Posts Tagged ‘The Simpsons’

colour of magicInterrupting my feature on woman speculative fiction writers to acknowledge the passing of Terry Pratchett — one of the great ones.

I was a fan. Not a huge one, I must admit. In general, I don’t go in for obsessive fandom about any writer or cultural phenomenon. There’s just so much good stuff out there, and it’s always struck me as a shame to limit your focus to one book series, TV show, music group, etc. But I’ve read a number of his books over the years, and was always impressed. In fact, I like to think he shaped my sensibilities as a writer.

Here’s the deal.

I  love jokes. The sharp one-liner. The meandering anecdote filled with hilarious asides. The witty off-hand remark. Even groan-inducing puns and standard-issue “a guy walks into a bar” fare when presented in a certain context. I greatly enjoy exchanges among funny people, where the jokes are flying left and right.

Yet for all that, I find few things more tedious than one of these “joke-off” (phonetic similarity intended) situations. That’s when somebody brings the conversation to a thudding halt by abruptly saying something along the lines of: “Alright, a giraffe walks into a proctologist’s office …”

Everyone else is obliged to sit there silently until the joke-teller brings it in for a landing, probably via a punchline you saw coming a mile away. You do the fake laugh thing out of politeness. Ha. Funny. Can we get back to the conversation now?

Nope. Somebody else says: “I got one! This guy’s on golf course. And a leprechaun comes up and says ‘I’ll give you three wishes.'”

And so it goes. On and on. Labored set-up. Obvious punchline. No organic connection to anything else going on. Just an inherent demand for exclusive attention to some verbal entertainment that isn’t particularly entertaining. And all the while, I’m silently pleading that we can put an end to this and get on with our lives.

I have a similar reaction to humor that’s nothing but a series of disconnected jokes strung together. The “Scary Movie” series is a prime example. Or — sorry, fans — much of “Family Guy.” To me, the jokes have to be in service of something. A solid narrative, like “The Simpsons” at its best. A character arc, like “Community” or “This is Spinal Tap.” Social commentary, like “South Park.” Even well-done absurdism, like “The Kids in the Hall” or “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”

Terry Pratchett was a master at that.

In good humorous stories, the jokes have a solid narrative foundation to back them up and give them structure. Even without the humor, the story would ideally be able to stand on its own. Pratchett took it beyond that. In the best of his work, the humor, characterization and narrative were all inextricably intertwined. Each an essential component.

I first encountered Pratchett when I was a geeky and fantasy-fiction-obsessed teenager. “The Colour of Magic” from 1983, the first book of his Discworld series, was available as a selection from the Science Fiction Book Club. The concept sounded like a “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” for high fantasy, and I was intrigued.

I ordered it and found it … good. Full of funny lines and situations. Well-drawn characters. Plenty of in-jokes and riffs on fantasy tropes for fans like myself. And a decent adventure story to back it all up.

I didn’t read any more Pratchett for the next couple of decades. My interest in fantasy fiction waned when I hit college age, and I felt no particular inclination to check out his stuff.

I was in my mid-thirties when I was at my local library, searching for a book on CD to listen to during a car trip. I saw one of his books, and was a little surprised to discover that Pratchett was still writing about Discworld. I’d thought of “The Colour of Magic” as an amusing novelty that might merit a sequel or two, but no more.

I checked it out of the library, expecting a diverting if lightweight read for the car trip.

Wow!

I was astonished at how far he’d come as a writer. It was one of the books dealing with the Ankh-Morpork City Watch — essentially an urban police thriller set in a fantasy universe with dwarves, werewolves, orcs and centaurs. And it worked beautifully. It wasn’t just some exercise in winking, arch humor based on police thriller cliches enacted by elves and trolls. It was a genuinely good story with a complex, gripping narrative, engaging characters, and something substantive to say about the nature of racial tolerance. For all that, it was still really freakin funny.

I picked up a number of his books after that, and was impressed each time. One of the elements I most admired was his propensity for taking fantasy creatures such as vampires and golems, and making them actual characters. Not abstract representations of evil, or enigmatically magical beings. Just regular folks trying to get through the day (or night) and make a living. (Or … you know.)

In doing so, Pratchett gave his works a warm-hearted humanism that (for the most part) didn’t descend into preachiness or cloying sentimentality. Maybe that neighbor who seems so mysterious, threatening and different from you isn’t such a bad guy after all. At least give him a chance.

And he managed to thoroughly entertain his readers in the course of delivering that message.

As far as literary legacies go, you could do a lot worse.

muppetsI’ve been thinking lately about Jim Henson’s early involvement with “Saturday Night Live.” Though it was ostensibly a failure, it’s something that I actually find quite inspiring.

