pktechgirlbackup: (pktechgirl)
I'm going to take a brief break from the heavy blogging to do some nice, easy criticism.

I've really enjoyed Ron White's previous specials: They Call Me Tater Salad, You Can't Fix Stupid, and Behavioral Problems. Please enjoy these clips demonstrating why I like him:


(Ron White: Deer Hunting)



His latest special is called "A Little Unprofessional". This is not a great start. His first (excluding Blue Collar Comedy Tour) special, "They Call Me Tater Salad", had a really great, evocative name that no one else could have used. His second ("You Can't Fix Stupid") could have been more generic, but it was the punchline to a joke that was utterly his, and once you had seen it you couldn't imagine another comedian using the line. Almost everyone in comedy has "Behavioral Problems", and while I'm sure he used the line in the special, I don't remember it.* But "A Little Unprofessional" is so damn generic, and didn't tie into the act in the slightest. Wait, no, I take that back.

His act didn't talk about him being unprofessional, his act was unprofessional. Detecting altered states in comedians is hard: many of them do their best work drunk or high and do so deliberately. Others do it because they're addicts, but have been doing it for so long they've worked it into their act, or at least learned to make light of it. And others stay sober but act altered because it's funny.** So I'm very slow to make guesses about a comdian's actual mental state. But I'm pretty sure White was drunk, that he started drunk, and that it was hurting the act.

One of the things I admired about White was how he made consistency look natural. Like most comedians he doesn't repeat jokes between specials, but between amateur footage, his short Comedy Central Episode, his multiple solo concerts, and the Blue Collar Comedy Central specials, you can find multiple versions of the same joke. Every version you watch looks completely natural, with a lot what look like pauses to think, and spontaneous changes and interesting voices. But if you watch multiple versions, they're fucking identical. Check out this audio-only version of the Drunk In Public bit I posted above.


I am pretty sure that's a different recording, because the mic quality is different, some of the character voices changed, and you can hear other voices on stage with him (presumably it's Blue Collar Comedy Tour). But the timing is so close I can't be sure. The deer hunting bit was on one of his specials too: I can't find a sharable copy, so please take my word for it that it was the same performance on a different night in front of a nicer camera. And you would never know unless you saw the repeated clips, because he looks so natural every time. I can't stop talking about how amazing that is.

Or, was. I can't prove the pauses were genuinely because he forgot the joke, or that he isn't doing the same every other night, but it sure didn't look like it, and it sure wasn't aiding the material. His timing was frequently awful, and I'm pretty sure he dropped several jokes halfway through. Where his act used to be mostly long stories with outstanding transitions between them, it is now a lot of short disjointed jokes.

It still surprises me how much work and feedback you need to take the idea of a joke and turn it into a polished comedy bit. This is why even Jerry Seinfeld still occasionally goes to open mics.*** If a comedian doesn't get that feedback- either because they choose to stop going to open mics, or because audiences are too pre-disposed to laugh at them- you get the comedy equivalent of the writer who's too big to edit. Either Ron White has stopped getting this feedback, or he's stopped listening to it.

I'm not the only one who feels this way. This special is a marked step down from his previous one: the venue is 1/5 the size of this previous special, and the complete absence of crowd shots
makes me think it wasn't full. Or maybe they just didn't want to strain their videographer, who was having enough trouble keeping the top of Ron White's head despite both White and the camera being perfectly still. The lighting was mediocre. And it was produced by Country Music Television, not Comedy Central or HBO or even Netflix.

And while I wanted to take a break from the heavy stuff, I can't let the misogyny or racism slide. He does a joke set in a sushi bar, and caps it off with an impression of the chef's accent. There is no joke except that the foreigner talks funny.

The case for misogyny is more involved. There is a spectrum: on one side lives specific criticism of specific non-gendered traits of specific people, which is clearly okay. On the other lives broad derogatory generalizations about entire groups, which is clearly not. There is an uncertain middle ground where someone is saying something consistent with widespread stereotypes, but about a specific person, or a subset of the group for which it is legitimately true. You can't put noticing when people conform to stereotypes off limits, but you can use those stories to reinforce stereotypes without acknowledging it, or even meaning to.

Up until now, I'd put White on the safe end of the spectrum. I wondered why he kept marrying such high maintenance women, but thought the jokes themselves were okay, and they rested in a larger relationship context. Even the woman he'd already divorced came across as a real person who he remembered loving and why. This time around, he described telling a woman talking at the theater to "shut her cock holder", and ended three or four jokes about being annoyed by his wife with "this dick ain't gonna suck itself."

