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!

8 Aug
2017

An Icon Passes: Remembering Romero

"They're coming to get you, Barbra." These words will forever echo in the minds of horror movie fans around the world.

These famous lines, which sparked an entire genre of horror, were written by none other than George A. Romero, legendary director, writer, editor, and creator of the modern day zombie monster. A native New Yorker, Romero came to Pittsburgh to attend Carnegie Mellon University. Sadly, he passed away from lung cancer July 16th at the ripe age of 77.

I love zombie movies. To me, they are the most terrifying monsters. Whether they're Romero's slow moving, dim-witted flesh eaters, or fast and tactical like in 28 Days Later, just the thought of an undead army whose only intention is to eat your brains sends shivers down my appetizing spine.

My fascination with the zombie world started at a young age. My brother showed me Night of the Living Dead when I was around ten years old. It scared me to death, but it opened me up to the world of horror, and for that, I am forever indebted to Romero. 

Night of the Living Dead was released in 1968 with a budget of $114,000. Since then it has grossed more than $30 million and has become a staple of any horror buff's collection. The movie was shot locally in Monroeville, PA, putting the little town on the map.

Romero may have not known how important this film would be, but he managed to do two things: create the modern zombie, and use the film as a platform to hold a mirror to American society. Romero was a master at social commentary. To have an African-American protagonist, and to have the protagonist be the hero, only to be shot dead by police officers at the end, in 1968, was groundbreaking. Romero had found his voice, his niche.

His 1978 installment of the Dead series, Dawn of the Dead, continued to mock American culture by having the zombies roam the Monroeville Mall.  Even as thoughtless zombies, they still manage to make it to the center of American consumerism. 1985 brought along Day of the Dead, which shows us how dependent we can be on our government, and how the people in charge don't always know the answers.

Since 1968, zombies have evolved.  They've gotten smarter and they've gotten faster. 28 Days Later, aka cinematic gold, changed what a zombie movie could be. You won't be able to outrun these super-human-like zombies. Today's zombie is a hunter, seeking out prey rather than stumbling around until you trip and fall.

Zombies are no longer the cult they used to be, with television shows like The Walking Dead, and iZombie, video games like Left 4 Dead, and Dead Island, zombies have exploded into mainstream culture. Even literature has tackled  the subject of the undead, Max Brooks's The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z are two best sellers, with the latter being made into a movie starring Brad freakin Pitt.

Without George A. Romero, there would be no modern zombie. Had he not pushed the envelope, this multi-million dollar scene would not be here. Romero was an innovator, a commentator, and an icon. With his passing, he leaves behind a legacy that has touched every horror fan on this earth. He will be missed, but if the zombie apocalypse does happen, it would be an honor to have him eat my brains.

5 Aug
2017

August 5th is National Disc Golf Day!

National Disc Golf Day was recognized by the National Day Calendar in July of 2016, which makes it one of the youngest holidays we've ever featured on the KU blog.  Disc golf itself is a lot older, with various individual accounts of a proto-disc golf-like game being played very early in the 20th century, long before the Frisbee was even invented (in 1966, more on that later), or the idea of a dedicated disc golf course, or even the term itself were even glints in proverbial eyes.

This is what disc golf looks like.

Have you ever looked something up on the internet and gotten completely sucked into a vortex of links and Wikipedia articles?  Of course you have.  Looking up National Disc Golf Day is a lot like that.  There are some really fascinating things to learn about disc golf, actually.  Like, first of all, the man who invented the Frisbee, "Steady Ed" Headrick, also invented the first ever disc golf basket, upon which all modern disc golf basket designs are based.  He also founded pretty much every disc golf organization, including the Professional Disc Golf Association and the Recreational Disc Golf Association.

Here's Steady Ed playing the sport that he basically made happen.

But let's back up a second. I can hear you all asking "What even IS disc golf, Adam?"  Ok.  So you know ball golf, right?  That weird, Scottish game where you hit a tiny ball with a super weird stick so it goes into a hole? Yeah, that's the one.  So disc golf is a lot like that, plus Frisbees, which are super fun, and minus all the snooty, country clubby BS which is super not fun.  Disc golf requires a lot less expensive equipment, there aren't any carts or groundskeepers or anything, and it's pretty much just superior in every way (unless you are snooty, then I guess it's worse.)

Interestingly, there are still drivers and putters and stuff, but instead of clubs, they're different types of discs! Here's a driver; it's kind of sharp and the weight is concentrated at the edge, to help it cut through the air and maintain its speed for a longer distance.

Cross section. So sharp!

The Boss. So bossy.

Versus a putter, which is much rounder and more evenly distributed, a lot like a disc that you'd play catch with, which makes it fly slow and straight, right to the hole.

Short game is important no matter what kind of golf you golf, guys.

One of the most popular putters in disc golf!

There are a bunch of other kinds of discs, too, but that's not terribly important right now.  What is important is that you get out and celebrate National Disc Golf Day!  Disc golf is a ton of fun, guys. There are a bunch of awesome courses in the Pittsburgh area, including several that were the sites of the Disc Golf World Championships in 2015! Don't worry if you don't feel up to playing the courses that the pros play, different tee placements adjust for all skill levels!

Here's a video of some pros playing on the course at Deer Lakes Park in Tarentum!

OH! Hey, before I forget.  Never, ever, ever say "frolf".  Ever.

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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!
2 Aug
2017

Put it in my Mouth, or, the Joys of an Ice Cream Sandwich

There exists in nature (and on occasion the hand of man) some things that, when experienced, always seems to be the solution to a bad day.  A tasty, mouth-watering treat can often be one of those things. Good for all ages and all times of the year; I always recommend indulging in an ice cream sandwich whenever you can get your hands on one.

On a hot day is generally best, when the sweat is dripping from your brow and you're incredibly thirsty, an ice cream sandwich is the perfect thing to cool you down. Then again, on a cold winter evening, an ice cream sandwich is the perfect thing to curl up with under the blanket while watching a good movie.

The best thing is that they come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and tastes. Some even come with extras, such as Jimmies or dip. I suggest trying different types, rather than settling on just one. There's a full menu out there. Why not try it out until you find a favorite?

As long as one remembers the simple rules of eating an ice cream sandwich: Never indulge too frequently (moderation is key to enjoyment); wash yourself off afterwards (messiness can be a sign of enjoyment during, but afterwards, no one wants to be sticky and covered in goo); take your time (enjoy all the sensations. There's no use in gobbling it down and forgetting the whole thing two minutes later); never pay for it when you can get it for free (it pays to have a winning personality when hoping for freebies); share (give as good as you get).

Hopefully, you've gained something from reading this and will run out for an ice cream sandwich of your very own. Perhaps the ice cream man will bring one to your door! Buon appetito!

1 Aug
2017

August 2017 Holidays and Birthdays

Happy August! Welcome to the eighth wonder of the, erm, year. Just kidding. This month we have a ton of stuff to be JAZZED about! There's National Ice Cream Sandwich Day, Book Lover's DayBad Poetry Day, and National Waffle Day just to name a few. Read on to see everything we're celebrating this month. Read more >>

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.