I didn’t see the recent 40th anniversary special for Saturday Night Live, and I don’t know if the special mentioned it. But Jim Henson’s Muppets were a regular feature on Saturday Night Live’s first season in 1975.

But it wasn’t the 40th anniversary of Saturday Night Live that got me thinking about it, so much as this great write-up on The Dissolve, which recently made 1979’s “The Muppet Movie” its “Movie of the Week.” Particularly the idea of Kermit the Frog as a surrogate for Jim Henson, with his unfailing optimism and his ability to get other people to share his vision. Not through arm-twisting, so much as an ability to convey his child-like sense of wonder and fun, and have others want to be a part of it.

As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I consider Jim Henson to be a genius.

And I’m still in awe of what Saturday Night Live did in its first seasons, with the original cast.

I was nine when the first season premiered, and I remember what a big impact it had over the next few years until the original cast left in 1980. I’d compare it to “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” or the early days of “The Simpsons.” It wasn’t just brilliant, but a game changer. (more…)

MadMan! My friends are the best!

I went to a Christmas/New Year party last weekend, and my buddy Doug Ferguson got my 2014 off to a very good start by presenting me with the pictured issue of “Mad” magazine, signed by writer Dick DeBartolo. Thanks Doug!

Doug’s a tech guy, and he’s a fan of DeBartolo’s netcast “The Giz Wiz,” in which he talks about gadgets. I myself am not a tech guy, but I still listened to “The Giz Wiz” on Doug’s recommendation, and found it highly entertaining. By the way, be sure to check out Doug’s blog here.

My familiarity with DeBartolo comes from his status as a long-time writer for “Mad,” going back to the early 1960s. He specialized in the movie and TV satires, which were usually my favorite parts of the magazine when I was a kid. He also wrote an account of his experiences in “Good Days and Mad: A Hysterical Tour Behind the Scenes at Mad Magazine.”

So I started leafing through the signed copy of “Mad,” and thinking about how much I loved that magazine as a kid. I’d like to think that when I was writing “The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report,” DeBartolo and “The Usual Gang of Idiots” (the appellation by which the magazine’s editorial staff customarily referred to themselves) were kicking around in my subconscious.

If so, I wouldn’t be the first one to cite “Mad” as an influence. So have writers with “The Simpsons” and “The Onion.” Even Joyce Carol Oates has sung its praises.

I stopped reading it at roughly the time I entered high school, around 1981. When I was in grade school, I first started reading the new issues that came out in the late 1970s. Then I started buying second-hand issues from earlier years, as well as paperbacks showcasing material from the 1950s and ’60s. I loved it all.

Here’s the funny thing — much as I hungrily devoured every issue I could get my hands on, I always felt vaguely depressed after reading them for reasons I couldn’t understand at the time. In retrospect, I think the reason tied in with why I found them so fascinating.

Social critic Tim Gitlin once described Mad as “bubble gum nihilism,” which strikes me as a very apt description. Looking back, I marvel at the balancing act that the writers and artists of “Mad” managed to pull off. They kept it ostensibly within the realm of children’s entertainment, always toeing that line but never quite crossing it. (I noted in the issue Doug got me that they’re still using the word “dreck” as a thinly veiled substitute for “shit.”)

What amazes me, given those strictures, is how subversive, bracing, sharp and ultimately bleak they managed to make the humor. Even in gloriously sardonic comedy such as “The Simpsons” and “Arrested Development,” you get glimpses of redeeming intentions and behavior. Not so with “Mad.” Its sensibility was more analogous to “Eastbound & Down” or “Archer.” Unremitting in its cynicism. Every emotion, every action, every institution, every human impulse was ultimately grounded in venal self-interest, lust, or stupidity. Nobody and nothing was above mockery. The Usual Gang of Idiots were simply hanging back and reporting on it with knowing smirks on their faces — advising you that existence is nothing but an unkind joke, so you might as well laugh at it. I can’t begin to describe how refreshing that was for me, as a Catholic school boy from suburban South Jersey raised on Tom Swift and Hardy Boys books.

(And for the record, based on the netcast, Dick DeBartolo sounds like a wonderful human being. That’s often the case — people with the most cynical, biting sense of humor in print turn out to be the nicest people when you meet them in person. Maybe because they have a means of getting it out of their system.)

As I leaf through this recent issue of “Mad,” it looks a lot different from the magazine I remember. It’s in color, and printed on slick paper. I don’t recognize most of the artists and writers. It’s full of references to modern pop culture and technology.

But it’s still sharp. It’s still lively. And most importantly, it’s still funny.

So Alfred E. Neuman, my friend, it’s good to see you again after all these years. Thanks for the laughs. (Eccch! What a load of dreck!)