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Willie's Off-Brand Web Journal: January 6-January 22, 2008

Tuesday, January 15, 2008:

This morning, Tim sent me a link to This is Hormel, a gloppy, Troy McClure-ready industrial education video that guides the unwitting viewer through a tour of a Hormel slaughter factory. ("Tours are available at the Austin, Fort Dodge, Iowa, and Freemont, Nebraska locations!")

He writes, "If you can make it past the terrors of the giant Spam mixing machine, be sure to steel yourself for the hide removal chain. And through it all, try to picture a group of high-ranking Hormel public relations employees watching the film while nodding and agreeing, 'What a great way to sell more meat!'"

My favorite line, uttered while women arrange cocktail wieners on a picnic table: "Among the many considerations when marketing a product is: Will people like it?"

People who like animals or their own gastric equilibrium are advised not to watch. You're welcome!

CURRENT MUSIC: How It Feels to Be Something On... by Sunny Day Real Estate.
Happy to be a vegetarian.
11:53 a.m.

Doot? | |

Monday, January 7, 2008:

I'm pretty proud of this exchange Bev and I had last night, while watching NBC's new, WGA strike-prompted edition of American Gladiators. (The contestants were made to wear unflattering cervical collars during events that offered a high potential for neck injury.)

BEV: Have you ever had to wear one of those cervical collars?
ME: No, I don't have a cervix.
BEV: That's not-- Okay, even if that were what those devices were for, how exactly do you expect they would be donned?
ME: Sexily.

I'm so funny.

CURRENT MOOD: Infuriated that my useless credit union has apparently been taking six percent out of my checks from that Ontario transcription outfit as a "Canadian discount," which they consider distinct from the actual exchange rate.
CURRENT NERVOUS HABIT: Biting my chapped-to-shreds lips.
2:57 p.m.

Doot? | |

Sunday, January 6, 2008:

Yes, happy 2008 bargle.

I apologize to everyone for being out of touch lately (in terms of communication... though, well, sartorially, too). December was one of the most stressful months on record, for lots of reasons, and when stress comes along, I do what any geographically isolated person with dozens of loving and supportive friends stationed around the country would do: I opt out of human contact altogether, curl up in a little ball, and watch Lingo for hours on end.

Bev and I had planned to travel to Michigan on Christmas week to visit my family and friends, but she lost her wonderful Uncle Galen to cancer the Tuesday before we were going to leave, so she stayed in Maine to spend Christmas with her family. And also to enjoy a hard-earned respite from my constant pleading of "Bev, can I have another omelette? Bev, can I have another omelette?" Bev's dad had loaned us a reincarnated Buick LeSabre for the journey (whose grille he'd constructed from a lobster trap, and decorated with an Audi logo just for fun), so I loaded it up and undertook the drive alone. 

I'd hoped to be able to drop in on Amanda and Sean when I passed through Toronto, but I seem to have misplaced my birth certificate, and I ultimately decided that I didn't want to risk being detained or having my belongings destroyed at one of our nation's jealously guarded borders while trying to take the Canadian shortcut. I heaved one of my patented exasperated sighs, had Mapquest add two hours to my route, and made a mental note to see whether I can just order a twelve-pack of disposable replacement birth certificates from the State of Tennessee.

I prepared for the trip by stocking up on comedy albums, which served me so well back when I initially moved out here. Since I generally don't review comedy albums on the Music Review Archive, I thought I'd pleasure you all with some quick write-ups here.

