Tuesday, November 6, 2012

So Much Spin...I'm Dizzy!

“If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read 
"President Can't Swim”.  Lyndon B. Johnson

By the time you read this the 2012 Presidential election will be over. 

Thank God! 

Hope your candidate won. Also hope my candidate won. So I guess what I am saying is, I hope we have the same candidate. And he won.

But you will never know.

I have decided that in a country so deeply divided it would be wise to keep my personal political choices a private matter (so as not to risk being ostracized by the opposing side). My father often quoted a kernel of country wisdom that holds more truth today than ever before: Avoid the front side of a bull, the back side of a mule, and both sides of a political issue.

During this election I have learned a number of things from Facebook:
1) I have friends on both sides of the fence (many of whom have defriended each other because of the election).
2) Some of them will be very disappointed with the election results.
3) A somewhat larger number will be elated with the election results.
4) I want to keep them all as friends regardless of  how they voted because I love my friends more than I love my politics because I trust my friends more than I trust my politicians. Perhaps that sounds needy or greedy, but it is actually very difficult to remain neutral in these divisive times. After all, it would be so much easier to only associate with people that shared my political points of view; think of all we would have to talk about, such as, “We are right and they are wrong. Love talking to you!”

We are in an age where many have become so inflexible in their opinions that having a polite discourse with a member of the rival party is now a waste of time. Besides, to have a civil debate about the issues with someone that disagrees with you runs the risk they might change your mind, then you would have to change the channel you get your “news” from, and who needs that kind of hassle. Where politics are concerned “compromise” has become a dirty word. Everything is black and white. Maybe they’ve developed a Political Grecian Formula, because grey areas have disappeared. I, for one, miss the time when the political canyon was still able to be bridged by conversation, but now the chasm is so great that it terrifies most folks to even stand near the edge, much less try to see the other side. Sad, because factual, rational deliberation is a pillar of democracy.

I always avoid the temptation of trying to force my opinion on others (although to me, my opinion seems so convincing!) I know everyone views the world through a unique lens tinted by their emotional make-up and experience. However, I never avoid a friendly discussion. Unlike most, I remain fascinated with why people feel the way they do, even more so if they feel differently than I do, because I agree with Abigail Adams’ observation, “I've always felt that a person's intelligence is directly reflected by the number of conflicting points of view he can entertain simultaneously on the same topic.”

These days it seems the number of conflicting viewpoints has dwindled down to two, and you must pick one. Will it be Conservative Red Elephants or Liberal Blue Donkeys? Rush Limbaugh or Chris Mathews? Ann Coulter or Rachel Maddow? Dennis Miller or Bill Maher? Clint Eastwood or George Clooney? FOX News or MSNBC? NRA or ACLU? Pro-Life or Pro-Choice? Hatfields or McCoys?

Hurry and pick your team. Because the sooner you know what team you’re on the sooner you can close your mind and open your mouth. Let the group-think hate-speech begin! (Remember group-think within your party is “team mentality” but within the other party it is “mob mentality.”)

The above is a perfect example of “spin” which is a nice way of saying “lies.” Spin is what LBJ was referring to in his quote at the beginning of this column. Someone recently emailed me another example:

Judy Wallman, a professional genealogical researcher, discovered that Hillary Clinton's great-great uncle, Remus Rodham, was hanged for horsestealing and train robbery in Montana in 1889. The only known photograph of Remus shows him standing on the gallows. On the back of the picture is this inscription:

"Remus Rodham; horse thief, sent to Montana Territorial Prison 1885, escaped 1887, robbed the Montana Flyer six times. Caught by Pinkerton detectives, convicted and hanged in 1889.”

Judy e-mailed Hillary Clinton for comments. Hillary's staff of professional image adjusters sent back the following biographical sketch:

"Remus Rodham was a famous cowboy in the
Montana Territory. His business empire grew to include acquisition of valuable equestrian assets and intimate dealings with the Montana railroad. Beginning in 1883, he devoted several years of his life to service at a government facility, finally taking leave to resume his dealings with the railroad. In 1887, he was a key player in a vital investigation run by the renowned Pinkerton Detective Agency. In 1889, Remus passed away during an important civic function held in his honor when the platform upon which he was standing collapsed."

This is undeniably a funny example of political spin. Funny in two ways: funny to claim someone that was hanged “passed away during an important civic function held in his honor when the platform upon which he was standing collapsed" and funny because I got this very same story emailed to me during the Bush-Kerry election with name Rodham changed to Bush. I discovered on Snopes.com that both versions of the story are big fat lies.

Campaigns are not decided on which party has the best candidate but which has the best spin doctors. These people rely on a highly creative presentation of facts involving deception and manipulation to promote their party’s agenda. Spin is so accepted that it makes believing either side impossible, thus making an informed decision near impossible. Both sides can back up their arguments with distorted facts; we all know they are doing it, but we are powerless to stop them. We simply shrug and say, “Oh well, all politicians lie.” I did a Google search for “Obama lies Romney lies” and got a total of 227 million hits, more than one for each eligible American voter. But if we all agree most politicians on either side are power hungry liars, why do we let them tear us apart?

