Articles by " Sean Gazzo"
15 Aug
2017

Wish This Jerk a Happy Birthday

Read these jokes aloud:

  • "Don't have sex, men. It leads to kissing and pretty soon you have to start talking to them."
  • "I believe that sex is one of the most beautiful, natural, wholesome things that money can buy."
  • "I believe you should place a woman on a pedestal - high enough so you can look up her dress."

What do you think?  Funny? Not so funny? Corny? Sexist? Read them again in Steve Martin's voice.

They become funny again; at least I think so.  And it's not just these jokes.  Indeed, the bulk of Steve Martin's material is composed of unfunny jokes.  They are corny.  Like unfunny-uncle-corny.  You know which uncle I'm talking about.

I can actually hear your eyes rolling

These jokes aren't the exception.  They are the rule. Watch any of his stand-up specials and you'll find these terrible jokes all throughout.

When I was a kid, plenty of people talked about what a genius Steve Martin was.  Even at 11-years-old, I considered myself pretty savvy when it came to stand-up.  My brother introduced me to George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks (by way of Denis Leary), and many others.  Comedically speaking, I was quite adept.  Steve Martin, however, vexed me.  Why is he wearing an arrow through his head?  Why are his jokes bad?  And most importantly, why is everyone falling over laughing at this (my family included)?

When I watched The Jerk, a brilliant anti-comedy starring Steve Martin as Navin Johnson, a white man who was adopted by an African-American family, it all came together.  Martin's jokes aren't meant to be funny.  He's a jackass.  His character is a dumb person who believes himself to be the smartest guy in the room. So when he's on stage, he's actually playing the role of an entertainer who is mediocre but believes himself to be quite good.  If you think the jokes above are sexist and unfunny, it's Martin saying 'most stand-up comedians are sexist and unfunny.'

His stand-up isn't as simple as "get up on stage and tell unfunny jokes ironically," though.  His show is wonderfully deconstructionist.  The pacing is manic.  He works with props briefly.  His rhythm is completely different than anyone else who came before him, ditching the traditional formula of 'set-up/punchline' for sporadic, random bits that tricked the audience into laughing.  Or, to quote the man himself:

"What if there were no punch lines? What if there were no indicators? What if I created tension and never released it? What if I headed for a climax, but all I delivered was an anticlimax? What would the audience do with all that tension?"

If anyone else did this, they would look really foolish.

This is from his autobiography, Born Standing Up.  If you want a thorough account of Martin's life, I would recommend reading it.  If you don't have time, however, here's a short, not-so-thorough version:

Steve Martin was born August 14, 1945, in Waco, Texas, and raised in Inglewood, California. He is the son of Mary Lee and Glenn Vernon Martin.  After attending Garden Grove High School, he went on to study drama and English poetry while attending Santa Ana College.  His comedy career began when he landed a writing job on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, where he and his fellow writers ended up winning an Emmy.  He went on to write for The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour and The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour.  On top of his many stand-up specials, Martin has acted in many movies, including The Jerk (which he also co-wrote); The Man With Two Brains; Three Amigos; Planes, Trains, and Automobiles; and, most recently, It's Complicated. Martin is also an accomplished author, including his aforementioned autobiography, Born Standing Up and his novels Shopgirl, The Pleasure of My Company, and An Object Of Beauty (available at Kards Unlimited!).

The list of Steve Martin's accomplishments goes on and on.  I literally don't have the time to write about it all.  He plays the banjo, he performs magic, he wrote a play.  He's prolific, to say the least. And he is undoubtedly intelligent.

Genius at work

His apparent intelligence is what made me not give up on Steve Martin; what made me dig deeper and drove me to understand his comedy style.  On its surface, the material is really shallow and stupid.  If you read the jokes above in, say, Andrew Dice Clay's voice, they fall flat and come off as disgusting and misogynistic.  Through the filter of Steve Martin's thick sarcasm and satirical persona, however, it becomes a biting commentary on mediocrity in the entertainment business.  I had to put in the work and it paid off.

Happy birthday, Steve Martin, you wild and crazy guy!

2 Aug
2017

Happy Birthday, Kevin Smith!

I think I was about 12 or 13-years-old when my mom told me my cousin, Joe, was coming to stay the night. “He’ll be staying in your room, if that’s okay.” I was more than okay with it. I loved my cousin, Joe. He’s about 3 or 4 years older than me and I really wanted to impress him. It was pretty clear what I had to do.

He came over and I popped in my VHS copy of Clerks. It was perfect. The crude humor and awesome dialogue of Kevin Smith’s premiere film entertained Joe for the first time, and me for the 50th. I like to think that it made the awkward situation much easier on both of us.

