Birbiglia, Burnham, and the oddity of comedy

Comedy is, on its face, pretty simple. We laugh at funny things and enjoy ourselves. BOOM.

*packs up, publishes article, goes home*

……….

Well, you didn’t think it was that easy, did you?

Comedy, while on its face being pretty simple, is bizarre and definitely not simple. The concept of what you find ‘funny’ and what I find ‘funny’ and what humans in general find ‘funny’ is extraordinarily intricate and personal. If I put a gun to your head (a NERF gun, now, I’m not a monster) and told you to define what makes something funny, I’m guessing that you probably couldn’t find a clear and suitable definition before a pink foam bullet hammered into your skull.

I think good comedy is about pushing boundaries, deliberate timing, presenting the unexpected, and acute self-awareness. Regardless the subject, good jokes always follow those four guidelines.

But the subject matter is extremely important. Why focus on one subject over the other? Are certain subjects ripe for comedy and others taboo?

Mike Birbiglia in Netflix special Thank God for Jokes

Mike Birbiglia

Mike Birbiglia’s Netflix special Thank God for Jokes wrestles with that question. Birbiglia is adept at witty self-depreciation and wields an impressive knack for compelling storytelling. Early on in the special, Birbiglia says that “you should never tell jokes to the people the jokes are about.” One of the key parts about jokes is that they have to be about something, as he explains. You can never truly avoid making people angry forever. The point of jokes is the comedy of somebody or something being funny, and that fact is inescapable.

Extending from that is comedy’s inherent enigma: its purpose is to offer an escape and a laugh at the same time as it directly references the things from which we try to escape in the first place. We joke about the mundane, yes, but the best jokes are about what’s important. The comedy that resonates with people is often about the most important things because it reveals what’s true about those things in a unique and incisive way.

Bo Burnham’s eccentric musicality and penchant for absurdity, channeled through his Netflix special Make Happy, stares directly at the duality of performance and comedy. Burnham is unique, as far removed from mainstream comedy as you can get whilst still being extraordinarily popular. But he uses his uniqueness to great effect in Make Happy, questioning how a performer and audience connect over comedy, both parties interested in something different.

While a lot of comedians explore the full reaches of comedy, Birbiglia and Burnham are fascinating because their work is expressly aware of the oddity of comedy. They know and address comedy itself, and it’s refreshing to see two talented and funny people with fresh and important opinions on comedy itself.

I find commedy immensely important in my life. Often times, we have only two choices: we can either stew about something or make jokes about it. Comedy is a way of finding joy out of nothing, and these days that’s an extremely valuable commodity. Not everything is joyful, or fun, or great. Comedy can help do that in even the darkest situations.

In the words of Birbiglia in his special: jokes are important. They will always be important.

 

Revisiting Brisingr

The Inheritance Cycle was only supposed to be a trilogy.

After Eragon and Eldest were released, author Christopher Paolini went to work on the third, unnamed book. The dominant thought on message boards devoted to the series was that the third book would follow the six-letter, starts-with-‘e’ format of the first two and be titled Empire. It was a fitting cap to a trilogy, as Eragon was presumably going to take down the Empire.

But about a year before the book was to be released, Knopf Publishing and Paolini issued an announcement–there would now be two more books.

Here is Paolini’s comment in the press release (emphasis mine):

I plotted out the Inheritance series as a trilogy nine years ago, when I was fifteen. At that time, I never imagined I’d write all three books, much less that they would be published. When I finally delved into Book Three, it soon became obvious that the remainder of the story was far too big to fit in one volume. Having spent so long thinking about the series as a trilogy, it was difficult for me to realize that, in order to be true to my characters and to address all of the plot points and unanswered questions Eragon and Eldest raised, I needed to split the end of the series into two books.

Splitting the series is not something that Paolini wanted, nor was it something that came naturally. He begrudgingly did it because it needed to happen in order to serve the story.

It comes through in the book. Eragon and Eldest had clear plot arcs: Eragon was the story of a young man who started his hero’s journey, grew along the way, and finally triumphed in a battle with the forces of evil; Eldest was the story of the hero’s continuing knowledge and deepening of character while simultaneously detailing the gripping escape of a group of relatable everymen.

I’ve read Brisingr three times and I can’t tell you the overall plot of the thing. It wanders here and there, lingering in odd places and moving along at a glacial pace. Ultimately, it seems as if it doesn’t have much of a purpose.

And there’s good reason for that! Remember, Brisingr, which is a terrible title for a book by the way, was made partway through its writing from the concluding book into a middle book. There wasn’t supposed to be a third book that didn’t end the story.

