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by Anthony Henriques

14 Aug 2008

I once attended college in Los Angeles, where I came across a lot of rich So-Cal kids (or rich, wannabe So-Cal kids) who casually used the n-word to insult each other and openly admitted their racism, even expressing pride in it.

I’ll be damned if this piece of garbage doesn’t remind me of some of those old acquaintances. These guys might as well have filmed their minstrel video in blackface.

by Rob Horning

14 Aug 2008

Recently I started watching Family Guy, the animated Fox show that for a long time I assumed was sort of an vulgarized take on The Simpsons, with the jokes made dumber to appeal to the Maxim-reading frat crowd. That assumption was wrong; though there are plenty of surface similarities between the shows, Family Guy represents an entirely different kind of humor—mainly it’s a matter of arbitrary references piled up. Kind of like Mystery Science Theater, these are random stabs, meant to seem spontaneously generated as a reaction to events and seemingly designed to gratify the audience for its ability to recognize the allusions. It’s pleasant to know trivia; Family Guy works on the theory that remembering pointless pop culture tidbits is funny in and of itself. Just remembering there was such a cultural creation as Mrs. Garrett from The Facts of Life is the essence of the joke. It cuts both ways—it’s flattering to get what the show has dredged up, but at the same time that makes us the butt of joke for having remembered. 

There’s no attempt at coherent satire, like The Simpsons frequently presents, or clever plot architectonics, as in Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm, where disparate plot threads are implausibly tied together. Family Guy defiantly rejects any kind of thematic unity, along with the rest of the Aristotelian rules. Its form is more that of a website like than a sitcom. It’s anchored in an aesthetic that has probably never made it this close to the mainstream before in the history of mass culture: wrongness.

It’s probably best to define wrongness by what strikes me as the most notorious example, the extended sequences in which Peter, the dad character, fights a giant chicken. These are elaborate parodies of the fights in blockbuster action movies, but that is only part of what is meant to make them funny—that’s just the shallow surface premise. Their complete gratuity, highlighted by the complete absence of relation to the episode’s plot, is also part of the joke, but the core principle on which these scenes are based is their interminableness. They go on well beyond what the audience expects, well beyond the moment at which every possible person will have gotten the joke’s surface premise, and enter a realm of annoyance and discomfort. They seemed designed to provoke the viewer’s anger, to make us shout at the screen, “Enough already!”

One might protest that these are lazy ideas deployed to fill time when the show’s writers’ invention fails them, but these sorts of messed-up scenes are in virtually every episode. They are not accidental. They have their analogues, too, in several other aspects of the show, completing a sort of holistic spirit of wrongness. These moments, when Stewie (the diabolical baby) goes on and on about Brian (the family dog who, in a Snoopy-derived reductio ad absurdem, is the most intelligent and mature family member) and his procrastination about his novel, or when Peter deliberates over stupid Trivial Pursuit non-questions, provoke the same creeped-out feeling that is the basis for the character of Quagmire, the hypersexed neighbor who perpetually takes his advances too far with inappropriate people and derives sexual pleasure from things that are too bizarre. Herbert, the bitter old molester, prompts a similar feeling, as the moment we start to laugh at his skeevy advances, he becomes contemptuous and spews unfunny, ominous insults and threats.

And the show’s lack of a plot works this way too—ordinary markers of the “acts” of a sitcom episode are ignored, conflicts are introduced and then forgotten, unresolved. The show will end abruptly on an off beat, or introduce a digression that takes over as the main storyline. Traditional TV conventions are gestured toward and then suspended, not so much subverted as exposed, taken too literally, pushed too far to the point where they can’t be allowed to function as the shorthand they serve as in other contexts but become instead strange. This makes Family Guy weirdly Brechtian. It often tries to alienate us, as though that were now understood to be a cutting-edge form of humor.

The show’s writers seemed to purposely build in a moment to every episode where they make the equivalent of chanting “not funny, not funny, not funny” into something funny through sheer persistence. The scenes of wrongness refuse to let us sit back and passively tally the orchestrated moments when we are supposed to laugh (which sitcoms customarily choreograph with laugh tracks). Instead we are forced by frustration into a different sort of emotional engagement. It’s a pretty audacious approach, and it’s no wonder the show has been canceled several times. What puzzles me is that there are enough devotees of wrongness to keep getting the show resurrected.

by Lara Killian

14 Aug 2008

Yesterday an appeals court in Manhattan overturned a 2006 decision awarding the copyright interests for 10 of John Steinbeck’s works to his closest heirs, his son and granddaughter.


Penguin has had a standing agreement for the publishing rights to Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men since 1938, which the family members sought to end in 2004. Penguin wasn’t willing to let go without a fight.

BBC News reports, “Thomas Steinbeck and Blake Smyle were awarded the rights in 2006 after a lengthy court battle.” The story continues, “But the appeals court ruled the lower court had misapplied copyright law.”

It turns out that the rights had been more recently conveyed by Steinbeck’s third wife to Penguin in 1994, and left with her estate to her descendants from a previous marriage when she died in 2003.

