Rating comedy

In my previous post, I asked the rhetorical question:

Is anyone in Hollywood doing ROI for laughs?

LaughterSince it’s clear the answer is a resounding no, I’m going to help the cause. Why curse the darkness when there are candles and matches aplenty at hand? Herewith, my method for gauging comedic value. Although I’m speaking of movies here, there’s no reason my system couldn’t be used for any comic medium, including, but not limited to, plays, audio recordings, stand-up comedy routines, and political advertising.

So how do we judge comedy? Let me introduce Rick’s First Law of Amusement Appraisal, to wit, “If people laugh, it’s funny. If they don’t, it ain’t.” It really is that simple. It’s a wonder Einstein didn’t stumble on this.

So now that we have the theoretical groundwork laid, how do we go about implementing a measurement technology? If you know your movies, you’ll realize that a similar process has already been developed and deployed, but for a different emotional response. Think “Monsters, Inc.” but with laughter instead of screams. That’s right, we have Pixar create a device for measuring response to humor rather than fear. Hey, they’ve already figured out how to make consistently good and popular films. This should be a breeze… if Disney doesn’t screw it up.

In fact, I’ll give them a head start by quantifying a selection of laughter responses. I can imagine assigning to each a point score.

  • Hah! A simple laugh is good, worth a point.
  • A snort is the next level of laughter. A good snort, depending on volume and duration, could net two or three points. A bonus would be allotted if mucus were involved.
  • Salivary discharge is also worthy of an increased score.
  • Like any other laugh that involves bodily fluids, peeing one’s pants is a major coup in the humor department. Point allotment could be affected, however, by age and gender of the subject.
  • “I laughed till I cried” isn’t just an expression, it’s an apt description of a truly impressive fit of hilarity. Score up to a dozen bonus points in this case.
  • In some instances of uncontrollable merriment, it’s not unusual for the subject’s ability to breath to be suspended temporarily. This is rare enough to warrant a huge award of points. A problem arises when this condition lasts too long, resulting in…
  • Death. Laughing unto death is the ultimate funny. However, surely even Hollywood producers can see the down side of this result: No repeat ticket sales, the bread and butter of the blockbuster. Therefore, if this level is reached, all points are lost and the movie must be rewritten, preferably by the writer of “Mortdecai” to ensure the humor is completely wrung out of the script.

There are probably more variations to consider. Dick van Dyke (as the character Bert) delineates a fine variety as he sings, “I Love to Laugh” in “Mary Poppins”.

There. I’ve given the PTB (Powers That Be) a ripping head start. A little due diligence on their part will spare us any future debacles of the “Mortdecai” variety.

You’re welcome.


Note to subscribers to this blog: I apologize for an errant post I generated last week as the result of not carefully reading instructions about how to create a WordPress home page. The good news is that the page was eventually created, although it still has a ways to go before I can call it complete. Feel free to check out the current revision here. I hope it’s worth the hassle of the superfluous notification.

Worst movie ever?

mortdecaiThere’s no way of judging what is truly the worst movie ever. We should immediately dispense with those that have no pretensions. “Plan 9 from Outer Space”, “Octaman”, “Reefer Madness”, as well as any title followed by a number should be automatically eliminated from consideration for this contemptible compendium.

That leaves us with such classics as “Gigli”, “Ishtar”, “Heaven’s Gate”, “Battlefield Earth”, and their ilk, movies that someone, somewhere must have believed had redeeming qualities. They were wrong. Wikipedia has a pretty good list of such beasts.

It’s time to add one more to the list: “Mortdecai”. It baffles me how a movie with such quality contributors could be so wretched. It’s a comedy without a single laugh, just a series of lame gags unrelated to the supposedly sacrosanct “spine of the story”, most repeated ad nauseum, just in case you missed them the first six times.

From what I’ve read, the blame for this fiasco should be laid at the feet of Johnny Depp, whose career has gone from brilliant actor to something marginally more impressive than sideshow freak. His returns at the box office have taken a similar tailspin. Deservedly so.

The next night, I watched a dime-a-dozen made-for-TV romcom that was infinitely more enjoyable. Unlike Mortdecai, this one actually had a few laughs in it. With probably 1/100th the budget. Is anyone in Hollywood doing ROI for laughs?

