Monthly Archives: July 2008

These Comedians

Just a sample of the more than 90 comedians I spoke with in Montreal

I have often thought of going back to the raw footage of every piece I’ve shot over the past few years, and taking a still of each and every person I’ve met and interviewed. So, after wrapping up Tuesday night’s piece from the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal, I thought I’d try it with just one, to see how it went.

I gave up after 70.

Maybe I was tired from the long hours we pulled shooting the bit: the best place to bag a Comedian in his native habitat is in the hotel bar after the shows are over. After shooting for a few hours in the day, we would get to the bar at the Hyatt at around 11, stake our claim near the elevators, and try to catch every comedian, publicist, manager, agent (and waitress) that we could. This would go on until about 3:30am, when the lights would come on and, blinking, drunk and unable to buy more booze, the aforementioned group would slink back to their hotel rooms, shades pulled tight.

More likely, I was tired of the comedians. I’m so used to shooting civilians in bits like “Pitch to America,” that doing a total immersion with professional funny people was akin to being embedded with a manic-depressive platoon on a sixty mile hike. And they’re not even our troops: as a writer for the most mainstream, number one show on TV, I’m considered to be Establishment. And the same rule applies now as it did in the ‘60s: Establishment = Enemy.

But I’m not your enemy, oh brothers and sisters of chuckledom. I’m just the guy who wants to put you on TV. Come on over, grab this here microphone, and tell my little camera a joke. You do this for a living, right? What better place to be anti-establishment than in front of 8 million viewers?

But I have to be fair. Turns out that many comedians don’t do jokes. They don’t even do anything that could be both humorous and under 45 seconds long. It’s just impossible. Jokes are for squares, there’s no street cred in jokes, there’s no momentum in joke telling. The real thrill, the thing that elevates your status among your peers is the premise. Like a real, ballsy premise that makes everybody go, like, “WHAAAT? Did he SAY that? You gotta be SHITTING me!”

I can’t be critical. It’s a job I could never do. I’m terrified of speaking in public. When there’re more than three people at the In-N-Out drive-thru window I just keep moving. I write for comics but could never perform the jokes. Doing a bit on the Tonight Show is out of the question. I can’t knock these guys, and if they have something to say, but choose not to phrase it in the form of a standard setup/punchline with a possible flip, they still have something to say.

And some of them really delivered. Shocking, odd, nostalgic, silly – I got more than enough to divert the viewing public for five minutes, and it was damned funny. It takes guts to do something as reckless as being the only thing on NBC for thirty seconds, and the reward? Everybody repeats your material the next day. You defined yourself with a joke, then gave it away.

And with the May 29, 2009 end date announced on Monday, that closes the book on the “Pass the Mic” bit. The first of a long list of my own routines that I will be crossing off in the coming months. So goodnight, Montreal, and thanks. You’ve been a great audience.

How Not To Be Seen

What you’ll see on the show

In addition to my writing and shooting duties on the show, I also do the occasional graphic. Most of the time, that means an animated title for one of the bits, as you may know from past blog entries. But once in a while, I do special effects.

These effects can be planned ahead, like the blowdarts I used on children in my “Blownadril” antihistamine commercial parody. There’s just no way we’re going to dart a kid in real life, so a computer-generated dart is the only way to make the joke happen.

Sometimes, I create effects to fix mistakes, or to more clearly demonstrate where the joke is in a bit. Like today. In the above photo, the joke is that it’s been so hot, the illegal immigrants are using a Slip ‘n Slide to come through the border. However, the way it was shot, the time of day, the color of the fence – all of these factors made it hard to see that there was a fence there at all.

Here’s the original shot:

The chain link fence is too dark. While it might do, it could also be confusing to viewers. The idea of sliding under the fence needs to be more obvious.

I took a reference shot and put it on my digital camera. It’s just a Nikon Coolpix, but when the zoom is all the way out, it has nearly the same distortion characteristics as the lens we shoot with on the show’s ENG camera. Also, the color depth is good, so I can dial up the contrast and hue to really come close to our video.

Then I went across the street to the construction site, parked the Vespa on the sidewalk and stood on the seat. I took this photo of the construction fence there:

You can see it’s pretty close in angle to the reference shot, and the shadows are all going in the right direction. I took it back to my office.

In Photoshop, I did an overlay, copying the new fence shot over the reference shot. After a little scaling and positioning, I created a mask and painted out all the areas that I wanted to see through. This included the hole in the fence, but not the fence on the left and the bush on the lower left.

I had to make the pavement look like dirt, so I sampled the color of the leaves in the original, and using another overlay layer, colorized it to match. I didn’t try to make it perfect, instead choosing to make it look like a shadow.

Next, I made a fake border sign and distorted it to look like it was hanging on the fence. I painted on a few shadows, and blurred it to look like the video, which has a lot of pixels, but the resolution isn’t quite HDTV.