I encourage you in the next election to fully explore both sides of every issue rather than wander blindly down party lines. Initiate polite debate with people of all political affiliations rather than dismiss their opinions before listening to them, and at the very least, agree to disagree. Dig deep for the facts rather than accept the spin. Because if you really examine it—you will find—that politics is like an onion, and if you peel away each layer—you will find—more stinky stuff that makes you cry.

My name is Steven Kent McFarlin and I approve this message.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Yellow Journalism

I was disappointed Japan’s victory in the Women’s World Cup triggered so many negative comments from my fellow Americans (references ranging from Pearl Harbor to Yoko Ono) and would like to point out there is a difference from appearing patriotic and looking like a sore loser. I too was disappointed the US did not win, but in light of the year the Japanese have had, you would be hard pressed to pick a country more deserving of something to smile about. (And I suspect the smiles were especially wide in Nagasaki and Hiroshima.)

I have fond memories from my comedy tour of Japan. For those of you who have never been there, I will try to compare the Land of the Rising Sun (for better or worse) to the Good Ol’ USA.

- It is the land that bad manners forgot. To say the Japanese are polite is an understatement of staggering proportions. For example, if you cause a car wreck, despite it being your fault, the driver of the car you hit will get out and apologize.

- Everyone parties!  I’m told non-drinkers are rare, and I certainly didn’t meet any.  Beer is available from sidewalk vending machines (no fake ID needed here).  And when a waitress brings you a beverage, no tip is expected.  In public places, such as subway stations and airports, the sidewalks are built with “Braille Trails,” small bumps to help blind people to find their way (but also helpful if you’ve had too much Sake).

- All bicycles are designed in the style we would call “girls bikes,” without the bar running from the handlebars to the seat.  This makes perfect sense (especially to any man who has ever fallen off the pedals).

- Sandwiches are served with the crust cut off, just like Mom used to do.

- The Japanese version of “flipping someone off” involves placing the thumb between the index and middle fingers, which actually closer resembles what you are trying to say.

- The 100 Yen Store (their version of Dollar Tree) is filled with unusual items (such as nose pickers) that make great affordable gifts for friends back home.

- Their cell phones are the ones we will be using in a couple years.

Which brings us to the...

- Everyone has to have a cell phone to call for directions.  Most streets are not named.  The buildings are numbered, but in the order they were built(?!)  Without a map, detailed directions, or phone, you should consider yourself lost.

- If you think traffic is bad in LA, try Japan.  The country is two-thirds the size of California, with 75% of Japanese land being uninhabitable mountains, and a population of half the United States!  To register a car, you must provide proof you have a place to park it.  Mass transit is equally congested, a ride on the Tokyo subway will put you closer to a stranger than a lap-dance in Vegas. 

- In the Japanese tradition it is customary to soap up and rinse outside the tub, since everyone shares the same bathwater. (Men go first, when the water is still hot, women last; equal rights have yet to arrive.)

- The traditional toilets consist of little more than a hole in the floor.  When you do find a western-style toilet it is often accompanied with the poster nearby providing instructions on how to use it (the diagram made me laugh so hard I almost ruined a pair of shoes). 

- You will never find paper towels to dry your hands in public restrooms; everyone is expected to bring their own, which is easy to forget when you leave your accommodations.  And emerging from a toilet with wet hands is inappropriate in any country.

- Needless to say, their use of the English language is questionable, and frequently humorous.  For example, I saw a Beauty Salon with a sign reading: “Repair Shop.”  Sometimes it‘s just a matter of inversion to figure it out: to get an ambulance you dial “119” instead of “911.”  But it’s easy to find American food at Makku, Dankin Denattsu, Pisa Hatto, and Taku Beru (McDonalds, Dunkin’ Donuts, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell.)

- The Japanese have very conflicting standards about sex.  On one hand it’s illegal to show genitalia in their porno films, on the other hand there are vending machines on the street that sell “used school-girl panties.”  There are other examples of repression breeding perversion.  They have coffee shops whose name translates into “No Panties Place.”  The waitresses wear short skirts without underwear and the floor... is mirrored!

I apologize if this blog has unintentionally offended anyone of Asian descent.  I have a place in my heart for Asians.  In 1969 my father was saved by a Cambodian family during the Vietnam Conflict.  They hid him for over eight months.  They still live in Toronto.

“The Laff Guru” has taken his message of LAUGHTER=NIRVANA to all 50 states and 23 countries. His awards include: “Comic of the Year,” “Campus Performer of the Year,” and a “Cable Ace Award.” His credits include over fifty TV appearances, including: Showtime and The Late Show. He is represented by GP Entertainment. To find out more about his award-winning comedy act please visit: laffguru.com

Friday, April 8, 2011

Party 101

While participating in a roundtable discussion at a professional writer’s conference, someone asked how I was qualified to write a column about college issues (since I am well past my school years).  My answer surprised my fellow writers. Before performing at over 500 schools as a professional comedian, I attended quite a number of universities as a semi-professional student.  Unlike my peers who had one major and attended one college for four years, I had seven majors at five universities (and one correspondence school) over a span of nine years.  Seems every summer break I would stumble across inspiration for a new field of study that would send my college life spinning in a new direction the following semester.