So in conclusion: not impressed with "A Little Unprofessional"

*Come to think of it, I don't remember enjoying Behavioral Problems as much as the first two. At the time I'd put it down to watching it with my best friend, two weeks after he transitioned from boyfriend to best friend, and Ron White's main selling point was as a way for us to spend time with each other without crying. It didn't seem fair to expect the same laughs/minute under those circumstances. Although I will note that a week later, Christopher Titus's "Love is Evol" was hilarious as I unpacked my boxes the apartment I had moved to but not yet furnished.

**I saw Dylan Moran this summer and thought his hungover thing was an act, until he called an intermission- a thing that is never, ever done in single person comedy shows. I assumed he must be completely destroyed to need that kind of break. I double checked that for this post, found reports of intermissions in lots of cities. So maybe it was an act after all.

***It's also why comedians are so protective/defensive of other comedians when they say terrible things at open mics. It is really easy to misjudge the proper amount of irony and exaggeration you need to layer into a joke, and if the topic is sensitive it's really easy to say something horribly offensive. I've done it myself. Saying you have to get it right the first time is the same as banning all sensitive topics from comedy.

Of course, that defense only works if your response to being told you offended someone is "I am horrified that that is what came across, thank you for tell me so I can correct it."
pktechgirlbackup: (pktechgirl)
Like rape jokes, I think jokes about racism are powerful and important, and follow roughly the same rules: kick up, don't minimize, don't use it cheaply, and remember that people are worse than you can possibly imagine and your obvious caricature of how awful an opinion is is someone else's reality. I have less freedom to joke about race and racism than rape, because I'm white (which is totally fair and not me being oppressed), but that is not the same as saying white comedians can't talk about race. For example, please enjoy this clip from my go-to social justice comedian, Louis CK*


[Louis CK: Being White]

Key phrase: "I'm not saying that white people are better. I'm saying that being white is clearly better"

Or Wanda Sykes on reverse racism:

Key phrase: "That's not reverse racism. What you're afraid of is called karma"

Or Chris Rock on when white people can say the word nigger.


ETA: Lenny Bruce on the word nigger.


On the other hand, I have really limited sympathy when your entire schtick is using emotionally charged words, and someone becomes emotional in response to them This seems to be Sarah Silverman's problem. In her autobiography The Bedwetter she talks about telling the following joke on Conan:

I got jury duty … and I didn't want to go, so my friend said, "You should write something really really racist on the form when you return it. Like, you should put 'I hate chinks'." And I said, "I'm not going to put that on there just to get out of jury duty. I don't want people to think that about me." So instead I wrote, "I love chinks." And who doesn't?
Note: the original slur was nigger, but NBC made her change it to chink. So it's not like anyone was unaware what the driving force of the joke was.

In her autobiography, Silverman is really upset at the idea that anyone was offended (i.e. hurt) by this joke. She defends it as not being about Chinese people (or black people) at all, but about her being an idiot. I don't think that's a good defense. At a bare minimum, just using the world chink is reminding every Chinese person who has ever been a victim of overt racism (and I would be shocked if there was anyone who had been completely unscathed by racism) who hears it that racism exists and it is hurting them. That hurts. That invokes pain. And it's not incidental, it is the entire point of using a racial slur. Every joke involving race or racism invokes that pain, and it is their duty to have a point that is worth that cost. Louis CK's joke does: he's making people more aware of how racism is not a thing of the past.**

Here is the thing: just like jokes can reinforce rape culture without being about rape or sex, and without anyone wanting to imply that penetration without consent is okay, jokes can be racist without being about race. Kayne West (about whom I know almost nothing) said some batshit things on TV. Jimmy Kimmel did a bit on his show where he reenacted the interview with 9 year old children. I didn't see it until after I read the the criticism of it, but if I was seeing it fresh, I don't know if I would have picked up on the racial overtones. It would have been equally funny if it had been a white person spouting nonsense. But as Cord Jefferson points out, calling a black man a boy has a very long and specific history. I knew that intellectually, but I have no faith I would seen the implications in this particular instance. I was going to say that is many ways the greatest white privilege, but generations of accumulated wealth and not having my neighborhood torn apart by militarized police are pretty neat too.

