks each one.
PEABODY (voice-over)
…so Lovecraft proceeded to milk a barn full of cows.

6  EXTERIOR – Barn.
PEABODY and SHERMAN are standing outside of the barn. Suddenly, there is a loud THUD, a yell, and a dazed and battered Lovecraft comes crashing through the wall of the barn and landing on his butt before PEABODY and SHERMAN.
SHERMAN
Mr. Lovecraft, what happened?
LOVECRAFT
That last one was a bull.

7  INTERIOR – Barn
CTHULHU is downing bucket after bucket.
PEABODY (voice-over)
Cthulhu proceeded to swallow bucket after bucket of the milk. The result, however, was not what we had hoped for.
CTHULHU
(Loud) Moo! (Louder) BUUURRRRP!
CTHULHU leaps off-screen…

8  EXTERIOR – A water trough outside the barn.
…and onscreen again into the water trough where he begins splashing and making happy gurgling sounds, much as we saw him in the earlier bathtub scene. PEABODY, SHERMAN, and LOVECRAFT are standing by.
SHERMAN
What do we do now, Mr. Peabody?
PEABODY (stroking his chin)
Hmmmmm. I think a more scientific approach is called for.

9  INTERIOR – A local pharmacy
All four are standing in the pharmacy in front of an aisle with a sign reading “Sleep Aids.”
Scene shifts to CTHULHU proceeding down the aisle devouring everything off the shelves.
PEABODY (voice-over)
We then proceeded to a local pharmacy where Cthulhu availed himself not only of the various sleep aids, but everything else in the store.
Once again, Cthulhu makes a grand leap off-screen.

10  EXTERIOR – A street scene
Several little kids are playing at an open fire hydrant. They look up and flee in terror as Cthulhu lands in the puddle and resumes his splashing and gurgling.
PEABODY (voice over)
Unfortunately, Cthulhu remained as animated as ever.

11  EXTERIOR – Outside the pharmacy, which now has an “Out Of Business” sign in the window.
LOVECRAFT
Oh, it’s no use! I’ll never be able to write at this rate! I may as well go into some other line of work.
SHERMAN
Like what, Mr. Lovecraft?
LOVECRAFT
I don’t know. Tuba Instructor? Yogurt Taster? (Shudders) Insurance Salesman?
PEABODY (voice-over)
Lovecraft’s suggestions gave me an idea.
PEABODY
Mr. Lovecraft, if you follow my instructions, I can not only get Cthulhu to go to sleep, but I can guarantee to keep him asleep for a very long time.
LOVECRAFT
You can? How?

12  EXTERIOR – A different street scene.
PEABODY and LOVECRAFT enter a storefront office whose sign reads “Justin Cayce, Insurance.” After a few seconds, they leave with LOVECRAFT carrying a brief case.
PEABODY (voice-over)
I got Lovecraft to apply for a job with the local insurance agent. In no time, Lovecraft was conferring with his first client…

13  INTERIOR – Lovecraft’s house.
LOVECRAFT and CTHULHU are sitting at a table across from each other. LOVECRAFT’S briefcase is open and he is chattering at high speed to CTHULHU while riffling through a voluminous sheaf of papers. As LOVECRAFT speaks, CTHULHU’s yawns become progressively longer and deeper. At the end of PEABODY’S voice-over, CTHULHU’S head plunks down on the table and he emits loud snores,.
PEABODY (voice-over)
…Cthulhu. As Lovecraft explained the subtleties of Liabilities and Deductibles, Cthulhu’s eyelids began to droop. By the time Lovecraft was elaborating on the differences between Term and Whole Life, Cthulhu was dead to the world.

14  EXTERIOR – Lovecraft’s house.
A large crate labeled “To R’lyeh” is being loaded onto a UPS (Ulthar Package Senders) truck.
PEABODY (voice-over)
From there, it was a simple matter to ship Cthulhu to R’lyeh.

15  INTERIOR – Lovecraft’s house.
LOVECRAFT is sitting at a table, pounding away at a typewriter with a beatific (and somewhat silly) smile.
PEABODY (voice-over)
As for Lovecraft, he was able to go back to his writing.

16    INTERIOR – PEABODY’S lab.
PEABODY and SHERMAN are sitting in easy chairs across from each other.
SHERMAN
Boy, it’s sure lucky Mr. Lovecraft got that insurance job.
PEABODY
Indeed it is. Lovecraft proved quite successful at it, too. So much so, in fact, that he was transferred to the Innsmouth office where he was assigned to shadow people as an investigator for the company.