I listened to hours of material by Scharpling & Wurster, and am very happy I did. WFMU personality Tom Scharpling hosts The Best Show on WFMU, and collaborator Jon Wurster (Superchunk drummer and Dead Milkmen sideman) calls in as an invariably arrogant, dense, and inspired character. Lengthy, semi-improvised dialogues ensue, and they're almost always absurdly hysterical, whether Wurster is posing as the head of a disreputable pharmaceutical corporation (and, naturally, Bush donor) or simply a listener who's outraged by the songs Scharpling plays. Sometimes actual listeners call in to argue with the characters, sometimes not, but it's always enjoyable. As someone who cannot tolerate talk radio in general--to say nothing of the boneheaded "comedy" filler that proliferates, kudzu-style, on the drive-time airwaves--believe me when I tell you this is smart, smart stuff of which I actually crave more. Wait--is my disdain for talk radio a reason to trust me or a reason not to? Let's say it's a reason to trust me. In fact, let's take the albums I listened to one-by-one:

Rock, Rot & Rule: This 47-minute record documents the first call of the Scharpling & Wurster partnership, and it is a perfectly-executed prank on real-life rock snobs. Wurster plays Ronald Thomas Clontle, author of a book entitled Rock, Rot & Rule, which professes to be "the ultimate argument settler" for rock fans, but consists only of about 100 pages of band names with the words "rot," "rock," or "rule" printed next to them, depending on the band's quality. (The book retails for $25.) For awhile, Scharpling straight-facedly interviews Clontle, trying in vain to suss out the judging criteria that would lead a published author to declare that Puff Daddy "rules" while Neil Young "rots" and the Beach Boys are somehow unclassifiable. Then Scharpling throws open the phone lines and angry hipsters descend, only to get even angrier when Clontle proves to be so frustratingly oblivious that you cannot get him to concede a point, no matter how many facts you might have on your side. For instance, when a caller haughtily corrects Ronald's statement that Stereolab employs no guitars (and therefore rots), Ronald confidently rebuts, "Time will vindicate me." It's awesome.

Chain Fights, Beer Busts and Service with a Grin: The rest of these albums compile handfuls of unrelated calls. "The Gorch" is an interview with an unsavory individual who claims Garry Marshall modeled the character of Fonzie after him, and who offers his own tips on being cool. (It's not cool to ever ask questions or to run anywhere for any reason.) Though "The Gorch" is probably the most popular track here, even funnier is "The Music Scholar," a ludicrously well-researched piece in which Wurster again mocks one of the many delusions to which rock fans are susceptible. A caller claims to have been an insider of every movement in rock history before inevitably becoming bored just as the scenes became popular, refers to pseudonymous rock idols only by their Christian names, dismisses The Fall, the Residents, and Kraftwerk as "teenybopper music," and insists that he's all about "educating" people whose taste isn't precisely in line with his. The more you know about music, the funnier you'll find it and the more embarrassed you'll likely be, because frankly, if you get jokes about Harry Partch, there's a little bit of this guy in you. Admit it.

New Hope for the Ape-Eared: More smart goofiness. "Mother 13" finds Scharpling accidentally interviewing the singer of a talentless corporate rock band (apparently modeled on Vertical Horizon--ha!) and "The Gas Station Dogs" finds him accidentally interviewing the singer of a talentless, as-yet-unformed rock band, but each is uniquely hilarious in its exploration of image-conscious rock 'n' roll hubris. My favorite track is "Tom's Daddy," in which Scharpling's would-be svengali of a father runs down a list of failed ventures he dreamed up for his son (such as "Tommy Balls, The World's Oldest Bat Boy").

The Art of the Slap: This lengthy collection may wind up being my favorite Scharpling & Wurster release despite more duds than you'd expect: "Jock Squad," "Philly Boy Roy" and "Andy from Lake Newbridge" didn't impress me, just because I think it's funnier when Jon's characters are semi-believably dim rather than completely outlandish. However, "Tornado Todd" and "Postal Slap Fight" are S&W's two funniest pieces I have yet heard because of the sheer, rambling expansiveness of their silliness. On the former, Tom interviews a tornado survivor whose near-death experience led him to start a charity which has evolved into a pornography/blackmail ring. (Tom himself gets blackmailed into reading lines for a Grand Theft Auto rip-off about a pimp with a talking ferret who squeaks, "Can you set me up with some rails, my man?") The latter piece doesn't even have a conceit per se, but just allows Wurster, as the spoiled nephew of the U.S. Postmaster General, to wax hostile about any number of issues. There's also a very dark, very funny hour-long bonus disc in which Mother 13's Corey Harris returns to do two interviews regarding his band's attempt to stage a promotional concert atop Mt. Everest: one before the ascent, and one after. About the time Wurster worked in the notion of Tim DeLaughter turning The Polyphonic Spree into a suicide cult, I concluded that these guys produce probably the sharpest satirical pop-culture free-association since Mark Leyner's Et Tu, Babe was published.

