The Taser's Edge

Smart Humor and Good Preaching

Last Friday night, thinking at first that it actually was Second City TV, I started streaming the The Second City: The First Family of Comedy, a three-part documentary on that comedy empire. It’s not a great documentary in terms of its production and it’s glaringly clear that they couldn’t get Bill Murray to have anything to do with it, but it has me enthralled. I’ve been studying comedy writing (meaning, watching a lot of TV) lately, and to see this doc and to learn where so much of the contemporary comedy landscape came from is captivating.

At about 22 minutes into the first segment, one bit really caught my attention. Harold Ramis is talking about how the second generation of Second City (many of whom became the first season casts of SNL and SCTV and then went on to define 1980s-and-beyond comedy) came into its own.

Ramis explains the difference between this second class and that original class (which, wow, included Alan freakin’ Arkin, who I am now convinced needs to be asked to host SNL, in a thoroughly non-ironic way). Here’s my own transcript from the documentary:

Harold Ramis: “Bernie Sahlins had a motto which was, ‘Always work from the top of your intelligence.’”

Joe Flaherty: “You have to assume that the audience is at least as smart as you are. When you play down to an audience, you know, when you start doing comedy that you think, ‘Well I wouldn’t like it, I don’t think it’s funny, it’s, you know, stupid, but they’ll like it,’ it doesn’t work. It just falls flat on its face.”

And now comes the 4G turn…this is how I think about the church and specifically about the state of preaching in American churches. One central temptation to the pastor or preacher or teacher or Christian writer (popular or academic) is to not work from the top of our intelligence.

In comedy, the reasons for working from the top of your intelligence are that if you don’t, (a) your comedy won’t be as high quality and (b) you will be actively insulting your audience by treating them as if they are stupid.

Likewise, in preaching and pastoral work, if you don’t work from the top of your intelligence, (a) your work won’t be as high quality and (b) you will be actively insulting your hearers, readers, or congregation. (If you’re wondering, insulting your congregation is worse than insulting your audience at a comedy club. Lowest common denominator preaching is a devaluing of people who we supposedly believe are created in the image of God.)

Worst of all, if you’re not preaching from the top of your intelligence, (c.) you are failing to help your fellow disciples to grow and mature. Life experience, the Christian tradition, and Scripture are clear: we don’t grow unless we are stretched and asked to push further. Ask any athlete, any good comic, any saint.

So far so good, perhaps, but the question which this all begs is what “smart” preaching is. I happen to have an intellectual bent, but intellectual or academic preaching is not what I’m talking about. At all.

To explain, I go back to good comedy. There are comics out there today and in history who have been inarguably smart and who love the dumb joke. The Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, the writers of the best Cary Grant films, Woody Allen, and on down to Futurama, 30 Rock, and Louis CK, have all recognized that being smart in their humor includes being dumb in their humor. Somehow the best comics have not just been about being smart, but they choose to be smart in service of being good.

That’s all I’m asking of preachers. Be smart, because that’s part of pursuing the Good in what you do.

E is for Elmofication

The reason that Sesame Street will always be great, I think, is that it defined educational television even when the show’s creators didn’t really know what education television was; they decided what educational TV was, and then they created it.

Sesame Street continues to be good because it keeps changing and because it keeps up with the times. Of the recent pop-culture-based sketches (including versions of Glee, The Closer, and even True Blood), my favorite is definitely their spoof of Mad Men, maybe because the Street is always at its best when it’s being classy:

But all that’s not even what this post is about. It’s about art. I love art forms that are clearly art when you stop and think, but that don’t really receive the recognition of other art forms. For instance, muppeteering. I hated the Elmofication of Sesame Street as much as anyone who grew up before it, but this movie, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, looks great, because it will help more people see that this is an art form:

In which not-quite-TLC returns

Returns, you say?  To what?  This:

Returns, you say?  From what?  Don Hertzfeld’s Rejected, of course:

(Hertzfeldt is second because Hertzfeldt is first.)

h/t to AdFreaks for the former reference

Talk Radio (1988; dir. Oliver Stone)

When I watched this movie about a month ago, it was the fourth Oliver Stone movie I had seen in ten days, and W. was the worst.  Easily.  Not that Talk Radio is brilliant, but it is good, and the acting by the star, Eric Bogosian as Barry Champlain, is very strong.  Apparently the original version of the work was a play penned by Bogosian, with him as the same character, and his performance has some of that stage-acting feel of overwrought emotion.