I’ve been a fan of Kevin Smith ever since my brother showed me Mallrats and Clerks when I was 12 years old.   Smith had a Tarantino sense of dialogue and my sense of humor (filthy).  But it wasn't until he made Chasing Amy that I started to really appreciate him as a filmmaker.

Kevin Smith was born on August 2, 1970, in Red Bank, New Jersey.  While attending high school (as a B and C student), he would film his school's basketball games and create sketches in the vein of Saturday Night Live.

On his 21st birthday, he saw Richard Linklater's first film, Slacker.  The movie, which lacked any clear plot and focused instead on dialogue and the quirky characters of Austin, Texas, inspired Smith to be a serious filmmaker.  "It was the movie that got me off my ass; it was the movie that lit a fire under me, the movie that made me think, 'Hey, I could be a filmmaker.'"

After attending Vancouver Film School for four months, Smith left halfway through the semester so that he could save money to shoot his first film, Clerks.

The film follows a day in the life of Dante Hicks, a convenience store worker, and his slacker friend, Randall, who works at the video store next to him, though he is rarely seen working.  The film explores such subjects as infidelity, necrophilia, hockey, pop culture, and complacency in the workplace (as well as in life).  Smith shot Clerks at the convenience store he was working at in Leonardo, NJ.  He would work at the store during the day, and then shoot at night, which afforded him about an hour of sleep each night.  Because most of the movie is set during the day, he shot in black and white and kept the shutters for the store window closed so the lighting wouldn't be as prominent.

Clerks was a financial success.  With a budget of about $27,000 (mostly from maxed-out credit cards), the film grossed over $3 million despite a limited theatrical release.  The success of Clerks launched Smith's career as a filmmaker.  He went on to write, direct, and co-produce Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Clerks II, and many more.

It's hard to talk about Kevin Smith and his career without bringing up a few key movies.  After Clerks, many in the film industry had great hopes for Smith, believing him to be a voice for generation X.  His next film Mallrats, though not as successful, kept the same tone and explored much of the same subject matter that Clerks had explored.

His next film, Chasing Amy, was described by Quentin Tarantino as a "Quantum Leap forward" for Smith.  The contents of Chasing Amy share some similarities with his previous efforts.  It was still raunchy and dialogue-heavy.  There were plenty of pop culture references. Even the cast was similar to Mallrats, both featuring Ben Affleck, Jason Lee, and Joey Lauren Adams. But Chasing Amy still stood apart from everything Smith had made.  It was mature, thoughtful, and more emotionally-developed than his previous work.  Even now, I can't think of a movie that better explores the themes of sexual identity and friendship, with a balance of delicacy and bluntness.  If you've never seen it, you should.  Like, now!  I'll wait.

In the meantime "What's a Nubian?"

There's something incredible about Smith as a filmmaker.  In the same way Slacker made him rethink what was possible in film-making,  Smith's films (especially his early work) helped me realize that the only difference between a casual movie watcher and a filmmaker is a camera and a typewriter (um, computer).  You don't need a great deal of money.  You don't need a plot.  You don't even really need an audience.  All you need is a camera and a vision.  You might not make money doing it, but it can be done.  If the movies that exist in your head are better than the movies that are currently out there, do yourself a favor, and make the movie in your head.

That's what Smith did with Clerks.  I revisited the movie a little later in my life and was surprised to find that it holds up pretty well. The dialogue, which I had thought was genius when I was younger, is a little juvenile. It also kind of insisted on itself, like Smith knew that what he was writing was clever. The drama of the film, however, is pretty solid, as is the camera placement and the editing.  But more than anything, it's a unique voice in the world of film.  Smith had never seen a movie that depicted the doldrums of day-to-day living in the working world.  Everything from the annoying customers to the cheating partners, to discussions about helpless independent contractors working on the Death Star, Clerks shows that the day-to-day lives of two store clerks can be just as dramatic and entertaining as anything else in theaters.

Happy Birthday, Kev!  I assure you, we're proud of you!
18 Jul
2017

Go Gonzo: It’s Hunter S. Thompson’s Birthday

July 18 is Hunter S. Thompson's birthday.  It seemed like it would be easy to write about Thompson when I first volunteered for this blog entry.  His writing is so abrasive and so human that it's hard to ignore, easy to consume, and, ultimately, difficult to digest.  Understanding the "why" of Hunter S. Thompson is much harder than simply observing the spectacle he created.  Many of us know what he did.  Several documentaries, op ed pieces, biographies written by friends, and a certain movie have rendered Thompson into a consumable public figure.