Here are some other comedy discs I enjoyed or didn't:

Maria Bamford: How to WIN! Maria Bamford has joined Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn, and Zach Galifianakis on the Comedians of Comedy tour, but has little in common with her tourmates except a proudly dorky point of view. On How to WIN! she spends a lot of time on her neuroses, family, and employment history, but though the territory is well trod, she wrings fresh laughs from it with her charmingly upbeat delivery and a passel of punchline-enhancing voices. She doesn't do impressions--save for a hilarious reading of a spoken bit from an Alicia Keys song--just voices to represent characters distinct from her own timid, high-pitched twang. (She sounds so much like Sandy the squirrel from SpongeBob SquarePants that I assumed she provided the voice. She does not. It's Carolyn Lawrence.) It's sweetly clever stand-up from a woman who uses her larynx to more elastically invigorating effect than anyone since Bjork came on the scene. As a side note, the batteries in my Discman died during Bamford's set. After changing them, I discovered that if you hold down the fast-forward button to scan your way through her routine, you hear a wonderfully crazy collection of sound effects and phonemes.

Todd Barry: Medium Energy. This was the final album I listened to on my 15.5-hour journey, and although it's very funny... Todd Barry does not provide a good second-wind-prolonging turbo boost for the final leg of a long trip. Most of this material was already familiar to me from his Comedy Central Presents special (which is included as a bonus DVD with his excellent Falling Off the Bone album), so I didn't laugh as hard as I had the first time, and his famously laid-back delivery just left me kinda cranky. The jokes are solid; it's just the sort of thing you should program for cruising, not sprinting to the finish. My fault. I will like it more if I listen to it when I'm awake.

Louis CK: Live in Houston. This 2001 record has become infamous as the source for a lot of plagiarism by Dane Cook, but it's even better than the pieces Cook lifted would suggest. A good chunk of the record is made up of the sort of meta-comedy Louis helped popularize as a writer for Letterman, which for my sensibility isn't as achingly hilarious as his recent, domesticated material in which he's flat-out vicious toward his wife and kids (available on his Shameless DVD), but it's still very funny. The hardest I laughed at any album on this trip, in fact, is the bit labeled "Bill Gates" here, in which Louis dreams of having so much disposable income that he could annoy people by opening something called The Shit Fuck Piss Store. Pretty straightforward stand-up with lots of swears and lots of laughs.

Emo Philips: E=Mo2. Imagine a Roman emperor recruiting an inbred jester whose brain was severely warped from lead poisoning to amuse him by crafting a routine of Steven Wright-style deadpan jokes. Emo Philips approximates the resulting horror show with black-humored aplomb on this 1990 record. The album opens with Emo musing, in his sleepy marionette voice, "Probably the toughest time in anyone's life is when you have to murder a loved one because they're the devil. Other than that, though... it's been a good day." And the laughs lope along that twisted path for the next 40 minutes. "There was a blackout in my town last night... but the police made him get back in his car and leave." "I was looking at drapes the other night... and a few were open, so that was fun." This album is basically the template for everything to ever come out of the mouth of Red Meat's Bug-Eyed Earl, and it's worth seeking out.

Emo Philips: Emo. The formula is slightly stale on this 2001 disc, to the point where it's too easy to guess the pun to which the setup will lead. (Even if you're listening while distracted by having to navigate downtown Cleveland.) Still, though, fans of smart wordplay will be pleased, and Emo's persona is still enchantingly inimitable: even if you don't laugh at every joke, it's never dull listening to a man with a meandering falsetto wending his way through perverse one-liner after perverse one-liner.