My comedian boyfriend interpreted Jefferson's article as saying that any mockery of West was off limits. I don't think that's what he meant. I don't think he said anything about jokes one way or the other. I think he was trying to convey that West's abnormalities are not randomly distributed. West doesn't just live in a world where he's discriminated against, he lives in a world where people refuse to acknowledge he's discriminated against. Where the burden of proof is on him to prove the discrimination was racially motivated and not random noise. Which is just about impossible to do in any one instance- some people are universally assholes, some people are nice but having a bad day and sharing it with everyone. And yet over the some total of her life, a black woman will be the victim of a lot more of other people's bad days than I will. Telling black people they're not experiencing racism unless they can prove it is gaslighting.

For a really good, pure example of this, see the comments thread on a BoingBoing post about a Biology Online editor asking black female scientist Danielle lee, who blogged under the name "Urban Scientist" to write for him for free, and calling her an "urban whore" when she refused (she didn't name him, so I'm not going to either). One of the first comments is someone asking why BoingBoing mentioned her race. From there, the conversation devolved into "but you can't know for sure he was racist! It's a parallel to her blogging name! The fact that he was already using a misogynistic slur has no relevance to his argument! I am so logical and you are being ruled by emotions! Being offended is a choice!". The message being that 1. this man's intentions were the only thing that mattered. Pain caused by a slur used unintentionally is a moral failing of the victim. 2. some people on the internet incorrectly believing this man did something racist is a million times worse than some people on the internet incorrectly believing he didn't do something racist.

And it's all so focused on a word. Even as they made themselves look like ignorant, racist buffoons, his supporters successfully prevented the conversation from reaching the deeper issue of the severe entitlement issues this man displayed towards Lee, much less the fact that lots of other people, people in power, have those same entitlement issues and the good sense not to call their victims whores in a recorded medium.

To return to the subject of comedy and subtle racism: let's talk about the Smith kids. Everything I know about them I learned from Suri's Burn Book, but I'm prepared to admit they probably are arrogant little fucks whose parents are buying careers for them. That's what happens when your parents are that rich and famous and beautiful. Are they worse than white children would be, given similar parents? Do they receive more criticism than white children in the same situation displaying the same attitudes? Is that the right question, given that the situations are not the same, that these kids are growing up in a racist world? Are Willow and Jaden entitled to more leeway over attitude problems than white kids? Isn't that the path to infantalizing and invalidating black people?

The best answer I can come up with is that abstract opinions and interpersonal interactions are very different thing. A young black celebrity offspring is not entitled to cut in line at the DMV (an example I just made up), and if they did the people involved have every right to tell them to cut it out. Race blindness is sufficient to get the not-racist merit badge. But celebrity news sites should go softer on them*** , and adults as well. And yet, coverage on celebrity news can help a celebrity's career. But it seems entirely possible for coverage to be net positive for the individual celebrity but net negative for black celebrities as a whole, or black people as a whole, because it reinforces negative stereotypes.**** But it's the fault of a racist system that black celebrities idiotic actions hurt black people in ways a white celebrity's don't.

There may not be a fair outcome here. And I hate that. I want there to be something I can do, now, that means I don't have to think about hundreds of years of oppression or violence. Contemplating that there may not be, or that it may require sacrifice of things I feel like I earned, is really scary.



*Who I learned while researching this post is Mexican. As in, born in Mexico, learned English when he came to the US at age 7, still has Mexican citizenship. Ethnically he's 1/2 Irish, 1/4 European Jewish, and 1/4 Spanish/Indigenous Mexican. HH looks white, and his schtick is very much privileged white guy so I still feel like this is a valid example of how you can talk about race while looking white, and also I didn't want to rewrite 3 paragraphs, but it does complicate the point somewhat.

**I know I'm spending a lot of time praising Louis CK, but see also this clip on how recent slavery was. "Every year white people add 100 years to how long ago slavery was. I’ve heard educated white people say, ‘slavery was 400 years ago.’ No it very wasn’t. It was 140 years ago…that’s two 70-year-old ladies living and dying back to back. That’s how recently you could buy a guy. And it's not like slavery ended and then everything has been amazing”

***To the extent they are talking about children at all. I mostly don't they should, except for Suri's Burn Book, because that is really making fun of the rest of the media. But like I said about feminism last week: being not-racist is not the same as being good.

****See: the Flavor Flav Minstrel Show.
pktechgirlbackup: (pktechgirl)
Rape jokes are important to me. I guess that's because rape is a big, scary thing, and humor is how I deal with big scary things. It's also useful for engaging with people on the other side: while the failure mode of clever is asshole, successful jokes can get people to sympathize with points of view they would otherwise reject out of hand. It's not a substitute for a good argument, but it can overcome kneejerk resistance and get people to listen to arguments that they would otherwise refuse to listen to. For example, see Louis CK's brilliant "Of course, but maybe..." bit, where he cleverly builds up to getting the audience to acknowledge the parallels between acknowledged slavery, the Chinese railroad workers of the 1800s, and the iPad factory workers of today.