I think that it was a smart move to extend the trilogy into a cycle. Knowing the events of the fourth book, I think that having another book of development gives weight to the ending.

But unfortunately, the book doesn’t really do its job that well. And its a shame. Of particular note is the lack of development in the relationship between Eragon and Arya. There’s enough history and room for a good romance–even one that doesn’t end well–but Paolini doesn’t go there. There’s also not any movement with the Eragon and Saphira vs. Murtagh and Thorn rivalry, for a series of stalemates does not progress anything.

Brisingr does end with a bang–its climax is a brilliantly-written escalation of stress and action–and that does propel the momentum to the next book. But it’s too little, too late for the book.

It all hinges on Inheritance.

 

 

Revisiting Eldest

To make a compelling first entry in a series is hard enough. It’s often the second release that makes or breaks a series. The term ‘sophomore slump’ is widespread for a reason: it is extremely difficult to repeat a strong beginning.

This is especially true for novels, even moreso for fantasy or sci-fi novels. A great concept can yield a great first go, but not every good idea is a scalable one, and not every character or set of conflicts can continue to be interesting.

However, author Christopher Paolini did have one thing up his sleeve on “Eldest,” which is why it succeeds in such a tricky spot: experience.

“Eldest” was published in August 2005, three years after author Christopher Paolini self-published “Eragon” and two years after that novel’s international Knopf-published release. Paolini was 15 years old when he began writing “Eragon,” and while his talent was clearly on display there was evidence he was a green writer.

So when Paolini started “Eldest,” he was about 20. Five years is a lot of time when it represents a quarter of your life, you’re not a teenager anymore, and you’ve published a booming success of a first novel.

Paolini rather smartly expands the story’s reach, following three stories: Eragon and Saphira, Roran, and Nasuada. He builds each small arc to a climax before switching to a different story, making the book an easy pageturner.

I’ve probably read “Eldest” four or five times before this time, and I’ve experienced all the major story beats, and I still anticipate and enjoy reading them. To create something that is re-readable is a feat, and the book begins with a bang and ends in a glorious cliffhanger that slaps an exclamation point on the novel, which sees major characters undergo significant strife.

Still, “Eldest” is not perfect. If “Eragon” was Star Wars, “Eldest” is Empire Strikes Back. After helping the rebellion, the main character achieves important status within the rebellion. After an initial conflict, the young adventurer goes to complete his training with a hidden member of his magical order in his secret lair. Meanwhile, his friends endure much hardship in an attempt to flee the empire. Finally, the main character takes his leave of his master before completing the training to help his friends in their struggle against the empire. There, he faces and is defeated by a fearsome foe. The foe attempts to convince the main character to join him on behalf of his master the emperor. The main character escapes, but not before being told a terrible and surprising piece of familial information by his foe. The story ends on a cliffhanger, as though total defeat did not occur all is not well.

Am I describing “Eldest” or Empire there? It could be either!

However derivitve its overarching plot, “Eldest” knows what it is and carries out its purpose magnificently. It is not a transcendentally great novel by any means. But it continues and expands the story, propelling the story along to the halfway point in the Inheritance Cycle. That is no small feat.

The mad brilliance of Hans Zimmer

Tony Zhou, professional video editor from Vancouver, runs a fantastic Youtube series called Every Frame a Painting. His video essay on Marvel’s cinematic universe begins with a great demonstration about the blandness of Marvel’s music. Everyone can sing Star Wars, or Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings, or James Bond. Marvel, on the other hand, is totally different.

It’s in the first two minutes:

Zhou hits upon a lot of important things in his video. He criticizes Marvel’s music for lacking to invoke an emotional response, its existence as something that’s not supposed to be noticed, and the downward spiral of the use of temp tracks.

But Zhou is not a musician and misses the core part of why we can sing Harry Potter and not Iron Man, and it really has nothing to do with temp tracks: Harry Potter uses melodic letimotifs and Iron Man does not.

It’s easy to conflate an easily hum-able, melodic approach with ‘good’ scoring. That’s what Zhou does, in part. But it’s just not accurate. A good score does not necessarily need to be melodic, or have a recurring motif, or even consist of an orchestra.

Indeed, none of those things were requirements for film music, according to legendary American composer Aaron Copland in a 1949 article for the New York Times titled “Tip to Moviegoers: Take off those Ear-Muffs.” Copland wrote that film music serves the screen by

Creating a more convincing atmosphere of time and place, underlining psychological refinements—the unspoken thoughts of a character or the unseen implications of a situation, serving as a kind of neutral background filler, building a sense of continuity, [and] underpinning the theatrical build-up of a scene, and rounding it off with a sense of finality.