Brian Posehn: Live in: Nerd Rage. Posehn, sadly, is best known as the gumpy janitor with the monotone voice from Just Shoot Me, but he's chatty and friendly in his stand-up. It's mostly just a load of dick jokes, but like Superbad, Posehn's routine is suffused with enough self-deprecating good humor to be endearing as well as hilarious.

Paul F. Tompkins: Impersonal. I'd been salivating for a Tompkins album since I saw his Comedy Central special a few years ago, and thankfully, many of those pieces are immortalized here. He's great at creating lengthy comedic runs from miniature observations (the uselessness of the Entertainment Weekly "letters to the editor" page, the beauty of a store named "Elegant Balloons"). His embodiment of the sort of person who might fall for the hoary snake-in-the-peanut-brittle-can joke belongs in the comedy pantheon next to Sideshow Bob and the rakes as examples of bits that are so drawn-out that they fly past the point of hilarity, all the way around the world, and stop smack-dab on that point on their second go-round. In recent years, Paul seems to have adopted a whiny, Jim Gaffigan/Kevin Meaney-style voice with which to comment on his own jokes, and it doesn't serve the material very well... but if my only complaint about this album is something that piddly and stupid, why bother mentioning it?

Various artists: Comedy Death-Ray. (It's hyphenated on the album cover but not on their official website. I don't know.) This is a spotty two-disc compilation of stand-ups performing for the titular comedy showcase. There's some very funny character material from the Reno: 911 guys and Neil Hamburger ("Why do children diagnosed with cancer frequently throw up their last meal? Because they've been eating at the Ronald McDonald House!"), but those and the routines from Tompkins and The Office's Mindy Kaling are the only ones worth seeking out. Most of the acts without bona fide Comedians of Comedy/Mr. Show credentials are just tiresome in their secondhand, pseudo-edgy rudeness. Even more disappointingly, David Cross's routine is laughless, while the segments from Bamford and Patton Oswalt contain nothing that isn't on their own, superior albums.

So I got to Michigan around 12:30 a.m. My parents had saved some pizza for me. They're always thoughtful that way.

The next day, my cousin Caitlin came by and caught me up on her first semester at the University of Michigan. T-Bone showed us a couple funny YouTube videos I hadn't seen: the Leeroy Jenkins World of Warcraft clip (which is evidently something of a phenomenon) and a news blooper regarding paralyzed football player Kevin Everett. Then I broke Dad's giant TV by using the wrong remote to turn it on. (It made a popping sound and simply refused to do anything thereafter. Dad tells me it's still not fixed. Oops.) So the remainder of the evening was preternaturally quiet.

On Christmas morning, T-Bone and I slept in until ten, which made my parents goggle, given how early we used to wake them up to open presents. Lots of nifty loot all around. Perhaps most notably, T-Bone and LeAnne got Bev and me... My Therapy Buddy, the cuddly stuffed creature who reassures you that "Everything is going to be alright." The two of them have been huge My Therapy Buddy junkies since its initial, somewhat disconcerting appearance on American Inventor. (In the My Therapy Buddy photo gallery, in fact, the fifth picture down shows a Therapy Buddy jack-o-lantern that LeAnne and T-Bone carved this Halloween.) (And in this photo gallery, you can look at disgusting pictures of things people have extracted from their colon. If I were you, I'd stick to the former gallery.) He's really cool. LeAnne cautioned me, however, that Therapy Buddies don't walk, but bounce. Make a note!

While we were opening presents, Aunt Kimmey called in a panic, telling Dad that she'd gone to fetch Grandpa at his apartment (Aunt Kim was hosting Christmas dinner later, which is always a fun, crowded affair), and had found him lying on the bathroom floor. She put Grandpa on the phone, and Dad argued with him for awhile about whether Aunt Kim needed to call 911. Dad said Grandpa was slurring his words badly, and they still weren't sure what had gone on. Aunt Kimmey later told me that she and my cousin Calley, Caitlin's sister, had arrived at Grandpa's apartment and found him lying on the bathroom floor, apparently unconscious. They shook him and started shouting, starting to freak out. Finally, Grandpa opened his eyes and brightly said, "Hi! What are you guys doing here?" He'd slipped on the wet bathroom floor because he hadn't put down a bathmat before taking a shower, and had simply fallen asleep there. He was slurring his words on the phone with my dad because he didn't have his teeth in. It was decided that he'd just go to Aunt Kimmey's so she could keep an eye on him, and they'd decide what to do from there.

Around noon, I drove to Adrienne's family's house so she and I could exchange gifts. She got me Bill Bryson's The Lost Continent, which I'm eager to get into when I have some reading time. Bev and I got her some trinkets and a set of bowls, which Adrienne explained were useful because two of her four bowls have recently been commandeered by her cats, and the other two were ruined in the microwave. It's nice to accidentally stumble into a practical gift for someone.

Then I watched Adrienne and her sister Debbie make a few batches of pie crust. (Debbie suggested that the flour bin may be cursed, as the crust was not conforming to the dictates of its recipe.) Especially since I knew I'd soon be in a house full of barking puppies, blooping cell phones, and raucous conversation, I felt very happy to be in this calmly cheerful situation. In an attempt to explain why I was just sitting there and not really adding anything to the conversation--let alone the baking process--I mentioned that I always find it soothing to watch people cook or play video games. Unfortunately, I rather doubt this feeling of comfort extends to those watched. The fact that Adrienne will put up with this sort of thing is, again, one of many reasons I'm fortunate to have her as one of my closest friends.

I then headed to Aunt Kim's. When I arrived, Grandpa was zonked out on the sofa-bed in the computer room. He staggered out an hour or so later, into a house overrun with conversation and activity. It occurred to me that it must be nigh impossible for someone Grandpa's age to process the assault of electronic whirligigs and hellzapoppin noise erupting in that house. Not because of his age itself, but because of his frame of reference: if you hadn't grown up in an era that expected you to process the amount of data we're expected to process, at the breakneck clip at which we're expected to process it, American life must sometimes seem like being trapped in the belly of a whale that won't stop screaming at you. I myself had to slink off to a quiet room at a few points when I felt particularly overloaded, just to recalibrate. I sat on the couch in the front room and Mulligan the puppy curled up against me, napping with her head on her new squeaky toy, an instant comfort item.

Speaking of Mulligan, Calley has taught her a comedy routine in which Calley will say, "Kiss me if you love me! Kiss me if you love Chris! Kiss me if you love Grandpa!" and Mulligan will lick her nose each time... until Calley says, "Kiss me if you love Caitlin," at which Mulligan will pointedly look away. Also, Mulligan has developed an alter ego named Finnegan: if Calley says, "Where's Mulligan?" Mulligan will cheerfully lick her nose, but if Calley says, "Where's Finnegan?" Mulligan will growl and play-bite her. I took a brief video of these phenomena because I find them adorable:

The fam and I shared some food, some gifts, and some conversation, all of which was comforting. Everyone but me and Mom spent a lot of time discussing The Hills. I gather I should be watching it?

There was a house in my parents' subdivision whose every front-yard feature was wrapped in a different style of blinking Christmas lights, no two strands of which were blinking in the same tempo or pattern. I cackled. It was like watching a pachinko machine that threatened, at any second, to transmogrify into a BB gun. It was the visual equivalent of listening to the Maria Bamford CD on fast-forward, as described above.