The first school that foolishly accepted me was Texas Women’s University. It was only the second year they allowed male students to attend.  I was eighteen and had hormones bouncing around inside me like a pinball machine, thus the thought of having two dozen females to every one male was an irresistible lure.  The girls on campus joked, “Men here are like parking spaces: the good ones are taken and the rest are handicapped.”  There was only one real requirement in order for a guy to qualify for enrollment: he was required to choose a course of study in the medical profession.  I agreed, but quickly discovered the sight of blood rendered me horizontal. 

So began and ended the first of my following parade of majors:
NURSING MAJOR – I thought it would be cool to be a “registered” nurse, because I thought they got to carry a gun.
BIOLOGY MAJOR – I was particularly interested in the mating habits of other species, in case there is anything to this reincarnation stuff – I wanted to know how to score.
THEATRE MAJOR – I quit after I realized a degree in theatre would only qualify me to tear tickets in half.
ART MAJOR – Expelled the first semester for trying to trace the model.
ENGINEERING MAJOR – My dream of getting my own train ended when I was the first student in the correspondence school’s history to be expelled for playing hooky – I mailed in empty envelopes.
EDUCATION MAJOR – I wanted to follow in my mother’s footsteps.  She was a substitute teacher and at this point I was excelling at being a substitute student.
After almost a decade I ended up being a double major:
LAW and PSYCHOLOGY – I figured I could be an asshole… and know why.

Before I continue sharing my vast history in higher education, I should also divulge some information about my high school experience.  I attended a very small school.  How small you ask? 

Sex Ed and Driver’s Ed were taught in the same car. 

So when it came time to choose a college, I was determined that it be a big one… with indoor plumbing.  I’m not knocking small schools. You can have everything at a small school that you can have at a big school—except a secret.

After my failure at TWU, my parents insisted on choosing the next school I would attend.  While they agreed to let me attend a large university, they decided on one that had no distractions to my meeting their high academic standards.  They enrolled me in Big & Boring University (I will withhold the actual name of this Texas school in hopes they one day hire me to perform).  Within three months I was expelled for living off campus… in Vegas.

After my failure at BBU, I decided I needed professional help in choosing my next college.  I turned to the extensive research provided by an esteemed source: Playboy Magazine, which publishes an annual list of the nation’s top party schools.  I knew right away the school I picked deserved its party reputation when I walked in my first class and a bouncer stamped my hand.

Most schools are understandably concerned with “binge drinking” on campus, which scientists define as having five or more drinks in one sitting.  At my school, it was not considered a “binge” if at the end of the night you could still count all your drinks on one hand. In fact, it was not considered a “binge” if you could still count. 

At one point during my sophomore year I was reported missing for about three weeks.  The beer companies put my picture on the sides of the cans.  By then I was drinking beer to sober up. 

Needless to say, with all the partying going on—with or without me—I found it difficult to study.  It’s no wonder: my dorm-mate would keep me awake all night as he threw up Red Bull & vodka. (What a brilliant combination – totally sick with no chance of passing out).

All I learned at party schools was that college is the only time in your life you won’t look totally White Trash for having an empty liquor bottle collection. (I hope that didn’t offend anyone… whose parents have an empty liquor bottle collection).

Soon my grades began to suffer, much to the chagrin of my parents, who were footing the bill.  Before I had departed for college that year, my father had offered me incentive: if I made decent grades he would buy me a car, and if I made the Dean’s List he would buy me a car that runs.  My goal, on the other hand, was to avoid expulsion. I tried taking every course on a pass/fail basis.  This puts a student in the odd position of being overjoyed at getting a D, knowing he achieved his goal of doing the very minimum amount of work necessary to pass, and angry when he gets an A, knowing he could have spent less time in the books and more time in oblivion.

I finally bottomed out at party schools at the end of my junior year, that glorious time in a college student’s life when every other day someone he knows turns 21 and expects him to celebrate with them.  My grades were nothing short of a disaster.  When I told my parents the bad news my father asked, “How close were you to a passing grade?”  I told him the truth, “About three seats.”

What did I get out of my many years in college (other than eight arrests and no convictions?)

- I got 3,285 credit card applications (estimated at one a day for nine years).  I wish I had followed my comic friend, Michael Dean Ester’s advise, and returned each envelope back to the credit card company with a brick inside, since they have to pay the postage.

- I got a small amount of knowledge of a big variety of subjects and a tremendous amount of knowledge about college life.  Such as: real dorm rooms are not as big as the ones on TV and in movies, but if you can survive in the smallest room ever, you will appreciate every other place you live for the rest of your life.  Also, it’s a good idea in high school to practice eating cardboard to get used to the food in the college dining halls.

- I got violated every year. I think the school store should be kind enough to give a tube of KY to every student just before he sells his textbooks back at a fraction of the cost.  (I have not sold a textbook back in years and it still hurts when I sit down.)  They hated buying my books back because I highlighted.  I eventually developed my own system with textbooks: instead of highlighting the important parts in yellow ink, I crossed out everything else in black marker.  I just dipped that calculus book in ink.

- I got a chance to meet people, many of who I am still in touch with today.  They call me at least once a month… to ask when I’m going to pay back my student loans.

- I also got to surprise some people at a professional writer’s conference. 