17  EXTERIOR – A low aerial view of Innsmouth buildings.
LOVECRAFT is seen skulking along rooftops.

18  INTERIOR – PEABODY’S lab.
PEABODY
In fact, he became so skilled that he became known…
SHERMAN
Mr. Peabody! It can’t be!
PEABODY
Oh, but it is. Lovecraft became known as (slight pause) the Shadower Over Innsmouth.
SHERMAN winces. A discordant trumpet blat sounds. Closing theme.
FADE OUT.

A weird, reclusive dictator is displeased with the United States, and may or may not have enacted his vengeance via a crack team of computer technicians over a world-wide computer system that dominates every aspect of life in the 21st century.

Yup. As a 48-year-old science fiction geek, I’ve got to admit that sometimes the modern world outstrips even my most outlandish flights of imagination from childhood.

Of course, wonderfully paranoid science fiction stories about computers are nothing new. Check out this piece from the great Neil Morris about an overlooked classic of the subgenre. This recently ran in the December issue of “The Speculator,” the newsletter for the Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers. If you’re not a member, consider becoming one. Getting the newsletter is just one of many perks.

Anyway, here’s the piece.

 

Neil’s Queue Tip of the Quarter:

Colossus: the Forbin Project (1970)

 

by Neil Morris

 

There’s a conflict inherent in movies: the battle between images and words.

In the silent era, printed title cards delivered dialogue and description, but this static, written material, usually inserted with a jarring cut, disrupted the photographic flow of film “language” and visual storytelling.

In the thirties and forties, words thrived in the form of spoken dialogue. This was due in part to the novelty of audio recording itself, but the main reason was that movies were still no more than cheaply-made filmed plays, photographically immature and economically influenced by the Depression. Shooting in remote, picturesque locations was costly and inconvenient, so producers mindful of the bottom line relied on inexpensive banter (writers, sadly, were a dime a dozen) to entertain an audience. Screwball comedies and sophisticated detective stories dominated, piling one charming line upon another to the point of verbal overload.

Later technological advances, particularly the rise of television and its influence on the development of theatrical widescreen formats, brought about a change in attitude toward the recorded word. Producers began to disapprove of scripts that were too “talky”; lengthy conversation belonged on the old soundstages that were now hosting televised dramas sponsored by detergent companies. Instead, studios wanted action-packed spectacles in Cinemascope.

Ever since the epic style of William Wyler’s “Ben-Hur” and David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” made filmmaking less lean, technology continues to push motion pictures toward the purely visual. CGI, with its ability to photo-realistically render any conceivable camera movement, gives kinetic-eyed artists unlimited creative power. That freedom has resulted in the ascendancy of the action movie. Ever-increasing waves of hyperactive eye candy rush across multiplex screens, from “Gravity” to “The Lego Movie” to the latest Marvel adventure. Even films that strive for the cerebral, like “The Matrix” or “Inception,” hide their intellectual aspirations behind crowd-pleasing gunplay sequences and dazzling explosions.

Then there are movies like “Transcendence,” movies that should be thought-provoking, that should give insight into the nature of existence given the subject matter, that could benefit from long, quiet moments of complex philosophical discussion, but devolve into mindless, special effects-filled shoot-em-ups (against pseudo-zombies, of course) because box office pressure and the cinematic zeitgeist demand it.

The tragedy of “Transcendence” reminded me of another film about the perils of artificial intelligence (no, not “A.I.”), one that was made in 1970, years ahead of its time, at a point in history when filmmakers challenged the conventions of the Hollywood system, when imaginative and compelling dialogue could still rivet an audience’s attention, and directors like Woody Allen and John Cassavettes could still have careers.

Unfortunately, it’s saddled with one of the most indecisive and informatively inaccessible titles in motion picture history.

I’m talking about “Colossus: The Forbin Project.”

What’s Colossus? What’s a Forbin? Why invoke that unholy word: Project? Didn’t the producers know that Project in the title of anything is an indication of off-putting pretentiousness and self-indulgence? Think Joe Perry Project, Alan Parsons Project, “Project X” and especially “The Mindy Project.” Perhaps they wanted to make a connection with The Manhattan Project, equating the digital dangers portrayed in the film with the dangers of the atom bomb.

After all, “Colossus” is a Cold War film, and Colossus, the titular computer designed to take missile defense decisions out of the hands of a responsibility-shirking presidential administration, is a product of the nuclear tensions between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. That Colossus becomes self-aware is an afterthought, its sentience unexpected and unexplained, much like the suddenly-emergent consciousness of Skynet in the early “Terminator” films. But at least it’s an intelligence that knows what it wants and knows how to say it, unlike the reticent ghost in the machine Johnny Depp plays in “Transcendence,” his intentions misunderstood because of his secretiveness and inability to communicate clearly.