Here’s the new overlay, ready to composite onto the video:

I saved the file and opened it in After Effects, along with the original video shot. Since the camera was handheld (extremely well, by the way – there was very little movement) the background video needed to be tracked so the overlay would move with it. Easy enough with all those crossing wires on the fence.

I applied the motion of the camera to the overlay and made a few positioning adjustments. Since the fence is backlit, I made it just a tiny bit transparent, which also allows you to see the action before the Mexicans make it through the fence.

When you’re doing a visual payoff like this one, the idea is not to be seen. It should look real, but be obvious enough so the audience gets it. The last thing you want viewers to do is math — connecting the dots from the premise to the punchline.

We do the math, so you don’t have to.

Click here to see the video clip.

The Green Light

Lighted green warehouse windows attract and repel

You know how your brain brings up the same stuff, over and over? Maybe you don’t, but mine does, and there’s no way to control it.

My mother calls these little memory flashes “my old routines,” and many of them are. For example, I can’t drive down certain streets without hearing in my head the song that was on the radio the first time I drove it. It’s irritating. Or, the tiniest jokes that get repeated forever and ever when the situation arises:

(Driving past Madison Square Garden) “Hey, I lost my glasses in there once. You know how I found them? I Felt Forum.”

See, these things are little demons in my head, and I hope to exorcise them by writing about them, but I’m not hopeful. Nothing helps.

But to finally get to the point, a more significant, recurring thought dates back to 11th grade English class with Dr. Dewsnap. A slight woman, she was famous for being a tough grader, and for unconsciously fondling a small purple statue of a panther when she was lecturing us on American Literature. Most boys could forgive her grading policy, just to watch her work that panther over. Whew!

Anyhow, she was the one who taught me Fitzgerald, including “The Great Gatsby.” This was not a book to be enjoyed, God forbid, this was a book to be examined, worshipped, even envied if you had the idiotic desire to become a writer. And on the last day of Gatsby, as we slouched our ache-free teenage bodies into the classroom, she stood writing on the blackboard.

Since the blackboard was so far from the purple panther, the guys couldn’t care less what she was writing, and the usual harrumph of a murmur went around the room. Then, quietly and intensely, she spoke.

“The Green Light. What does it mean?”

The room murmured on. She turned on us, furious. We shouldn’t be talking about our own little lives, we should be talking about how our lives were changed sometime last night, when we read that last chapter, in which Gatsby stands on his lawn and looks across the water at the green light in the distance.

“The Green Light! THE GREEN LIGHT! IT’S EVERYTHING!” she exploded, clawing upward with pipecleaner fingers, circling the room in long strides like a Barrymore laying down some Bard.

This got our attention. Frantically, I scanned back to the night before, sometime after swim practice, “Wonder Woman” and a couple of Who album sides, but it wasn’t coming to me.

“It’s the central image! It’s the future! It’s Daisy and hope and… everything!”

We sat there, ashamed that we had missed it. All except for Joel Myers, who knew everything and therefore was a pain in the balls. He just nodded smugly, and looked like he might join her up there at the board any minute.

So now whenever I see a green light, it all comes back. Usually I can banish it by whispering a quick “green light,” as if I’m playing a private game of “red light, green light.” But last week in New York, as we returned to the hotel on our last night of eating and drinking and walking and visiting old friends, I looked up at a renovated warehouse and saw the wall of green lights, shown in the photo above.

My mental GPS froze me to the spot for a second, putting that view/memory/location permanently into the archives. And it made me think about the green light, and New York, and everything that has happened since then, and my own Daisy, and Dash, and life out west. Maybe this is the future, back in a New York that’s changed so much. Could we really go back?

And looking at those green windows, formerly a squatter’s warehouse and now the worldwide headquarters of some absurd designer or something, I found myself drawing a profound conclusion to the entire trip:

Maybe L.A. doesn’t suck so much after all! Yippee!

The Sweet Smell of Sawdust

A welcome sign

On my last day of hiatus, I can finally say that I have finished my CNC router mill. Why the hell I would WANT to say that, well, that’s another story.

First, what it is. “CNC” stands for “Computer Numeric Control,” which at this point is an old-fashioned way of saying that it’s a machine that your computer controls.

Another word for this would be “robot.”

While it doesn’t wave its arms around and warn Will Robinson that Dr. Smith is feeling frisky, it still qualifies. There are special motors called “stepper motors,” one for each of the x, y, and z axes. Once you calibrate the table and tell the software just where everything is and how thick it is, you can convert your drawings and designs and the thing makes them for you. As far as I could tell, all the robot on “Lost in Space” ever did for the Robinson family was Jack and Shit, so I consider my robotic mill to be vastly superior.

There are other robotic similarities. When the stepper motors go to work, they move in very small, very precise increments, so it’s not a smooth motor action but a vibratory one. Thus, as the router is whirring at 3,000 RPM, the motors give out with an eerie, atonal song. As the thing cuts a circle and the speeds on both motors continue to change, they make a song not unlike the music from “Forbidden Planet.” Get it? Robby the Robot?