“The Laff Guru” has taken his message of LAUGHTER=NIRVANA to all 50 states and 23 countries. His awards include: “Comic of the Year,” “Campus Performer of the Year,” and a “Cable Ace Award.” His credits include over fifty TV appearances, including: Showtime and The Late Show. He is represented by GP Entertainment. To find out more about his award-winning comedy act please visit: laffguru.com

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Reality Of Breaking Up

I recently said goodbye to a longtime companion. After spending countless nights over several decades in this affair, I’d had enough, and decided to call it quits. Sure, this long-term relationship was often very entertaining, but it reached a point where it frequently seemed like a waste of time, so I pulled the plug…on Cable TV.

This is a major break up! It is the equivalent to Lance Armstrong dumping bicycles; because Cable has been more than just a diversion for me, it has often been my employer. In fact, with the paychecks I’ve received over the years for performing, then writing, and eventually producing, I’m one of the few people that can say Cable has paid more for me than I have paid for Cable.

So our split was not about money, which is the number one problem sited for most break ups. The number two most reported cause is sex, and I certainly don’t have a problem with Cable in that department either and don’t understand the folks who do. (Before the invention of flat-screen televisions I used to tell a joke about a woman complaining to me she hated all the sex on the TV and me telling her she should buy a couch.) In truth sex is one of the things I am beginning to miss most about Cable.

I’m now going on three months without it, the longest I’ve gone since I was a very young child (without Cable, not without sex). You see, my parents did not approve of Cable at first; Mom spent her free time reading and Dad spent his playing the piano, so that left me with limited TV options: ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS. To me, they were my four best friends; to my parents, they were my babysitters. When I finally did see Cable, it was love at first sight. I spent so much of my childhood sitting in front of the television that I can still clearly remember the pattern of the carpet in our TV room. I also recall the arms of our sofa that I used to ride as my imaginary horse when watching westerns.

If you are a college student reading this, you are probably thinking “There used to be westerns on television?” That’s understandable, since the last western on a non-premium network was Peacemakers in 2003, and it lasted only nine episodes before it was sent to Boot Hill. But during the final years of the Baby Boomer generation through the early years of Gen-X, westerns ruled the airwaves. At the peak in 1959, there were twenty-six westerns on in primetime, including eight of the top ten shows. In fact, for eight out of ten years, the number one show was Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, or Bonanza. By the time I came into existence there were still one or two westerns on most networks, but the costs were becoming prohibitive (horses rented for $100 per day).

Back then, people loved to imagine life in a different era to escape the reality of present day. But now, it seems that using your imagination is just too much work and we are content to invite modern reality into our living rooms in increasingly uglier forms. In short we have gone from being entertained by people we aspire to be (Marshall Dillon) to people we are thankful we are not (Snooki).

I first noticed this transition when the afternoon talk shows that featured successful performers (Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, etc.) were replaced by those that displayed the dregs of society (Jerry Springer, Geraldo, etc.). I believe viewers were attracted to this new “Trash TV” because their problems paled by comparison to those of the dreadful guests on their screen; much of what we call “Reality TV” should more accurately be called “At Least My Life Is Better Than That Guy’s!” To combat the frustrations of our ordinary lives we take comfort that we have not sunk to being a transgender Nazi or incestuous clergy (most of us never even had to sweat out a DNA test to determine if we really are the baby-daddy).

From the afternoon talk shows, this trend migrated to primetime. The show COPS debuted in 1989 (currently in its 23rd season, making it one of the longest running shows on the air). Reality TV got a better foothold a few years later with MTV’s Real World, and finally exploded in 2002 with Survivor.  The reason for the success was explained to me while I was pitching a scripted show to an ABC executive; he shook his head and said, “This is a good concept with a great script, but for the money it would cost me to produce a half-hour of this show I can produce eight hours of reality programming.” Simple economics; cutting out expensive elements like writers and stars shrinks the production costs, and a hit show at half the cost is twice the hit.

Of course, Cable TV lowered the bar on what constitutes a hit. Before Cable a hit show could draw over two-thirds of the television viewers, now audiences are so spread over the dial a show is considered a huge success if it can garner even a fourth. And if any show does attract those numbers, then you can expect the following season for other networks to trot out their version; Jersey Shore begat Real Housewives of New Jersey, Jersey Couture, Jerseylicious, ad infinitum. (The common message being the term “Jersey culture” is an oxymoron.) The latest adaptation is “Celebreality TV” featuring minor celebrities that are desperate to bolster their careers: The Osbournes begat The Anna Nicole Smith Show, Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, Dancing with the Stars, Celebrity Fit Club, Celebrity Apprentice, Celebrity Rehab, ad infinitum denuo. This practice of replication is nothing new in broadcasting, as noted a half-century ago by Fred Allen when he observed, “Imitation is the sincerest form of television.”

Naturally this derivative programming is not limited to Cable, so I’m also giving the heave-ho to my four best friends of old, dumping all broadcast television. Other than the sheer redundancy, there are other grounds for this divorce. One, after many years of paying my dues as a performer I am disgusted by the recent concept of unearned stardom; I get disturbed seeing William Huang’s cd in the stores competing against legitimate singers that have devoted their lives to their craft. Two, I’m worried about the children. A kid can instinctively distinguish reality from fantasy, they may see a cartoon character walk off a cliff but they know they shouldn’t do the same, but “real” people become real role models. And when children start to emulate the bad habits of say, Paris Hilton, reality star of The Simple Life, or any cast member of Growing Up Gotti, then society will pay a price (and incarceration isn’t cheap).