John Steinbeck died in 1968, having won a Pulitzer for The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and receiving the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962.

by Jason Gross

14 Aug 2008

Perfect Sound Forever writer Tony Sclafani is someone I’ve enjoyed working with—he’s done a number of good stories for my zine. I’m also glad to see him making a name for himself at MSNBC as a writer there. What he didn’t anticipate was that writing pop think pieces can be a hazardous business. Not enough people do that nowadays and it’s easy to see why—when you’re dealing with a mainstream subject, most of the audience ain’t interested in theories and independent, unpopular thought. I happen to love this type of writing though I don’t envy the people who do it, especially for big publications.

As Tony found out, you get lots of slings and arrows for this type of writing. He was surprised about this at first and I tried to reassure him that it’s nature of the beast.

One case in point is his recent Madonna article. Here, he compares her cultural impact to that of the Beatles and finds that nowadays, Madge comes up as the winner. Mind you, he goes out of his way to say that her music isn’t necessarily better than the Fabs but that didn’t change anything in the mind of many readers. Look at the comment section for the piece and you’ll find a lot of scathing responses there. That’s to be expected. The readers prove their point (Beatles > Madonna) by quoting sales figures (which would ultimately mean that the Eagles beat both of them), musicianship (which ain’t always a guarantee of great music and which would qualify Keith Emerson or Richie Blackmore for Rock Hall of Fame slots that haven’t been available otherwise) and such. In other words, they don’t address the issues that Sclafani brings up and instead take offense that their heroes are being attacked. That’s not the purpose of the article though Sclafani clearly meant to tease the readers by bringing up the Beatles comparison- how much reaction would the article have gotten if he just said “Madonna’s had a lot of cultural impact”? (A: a lot less reaction)

One thing I do disagree about in the article is the cultural impact of the Fabs. Musically, it’s true that their legacy hasn’t DIRECTLY influenced a lot of music you hear today outside of power pop but the same could be said about another cultural icon named Elvis. The fact is that the Beatles did and still do have a lot of non-musical impact in culture today. They virtually invented the concert of stadium tours starting with Shea in ‘65. Also, Harrison’s love of Indian music helped usher in many musicians’ and fans’ interest in ‘world music.’ Sgt Pepper was a milestone as it introduced not only the concept of the album as art (both on the cover and in the grooves) but also that it could still be a best-selling item. Though Sam Cooke and others had done it before, the boys also popularized the idea of artist-run labels (Apple)—even beyond that, they branched out into other venues like a boutique and an electronics company (though both flopped). Their decision in ‘66 to end touring also made it viable for groups to be ‘studio bands.’  Even before they officially broke up in 1970, they had already began to popularize the idea of the ‘solo album’ (and did some interesting, strange things with it too). Even their interviews betrayed their art-school mentality instead of the aw-shucks persona adapted by the King. Their fascination with tapes and electronic music also helped usher in not only the idea of art-rock (which is a mixed blessing admittedly) and helped to push modern classical music more into the mainstream consciousness (even at the time of his death, composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, a giant of 20th century music, was still best known for his visage on the cover of Pepper).

And so on. You could spend all day listing the innovations that the Beatles brought about and which still are important today (and please do so, I wanna hear more myself!).

You can argue back and forth about whether the appended list above beats out what Madonna did or not but the end result is still the same. Both artists had a major impact on the pop world and continue to do so today.

As for Madge, I’m going to see her on her upcoming tour. I saw her on her last tour for what was supposed to be her worst record and she still put on a great show. I have no doubt that she’ll do it again this time- she’s a living legend and still a great entertainer. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that she’s not the cultural icon she once was, though she can still grab tabloid headlines (and though signing with Live Nation was a big move too). In a May cover story for Vanity Fair, she said that she thought that New York had lost its pizazz- “... it doesn’t feel alive, cracking with that synergy between the art world and music world and fashion world that was happening in the 80s.”  “In a response, New York said ‘right back at you!’” said Amy Poehler on Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update.

Oh and recent historical data has shown that Jesus was well over six-feet tall- he could have been a great point guard on a basketball team. So technically, he’s bigger than the Beatles or Madonna.

by Bill Gibron

13 Aug 2008

It had a strange sense of serendipity to it. On the same week as its release on DVD, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s now classic animated TV series was faced with the loss of the late, lamented character Chef. During one of their ‘commentary mini’ tracks that function as an added insight into the show’s creation, Parker discussed how the episode entitled “The List”, could have used the guiding presence and often sex-based sensibility of one Jerome McElroy. It was a passing sentiment, an acknowledgment that the issue with co-star Isaac Hayes in Season 10 still stung, if just a little. Then the news arrived of the actor/musician’s death at age 65. Suddenly, the turmoil over Hayes’ leaving and the controversy surrounding his possible motives seemed insignificant.

