Sixteen Eyes, Part Two

Continuation of Sixteen Eyes, Part One.

Timothy gingerly touched one of the growths and let his finger linger on the wet bump for a second before withdrawing. If it wasn’t so disgusting he would have let himself sink a little deeper.

There seemed to be some sort of movement within the growing sacks which had now completely consumed his glasses with their mass. He felt a presence within them and began to imagine a swarm of sentient life, skittering and scattering about.

He wondered if his childhood balloon had held a party of it’s own. A party where hundreds of tiny spiders got together inside to play nice games and say nice things and laugh without ever needing to explain why. How he would have loved to join those spiders, even if the collapsing balloon would have cut the party short. The sacks today weren’t collapsing, though. In fact, their growth showed little sign of slowing down.

“Why it must be the grandest of gatherings in there!” said Timothy, aloud to himself as well as to the room: a room which now felt far less empty than it had just moments before. He hooked the bio-mass surrounding his glasses back over his ears, causing some of the less fully-formed sacks to pop open against his skin.

He was sure that the spiders  would come out of their eggs soon enough. At this point he was certain that’s what they were. Spiders. Just a few at first, but then many more. He would feel the pleasant tingling of them dancing on his skin. Not one of them would care which of their eight eyes he was glancing at, or for how long. They would love him. Really. Genuinely. Love him.

He adjusted his posture, observing how the fluid pooling around him had turned his body into a tiny island resort for him and his eight-legged friends. He used to have to crunch his eyes together as hard as he could to get to a place like this. But now it seemed as though all the good things in the world were about to come to him.

Timothy shyly adjusted his hair, hoping that it sat just right. He felt like Mrs. Dalloway, preparing a fancy due for all of her spider upperclassmen. All he had to do now was wait for his guests to arrive.

Sixteen Eyes, Part One

“What was that?” Timothy said, squinting to see the cashier.

“Oh, I guess I’ll pay with debit.”

He returned to his present task of polishing his glasses on the inside of his T-shirt. There was a little rip in the fabric that allowed him to easily rub both sides at once, like a split tongue licking a fork clean of spaghetti.

But it was no use. There was a dusty white film that had been slowly covering them for some time now. It had started on the arms but had since made its way to the lenses themselves. He put them back on for a second to check up on his work and saw the cashier vignetted in a soft focus, looking like an old movie star behind a Vaseline covered lens. She looked, at best, impatient.

“Oh, yeah,” Timothy said, taking out his card to complete the transaction. He felt a hazy distance forming between himself and the cashier. It was almost is if she, in the space of their short interaction, had somehow drifted away from him. As if she had seen where their current path was leading and had redirected her entire life away from his. He often felt this way.

Taking his bags off the counter he walked out into the street, the invisible doorman clearing a path for him as he left the supermarket. The thick evening fog just compounded his current glasses situation.

He couldn’t see for shit.

Timothy noticed a spot in his vision where one of those uncleanable white flecks had acquired a brown-ish hue, beginning to grow off the lens towards his eye. He wasn’t able to make out the exact dimensions of it, but the size was certainly concerning. How was it that things had already gotten so much worse?

The walk home seemed to have at once gone by in a second and been excruciatingly long. He tried to recount the details of his trip, but nothing in particular stood out. Thinking back, he had maybe heard a homeless man ask him for a cigarette somewhere along the way, but couldn’t place exactly when this would have occurred. With his periphery so obscured, it could have happened just about anywhere. He didn’t smoke, anyhow. Why would that man think he did?

Reexamining his glasses, it became clear that most of the white powder had been replaced by brown bulbous structures which had now covered nearly the entirety of his lenses. On closer inspection each one was starting to look more like an egg than anything else. A few of them had sprouted puckering mucas-y pimples at their apex, looking as though ready to empty and spew forth their contents at any moment.

Timothy’s thoughts went back to his seventh birthday party, where a miss-tied balloon had unexpectedly flown into the air and sputtered around the empty room. He could never really explain it, but the almost choreographed way that it had moved filled him with a warm feeling not too dissimilar from friendship.