Colossus’ voice, once it’s synthesized midway through the film, is no soothing HAL 9000, velvet tones disguising treachery. It’s mechanical, terse and gritty, but thoroughly captivating, like what God would sound like if He used Stephen Hawking’s talkbox. It’s not your buddy, it’s not your therapist. It’s the voice of authority, or as Colossus puts it, the voice of control — with a capital C. When broadcast to the world, Colossus spells out its plans for humanity in no uncertain terms.

Adapted from the D.F. Jones novel by screenwriter James Bridges (“The China Syndrome”) and directed by Joseph Sargent (director of the original, somewhat verbose, but no less suspenseful “Taking of Pelham One Two Three”), Colossus is a film centered on language. Apart from an excursion to Rome, the story takes place in a handful of sets where politicians and scientists sing the praises of their creation then must plot against it in secret when the entity turns on them, risking discovery that will incur swift ICBM retribution. Colossus and its simultaneously-developed Soviet counterpart, Guardian, invent and share an indecipherable mathematical language, much like the private speech between identical twins. Dr. Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden, before he became Victor Newman on “The Young and the Restless”), a stern perfectionist of immense ego and insensitive directness (just watch what he so matter-of-factly asks of colleague Susan Clark), knows his invention well when he says, “Colossus deals in the exact meaning of words and one must know precisely what to ask for.”

If only Dr. Forbin had considered that when he encoded Colossus’ prime directive.

****SPOILER****

For if anything, Colossus is the reflection of its creator, a ruthlessly logical being, and rather than perceiving it as a superior intellect bent on enslaving or eradicating an inferior human race, it should be seen as a dutiful soldier carrying out its programming to the literal extreme. Colossus’ given mission is to prevent war, and it took Dr. Forbin at his word, reasoning out the most efficient solution: Restrain Man.

This post comes courtesy of my friend Doug, who’s a big Star Wars fan. And don’t get me wrong. I love Star Wars myself. But if Doug is right about this, then the franchise has a lot to answer for. I mean, even more than the last three movies. And the 1978 holiday special. Take it away, Doug:

Jon Bon Jovi’s first professional recording was “R2-D2 We Wish You a Merry Christmas”

The album is notable for featuring the first professional recording of Jon Bon Jovi (credited as “John Bongiovi”, his birth name), who sang lead vocals on the song “R2-D2 We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” His cousin Tony Bongiovi co-produced the album and ran the recording studio at which it was recorded, where Jon was working sweeping floors at the time.

So did this launch his career?

 

Eleanor RigbyI love the Beatles. Maybe I should curb this habit of over-analyzing their song lyrics. But I heard “Eleanor Rigby” on the radio, and I can’t help myself.

Just as a reminder, here are the lyrics to the song (I won’t bother repeating the chorus. You get the idea.)

Ah look at all the lonely people
Ah look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby, picks up the rice
In the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window, wearing the face
That she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Father McKenzie, writing the words
Of a sermon that no one will hear
No one comes near
Look at him working, darning his socks
In the night when there’s nobody there
What does he care

Eleanor Rigby, died in the church
And was buried along with her name
Nobody came
Father McKenzie, wiping the dirt
From his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved

I always figured it was just a mournful meditation on loneliness and isolation. But today, I realized there was something that always puzzled me about the song.

I’m thinking specifically of the last verse, and the reference to Father McKenzie “wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave.” Father McKenzie’s denomination is never specified. I’m guessing Anglican. Possibly Catholic. I was raised Catholic, and I’m not as familiar with the Anglican church. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that Anglican priests, like their Catholic counterparts, just deliver the funeral service for their congregants. They aren’t expected to pick up a shovel afterward and actually bury them.

So I can’t think of a reason why Father McKenzie would be burying Eleanor Rigby himself, unless … HOLY CRAP! FATHER MCKENZIE IS A PSYCHO!

Kind of puts the song in a whole new light, doesn’t it?

And another thing. How come on the back of the Sgt. Pepper album, Eleanor Rigby is the only one with her back to the … never mind. That’s a totally different thing altogether.

 

continental opI’ve been checking out a few online lists of overused cliches in crime fiction. Interesting, amusing, and — being a writer myself — occasionally cringe-inducing.

I’ll readily admit to being guilty of a couple with my debut novel, “The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report.”