Yet another reason for breaking up: TV is a big fat liar! There is no reality in Reality TV if for no other reason than being in a room with a TV camera is an unreal situation. Most shows are a mix of so called “real” moments and fake ones. For example, the judge’s “live” comments on American Idol may be prepared in advance while the judges watch dress rehearsals. And in Celebreality TV, the semi-stars often write into their contracts the ability to veto any scene they don’t want shown. Wouldn’t “real life” be great if you had time to think about what you were going to say long before you had to say it, or if you said something you were ashamed of, you could have it edited out? Reality my ass.

Speaking of American Idol, before I am bombarded by emails from outraged fans, I should mention I do not consider it to be true Reality TV.  I believe talent contests and game shows belong to a different genre altogether, because they require two elements true Reality TV does not: talent and writing. Plus both are very time-tested forms of entertainment. While American Idol has been the top rated show for the past six seasons, it is not that far removed from Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, the top rated show in 1951. Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, the top rated show in 2000, is very similar to The $64,000 Question, the top rated show in 1955. Maybe television, like fashion, runs in cycles?

I hope so.

How ironic: I like my coffee with real sugar, my songs with real drums, and my women with real breasts, but when it comes to TV, well, I’ve had all the reality I can take. Hopefully this form of television will soon run its course, and network executives might look to the past to find programming for the future. Who knows, maybe I’ll live long enough to see the return of the variety show? And if they ever bring back the western, well, I might even consider getting back together with Cable. (Although, I’m going to need a sofa with much stronger arms.)

EPILOGUE: I’m happy to report I rebounded quickly and jumped into a new affair. I am now head over heels…for Netflix!

“The Laff Guru” has taken his message of LAUGHTER=NIRVANA to all 50 states and 23 countries. His awards include: “Comic of the Year,” “Campus Performer of the Year,” and a “Cable Ace Award.” His credits include over fifty TV appearances, including: Showtime and The Late Show. He is represented by GP Entertainment. To find out more about his award-winning comedy act please visit: laffguru.com

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

What's New?

I suspect most people have a branch of their family tree they consider “poor relations” and my immediate family is no different. We have an Aunt and Uncle that, due to unfortunate circumstances, are basically uneducated and largely uncultured. Good people, just not entirely socially acceptable. I confess there was a time when I dreaded their visits to our home, especially entering my teenage years, that awkward age when peer pressure is colossal and avoiding embarrassment paramount (and few things are more embarrassing than your family). My fear of guilt by association was so strong I recall being mortified with shame when I returned from school one afternoon to find my Uncle mowing the yard shirtless with the tattoos from his Navy years on display, wearing baggy pants that left a generous portion of his boxer shorts exposed for the entire neighborhood to see. My Aunt sat on the porch wearing bleach-blonde hair with noticeably dark roots and a tank top with her bra straps showing. In hindsight (thanks to Hip Hop and Madonna) I now see that my relatives were actually fashion trend setters extraordinary far ahead of their time.

I mention this story because this afternoon I had a similar experience of self-discovery; while visiting my sister I came across a photograph of myself at the age mentioned above. I was stunned to see the outfit I was wearing (straight-legged jeans, neon shirt, oversized Ray Bans, and Chuck-T sneakers) is almost identical to the clothes featured in the current issue of Vogue on my sister’s coffee table. My look had recycled. If I had kept those clothes (and could still fit into them) I would be quite the fashionista today. The magazine pictorial touted many new fashion trends for this season that I had seen before, from high-waisted skirts and shorts, to giant purses and oversized hoop earrings. My jaw dropped when they mentioned the comeback—of all things—“Hammer pants,” something I vow to never wear again no matter how popular they become!

This led me to ponder an age old question: What’s new?

I love working on the college circuit because I receive the bonus of being exposed to the latest fads and trends that originate on campus before filtering into the mainstream. However, when spending time at a school I am always surprised to hear students listening to music that sounds similar (often identical) to the music I listened to when I was in college, or in some cases, the music my parents were listening to when they were that age. For example, the musical stylings of Amy Winehouse, Duffy, Joss Stone, and Sharon Jones are almost interchangeable with the sounds of Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Gladys Knight, and Etta James.

This train of thought came to a sad revelation: for the past two decades college students have not had a new style of music they can call their own. They lack an original musical battle cry to identify with and rally around, losing a time-tested weapon to irritate the authority figures in their lives. I feel sorry for their loss.

I am disheartened that for the first time in a century or more the river of original musical genres has run dry. Sure, there are still new bands and new ways to record and produce them, just not totally new music for them to play (or us to listen to).

Although I’m no expert on music history, I can offer a simplistic review of the styles that had an impact on past generations. At the turn of the twentieth century young people were tapping their toes to Ragtime, followed by the truly American art forms of Jazz and Country & Western. In the 30s a new generation embraced Swing. By the 40s Rhythm and Blues took hold. The 50s introduced a style of music that resulted in a cultural revolution: Rock and Roll. In the 60s Soul music emerged and Rock expanded into Surf, Acid Rock, Psychedelic Pop, and Heavy Metal. That expansion continued in the first half of the 70s with Glam Rock, Country Rock, Jazz/Rock Fusion, and then by mid-decade another musical style spearheaded cultural change: Disco. In the 80s Punk, Rap and Hip Hop blossomed, creating cultures of their own.