Funny thing about this is that it’s relatively easy to determine whether a comedy works or not. Show it to an audience and listen. Is anyone laughing? If not, the movie stinks. (Sadly, there’s no similar litmus test available for dramas, save the rare tear-jerker during which you can count sniffles. That measure is skewed during cold season, however.)

I cannot imagine an audience watching (more accurately, “enduring”) this drivel and laughing. Perhaps the test screeners mistook groans of pain for guffaws of pleasure. I can think of no other explanation.

Lesson learned: It is possible to see a movie for free and still pay too much.

Consider yourself warned.

Now a message from our sponsors

I really hate television commercials.

That’s just one of the reasons I don’t watch much TV. Unfortunately, every now and then I’ll be watching a movie and one of those beasts will interrupt my viewing. Here are a few for which I hold particular disdain:

The Dunkin Donuts commercial where a guy announces he got a promotion. He and his friends decide the appropriate way to “celebrate” this achievement is to get a sandwich from DD. Really? That’s the best they can come up with?? I’m thinking either this wasn’t much of a promotion (“Hey, guys! After five years in my bathroom cleaning job, I’m finally getting a brush!”) or they aren’t really his friends.

Another is for some kind of automobile cleaning product. The tagline says it all:

“Restore your car, restore your pride.”

Wow. Maybe that’s the guy with the bathroom cleaning job.

It was a year or so ago but, in one BMW commercial, a purchaser of a used BMW declares the day of his purchase to be the “best day of my life.” His wife and child stand by in amazement. So do I. What odds do you give that marriage? That kid? There’s a reason the old joke comparing BMW’s and porcupines is so funny.

I learn a lot from watching commercials, though. For instance, if a classic movie shot appears in a commercial, it has officially left the realm of tired cliche and entered the Vapid Zone. It should never be touched again. Example: Some superhero or wannabe falls into a three point crouch, usually shattering the ground beneath. It was cool in “The Matrix”, still mildly fun in “Iron Man”, but commercials have been using it for a while now. Yet movies still lean on that hack. Retire the insipidity.

Here’s another lesson I learned: Remember Veruca Salt in the “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” movie? The diminutive actress who portrayed her performed one of the great musical numbers in film history: “I Want It Now”. In case it wasn’t obvious enough from the Oompa Loompa’s song (“Who is to blame when a child is a brat?”), she was a bad girl. She was selfish. The lesson was to not be like her.

So when did “I Want It Now” become a good thing? No less than two commercials – for beer and a cell service, there could be many more; I don’t get a very wide sampling – use the chant as exemplary. Yes, American marketing tells us, we should all strive to be little Verucas, sulking and screaming and throwing tantrums if we don’t get what we want NOW.

Encouraging lesson: My era’s music still rules the airwaves. As much as I hate to have my musical heroes sell out, it’s great to hear their tunes in surprising places, such as commercials for Lay’s (Bread), Stop & Shop (Three Dog Night), video games (The Turtles), as well as many others. Either those groups are timeless or all these commercials are made by geezers like me. I’m guessing the former.

Finally, it occurs to me that advertisers are consistently telling us that their customers, both current and prospective, are jerks with warped priorities, q.v. aforementioned Beemer drivel. Think about it next time you’re viewing advertising. It’s always wise to watch commercials with a discerning mind. One good practice is to think critically and ask yourself: “Do I wanna be lumped in with those creeps?”

I vote “no”.

Joe Versus the Volcano

This is a brief ode to what is, in my opinion, one of the most underappreciated films in history.

JoeVtitleI’ve watched “Joe Versus the Volcano” perhaps twenty to thirty times. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that I enjoy it more each time I view it. Most movies can’t hold up to multiple viewings. As we lose interest in the story and characters, our attention wanders to reveal gaps in logic, bad lines, and other assorted flaws.

Not so with “Joe”.

I bribed them to sing a song that would drive us insane and make our hearts swell and burst.

Here’s a movie that somehow presents profound philosophical questions about life and death, God and meaning, yet still manages to be outrageously funny. The scenes between Joe Banks and his boss, Mr. Waturi, could be a movie on their own. (There’s something strangely familiar about that workplace. I think I worked there. In fact, I think most of us have.)