Okay, that was a stretch, but you have to admit this thing is pretty cool. I can download a Google Sketchup drawing of a desk, decompose it in EasyCad, turn it into g-code and the mill will make all the parts for me. It’s like an earsplitting, 10-hour-long, dusty trip to IKEA, all within the confines of my garage workshop.

There are still refinements to be made to the mill. First, I have to make a dustcatcher to which I can hook my shop vac. Next, I’m going to drill holes in the stage and attach another vacuum to that, to keep the stock lumber in place while it’s being cut. Think of it as a reverse air hockey table. That works at 140 decibels.

And finally, after I have used my precision machine to make built-in shelves for my wife’s home office, I will start learning the carving software, that will allow me to make 3-d representations of stuff I’ve designed on the computer.

But for now, I’ve basically worked my way up to cutting out complex letters. And while that puts me on a technological par with a sign making shop circa 1978, back in 1978 I used to think that sign making shops were awesome. Or maybe groovy, I don’t know, I don’t retain contextualized adjectives well.

So here it is, the debut project:

Sign Pro of Media, Pennsylvania, eat your heart out

Review: Hotel Gansevoort

I like beautiful design. I like whimsy. I like it when someone comes in and cleans my room every day. So why don’t I love the Hotel Gansevoort?

First up, it’s got that whole Sanitized Manhattan thing going on. It’s in the center of the meat packing district, which used to be a desolate no-man’s-land with nothing but Florent and puddles of meat runoff. Now Florent is going out of business because they raised the rent.

And the neighborhood is populated with extremely high-end designer shops, like Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney, and places with names like this:

Did “Sex and the City” destroy the world?

Next, there’s a view of the Empire State Building (which I love), but it’s only from the roof and this is all you get:

The view, such as there is, of the Empire State Building

Okay, so, there’s plenty of other stuff to see. It’s right by the river, so the sunset must be fantastic. Guess what: there’s another building, right in the way:

Excuse me, would you mind removing your top 11 floors?

Now we get into the really annoying details. The purple elevator buttons:

Somebody made this decision

And the incredibly annoying video monitors in the elevators, depicting nerdy guys performing comical dances:

Damn, have some self respect, man!

This gets us to our final criticism, one that will not be true for everyone, but this is my own personal blog, after all. There is a rooftop pool, and in it, there are hotel guests. And those guests underline what I could never love about this place: it attracts mostly people who are much more attractive than me.

I ain’t getting my suit on, that’s for damned sure

I mean, come on! I work in an airless, windowless office all day! When I come to New York, I want to spend my time with pale, unattractive people! It’s bad enough going out to dinner in Los Angeles! Even my wife is taller than me! I work with the Wayans Brothers, and nothing makes you feel shorter, fatter, or whiter than working with the Wayans Brothers! So for God’s sakes, couldn’t there be just one Ernest Borgnine-looking jerkoff checked into this place?

Plus, those dancing guys in the elevators. I mean, really.

Splashy Art

One of the manmade waterfalls in New York Harbor

My wife and I are visiting New York for a few days, and are lucky enough to be here when the waterfall art project by the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson in New York Harbor. It consists of four, 8- to 10-story scaffolds with high-powered pumps that take their water from the East River, raise it, only to drop it from thundering heights.

For an Icelandic artist named Olafur, I thought the installation was surprisingly accessible. After all, Bjork is Icelandic, and she’s ready to throw on a dead swan wherever people are handing out statues.

The artist’s motivation was this: The harbor used to be busy; it’s not busy anymore; the waterfalls are meant to make the harbor look busy. And isn’t it every artist’s secret motto, whenever the people with the grant money are watching, to “look busy?”

It’s not the easiest exhibit to figure out how to see. The Circle Line is having a mini-boom over it (note the crowd of boats in the above photo), but their twist is to give you a rain slicker and actually get you drenched by that art, a sort-of homage to the “Maid of the Mist” in Niagara Falls. I carry way too many bits of electronics on my person for that to be a possibility.

Another way would be to take a taxi to Brooklyn so you could see all four falls (the prominent one is located under the Brooklyn Bridge, and can only otherwise be seen from about forty blocks north on the Manhattan side). But come on, this is the Brooklyn Bridge here, you just gotta walk it.

And so we did. One of the members of our party decided to wear flip-flops for the trip, which wasn’t a great idea. She was also immensely satisfied when we came to the spot where Miranda gets together with some guy in the “Sex and the City” movie. So there wasn’t a lot motivating all of us to the other side. We would settle for seeing three of the four waterfalls.

Then, on the way back, the Band-Aid fell off her chafed, poorly-clad feet, and when she bent down to fix it, she spotted the last scaffold directly beneath us. I managed to reach my camera under the walkway and snap this photo through the bridge infrastructure:

Waterfall #4

And so we did it. Like the waterfalls themselves, I felt that the level of artistic accomplishment was fleeting. But it was cool and big and made a lovely roar to drown out the taxis on the bridge.

And it gave us an excuse to walk the Brooklyn Bridge, an artistic achievement of a somewhat greater permanence.