A trait that showed up on a lot of lists was the hard-drinking detective. And the investigator in my novel certainly fits the bill. He even carries a flask around with him to take swigs at appropriate or grossly inappropriate times.

Not sure if I have a problem with that, though. Or with any cliche, necessarily.

Keep in mind, I’m aware that all of this might be an elaborate self-justification. And to be fair, most of those lists specifically stated that a cliche isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if used in a creative manner.

Cliches are kind of tricky when it come to genre fiction. Because readers of genre fiction expect certain elements. Let’s take the anti-cliche mindset to an extreme. “Why does every thriller need to have a crime in it? That’s so overdone. How about a thriller where the sole conflict is the hero’s attempt to complete a batch of cupcakes in time for the church social?

True, wouldn’t be a cliche. Wouldn’t be much of a thriller, either.

Another example: Why does the hero in every single martial arts movie have to be a martial arts expert? Isn’t that a cliche? Maybe. It’s also the reason we watch martial arts movies, so I’d just as soon that one stay around.

But I’m certainly sympathetic to readers who get fed up with cliches. The kind that make you groan and say “not THIS again!” One of my least favorites is the meet-cute between the male and female characters who initially hate each other, but who are obviously gonna hook up before the end of the book. In fact, pasted-on romantic subplots in general are kind of tedious for me. Can the hero foil the criminal plot without getting laid in the process once in a while?

Recently read a novel — Won’t name it here. My policy is to name only the books I like. — where I felt like the writer was working though a checklist of crime fiction cliches. We-don’t-like-each-other-but-I-guess-we’ll-have-to-work-together-to-solve-this-case relationship with a colleague? Check. You-may-be-brilliant-at-catching-criminals-but-your-personal-life-is-a-mess talking-to by an exasperated colleague? Check. You get the picture. I finished it out of obligation, bored and annoyed the whole time.

But I guess it’s subjective. Because if you don’t like a story element, it’s a “cliche.” If you do like it, it’s a “convention.”

Not long ago, on a whim, I picked up a book on writing the modern mystery novel. In it, the writer decried the cliche of detectives with no apparent personal lives whose only role in the book is solving the case. Modern readers, this writer insisted, demand complex detectives with well-developed back stories, home lives and romantic histories.

With all due respect to that writer, I disagree. I happen to like the old-school detective whose only role in the story is solving the case, and maybe delivering some wisecracks and punches to deserving jaws along the way. Call me insensitive, but I don’t really care about the lead inspector’s conflicted relationship with her father, unless it’s tied into the case somehow.

We didn’t even need to know Columbo’s first name. Or his relationship to his wife — who in all likelihood didn’t exist, and was a ruse he employed to put suspects off balance. (And don’t tell me about the later seasons where he had phone conversations with her, or the defilement that was the “Mrs. Columbo” spinoff. That was bullshit.)

The name of my book’s protagonist, the Freak Foundation operative, is never provided. That’s a tribute to Dashiell Hammet’s Continental operative, the employee of the Continental Detective Agency who’s never given a name and doesn’t need one.

I also like hard-drinking, emotionally troubled — troubled, but not self-pitying and whiny — detectives. Not just as a throwback to the old-school, hard-boiled detectives, though that’s a factor. It strikes me as a logical outgrowth of the who they are and what they do.

A lot of people who deal with violence, death and its consequences in the course of their jobs drink and have emotional issues. If protagonists are seeing death and violence all the time and AREN’T emotionally affected by it, they’re probably screwed up in a different way.

I guess the whole idea of cliche is subjective, and changes with time, anyway. For example, I just watched the first season of “Hannibal,” and it was great. Ten years ago, if you’d asked if I was interested in watching some popular entertainment about an investigator playing a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with a brilliant serial killed, I might have actually physically assaulted you.

“Enough!” I’d have cried, while slapping you about the face. “That whole thing has been driven into the freakin ground!”

But somewhere in the intervening time and pop culture’s obsession with other matters — boy wizards, vampires, zombies, etc. — that convention appear to have lost its stale quality to some extent. So I guess I can enjoy it for now.

Until it becomes cliche again, and the circle of life continues.

DickI believe I’ve mentioned on this blog before that I edit the quarterly newsletter, called “The Speculator,” for the writers’ group Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers. I like to include an interview in each issue. For the September issue, I had the opportunity to interview Dick DeBartolo — one of Mad Magazine’s most prominent writers and a childhood hero of mine.  (For more about my life-long fandom of Mad, read here.) Needless to say, I was thrilled. Here’s the story that ran in the newsletter. Since The Speculator is for and about writers, much of the emphasis is on the craft and business of writing. But even if you’re not a writer, I hope you’ll find it interesting. And I’d like to thank my good friend Doug for helping make contact with Dick. Doug, give me a shout if you ever need a kidney.