But by the 90s, originality began to wane and music became derivative. House and Dance are the evolution of Disco. Grunge is a combination of Indie Rock, Heavy Metal, and Punk (which is actually old Garage Rock). Techno and Trance have their origins in earlier works by musicians like Kraftwerk and Philip Glass. Even Emo was definable before this millennium in the works of Fugasi and Rites of Spring. Not to say that there was nothing new in music in the 90s; while no radically new musical styles developed, a new form of musical entertainment did become commonplace: Tribute Bands.

Music didn’t just quit moving in new directions…it did a u-turn.

Not only have people stopped creating new styles of music they have also stopped inventing new musical instruments, at least not instruments that have any impact on popular music (granted, the “vuvuzela” is a new instrument, but despite being popular, it is hardly musical). The last instrument to have any noticeable effect on the music we listen to was the synthesizer, and it was originally invented—are you ready for a shock—in 1876, by Elisha Gray, the man best known for developing the telephone prototype. In 1964, Robert Moog made the synthesizer commercially available for the select few that could afford one; in the 70s miniaturized components made it portable, and by the 80s it was finally produced at modest prices for the public. Today your laptop (or even phone) can be a synthesizer.

This brings me to the correlation of the decline in music originality with the boom of household computers. I am not the only one to notice this connection; Jaron Lenier (the man that coined the phrase “virtual reality”) was quoted in the New York Times: “It’s as if culture froze just before it became digitally open, and all we can do now is mine the past like salvagers picking over a garbage dump.”

My theory: the computer killed new music, or at the very least, replaced the motivation for creating it. In the past when a creative 16-year-old felt alienated or dissatisfied with the status quo he would reach for a guitar or spit a rhyme. Now they change culture by creating an original website or writing new code, and the benefits are similar: fortune, and for some, fame and the blessings celebrity status bestows. (If a nerdy looking kid like Mark Zuckerberg receives benefits from groupies that formally only Rock Stars knew, then who the hell wants to spend time with guitar lessons?) The internet was first misunderstood, even feared by the status quo, but eventually embraced. The same holds true for Rock and Roll. And the pioneers of both eventually got a very satisfying and financially rewarding last laugh. I grew up wanting to be the next John Lennon or Jimi Hendrix; now kids want to be the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, and that is a tragedy to music.

It is my sincere wish that my theory is incorrect, and new music is not dead, but merely in hibernation. I hope someone reading this column sees it as a call to action and creates something original to blast from my headphones, because I miss seeing older folks roll their eyes and ask “Can you believe what kids today call music?” instead of “That tune sounds familiar.”

“The Laff Guru” has taken his message of LAUGHTER=NIRVANA to all 50 states and 23 countries. His awards include: “Comic of the Year,” “Campus Performer of the Year,” and a “Cable Ace Award.” His credits include over fifty TV appearances, including: Showtime and The Late Show. He is represented by GP Entertainment. To find out more about his award-winning comedy act please visit: laffguru.com

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Game Of The Name

RIDDLE: What do Anchormen, Ambassadors, Engineers, Diplomats, Governors, Judges, Medics, Pilots, Poets, and Senators have in common?

As I steered my car into Columbia, South Carolina, a billboard on the outskirts of town made me do a double-take; I was stunned to find in the buckle of the Bible-belt, a warning written in large letters: “You Can’t Beat Our Cocks!  The “Cocks” it was referring to was the local team from the University of South Carolina.  This was not the first time I’ve been amused by a college team’s moniker.  I frequently perform at the University of Akron, whose team is called the Zips.  When I was in the Middle East I learned that “zip” is the Arabic slang for penis.  Wait, it gets better, the Zips play in The Rubber Bowl.

As I travel around the country to perform at Colleges and Universities, one of the first questions I always ask the students is about the name of their team, because often it is a valuable source of comedic material.  For example, my favorite college cheer is performed by the cheerleaders for the Rhode Island School of Design, which call their team the Nads; how can you not chuckle when you hear thousands chanting “Go Nads!”

Team names are a source of amusement and bemusement; some seem redundant, such as Fighting Irish, while others do not – Hustlin’ Quakers, and some are an oxymoron, such as Little Giants.  Does it seem odd that you find Cornell’s Big Red in a Blue State (New York) and Bluefield’s Big Blues in a Red State (West Virginia)?  I can understand the Blue Wave being found in Boca Raton, Florida, and the Green Wave in New Orleans, Louisiana, or just the Waves in Malibu, California, but how did the Crimson Waves get to Whiting, Indiana, a totally land-locked state? (Or for that matter, the Crimson Tide to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which is over 200 miles from the ocean?)

The weather forecast for college sports is very scary.  There are Storms, of Crimson, Red, and Purple, as well as Cyclones, Tornadoes, Hurricanes, Nor’Easters, and of course, Thunder and Lightning.  But if nature does not kill us, we still have to worry about being attacked by Cadets, Captains, Colonels, Majors, Generals, even Presidents, armed with Sabers, Silverswords, Bullets, Bombers, and Rockets.

A citizen of the United Kingdom would feel right at home watching the Britons, Celts, Celtics, Irish, Scots, Scotties, Highlanders, or Wasps.  For a country without royalty we certainly have a lot of Lords, Barons, Dukes, Knights, Monarchs, and Kings.