Hunter S. Thompson was born July 18th, 1937, in Louisville, Kentucky.  He was the first of three sons of Jack Robert Thompson, a public insurance adjuster, and Virginia Ray Davison, head librarian at the Louisville Public Library.  He was 14 years old when his father died of a neuromuscular disease known as myasthenia gravis.  After his father's death, Thompson and his two brothers, Davison Wheeler and James Garnet, were raised by their mother, who began drinking heavily.  While attending Louisville Male High School, he was accepted as a member of the Athenaeum Literary Association.  While a member, he contributed articles to the club's yearbook, The Spectator.  However, he was ejected from the club in 1955 after being charged with being an accessory to robbery (he was in the car with the perpetrator).  He was sentenced to 60 days in Jefferson County Jail and served thirty-one.  As a result, he was not allowed to take final exams and did not graduate high school.

Thompson first came to prominence with his book, Hell's Angels (1966).  He had spent a year observing and living with the infamous motorcycle gang.  His writing was completely different than anything else written about the Hell's Angels, deciding to humanize the gang and give insight into their rituals and philosophy rather than simply reporting on their exploits.  He paid a price for embedding himself in the group.  He was assaulted by a member of the gang after expressing his dissatisfaction with the gang member's treatment of a woman at the scene.  Pictures of his bruised face accompany the book towards the end.

Hunter's face after an altercation with a Hell's Angel

When Thompson wrote "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved," he changed journalism.  After being asked to cover the Kentucky Derby by Scanlan's Monthly, Thompson and his friend, illustrator and collaborator Ralph Steadman, attended the event but could not cover it since they couldn't see the race from their seats.  Having to adhere to a deadline, Thompson tore pages out of his notebook, numbered them, and sent them in to the publisher.  Instead of talking about the race, he decided to focus on the behavior of the crowd and the general atmosphere of the venue.  A sports article turned social commentary, "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved" was where the term "Gonzo journalism" was coined. In response to the article, Bill Cardoso, editor of the Boston Globe, wrote to Thompson saying, "This is it, this is pure Gonzo. If this is a start, keep rolling." Gonzo is slang for bizarre or crazy.

Ralph Steadman's illustration of the Kentucky Derby, 1970

 

From that point on, Hunter S. Thompson spearheaded the Gonzo journalism movement.  Writing from a subjective perspective, involving himself in the story to a large degree, and mixing together elements of fiction and non-fiction, he wrote many great sports articles, political pieces and books, including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fear And Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, and The Rum Diary.

After a few decades of erratic behavior and a less-than-stellar output of material, Thompson committed suicide in his Woody Creek, Colorado, home.  He was 67 years old.

Plenty of terms can be used to describe Hunter S. Thompson:  Drug addict, gun-nut, psychotic, genius.  I know that my first impression of him came from the Terry Gilliam adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  Johnny Depp's portrayal of Thompson was endlessly entertaining and brilliant, but I didn't realize until after seeing documentary footage just how accurate Depp's performance was.  Thompson was a human cartoon, and matching up his personality on camera to his writing gives tremendous insight into his writing style.  He was a man who believed that the truth was dead in front of you, even if all the facts weren't.

Happy birthday, Hunter.  Here's hoping there's endless football in heaven.

3 Jul
2017

Exploring Kafka’s World

In his new book, But What If We're Wrong?, Chuck Klosterman explores the possibility that the greatest writer of our generation is yet unknown. In other words, it's quite possible that 20 years from now, the person who will be considered the greatest writer of their generation would be someone who isn't famous or even published, but in time becomes extremely well-known. Klosterman cites two examples of this actually happening: Herman Melville and Franz Kafka.

Although Melville published several novels, travel accounts, and volumes of poetry, he was not a popular author during his lifetime. The epic novel Moby Dick came to be recognized as a culturally important classic only after World War II.

On the other hand, Kafka, who was born on July 3, 1883, never published his own work. He never wanted to be recognized. He never wanted to be famous or culturally relevant. Indeed, he asked a friend to incinerate most of his writings after he died. Fortunately for us, the friend (and later biographer, Max Brod) abstained, instead publishing Kafka’s letters, short stories, and unfinished novels.

Next time you read The Metamorphosis, think of this guy

Perhaps Kafka wanted his life’s work burnt because he was ashamed of it. This would be fitting, since feelings of shame and guilt permeate his writing, passing on to us the traumas he suffered throughout his life. Kafka was raised by a domineering father who instilled shame and guilt into Franz from a young age. He described his father as "a true Kafka in strength, health, appetite, loudness of voice, eloquence, self-satisfaction, worldly dominance, endurance, presence of mind, [and] knowledge of human nature."

It's unfortunate that I even have to mention his father in this post. I in no way want to imply that a father's abuse crafted one of America's most influential authors. Yet, reading Kafka’s writing, there is an inescapable sense that perhaps it did.