I know he can get the job, but can he do the job?

The performances, by one of the more eclectic casts you’ll ever see, are uniformly wonderful. It marks the first pairing of what could be this generation’s Tracy and Hepburn: Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Ms. Ryan gives three of her best performances. Lloyd Bridges, Dan Hedaya, Robert Stack, Abe Vigoda, Ossie Davis. Great, great, great, great, great.

My father says that almost the whole world is asleep. Everybody you know. Everybody you see. Everybody you talk to. He says that only a few people are awake and they live in a state of constant total amazement.

The best performance of all, however, is by a guy named Barry McGovern, whose role is listed simply as “luggage salesman.” I would have given that guy an Oscar.

Very exciting… as a luggage problem!

Even the music is terrific. The Rascals, Del Vikings, and Sergio Mendes all in one movie? So great. Best of all is Eric Burdon’s passionately brilliant version of “16 Tons” that introduces the film.

Nobody knows anything, Joe. We’ll take this leap, and we’ll see. We’ll jump, and we’ll see. That’s life, right?

In closing, I’ll add that the film’s writer/director (a true auteur), John Patrick Shanley, is one of the most gifted artists of our time. As evidence, he also wrote “Moonstruck” and “Doubt” (play and film). That’s good stuff.

Dear God, whose name I do not know – thank you for my life. I forgot how BIG… thank you. Thank you for my life.

I could go on and, if you were here before me, I would. Better, I’d suggest we watch it. It won’t be the last time for me.

I have no response to that.

Joe&Moon

Patricia: I wonder where we’ll end up?
Joe: Away from the things of man, my love. Away from the things of man.

Spewing chunks

nopicSpeaking of uncomfortable content, which you might recall I was in my last post, what’s the deal with all the puke in movies recently? I thought it was just me. It seemed as if every movie I watched had someone barfing up their innards. Like the F-bomb issue, it was unrelated to genre or (lack of) consumer demand.

Then I saw an online discussion of the phenomenon. Others had noticed it, too. I was relieved. But only a little.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with occasionally spewing a few chunks on screen, especially if it fits. Pregnant women often throw up in early stages of pregnancy. A stomach bug is bound to bring back breakfast and a few snacks.

But every movie?? If anyone is even slightly off-center about something, here come the chunks. Confused? Dizzy? Angry? Depressed? That’s all it takes to lose lunch these days. In the aforementioned discussion, someone made the claim that every movie nominated for a Best Picture Oscar this year had a puke scene. I can’t verify that because I haven’t seen them all, but every one I saw towed the retch line.

This isn’t reality because people don’t puke that often. It isn’t commercially necessary because nobody goes to the movies saying, “Man, I hope someone hurls in this one!” It’s not edgy because it’s mainstream.

So why all the regurgitation? There can be only one reason and it’s the same reason young kids take up smoking, swearing, and stealing: Everybody’s doing it. You’d think artistes would want to rise above the morass of the mundane and stick it to the status quo.

You’d be wrong.

They’re lemmings just like the rest of us. Monkey see, monkey puke.

I can deal with this. I just ignore it, since it doesn’t add anything to the story. What worries me is what’s next. What about when it becomes cool to show people with diarrhea? That episode was in a major movie last year. And the dumper was nominated for an acting award. Could the Hershey Squirts be the next offensive trend? Unlikely because the movie was a flop, but you never know.

Nose-picking is a likely candidate. Starts innocently enough but before you know it, they’re drawing blood as they strip mine for nose gold. Great visual. Hawking loogies, fingernail (and toenail!) biting, squeezing zits. There’s a deep well of unsociable behavior to draw from.

All this talk has made me sick to my stomach. I gotta…


I thought this was a new trend. Sadly, this guy noticed it eight years ago. It must be getting that much worse.

Defusing the bombs

fbombSomeone wiser than me (that’s covers pretty much everyone) once observed that no one ever left a movie theater saying, “Yeah, it was a good movie. I just wish there had been more swearing.” Plenty of audience members yearn for more violence or lurid sexual content, but swearing is not really in that great demand.

I guess the market is saturated.

This topic came to mind recently when I read an online discussion among screenwriters wondering whether the whole F-bomb thing had gotten out of hand. The discussion was initiated by someone who questioned whether movies rely too much on that popular profanity to convince viewers of the film’s edginess.