If I was a student athlete, I think I might choose the school I attend based on the name of the team I would be playing for.  If my name was Jim, I’d want to play for The Jimmies, or John for The Johnnies, or Tom for The Tommies, and if I was really fat I would play for The Jumbos.  If I was gay I might be a Flying Queen, one of the Flames, perhaps a Gobbler, or a member of the only team that shares its name with a gay porno magazine, The Blue Boys.  But if I was bi-sexual, I’d be torn between The Pointers and The Setters, or if I was just bi-curious – The Wonder Boys.

What if I was a female athlete, would it bother me that my team was named after something that didn’t exist, such as a Lumberjill?  Although I’ve never seen a Minutewoman, I confess that I once got so lonely I called one at $4.99 per.  Often it is difficult for the women’s team name to correspond with the men’s, for example the women’s team for the University of Texas is called the Lady Longhorns, because as my friend, Vic Henley, pointed out, “It would be rude to call them the Cows.” 

Christians might want to join the Angels, Evangels, Preachers, Prophets, Missionaries, Bishops, Friars, Monks, Saints, or Praying Colonels.  Atheists don’t care if they are considered Demons, Devils, or part of the Inferno, and agnostics are not sure if they would rather be a Deacon or a Demon Deacon.

Students with a criminal record may want to be a Claim Jumper, Vandal, or maybe a Don (they make you an offer you can’t refuse).  And if you plan to party throughout your college years maybe you should join the Hardrockers, Brewers, Shockers, Vixens, or Wahoos, (and everyone knows the Stags have wild parties).  But be warned that if you party too much the next morning you may feel like a Ramblin’ Wreck.  (With the GPA I got from partying, I should have joined the Ephs.)

Most schools choose a mascot with a ferocious image in hopes it strikes fear in the minds of their opponents.  But I can’t imagine quaking in my boots at the thought of squaring off with the Sugar Bears, Violets, Cotton Blossoms, or Hatters (boy, are they mad).  I’m pretty sure I could outrun a Boll Weevil or a Banana Slug, and I’m certain I could dunk on a Troll.  And isn’t it an insult to call someone a Squirrel or Hokie?

Although I’m not a professional sports bookie, my fashion sense tells me the Blue Hose would not match up well with the Moccasins.  A Spaniard would think it wise to buy a ticket to see the Bulls take on the Matadors, and I’m sure he would enjoy the Oles and Toros, but everyone knows that it would be silly for the Arrows to face the Archers.  Wrestling fans and Trekies both would enjoy seeing the Vulcans take on The Rock. An entomologist would want to observe the Wasps compete against the Black Flies, while a zoologist would be riveted as the Armadillos battle the Anteaters, but a sociologist would prefer to see what happens when the Ladies encounter the Gentlemen.  And Heloise would write about the Dust Devils versus the Dirtbags.

The more I learn about team names the more questions I have.  Would the Big Green be large enough to defeat the Mean Green or the Mean Green surly enough to beat the Big Green?  Would PMS turn a Beaver into a Battlin’ Beaver? Would the Magicians be able to pull one out with the Jackrabbits?  If Army plays Navy, and Cowboys play Indians, shouldn’t the Student Princes play the Valiants?  Do you really need to go to college to learn how to build a mound, or ride a mule, or husk corn?  If not, you probably don’t need to be a Moundbuilder, Mulerider, or Cornhusker.

And how many people knew that it would be possible to see 26 games of the Eagles versus the Eagles and never see the same team twice, or that over one hundred schools have Lions, Tigers, and Bears? Oh my.  And am I the only one who didn’t know that putting the Zias, AMCats, Billikens, Blugolds, Duhawks, Geoducks, Golden Gusties, Gorloks, Maccabees, Pomeroys, or Stormy Petrals in the same sentence will make a computer’s spell-check explode?

RIDDLE: What do Anchormen, Ambassadors, Engineers, Diplomats, Governors, Judges, Medics, Pilots, Poets, and Senators have in common?
ANSWER: Jockstraps.

“The Laff Guru” has taken his message of LAUGHTER=NIRVANA to all 50 states and 23 countries. His awards include: “Comic of the Year,” “Campus Performer of the Year,” and a “Cable Ace Award.” His credits include over fifty TV appearances, including: Showtime and The Late Show. He is represented by GP Entertainment. To find out more about his award-winning comedy act please visit: laffguru.com

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Nude York, New York

One of the joys of a career in the entertainment industry is that each and every day holds a different adventure.  Some are most enjoyable —like a TV show paying me to portray a patron of a strip club where Jenny McCarthy portrayed the dancer—and some not so enjoyable —like having cans thrown at me because the rapper I was opening for, Petey Pablo, was late.  But even at its worst, I recognize that I am blessed to not have to face the same boring, predictable routine every single day that most working people endure.  Although I like to think I’ve done most everything there is to do as a comedian, I know that is impossible, because you never know what someone will ask a comic to do next, and chances are I will agree to do it.