Part two coming next Monday.


Jokes as a Commodity

Tig Notaro

NOTE: I am not a comedian, so this is very much an outsider looking in. If any comedians think I’m way off base, let me know!

If there is one thing that’s valued in modern comedy these days, it’s honesty: Perhaps even more-so than being funny. After stand-up boomed an became an actual industry in the 80’s and 90’s people eventually grew tired of hackneyed premises and joke-teller personas and began to value personalities. People wanted jokes that felt like they were coming from a real place and were based on real experiences.  Thus, your Louie CKs and you Tig Nataros became the new rulers of the comedy landscape. Originality is perhaps what people claim to find the funniest of all and if there is one thing that the comedy world hates, it’s joke stealers.

Comedians are expected to tell jokes that arose outside of the comedic world. Inspiration from novels or a Noam Chompsky essay are A-OK, but to be inspired by another comedian’s set is simply not. Jokes are seen as existing as fully-formed entities, more like an invention than a performance and to take from one in any capacity is to rip off another person’s idea, full-cloth. Many comedians go so far as to not watch similar comedians for fear that they will accidentally steal an idea or a premise. And if they happen to hear of a comedian doing material too similar to their own, many will cut that joke from their act, even if it was arrived at independently. This jokes-as-a-commodity outlook is best exemplified by the acceptability of selling jokes. Despite all of these concerns about legitimacy, it is seen as 100% OK for a comedian to buy a joke from another comedian. This isn’t seen a blow to the credibility or as a disingenuous act. One can come up with a joke and then sell it, passing over ownership like the keys to a used Chevy Impala. The original writer almost never gets credit and can no longer tell the joke themselves: It would be like hopping into that Impala for a joy-ride weeks after you sold it. This, perhaps, made the most sense before stand-up became popularized and documented, when little record existed of a joke’s origin and joke stealing was even easier than it is, now. It also hearkens back to a time when comedians were seen solely as joke-tellers, rather than performers and story-tellers. While it makes sense to want to protect your jokes and your livelihood, I think this approach undervalues performance and treats stand-up as a mere joke delivery system and is, in many ways, outdated.

Most forms of art value things like allusions and intertextuality and are open to the borrowing and referencing of existing work, assuming you provide your own take on it. Some directors, such as Brian De Paulma and Quentin Tarantino, have made entire careers out repackaging the work of other filmmakers and providing their own spin on it: to popular as well as critical acclaim. You can recreate Sergei Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps sequence or retell Homer’s The Odyssey for the thousandth time and, as long as you put your own stamp on it, can claim full ownership over it. A fantastic example of this is a trio of films:  Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup,  Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and Brian De Paulma’s Blow Out.  Each film borrows heavily from the one before it, noticeably taking plot, themes, and even individual scenes. Yet, each story is told in a very different way and leaves the viewer in a very different emotional state when the credits roll. I think the same can be true of jokes. A similar set-up and punchline can leave one feeling very differently after the laughs have died down if told in a different way. The laughs themselves may have come from the same place (just as the core drama and tension of the baby carriage going down the stairs in The Untouchables comes from the same place that it did in Battleship Potemkin), but the way you feel afterwards can be very different. However the value and ownership of a joke is often seen only in the laughs generated: The visceral and audible reaction  being it’s sole worth, ignoring the feelings felt after they settle down. This is to equate humour to a mere magic trick, where the immediate reaction is valued to the point of completely ignoring the content that surrounds it and how it was affected by the joke.

The Untouchables versus Battleship Potemkin 

I would argue the opposite: That the things around the laughs are oftentimes where the comedian shows the most value. That the tricks used to elicit a laugh, like the camera movements used to create drama, are merely a vehicle to help find meaning in these surrounding elements. That if a comedian is to retell another person’s joke but to a different effect, using their own voice and style, then that is a piece of art as valid as that which inspired it. However, the value and ownership of a given piece is generally placed solely on the joke itself, as a sort of hold-over from a time when a comedian’s job was merely as a conveyor of jokes and punch-lines.