Funny thing about that. F-bombs have been defused merely by their ubiquity. They aren’t spoken only by nasty thugs in edgy movies or shady characters in bleak noir films. They’re in goofy comedies, historical epics, and science fiction. They’re in everything! We’ve been carpet F-bombed. As a result, the very effect they supposedly serve is gone. It’s just another cliché. A cliché no one questions.

Let’s think about it. If a character in a movie said any other word as often as Robert De Niro or Chris Rock use The Big One in an average movie, no one would take them seriously. The argument is that this is the way people talk. Which people? I don’t know them, and I’ve been in some pretty rough environments. In my experience, the number of times a person uses that word is inversely proportional to the IQ of the speaker.

Besides, film characters aren’t written to speak the way people really speak. The “um”s, “uh”s, and “er”s are generally banished because they’re boring, just as excessive swearing has become boring. Suppose, for example, a character said the word “like” as often as many people do today, say, like this. That dialog would be unlistenable. It would never pass development muster.

So we’re on our way to completely declawing another obscenity. We’ve seen it before. When I was growing up, there were still older people who remembered where the word “screw” came from. If we innocent children referred to something as “screwed up”, we were shushed or, if we were unlucky, went on a soap diet. We had no idea why. Today no one bats an eyelash at screw, which means essentially the same thing as… well, you know.

For better or worse, our culture is in the midst of the dilution of another cuss word: suck. No one said this when I was young. It was a “swear word”. Like the other no-say-ems, it referred to a sexual act. Now it means… well, it means nothing. And everyone says it with impunity, from children to parents to ministers to teachers. It’s just another word.

Crap, heck, darn, shoot, screw. The euphemism backlog is growing as the “real” swears fade into impotence. I’m not sure if all this is good news or bad. Are we lowering the standards of the language or are we gradually removing the words that hurt?

I don’t friggin’ know.


Addendum: OK, just so you know it’s not only narrow-minded bloggers like me who think this way, here’s a quote from a recent newsletter from Richard Walter, chairman of the UCLA screenwriting program:

“The downside to writers having the freedom to write whatever they want is that it allows us also to write as badly as we want. The relentless exploitation of vulgarity is supposed to foster a sense of authenticity. In fact, however, it usually achieves precisely the opposite: heavy-handedness, thudding self consciousness, and a tone that is overbearingly shrill.”

To which I say, “Amen, Professor Walter.”

Born to be broken

IMG_20150330_200252587The old adage says rules are meant to be broken. There’s no shortage of “rules” for writing. Those commandments are intended to aid in the writing process. They might be helpful if only they weren’t moving targets. I’ve written before about the difficulty of writing. Trying to remain upright on the shifting sands of unstable standards doesn’t make it any easier.

Go ahead. Try to get a group of authors to agree on the tenets that are most useful to guide the writing process. You’re likely to get a protracted religious argument for your trouble.

Here are a few of the most well-known non-negotiables that are constantly being negotiated:

  • Write every day.
  • Write what you know.
  • The road to hell is paved with adverbs.
  • Use sparse language, i.e. “less is more”.
  • To write well, you must read a lot.

For every writer who subscribes to one of these statutes, there’s probably one or more who eschew it. For example, I was at a book reading by a highly regarded, best-selling author who, when asked what other authors he read, claimed not to read other authors in order to avoid being unduly influenced by them. So much for reading to become a good writer.

With all due respect to adverb-phobic Stephen King, who deserves a great deal of respect indeed, I don’t have any problem with adverbs as a reader. In fact, I kinda like them. So why avoid them? If you’re writing a book for Mr. King, I guess. But why leave any tool in the toolbox unused? They’re there for a reason.

Fundamentalism is generally condemned in other spheres, but it’s alive and well in the writing world.

And the “write what you know” dictum would be better expressed as “write what you care about.” You can always gain knowledge about a topic. It’s no easy task to develop enough passion to write well about something about which you are otherwise indifferent.