I love Louis CK so much.

Or take the concept of "rape culture". It takes a lot of words to explain and even then a lot of pretty good people* will respond with "but she needs to acknowledge her responsibility for the risks she took" or "but asking for consent kills the moment" and then everyone is frustrated because you think they're suborning rape and they think you're accusing them of being a rapist and you know they don't want to violate anyone's consent and getting angry won't help, but expecting women to not hurt men with their own feelings is PART of rape culture and...

Or you can say what cracked said:
"Rape culture" is the normalization of sexual violence against women, treating it like something that just happens and blaming or shaming the victims. You see it in the news: If you can replace "rape" with "rain" and the story still works, that's rape culture. Was the woman wearing too little? Out too late? Would she have been fine if she'd stayed at home reading a nice book on etiquette for ladies?
That is so fucking brilliant I am angry I read it because now I can't use it in my own act. It is not a perfect explanation of rape culture. It does not touch on male entitlement at all. It is not even particularly close to the finallyfeminism101 definition. And yet, I think that joke has done more for consent culture than the very dedicated efforts of many feminists.

In that spirit, I was going to try to make fun of Emily Yoffe's parade o' victim blaming, but it ended up just being the same criticisms in a sarcastic tone of voice. Making this shit funny is hard.


*Defining good is tricky. It is harder to believe the right thing when a wrong belief is culturally embedded. And yet, it is still a wrong thing, and acting on it still leads to wrong actions that the actors are responsible for.
pktechgirlbackup: (pktechgirl)
Patton Oswalt wrote a blog post on joke stealing, heckling, and rape jokes, and he makes amazing points on each of them. But what I want to talk about is a little incidental line:
In the exact moment after I’d realized that what Blaine said was true, that I’d cribbed a laugh from someone else’s creativity and inspiration, my ego kicked in. And, I mean, my real ego. Not ego’s sociopathic cousin, hubris, which would have made me defensive, aggressive and ultimately rationalize the theft. No, the good kind of ego, the kind that wanted success and fame and praise on my own merits, no matter how long it took.

About a month ago, I missed a social cue while out with a friend. If he had said "how did you miss something so obvious?", I would have responded "fuck you, I'm amazing. You're stupid and this is all your fault because reasons" (hubris). What he actually said was "it's okay, lot's of normal people don't get that.", and my immediate thought was "fuck you, I'm amazing, I can totally learn to do that." (ego).

In writing this, I realized his statement looks a tiny big neg-y. It didn't feel that way to me at the time, and he's never negged me before or since, so I don't think that's what's going on. But I do think the power of good-ego might be what pick up artists are tapping into with negs: the desire to be our best self and have that self be seen.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
You're not doing it right

I will order any comedian autobiography I hear of, regardless of my familiarity with the comic. If the guy who does Larry The Cable Guy came out with a book as himself, I would read that. I ordered You're not Doing it Right despite only vaguely being aware of Michael Ian Black's existence up until that point. Three days before it arrived at the library, I stumbled on a clip that made him Exhibit A for rape culture*, and also was not funny. So I went into the book in a sort of combative mind set.

The book is good, and Black is very funny. He would have to be, to get me through a book that depressing.

I want to accept Black's word that his life isn't that bad, he's just writing down the absolute worst parts. That is plausible for his graphic fantasies of shaking his colicky baby, because colic seems like it should be banned by the Geneva Convention. It's the things he maybe doesn't realize are tragic that I worry about. The story of both his proposal to his wife and their decision to have children boil down to "it was the next step and I didn't have a good enough reason not to." Allow me to channel Captain Awkward and say that not wanting it badly enough is sufficient reason to not marry someone and ESPECIALLY a sufficient reason not have children . I want to give this book to every engaged couple so that they can see the cost of inertia-based decision making.

I saw Louis CK live once, and left with the vague feeling that he was depressed and having me witness it was part of the depression. But at least CK knew it. I get the distinct impression that Michael Ian Black doesn't realize that happiness is a thing. He just assumes he's supposed to feel vaguely numb and unhappy all the time.