 

“Mad’s Maddest Writer” Dick DeBartolo on Writing Parody

By Tom Joyce

As you might guess from my membership in this group, and my editorship of this newsletter, I’m a big fan of speculative fiction. So don’t take the following statement as a dis.

Speculative fiction lends itself to parody.

Think of the works of speculative fiction that simultaneously serve as genre parodies and great stories in themselves. The writing of Douglas Adams, Christopher Moore and Terry Pratchett immediately come to mind. For further examples, you could go as far back as Fritz Leiber’s classic Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, or head to your local multiplex and watch “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

So I thought it might be helpful for us as writers to get some insights from a parody writer. As luck would have it, I got to speak to one of the all-time greats.

Dick DeBartolo is one of Mad Magazine’s most prominent and prolific writers, having contributed to the magazine since the early 1960s. He specialized in the magazine’s movie and TV satires, which were always my favorite part of the magazine.

Dick also hosts a wonderful netcast about gadgets and technology called Giz Wiz, which is available on TWIT.tv. He’s a regular guest on segment on ABC News Now, and was recently interviewed on the public radio program Studio 360 (which is available online). He is also the author of “Good Days and Mad: A Hysterical Tour Behind the Scenes at Mad Magazine.”

Dick asked that the interview take the form of a phone conversation, rather than responding to e-mailed questions. So I’ll have to do some paraphrasing, as I wasn’t able to write down everything verbatim. But it’s worth it, because I’ve been a fan of Mad since I was a kid, and being able to talk to Dick made my week, month and year. As an added bonus, Dick turned out to be every bit as funny, charming and flat-out cool as I could have hoped.

So here’s the gist of what Dick and I talked about:

Dick said that he naturally gravitated toward movie and TV satires. And the bad movies were a lot easier to satirize.

“The more serious the movie was and the more pretentious it was, the more fun it was to make fun of it,” he said.

TV satires were more difficult, because they were more of a time commitment. He’d have to watch five or six episodes to get a feel for the show’s approach and its characters.

Unlike the movie satires, which would follow the plot of the source material, he would have to construct his own plots for the TV satires. That could yield some interesting results. When he wrote the satire for the campy science fiction TV series “Lost in Space,” he placed the characters on a planet with giant vegetation. Not long after, he encountered series star June Lockhart on the set of the game show Match Game, where he was also a writer. She jokingly asked him if the magazine had spies on its staff, because the plot of his parody mirrored one of an upcoming episode.

His propensity for making fun of movies meant that he was rarely invited to previews, but that was fine by him. He preferred seeing movies with audiences so he could take note of the scenes that got the biggest reactions from the crowd, and be sure to reference them in the satires.

He was apparently doing something right. No less a luminary than Roger Ebert once told Dick that he learned how to criticize movies through Mad’s dissection of them.

Here are Dick’s insights on:

TECHNIQUES FOR PARODY

— Your intended audience should be familiar with the source material. When you’re riffing off something, it helps if they get the references.

— Dick is a big fan of what he calls “The Rule of Three” for satire. You have two references to something normal to establish a pattern and set up the punchline, then deliver that punchline on the third reference.

For example: “Is this rocket going to make it to the moon?”

“Yes. We’re using the highest octane fuel, the most powerful engine, and a big bottle of Mentos and Coke.”

— Running gags can be very effective. Try to find a hook within the context of the story, and keep non-sequiturs to a minimum. For example, in his parody of “The Poseiden Adventure” about a capsized ocean liner, Dick made a running gag out of the characters’ linguistic confusion over “up” vs. “down,” which got more absurd and funny as the story progressed. (“I’m seasick. I think I’m gonna throw down.”)

MAD MAGAZINE

The magazine was initially very male-oriented, for boys in the 10-through-15-year-old range. Initially, the magazine only satirized G-rated movies. Now its approach is more inclusive. He also describes it as “rougher” than it used to be, with edgier humor.

“When it came out, it was the only thing like it,” Dick said. “Now that’s all changed. Mad is like a mirror of society.”

SELF-PROMOTION FOR WRITERS

“The Web is where it’s at,” Dick said “You can do so much with no money.”

Where social media is concerned, Google Plus users tend to be more interested in serious, straightforward information. Facebook and Twitter users gravitate toward the “silly stuff.”

“Make yourself a valuable information source on the Internet,” Dick advises. “You get followers. Follow your followers.”