Remember the episode of “The Brady Bunch” where Jan imagines the audience she is addressing isn’t wearing any clothes?  Well, I can now say I’ve done a show where there was no pretending necessary.  I was hired to perform for a nudist group that had rented out my neighborhood comedy club, Stand Up New York.  Although I do not consider myself a prude, I have never had any desire to participate in any clothing-optional group activities that take place in public.  (I once refused an offer to visit a nude beach because I couldn’t think of any method to apply sunscreen where I needed it most, without appearing like a total pervert.)  However, the members of this free-spirited assembly enjoy a wide variety of fabric-free events such as a Naked Bingo Night and a Naked Reading Night, featuring authors who read in the nude.  Much to my relief, the comedians were not allowed to disrobe, since New York law requires a special license for establishments providing nude entertainment.

I am certainly not morally opposed to nudity.  In fact, I once worked at Chippendale’s.  They fired me, I got drunk and put my g-string on backwards… and it fit (insert rimshot here).  

Back to Naked Comedy Night.  My carnal curiosity led me to arrive at the club two hours before I was scheduled to perform. (A first, I admit.) Being the product of a proper sexually-repressed American upbringing, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I entered a room filled with naked strangers.  The closest I’ve ever come to that scenario was looking at photographs of Hugh Hefner’s friends lounging around the grotto at the Playboy Mansion.  Basing my expectations on a Playboy pictorial, I made two assumptions: one, these types of events attract people with bodies worthy of showing off (like Hef’s pals did), and two, these people would be trying to sleep with anyone they could get their genitals on (like Hef’s pals did).  So when I agreed to do the show, my biggest fear was that I would be so aroused by the sexually-charged atmosphere, that I would get an embarrassing erection on stage.  Once I got a look at the audience, my biggest fear was that I would never get another erection as long as I lived. 

Much to my surprise (and disappointment) the nudist group was not composed of people who had spent long hours at the gym, or big bucks at the plastic surgeon, sculpting a body close to physical perfection.  In fact, it is safe to say that none of the people baring their assets before me had ever seen the inside of a gym, much less an episode of “Nip/Tuck.”  These were not old people. They were more like the parents of old people. Picture in your mind a porno movie featuring the cast of Cocoon.  (This made me wonder. Why do people say someone looks great for their age, only when they don’t look their age?)

Nudity and sexuality often go hand in hand, but that was not the case with this gathering. And even if it had been, there were five men to every one woman.  I was beginning to question my decision to arrive early, but soon realized I had made the right choice, because the comedy started long before the comedy show did. I overheard one woman tell the waiter, “I’ll have the baked ziti with two meatballs.” Which inspired the naked man sitting across from her jump up and wiggle, while loudly proclaiming “I’ve got your two meatballs right here!”

The actual comedy show commenced with the very funny, Ross Bennett serving as the emcee.  Ross confided, “It's going to be very difficult for my jokes to be effective, because all sense of subtlety is lost.”  I almost fell out of my chair laughing when he mentioned, “I feel like I’m in that scene from Rosemary’s Baby.”

Next up was a member of the nudist group, Carol Pinchefsky, who also is a novice comedian.  She opened with, “Hi, my name is Carol, and maybe you don't recognize me with my clothes on, which is what they told me during my high school graduation.”

My good friend Al Ducharme followed Carol, and explained to the audience why he was there, “I hoped this experience would give me some new material, but I see there’s really not much material here.”  The audience was still howling at the pun when a ringing cell phone interrupted, prompting Al to ask, "Just where are you keeping your cell phones?"  When a member of the nudist group snapped Al’s picture, he protested, “How come you get to take pictures of us, but…”  (Not that he really wanted a nude photograph of this collection, unless he was planning on using it to scare away burglars.)

The evening was a smashing success.  I believe the performers and the nudists all enjoyed themselves immensely, and the only complaint that I’m aware of was lodged by people who were not even in attendance: a Smokers' Rights Advocate Group questioned the New York City law that allows people to take off their clothes in a restaurant but not to light up a cigarette. I found that protest to be just one more thing to laugh about.

Although the audience may not have been as loaded with as many young, attractive nude women as I had fantasized about (actually none) I could not have asked for more appreciative group.  They were intelligent, open minded, quick to laugh and very comfortable in their own skin. 

I guess it is difficult to take life too seriously when you are buck naked in a roomful of nude strangers.  These were people with the wisdom to recognize that the demanding concept of beauty that the media bombards us with is simply not attainable except by a lucky few who are blessed with fortunate genetics.  They have accepted they don’t, and won’t ever look like a Madison Avenue Supermodel, and it doesn’t appear to bother them in the least.  Instead of wasting their time and money trying to hide their physical flaws, they choose to gather and celebrate their inner beauty.  The ego has landed, and it truly was an inspiration.

I found the affair a pure delight and I know it will probably be the last time I can look at an audience and say, “I see some of the men here tonight are not Jewish.”  I also walked away with a couple of valuable kernels of knowledge: one, I should never, ever expect real life to resemble the pages of Playboy Magazine, and two, I will never ever sit in one of the chairs at that comedy club again…

“The Laff Guru” has taken his message of LAUGHTER=NIRVANA to all 50 states and 23 countries. His awards include: “Comic of the Year,” “Campus Performer of the Year,” and a “Cable Ace Award.” His credits include over fifty TV appearances, including: Showtime and The Late Show. He is represented by GP Entertainment. To find out more about his award-winning comedy act please visit: laffguru.com