Hermann Kafka, Franz's father

Kafka’s father deprived him of confidence, love, and for all intents and purposes, a home. The shame Franz felt nearly deprived us of some of his greatest work. His body of work was limited to a collection of short stories, the novella, The Metamorphosis, and three novels which he did not complete: The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika, originally titled The Missing Man.

The suffering Kafka endured as a child and a young man lent his writing a richly unsettling air of paranoia, guilt, alienation, and horror. Most interestingly, his work, surviving its intended cremation, lives on by request of the public at large (most, if not all of his works, are still in print), as well as in the mind of any one reader, as the force and potency of his writing leaves an indelible, and eerily personal, mark.

So here's to Franz Kafka, a man who believed that literature should be a tool for examining the ugly parts of ourselves that, though horrifying, need examined.  Or to quote the man himself:

"A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us."

And now to end this post on a much-needed positive note, the show Home Movies' rock opera about Kafka (and Louis Pasteur at the end for some reason).

 

 

21 Jun
2017

Go Skate!

June 21 is Go Skateboarding Day! For many people, skateboarding is a hobby, but for many more, it's a reason to exist.

And for many others still it's actually a job.  There is an entire industry dedicated to the production of skateboards and skateboard related material (helmets, grip tape, etc.) and the culture that surrounds skating.  This includes movies, television, sporting events, video games, and clothing lines.  Indeed, one of the biggest and most popular shoe companies of the past 20 years actually specialize in making skate shoes.

Perhaps you're familiar

Skateboarding has its roots in the 1940s and became particularly popular in the 1960s.  Originally referred to as "sidewalk surfing," skating competitions were mild in comparison to the large events held today.  Contestants were judged on simple tricks such as manuals and handstands.

Don't act like you're not impressed

This all changed with the Zephyr skate team, bringing the style closer to the ground, pantomiming surfing.  As the sport changed, so did the boards.  They became wider, the tails of the board became more pronounced, and new polyurethane wheels gave riders better traction and control.

Jay Adams of the Zephyr skate team exemplifying their influential surfer style.

Throughout the years, skateboarding's popularity waxed and waned until the 1990s, when its popularity surged.  Today, most of the world is familiar with the culture.  I recently read this excellent article on skater girls in Afghanistan, providing liberation for young girls in the area where doing ANYTHING as a female is at the very least frowned upon.

When I was a teenager, Go Skateboarding Day was treated like an incredible summer holiday.  It wasn't just celebrated by skaters, but by practically everyone our age.  We would pick a stairwell or a gap and just sit there all day.  Skaters would spend all day trying to jump the gap or grind the rail, and everyone else would just hang out and be a kid.  It was magical.  You would come home after hours of hopping over the same concrete gap, sun drunk, bruised and scraped, and  feeling incredible.  Pure bliss.

I would be remiss if I didn't share one skating video in particular that really converted me from being a casual observer into one of those kids hitting a gap all day.  I've since given up skating, but this video seems to transport me to those days.

 

Now get out of your house or apartment or hostel or hotel room or wherever, go outside and GO SKATE!

9 May
2017

Happy Birthday Kermit!

It seems as though the Muppets never go out of style.  They have been active since 1955, becoming well known in the 70s with The Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie and maintaining that success throughout the 90s.  Even as their popularity waned slightly in the 2000s (before their 2010 resurgence) the funny furry puppets still held great affection in the hearts of their original audience (and the children of that audience).  You simply cannot understate their importance.

And now that we all agree that the Muppets are easily the most important thing ever in history, in perpetuity, it would be hard not to argue that there are few Muppets (or anything made of felt) more important than Kermit the Frog.

Kermit made his debut in 1955 on The Jim Henson proto-Muppets creation, Sam and Friends, although he didn't really become a frog until his appearance in "The Frog Prince", at the time just resembling a plain lizard-like puppet.

He has taken the role as the de facto Muppet leader (in fact, since Disney took over the franchise, the "M" in Muppets has been dressed up to look like Kermit) and appeared occasionally on the children's entertainment juggernaut Sesame Street as an on-the-scene reporter.

Just...the best.

Kermit has since become a major celebrity, has written three books, starred and appeared in innumerable television shows, specials, and movies.  He has a star on the Hollywood walk of fame and was even nominated for an Academy Award for "The Rainbow Connection".

Why all this Kermit love?  Well because he's a national treasure!  Also it's his birthday today (yes, there's a little bit of controversy over this considering he was born as an egg with about a thousand other siblings, but we are counting his first appearance, on Sam and Friends) and we think he is worth it.  I mean, the dude is 62 years old and still looks great.

So, HAPPY BIRTHDAY KERMIT, YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAYYYYYYYYYYYY!