Monday, March 23, 2009

The Underrated Blog-a-Thon, Day One

Yes, the day is still very young, but no time like the present to get things kicked off. I'll be updating the daily posts as I get notifications throughout the week from contributors.

The first submission comes from Joshua at Octopus Cinema, writing about the Canadian film Gross Misconduct, a film (and filmmaker, Atom Egoyan) I'm not familiar with, thus holding true this blog-a-thon's theme. Joshua writes: "Gross Misconduct uses Brian Spencer's vicious, extroverted rage to counterpoint his father's impotent, more frustrated temper. Whereas Brian attacks people out of a sort of one-upmanship that was nurtured at a young age, his father is shown as striking out against a world he feels helpless in and because of."

In the past ten years or so, dozens of American films have explored the seeds and sociology of violence; thanks to Joshua's write-up, we learn of a little-known film that came before Fight Club and A History of Violence, and also gives light to Canadian filmmaking, which tends to get lost in the international shuffle.

Foole's Gold (My Day One Essay, Not Safe For Work)

Let's begin with a hypothetical situation. You walk into a relatively crowded bar and ask people to name their favorite stand-up comedians. Within seconds, almost everyone will be calling out names, both legendary and new. Your second query is to ask everyone's favorite bit from said comedians. Again, you'll likely be given lines memorized to the last detail: Chris Rock's take on the Columbine massacre ("If you're white and under twenty-one, I am running for the hills!"), as well as some Dane Cook fans stammering on about sangwiches. Your third question is to ask for everyone's favorite comedy album. At this point, silence may very well ensue.

While stand-up comedy has been consistently popular since the days of vaudeville, the comedy album tends to be an afterthought at times. Granted, there are exceptions to this rule. Bob Newhart's Button-Down Mind Of Bob Newhart won the 1960 Grammy for Album Of the Year, before the inception of the separate award for comedy albums. I remember excited, well-intentioned buzz for David Cross's 2004 release It's Not Funny. However, even some of the classic albums are not completely popular. For example, how well-remembered would George Carlin's Class Clown be had it not been for the final track "Seven Words You Can't Say On Television?" His 1973 album Occupation: Foole is an underrated gem, but not just for the comedy. Granted, comedy is the primary quilt, but the patches consist of wonderful elements. The album should appeal to anyone who loves smart comedy, but also to anyone who considers him/herself a sociologist, linguist, or an aficionado of cultural observations.

The title stems from his opening observations of the fact that, while he is doing stand-up, he is actually at his job. "Welcome to my job...I've always wanted to put that down under 'Occupation' on a form. Occupation: Foole. I think I'd spell it with a final 'e' just to piss them off, you know?"

The best tracks of the album come back-to-back-to-back-to-back: "White Harlem," "The Hallway Groups," "Black Consciousness," and "New York Voices." These monologues have traces of Carlin's recollections of growing up Irish Catholic in New York (from Class Clown), yet he expands on the ideologies, voices, and differences between Irish, Jewish, Puerto Rican, Italian, and African-American citizens. Sound familiar? Of course it does, since virtually every comedian has at least one bit devoted to the differences and tendencies between various races and ethnicities. The difference in Carlin's work is that its wholly original, and his voices are not played for cheap laughs. It's a wonderful celebration of culture, infused with honesty and appreciation.

"If you take five white guys...and put them with five black guys and let them hang around with each other for about a month, at the end of the month, you'll notice that the white guys are walking, and talking and standing like the black guys do! You'll never hear the black guys say 'Oh, Golly, we won the big game today!'"

On the second side, of the album, he goes into "Childhood Cliches" and "Cute Little Farts," combining two themes for which he'd become very well-regarded: American language cliches and universal shared experiences (in this case, farting).

Cliches: "Get down off there, you'll break your neck!" "I suppose if Johnny Finnigan jumped off the Empire State Building, YOU'D jump off the Empire State Building."

Farts: "Farts are fun! Farts are shit without the mess."

This leads into the final track, "Filthy Words," which adds a third theme, his fascination with profanity in American life. Granted, "Seven Words You Can't Say On Television" will always be most famous piece, but in "Filthy Words," he lists the variations of the word "shit:" "Hot shit," "batshit," "shit-eating grin," "shit hits the fan," "holy shit," etc.

Granted, calling Occupation: Foole "underrated" might be a stretch, coming from one of the best American comics of all time, and also dealing with subjects that have been re-done, ripped off, watered down, or simply told to death by the comedians who have come after. However, his albums are rarely thought of as whole pieces, just as music should usually be viewed in terms of the album instead of just select singles. It's also underrated in the sense that racial and ethnic differences can be discussed both comedically but with respect, and not just for the sake of insults. Black and white comics are equally guilty of this, and Carlin represented the old adage: "It's not what you say, it's how you say it."

More to come this week!

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