How to describe Talk Radio?  The basic plot is that Bogosian plays a DJ who is generally much tamer than the DJs that you can think of now, 23 years later.  He says awful things, but he’s not a shock jock, not Howard Stern.  He says political things, but he’s not a political talk radio guy, not Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh or whomever.

Actually, while I’m sure that radio shows like his exist, I have never heard one.  His show has no format and no plan.  Basically, people call up with various things, and he talks at them in his own misanthropic way in order to entertain his audience.  Over time, he has developed a loyal group of folks who call in to talk about ongoing life issues.  Then he has plenty of random nuts.

And then he has gathered a group of loyal listeners who tune in and call in because Champlain (not his real name) is Jewish, and they hate Jews.  Neo-Nazis?  Maybe.  Holocaust deniers?  Yes.  Good ol’ boys?  Seem to be, although of a particular variety.  They call in, he baits them, they send death threats in the mail, and he baits them some more.  And the good people of Dallas listen in often enough that a national radio conglomerate wants to begin broadcasting nationally.

The meat of the movie is a number of different nights of the show, complete with a producer who Champlain is sleeping with; a hot, young Alec Baldwin playing that driven, deep-voiced corporate guy he perfected literally decades ago; and Champlain’s ex-wife coming into town, invited by him to provide emotional support during the jump to national celebrity.

This film feels dated in a not entirely bad way, but there are certain parts that make it feel like it has more worth as film history than as a film in itself.  That is, Network (1976) is one of my absolute favorite films, and it was a perfect vision of something close to what Talk Radio is aiming for.  This isn’t being unfair, as Talk Radio certainly pays homage to that earlier film, and Stone knows that Network is untouchably great.

Then on this side of Talk Radio, we have Spike Lee’s fantastic Bamboozled!, which envisions a reincarnated minstrel show becoming the top-rated show on American television in the 1990s.  It’s hard to say which film—Network or Bamboozled!—pushes the envelope further.  Network is eerily plausible, while Bamboozled! is less-than-plausible, even as something a bit less than an all-out minstrel show seems possible.

Watching it, particularly as a white male (myself), you do not know whether to laugh at the parts that are clearly meant to be humorous or not (as Lee himself says at the very end of this badly audio-synched interview).

(Sidetrack: And if you don’t think you can take the movie itself, at least watch this clip, which, although no less hard to watch, is the spiritual heart of the film.)


So we have Network in 1976, then Talk Radio in 1988, then Bamboozled! in 2000, evenly spaced at 12 years apart.  As is the case in so many areas of life, the problem is in the sandwich.  Were Talk Radio just an updated Network, that would be fine.  A good movie standing in the shadow of a great movie—fine.  The problem is when Bamboozled! was made on the this side of Talk Radio, putting Talk Radio in the middle.  Compared to one giant, Talk Radio fares okay.  Compared to two giants, Talk Radio suffers.

Limiting a review to comparison is not quite fair, so I should also talk about Talk Radio on its own merits.  As I opened with, the talk radio program in the movie is not like Beck.  And yet…a show like the fictional show’s popularity paves the way to Beck.  It’s all about the power of words.  Talk Radio’s Barry Champlain seems to live a life believing that his words have little to no real power at the same time that he believes they have tremendous power and that his gift of words to those who call in gives them tremendous power as well.  (This is the American problem: freedom of speech is important because of the nearly limitless power of speech, yet the enshrinement of freedom of speech makes our speech cheap.)

I’d check this movie out if you’re trying to be an Oliver Stone completist, or if you’re interested in movies about media, or if you’re a student who wants to see a great actor (Bogosian) doing great work despite his surroundings, or you might check out a stage production if it comes to town.  The movie is not great, but it is solid.

Embracing Death, Worshiping Death, Accepting Death

Is there a difference between embracing death as a Christian (see previous post) and worshiping death?  Undoubtedly.  But where is the line between the two?  This week makes it blurry…

Monday: The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas
You don’t need to live in a world where the word “martyrdom” seems always linked to Islamic terrorism to find the early Church’s connection to martyrdom disturbing.  Read the Apostolic Fathers (some of whom having brushed shoulders with New Testament writers), particularly Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna, and you begin to realize that in the early Church, they had no conception of a good death apart from martyrdom.  It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that a peaceful death was a faithless death.