It is my hope that as the medium ages we can past this outlook of jokes being a mere commodity. That  we will begin to see all jokes as an interconnected web with influences and ideas being taken, remixed, and retold. Perhaps this will take some time, as it is a more academic approach to what is still mostly looked at is a merely populous medium, but I think it has the potential to get there.

Music has gone through similar questions in recent decades, with sampling being seen as both theft and as a transformative reinterpretation of another work. In some cases, these pieces can provide a direct commentary on the works they are borrowing from while still being enjoyable in and of themselves. Neil Cicierega mashed-up classic, canonical pop songs with other hits now seen as embarrassments (such as combining John Lennon’s Imagine with Smash Mouth’s All Star), showing how the difference between these pieces of high and low art are essentially arbitrary, all while maintaining many of the enjoyable qualities of both songs. Why can’t comedians do the same, provoking reflections on old jokes while still maintaining the humour that made us all laugh in the first place?

Smash Mouth meets John Lennon

Steve Martin created comedy sets containing jokes which worked on a popular level as funny set-ups and punchlines, while providing a subversive meta-commentary on the formulas used to produce jokes and comedic performances. While this was a groundbreaking approach to comedy to the 70’s, could a similarly interesting statement on the nature of comedy not be made today by reworking the jokes of others? Could a comedian like Gregg Turkington who’s Neil Hamburger character is nothing but a commentary on the nature of the stand-up comedian not take the jokes of others and comment on their work by retelling them in his anti-comedy style? Or, perhaps most interestingly, could a comedian not retell another person’s joke and change it just enough to reflect their own views and place in the world? Why can’t the same setup and punch-line be used in different story to create the same laughs but a different state of mind? If the effect that it has on you is different, then why stifle such creativity? Is the joke itself really where all the value lies? Does this serve to diminish the original work or hurt the original comedian’s career if the ultimate effect is different and the source of the material is not obfuscated or denied?

Steve Martin making jokes about jokes.

Neil Hamburger providing some anti-comedy.

Of course, as with all art, there is a line where such things cross over from allusion and commentary into being outright plagiarism. One can not take someone else’s joke word-for-word and retell it on stage, trying to pass it off as their own. There is a point at which credit needs to be given to the original comedian and another where you are copying their work and giving them a polite nod simply isn’t enough. And, to be quite honest, I’m not claiming to know where exactly these lines are. Rather, I am saying that the current popular stance on this issue is a pretty extreme one, and that I’d like to see it move towards the center…at least a little bit. I would love to see some comedians be allowed to begin to push this envelope without immediately loosing the respect of the entire community. Currently, most comedians pretend to live in a joke-free vacuum where the only acceptable path to being funny is to hand-craft a joke that doesn’t even resemble anything you’ve heard before.  And that is, in my mind, shutting out a whole world of hilarious possibility.

I didn’t intend for my first entry to be about death. Really I didn’t!

Short piece I quickly wrote after a walk, yesterday. I thought it was a funny idea when I started it, but I’m not sure how many laughs really came through:

People often say that everyone becomes more religious when the end is near but, in Sarah’s case, it came much later than that. She had remained steadfast in her atheism through the pain, through the cancer, through the coughed up blood, through the nursing home, and well into the tomb. It was only later that she seemed to have had a crisis of faith and found God. Or, at least, that’s what one would have to presume had happened. People spoke of her journey into heaven and her relationship with God with such certainty that something must have happened down there. There was no other explanation for it. Through John 14:27, Romans 8:35, and Psalm 46:1 friends and relatives and people she hardly even knew spoke of how The Lord had been there with her every step of the way. How Jesus had gently taken her once frail hand and guided her into the kingdom of heaven. But what  would Sarah have to say about all of this? Surely she would have been happy about it. Somehow, her changed outlook had been communicated. Perhaps it was sent by wire. Up the tree roots, across the branches, into the air, down the dendrites, and into the comfy neurons waiting to receive it. Or perhaps it was even more ethereal than that. That everyone somehow just…knew. In any case, it didn’t matter. The message had been received. They finally knew that Sarah was just like them.