John Fox, manacled hand and foot by his pirate captorsIf you’ve read enough about writers writing, you’ve undoubtedly come across the ones who claim they don’t know where their characters are going to take the story. Those lifeless entities are independent actors with wills of their own. I guess that’s possible, but is it mandated somewhere? Some would have you believe that it is or that at least it’s a hallmark of a higher level of fiction. I don’t think so. No less an authority than Vladimir Nabokov says he has no use for that tactic when he says, “My characters are galley slaves.” No surprises for Mr. Nabokov, thank you.

This confusion first confronted me when I was trying to master screenwriting. The rules to screenwriting are many, absolute, and quite specific. The only problem is, accomplished screenwriters break them as a matter of course. One decree beyond discussion is: Don’t describe what can’t be shown on the screen. For example, a script can’t say in its descriptive text, “Joe was nervous about the interview.” Fine. At a lecture at the Austin Film Festival (the screenwriter’s Mecca), a man who is arguably the most successful screenwriter of this generation, told all of us rapt listeners that he does it all the time.

AFF produced a nice little book of excerpts from various talks given at the festival over the years. “On Story” has lots of advice for writing the next great movie. Unfortunately, much of the advice is conflicting.

This is one of the reasons I question a prime directive of screenwriting education: Read scripts. A problem with that advice is that screenwriters don’t follow “the rules” we’re supposed to learn, so we’re likely to learn the wrong way. Also, most scripts we have access to are “shooting scripts” filled with camera angles and other technical directions that don’t belong in submitted scripts.

What’s a struggling writer to do? Obey the rules (“Do as I say, don’t do as I do.”) until you break in. Then you can do anything you want. Another way of saying it is, “Write something great and you have permission to write whatever you want.” I think of it as learning a secret handshake. Based on what I’ve seen and read, once you’re in the club, the rules no longer apply.

Fair enough. If I want to play their game, I’ll do my best to play by their rules.

YABD

Yet Another Brain Dump.

Since I don’t have much time to write this week and since I did an extra post last week and since I haven’t popped the idea stack for more than three months, I’m going to do it now. Here’s another brain dump of thoughts that have piled up lately. Nothing life-changing or earth-shaking. Maybe Head-shaking, though.

Here’s a little news item you might have missed:

The [Boston Red Sox] officially released minor league lefthander Cody Kukuk, who was arrested in November on a robbery charge in his native Kansas. Kukuk was given an $800,000 bonus after being selected in the seventh round of the 2011 draft.

The kid got an 800K signing bonus and was on his way to a big league career and he commits robbery. Huh? Reminds me of the even more amazing story a couple years ago, involving a football player making half a million bucks a year who was arrested for shoplifting a cologne sample and two pair of underwear worth a total of $123.50.

Wow.

I hope we hurry up development of the driverless car, cuz from what I’m seeing on the road, no one’s paying attention when they drive anyway.

From the “Who Invented This Language Anyway?” department:  The words overlook and oversee are opposites yet flammable and inflammable mean the same thing.

True confession: Wonder no longer. I wrote the book of love

Why do people record messages on their cell phones that say, “I can’t come to the phone right now”? Isn’t the whole point of a cell phone that you don’t have to come to the phone? What did I miss?

I thought it was a short-lived fad, but it seems books and movies about zombies and vampires simply refuse to die. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

Have you seen the movie about the guy who used to be a criminal who tried to go straight but was forced by some bad guys to do one last job? Which movie was that you ask? Just about all of them.

It’s about 10 degrees outside. I heat my house to 70. And I have a big box I store food in that cools down to below freezing. Am I the only one who sees a problem here?

??????????A business in Santa Barbara: Ye Olde Deli and Thai Food. That’s covering all your bases. Oh yeah, and as you can see in the photo to the right, you can also get Boba Bubbles in your Olde Thai Deli drink.

That’s all I have time for. I have to go to my cell phone.

Depressing movie antidote

This post is out of turn, but I couldn’t resist. I was soooooo depressed after watching the movie I described in my previous post, I’ve been out of sorts all week.

If you see a movie that is so gloomy, so bleak, so joyless that it saps all your hope, you have to do something about it. An antidote is needed. Last night, I had it.

At the opposite end of the mood spectrum, and a sure cure to the movie blues, is one of my favorite guilty pleasures: “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure”.

bill&ted

I really do love this movie. Not just because it was the perfect remedy for my movie melancholy. It’s just wicked funny. I smile through the whole movie… except for those parts when I laugh out loud. Mind you, I’ve seen it a few dozen times. I could recite most of the lines in the film. (“Strange things are afoot at the circle K.”) There are no surprises in it for me, but I laugh all the same.