A great deal of South Park‘s amazing satire functions in this capacity. During a run which saw the boys take on terrorism in both the brilliant three part epic “Imaginationland” and the 24-inspired “The Snuke” while maintaining the kid friendly perspective via “The List” and “Lice Capades”, Season 11 could be described as more of the same - and that’s a good thing. While the series continued to push the boundaries of acceptability (the halting homophobia of “Cartman Sucks”, the N-word incorporating mayhem of “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson”), it also used its creative ace in the hole to skirt around scandal. Parker and Stone have always argued that they get away with what they do thanks in no small part to being a pen and ink project. They readily recognize that, outside a cartoon format, their brand of humor would be impossible.

And then there’s the ‘children’. For those unfamiliar with the main premise of the series, South Park centers on a group of grade schoolers growing up in a pleasant, podunk Colorado town. The main kids are Stan Marsh (well meaning and slightly nerdy), Kyle Broflovski (Jewish, and frequently ridiculed for it), Eric Cartman (a bulky bully with a steel trap serial killer mentality) and Kenny McCormick (poor, parka-ed, and speaking in inaudible mumbles). Together, the guys hang out around town and fraternize with friends Butters (a gullible little goof), Tweak (tanked up on caffeine and paranoia), Timmy (unapologetically paraplegic), and Jimmy (a crippled stand up comic). Along with local residents Mrs. Garrison (the gang’s transgender teacher), Mr. Mackey (the guidance counselor), and their various zoned-out families, the main premise of the show finds current events and popular culture filtered through the prepubescent perspective of some smart, if slightly scatological, preteens.

That’s definitely true of the terrific triptych that forms the basis for the series’ most ambitious artistry ever. “Imaginationland” (reviewed here in its initial digital release) remains a perfect combination of South Park ideals. On the one hand, you’ve got the amazing and insightful look at how fear robs us of our safety - and how politicians push it to steal away our freedoms as well. In addition, you’ve got the loving look at fictional characters past and present, good and evil, classic and newly created. Drawing on dozens of inspirations, the sequences in the title kingdom are masterful. When you toss in the subplot scuffle between Cartman and Kyle, centering on a bet and the “sucking of balls”, you have the entire series in an ‘anything and everything goes’ nutshell. More importantly, it stresses the show’s desire to be topical while true to the characters involved.

This is showcased in several episodes involving the boys. While “Guitar Queer-O” definitely focuses on the famed videogame, the main thread takes Stan and Kyle on a rags-to-riches-to-rejection-to redemption-to-reconnection music industry satire that riffs on local Colorado celebrities and The Partridge Family in the process. The head lice episode, while dealing ostensibly with the kind of Jerry Bruckheimer inspired action films that turn everything into an over the top apocalyptic disaster, also shows how cruel and cliquish little kids can be. The aforementioned “List” is perhaps the most obvious example of this ideal. While painting young girls as capable of the same high crimes and corrupt misdemeanors of any closed off conspiracy, the real focus finds social rejection and peer acceptance as the main themes.

South Park has always been good about spreading the wit wealth, so to speak. It will go wholly down the commode for the ‘biggest turd’ treats of “More Crap” or the purposefully foul mouthed “Le Petite Tourette”, while pulling things back for the Dawn of the Dead parody “Night of the Living Homeless”. Some have suggested that, “Imaginationland” aside, Season 11 is nothing more than the series resting on its already substantial laurels (including an Emmy win for Season 10). Oddly enough, that’s not the critical complaint it’s intended to be, especially when similarity suggests a continuous level of cleverness, insight, and laugh out loud elements. Like The Simpsons, Parker and Stone have discovered that a simple set up can lead to a world of possible punchlines. They also recognize that some subjects heretofore unripe for parody can be made hilarious with just a little brains…and butt gas.

This is especially noticeable when you hear the men talk. The South Park creators are indeed their own worst detractors. During their three to six minute discussions on each episode in the DVD set, they frequently fall back, arguing over concepts that didn’t play out right, or approaches that, in hindsight, needed more thought. They generally dislike the Mr./Ms. Garrison as a lesbian lift of 300 known as “D-Yikes”, and wonder if their take-off of The Da Vinci Code, “Fantastic Easter Special”, really hit the mark. They admit to adding the Cartman fighting a dwarf subplot as a means of avoiding the otherwise hot button blatancy of “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson”, while “Cartman Sucks” had more anti-religious railing than they would probably care to admit.

Still, in a genre that often goes for the safe and inoffensive, South Park continues to flaunt its usually flawless, always fearless funny business. Season 11 will be a hard act to follow, but with the first half of 12 already available for scrutiny, it’s clear that Parker and Stone have no intention of backing down. More importantly, with themselves as the intended focus group so to speak, the show will never be accused of laziness or a lack of vision. After more than a decade of farts, feces, and friendship, you’d think they’d run out of compelling ideas. But as this DVD demonstrates over and over again, as long as its founders find fault in what they do, South Park will strive to maintain its own unique level of anarchic insanity.

//Mixed media

Because Blood Is Drama: Considering Carnage in Video Games and Other Media

// Moving Pixels

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