But the story of Perpetua and Felicitas is particularly stomach-churning.  In the tale, Felicitas is eight months pregnant when she is locked up as a Christian.  Her friends are going to be executed, and her concern is that the Romans won’t execute her as a pregnant woman.  The happy ending is that she is able to indeed give birth a couple days so that she could enter the arena with her comrades.  Perpetua meanwhile directed the untalented sword of her executioner to her own neck.

I manage my church’s blog, and so I write about saints from time to time, but I didn’t know how to touch that story.

Tuesday: Shrove Tuesday
Not much en vogue these days, but the idea once was that you made Confession before the beginning of Lent, and then you would have a feast to celebrate about your reconciliation with God and everyone else before Lent began.  Holy water (again bringing baptism and death into the picture) is often used as part of the Absolution.

Wednesday: Ash Wednesday
A symbol of a torture and execution device is written in the product of fiery destruction on your forehead to wear for a day after you are told, “You are dust, and to dust you will return.”

Friday: Today
I came across the Spring Men’s Fashion Collection – Anatomy of Change – by Thierry Mugler, put together by and featuring Rico (or Rick) Genest, aka “Zombie Boy,” who has, unsurprisingly, also done quite a bit of work with Lady Gaga.

This post doesn’t even deal with all kinds of death suffered this week by people around the world (from victims of crimes, their governments, tsunami).  What is the Christian way of relating to death?  Is having a skeleton tattooed all over your body materially screwier than lining up to get ashes smeared on you once a year?  Than eating the broken body and drinking the poured out blood of the God-Man every week?

At the end here, I really don’t like the word “embracing” to describe the relationship Christians are called to have to death.  Perhaps, though, “accepting” (vs. “blocking”, as Sam Wells puts it in Improvisation), will work.

Book Haul!

That is, Birthday Haul! (Don’t feel the need to make yourself watch the entire awful thing):

For Bridge Day, the day which falls between Holly’s and my birthday, we headed to Chapel Hill for lunch and to hit a couple stores.  I rarely buy a book.  That is, they come by the many.

From the excellent The Bookshop (and thanks to my excellent Mom, who got me a gift certificate there)

  • The Angry Christian by Andrew LesterI’ve heard good things about this book for a long time, and one of my chaplain supervisors at Duke knew the author while living in Dallas
  • The Lord by Romano Guardini–Ratzinger/Benedict XVI likes Guardini a lot (Ratzinger’s Spirit of the Liturgy is titled in an homage to Guardini’s book of the same name), and this looked fantastic
  • Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life, edited by Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass–I’ve been looking for this book for several years, both because of everything, and because one of my favorite (now former) Duke profs, Tammy Williams, submitted a chapter
  • Zen and the Birds of Appetite by Thomas Merton–From late in Merton’s life, continuing inter-religious dialogues with the East

And from the excellent resale shop connected to an even better cause, Pennies for Change:

  • An Actor Prepares by Constantin Stanislavski–I’ve been interested in the book for a long time out of curiosity, then out of practical questions of the connections between preaching and performing, then because performance and Christian ethics is now a hot topic (including Stanislavski)
  • The Challenges of the Disciplined Life: Christian Reflections on Money, Sex & Power by Richard J. FosterYou would think that I should read Celebration of Discipline first, but no
  • The Crosswicks Journal, Book 3: The Irrational Season by Madeleine L’Engle–I have yet to read much of her non-fiction
  • The Confusions of Young Törless by Robert Musil–from the back of the book, “Like his contemporary and rival Sigmund Freud, Robert Musil boldly explored the dark, irrational undercurrents beneath the calm surface of bourgeois life…”
  • Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain–Not normally my genre for reading, but a new movie version is out as an HBO series starring Kate Winslet and directed by Todd Haynes
  • The Myth of the Eternal Return, or, Cosmos and History by Mircea Eliade–Who’s not interested in the eternal return?
  • The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays by E.P. Thompson–Thompson’s most famous book is The Making of the English Working Class (not well-regarded by at least once Wesley historian at Duke), and his second may be this
  • Virgin Time: In Search of the Contemplative Life by Patricia Hampl–Interesting-looking book by a well-respected author?  Yes, please.

Why I Am Not a Teacher

My first real employment in months has been as an after-school language arts and math tutor for K-5th graders.  It’s only three days a week, a couple hours at a time, and it’s one of those programs federally funded under No Child Left Behind (meaning, the federal trough is open, all kinds of skeezy companies have sprung up to eat their fill, and one of those companies has hired me).