On the 26th, Mom had to work and Dad and my aunts wound up taking Grandpa to the hospital for what wound up being a hernia and some other things. (I got word today that he's out of the hospital and in a physical rehab center, which is good news. For the rest of my stay in Michigan, though, we were unsure what was going on or how serious it was, which cast a bit of a pall over things.) I called Erica to see if she was free to meet for coffee, and she gave me the good news that Lorenzo was in town as well, so we could all catch up briefly. We agreed to meet at the Starbucks within a crappy yuppie outdoor mall that has been built in Clinton Township since I'd last visited. I hadn't seen Erica or Lorenzo in almost three years, so it did my heart good to see them, and to find that they're still very much the Lorenzo and Erica who I was lucky enough to hang out with several times a week back in the Barnes & Noble days:

ERICA: Did I tell you guys I met Hanson in Oklahoma? It was--
LORENZO: I met Amy Poehler! Which meet-up is more impressive? Huh?
ERICA: [furious glare]
LORENZO: I didn't actually meet her, but she was standing right there.

When I got home from Starbucks, Dad still hadn't returned from the hospital and there wasn't much to do except worry. I lay on the couch and finished reading the Best American Comics 2006 compendium Mom got me for Christmas. T-Bone and LeAnne came by after awhile and we played Scrabble and Rack-O until one a.m. Dad fell asleep on the couch, and returned to the hospital in the morning.

The following day, LeAnne, T-Bone, and I went to see Juno, which I liked. Diablo Cody's script has rightly taken some flack for trying somewhat too hard with the smug indie-quirk preciousness. (Seriously, budding screenwriters: we've all seen Ghost World, Clueless, and The Opposite of Sex, so it's time to stop acting like you're reinventing the screenplay by peppering your dialogue with self-satisfied interjections like "Oh my blog!" Yes, it's an easy ticket to an Independent Spirit Award, but it's unseemly nevertheless.) If you can push past those occasional annoyances, though, the performances are thoroughly heartwarming.

Bev, in the meantime, was not having as stress-free a week as I'd hoped. She sent me an e-mail saying, "I hammered my thumb so badly that I had to go to the doctor. While I was gone, the dog threw up on the bed."

The night before I took off back to Maine, I met Jess and Tim for dinner at our old standby, Little Tree Sushi. When I wandered into the restaurant, glasses fogged too thickly to see my friends waving at me from the bar, Jess told the maitre'd that our entire party had arrived. Upon returning, she reported to Tim and me, "On the little sheet where they take your party's name, they also write a little description of what you're wearing so they can recognize you when your table is ready. I snuck a look, and I'm listed as 'Red Cowboy Pants.'"

Once we were seated, Tim and Red Cowboy Pants gave me some Christmas gifts. (I got them some gifts too, but they included an unwieldy old Casio for Tim, so I left them in the LeSabre, to be distributed at the night's end, rather than schlepped around Royal Oak.) First, they'd wrapped and returned my tape of The Pee-wee Herman Show that I'd forgotten they had, which actually was a nice surprise. Along with a couple funny dollar-bin children's DVDs, they got me a 1927 book called Toasts and After-Dinner Stories that is splendid. I'm going to try to compile some of the best of these moldering tidbits in a future entry, but my favorite of the ones I've read so far is "May our pleasures be free from the stings of remorse." I think it's a good one to gravely repeat five or six times at a wedding rehearsal dinner, complete with sidelong glances at the bride each time.

We finished our evening at Caribou Coffee, where Tim and Red Cowboy Pants treated me to a Hot Apple Blast. At the cash register, Red Cowboy Pants threw in a box of chocolate-covered espresso beans for me. I'm sure she doesn't remember, but that's the same gift she got for me on a Barnes & Noble Crew Caribou jaunt about five years ago, at a time when I really needed just such an unprompted expression of friendship. It meant a lot to me then, and it means a lot to me now. I have nice friends.

So that was my most recent trip to Michigan, more or less. Hope you all had a nice December and that 2008 is less horrible than 2007 was!

CURRENT MUSIC: Mistake Mistake Mistake Mistake by James Figurine.
Bummed that my Yo La Tengo T-shirt has sprung a leak and must finally be retired.
Pawing her food dish in a circle and growling at her food as she does so.
5:57 p.m.

Doot? | |

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