For those who think I’ve lost all sense of good taste, let me point out a few cogent facts:

  1. The movie is hysterical.
  2. The entire concept is so absurd, it’s genius. It’s easily one of the most unique premises in film history.
  3. It’s the only credible movie about time travel because it treats the concept with the complete lack of credibility it deserves.
  4. Most thinking people will agree that this movie is by far the high point of Keanu Reeves’ career.

If you’ve suffered through “Birdman”, “Whiplash”, “Foxcatcher”, or the cause of my malady, “Olive Kitteridge”, do yourself a favor and watch Bill & Ted as soon as possible.

Consider it a prescription.


Note: If you can wait until mid-April, read about another antidote here. I promise it will be uplifting!

Bummer people – they deliver

depressedDepression is rampant in our culture. Growing up, all I knew about depression was the unemployment and soup lines. It was something my teachers and older people talked about. Now it seems everyone is depressed. If you aren’t downing Prozac, Lexapro, or Zoloft by the fistful, you aren’t trending.

Depression is real. I don’t want to diminish that fact. It’s a serious medical condition that can be fatal. Medication is often a valuable tool to combat its ravages. That being said, I’m of the opinion that there are non-pharmaceutical approaches that could either lessen its effects or – who knows? – relieve it completely for some milder cases. The prescription I’m suggesting here is – excuse the esoteric medical jargon: avoiding depressing stuff. (Note: I’m not saying this as a cure, but why feed the flame?)

This weekend I watched an incredibly depressing movie. Worse, it was a depressing mini-series. Four hours of non-stop misery. Eventually I had to minimize the pain by fast-forwarding through some of it. If I’d watched it to the end (at normal speed) I couldn’t be held responsible for my actions. And if I were already depressed? I just thank God I wasn’t.

2015OscarsWhy are so many movies depressing? Look at the Oscar nominees: Birdman, Whiplash, American Sniper, and Boyhood are a sad group. Don’t subject yourself to any of them if you’re trying to keep your mood upbeat. The others are either less so or I just don’t know enough about them to judge. They could be wallowing in the slough of despond with Foxcatcher, Still Alice, Gone Girl, and the rest of that lot for all I know.

Not a “Sound of Music” in the bunch.

I’m not saying we should have a non-stop parade of “happy, happy, joy, joy” fluff, but couldn’t we at least have one every now and then? Is life so joyful that we are well-advised to dampen everyone’s moods lest they overdose on excess happiness and levity?

Let me suggest that it’s the other way around. Life is so depressing for so many that, instead of feeding that, we should consider ways to counteract it. Making more positive movies is one possibility. I’m no lone curmudgeon in this opinion. A couple of years ago I heard a talk by film producer Lindsay Doran (Sense and Sensibility, Stranger than Fiction) in which she mentioned this issue. This NY Times article gives an overview of her talk. (It’s worth a read for this and her other fascinating insights.)

conversationI’m not talking about “happy endings” in the classic fairy tale sense. Just lighten up a bit now and then, please. There’s a place for dark films. One of my favorite films of all time is also one of the darkest: “The Conversation” is a brilliant piece of paranoid pleasure. On the opposite end of the bleakness spectrum is another of my favorites: “The Princess Bride”. It actually has a fairy tale ending. You won’t find many movies as different as those two, connected only by their genius.

It’s not just about the number of dark, hopeless, depressing movies there are. With so many Oscar nominees falling into that category it gives the impression that a positive movie can’t be good. Joy can’t be taken seriously. When is the last time a performer in a comedy won an acting prize? Is comic acting really so effortless that it can be dismissed? The award mavens would have you think so. (Personal note: It ain’t.)

This, of course, reinforces the problem. People want to make movies that others take seriously, which means they must make serious and, if possible, morbid movies.

Look at the top grossing movies for 2014 and you’ll see a different picture. For the most part, people are paying to see more positive movies. If dollars drive the movie industry, how to explain this gap?

Saint Paul once said:

…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.

Just don’t expect to get them too often at the movies.