For the first time, I’m getting a slight taste of what my wife and other teacher friends are going through 180+ days a year.  My ‘classroom’ has only four kids, not 34 kids, so I don’t have the everyday knowledge that there is no way to make a connection with each child.  And while at least two of these students would certainly be a handful in a large classroom, no one is really a behavioral issue with the amount of personal attention I can give.

So the issue boils down to the academic side of school, and I am cursed by the award-winning computer software this tutoring company uses, which tells me daily exactly how far behind all but one of my students are.  The software has thousands of focused lessons programmed in, all focused toward state standards, so that language arts and math are both broken down into a ton of smaller components.

These components are actually surprisingly fun (at least for someone who wasn’t born into a household with a Playstation 2 and satellite HDTV).  Build a sandwich by doing phonics, fill a shuttle’s booster rockets with fuel by counting change, help out a local newscaster by telling him what letters his subjects begin with, etc.

Part of this is actually a beautiful mystery–how long did it take me to figure out that a tiny dime is worth more than a bigger nickel, or to automatically differentiate between a nickel and a quarter, which look basically the same when you’re not used to them?  (And when, other than when counting change, do you ever count by 25s?)  When did I first realize that when reading English, you just have to memorize certain words, because sounding out the letters only gets you so far?  When did I buy into the lie that it makes sense for phonics to start with the letter P?  (One student keeps reading it ‘poe-niks’, and I am on his side, even as I correct him.)

A second part of the experience is just that it’s a lot of fun.  The youngest kid is all smiles all the time, and when he walks, he races everywhere slowly on his 20-inch legs.  The next older is very shy, slowly came out of his shell before Christmas break, and now after break has apparently retreated inward again.  And I love talking to all of them, asking how their days are going, failing to make them laugh at my dumb jokes (succeeding in having them laugh at my dumb face).

The last part, however, is heartbreaking.  I usually work my way around the classroom, sit next to a student, have him unplug his headphones, and then listen and follow along as he goes through a module.  Yesterday, I sat beside one student as the computer asked him to click on the picture with the middle sound of a long O: “Which word has the middle sound…’O’?”.  In the program, when you slide the cursor over a picture, it reads it aloud: “House…Rope…Hero…Bed.”

The problem is, as it turns out, D doesn’t know the answer, because, being both six years old and an English Language Learner, he doesn’t understand the word ‘middle.’  If you have spent any time with me on the same side of a game of Taboo, you know I had to work hard to come up with an explanation that wasn’t even more confusing.  Synonyms don’t work: ‘center’ and ‘between’ wouldn’t help.  So maybe write out a word he would know, and ask him to sound it out.  Except sounding it out isn’t that easy, and he’s distracted because I’ve muted the program but the visuals are still interesting.  Could I use numbers instead (1-2-3)?  No, that’s more confusing, because it changes the subject.  By this point, I started thinking towards drawing a short train with a letter in each car, but his concentration was totally gone.  So we moved on, hoping to come back later.

I don’t write about this because I think my experience is unique, or because I have anything new to say.  (That’s actually the reason for the title of this post: to say I’m a teacher would be to insult those who are.)  I really don’t know what I’m doing, except that I have some compassion, some patience, and some creativity.

I write this because last night after tutoring I was totally drained and dragging around the house.  This morning has not gone according to schedule because I’m still drained and dragging around the house.  At first I was clueless, but now what I think it is is not lack of sleep or calories.  It’s emotional.

I am an empathic sponge.  It works well in some situations–I’m compassionate and a good listener.  I actually hurt when others hurt.  I’m a very good chaplain, a great friend, and usually a good husband.  It doesn’t work so well in other situations.  When Holly comes home after a hard day, my day becomes a hard day, because I soak it up without any conscious decision, and then sometimes find myself taking her hard day out on her.  After a year-long chaplaincy residency, I still bore far too many of other people’s hurts, and I would guess that seven months after it ended I am still detoxing.

And then this morning, I am wiped out by the emotional expenditure of being with a kid who doesn’t understand the word ‘middle.’  Thankfully, no more tutoring until tomorrow.

Until then, unwinding from one version of Blasters (no, it’s not actually Math Blasters) with another:

It’s Still Christmas, So Keep Dancing!


Happy Festivus!
December 23, 2010, 12:10 am
Filed under: Family, Life, Television, Video | Tags:

Too Weird Not to Post

As someone who only knows her daughter, Liza Minnelli, from Arrested Development, dang they look and sound alike and have the same weird mannerisms.