Humor definitely adds to explorations of the crushing depression of suburban existence. I feel like I should admit I've never even started a novel of the form I'm about to lengthily criticize, and if someone recommends one I will read it. But in general, ennui is the least interesting emotion to read about, so Black must be doing something very very right for me to finish the book in three days.

Contrast with Kevin Smith. I finished his latest book, Tough Shit on the same day, and have made a point to watch all of his stand up. Smith's love for his wife suffuses the book. He tells stories that make their sex life sound really depressing, but he also tells stories that make it sound awesome. And not in a "it's not so bad" way, but in a "in this completely unrelated comedy special, I have a funny story for which awesome sex is part of the set up" or "I cannot believe how lucky I am" way. And in general, Smith sounds like a man who's doing what he loves, recognizes and appreciates how lucky he is to do it, and shares that luck with his friends. He seems super cool to be friends with, and not just because he might let you run his comic book store. From the way Michael Ian Black talks, you'd never know he was a comedian/actor. He lives in a NYC bedroom community and commutes in like a banker. The only time he ever feels lucky is when hot girls say yes


*No, seriously. I think this clip might actually be useful for explaining/demonstrating/proving the concept to people who are sympathetic but skeptical. I use my dad as the my test model for this. My dad is one of those people who totally believes in equal rights and would have died fighting anyone who told me I couldn't do something because I was a girl but starts a lot of sentences with "As a man, I..." when he means "As myself, I...". He will tolerate use of the word "privilege" from me, and me alone, and only then after the requisite 45 seconds about how he doesn't feel privileged because the cheerleaders wouldn't fuck him in high school. For those who are wondering: the concept of extrovert privilege is really useful for introducing the concept, because people are much more sympathetic to learning about privileges they don't have.

I think my dad would (after I explained it) get that Black is expressing an entitlement to have women find him funny, and that this is not a fair entitlement. And that expecting people to pay you for something they didn't ask for is manipulative and an indication that you do not want to accept favors from this person. But it's about mundane enough that you can't dismiss it as "but that guy is clearly a bushes-lurking rapist, it has nothing to do with predator and prey day."

And for the record, you can do that same joke in a funny, not rape-culture way. You just have to make the comedian the butt of the joke, not the women who fail to find him funny.

**I'd like to reassure everyone I'm not a mental health professional and that if I somehow became one, I would not approach the job with this attitude. But I feel okay having it as a literary taste.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
As mentioned previously, I find stand up comedians fascinating. They have this wonderful mix of ability to analyze and inability to lie means that they give unusual clarity into the patterns in their lives. My most recent thread of interest is Kevin Smith. Technically, he doesn't do stand up, but he does record the Q+A sessions he does while promoting his movies. Given his utter lack of focus, I'm counting it.

In Burn In Hell, he describes the process of making Red State. It's beautiful. It's that perfect kind of creativity, where he saw something that provoked an emotional response in him, and tried to create something that shared and refined that emotion. The financial bit was also interesting- he'd been trying to make it for years, no one would fund it. Finally, a friend of a friend who had no experience in the movie business funded it entirely because he saw Smith's name on a poster with Bruce Willis. The movie in question was Cop Out, the only movie Smith directed but didn't write, which apparently was not well received by anyone. But it got Red State made. I love this story so, so much. It is perfect.

So you can imagine my disappointment when Red State was kind of meh. It had ambitions, but ultimately it didn't speak to me. It really doesn't deserve that origin story. Undeterred, I'm going back and watching all the movies Kevin Smith has done, plus the commentary and special features. I've seen most of them before, but it's been years, and I have fresh eyes now. Clerks and Mallrats are both... fine. Much like Red State, Clerks's reach exceeded its grasp, and Mallrats wasn't trying to be more than a comedy. I may just not identify with the source material very much.

But the third one... the third one stood. Chasing Amy feels like the first movie made by the Smith I know from his stand up. It's not merely insightful, it's honest, and it's right. I almost wished I watched more (any) romantic comedies, so I could more accurately describe how much better this movie is than them. Chasing Amy is basically this blog post in art form. It is about how the desire for a well marked map for romance and sexuality can kill the best thing you've ever had. And how filling in the empty parts of the map can be painful and costly, but brings you a certainty and a calmness that would be impossible otherwise. Safety and certainty are in some ways opposed, like innocence and wisdom. It's about the human inability to take yes for an answer, and how destructive that is.

I love this movie so much I ordered Jersey Girl and Zack and Miri Make a Porno from the library. I love this movie so much I may actually buy it, and I don't buy *anything* right now, much less things I can stream on Netflix. But G-d, this thing is beautiful

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