Couching each of those ideas in a repeating melody or melodic structure is a simple way to do so, but it is not necessary.

Enter Hans Zimmer, the Academy Award-winning German composer of film and television.

If you conducted similar interviews to Zhou’s and subbed out Marvel’s movies for Zimmer’s, you could come up with a similar result. Singing Zimmer’s scores requires one to actually be a trombone with a synthesizer fused to your face; melody isn’t exactly a focus for him.

But unlike Marvel’s unmemorable melodies, Zimmer’s scores are memorable. Why is that?

It’s certainly not because of subtlety. Subtlety is technically a tool in Zimmer’s arsenal inasmuch as tact is a tool in Donald Trump’s arsenal. Zimmer approaches subtlety the same way most people approach and deal with spiders. Subtlety once dated Zimmer but then dumped him for another composer, and Zimmer has never forgiven her.

I mean, come on:

For years, I poo-poo’d Zimmer for this reason. John Williams and his style was so obviously better. I can sing Williams tunes. I can sing Howard Shore melodies from Middle-Earth. Zimmer is bleeehhhh.

But what I didn’t really realize until Marvel started crystallizing this thought was that most movie scores aren’t memorable nowadays. The traversal through temp track valley and background music bend yields a lot of those.

Zimmer’s music, though? It’s always been memorable. Despite his lack of subtlety, Zimmer works in the new framework of film music in a way no one else does.

We remember the crashing chords of Inception. We remember the thunderous organ of Interstellar. We remember the terrible tension of The Dark Knight. And we will remember the haunting Shepard tones of Dunkirk.

Zimmer isn’t usually particularly melodic, but he succeeds because his soundscapes are creative, unique, memorable, and match perfectly with the movie’s overall aesthetic. And we often remember Zimmer’s scores because they breathe within the film, playing a specific role that can’t be matched by anything else.

You wouldn’t think that a billion brass instruments, some percussion, and a mad German on the synth would come up with brilliant film scores, but that’s what happens. While the industry is zigging when it used to zag, Zimmer is zigging more than anyone else, and it’s a hoot to hear.

Revisiting Eragon

Before the national Knopf release of “Eragon” in 2003, Christopher Paolini’s family self-published the book in 2002. Paolini, author of the Inheritance Cycle, was 19 then, and began writing the novel and plotting the story’s overall arc when he was 15.

As I pointed out in a previous post, the Inheritance Cycle has been fantastically successful. “Eragon” sold one million copies within six months, a stunning achievement for a young adult novel written by a no-name author. Of course, that no-name author was a young adult himself, making it even more impressive.

I don’t know what you were doing at 15 years of age, but the only thing I remember from that time is being infatuated with my first serious crush. I say infatuated because I didn’t do anything about it. What I should have done, once I turned 16 and could drive, was ask her if she would like to go out to eat with me, because I liked her and that would be an easy and safe first date. I did not do that. I did not even think to do that, for some reason. Teenagers are idiots.

At this same age, Paolini was writing his first epic. Maybe Paolini struggled with interacting with girls like me, but he at least produced a New York Times Bestselling novel and began to embark on his dream career in one swoop of a dragon’s wing.

And it’s that dichotomy that explains “Eragon” so well. Paolini is a supremely talented creator, and his brilliance is easy to see. The book still holds up, its primary achievement creating a captivating narrative whilst also invisibly hoisting an excellent framework for the rest of the series.

But it’s pretty clear this is not written by a veteran author. For one, the book is basically Star Wars.

Don’t believe me?

A young orphan man yearning for adventure unintentionally gains possession of an item that is of extreme importance. After servants from the evil empire kill his family, the young man sets off on a quest with a wise old man who was not what he appeared to be. As the old man trained the young, they were captured by the enemy. The mentor died, leaving the trainee alone. The trainee and an odd friend met along the way, a roguish outlaw, brought the important item to the resistance. While there, the enemy attacked the resistance’s headquarters. When everything was almost lost, a distraction let the young adventurer destroy the cornerstone of the opposition, and the resistance rejoiced.

That’s the backbone of Star Wars. It’s also the backbone of “Eragon.” The plot could not possibly be more derivative.

There’s the dialogue, too. Paolini’s dialogue often reads like someone wrote it for the characters to say, with compound sentences and a constant lack of subtlety. Take a portion of what Brom said shortly before his death:

I am old, Eragon…so old. Though my dragon was killed, my life has been longer than most. You don’t know what it is to reach my age, look back, and realize that you don’t remember much of it; then to look forward and know that many years still lie ahead of you…After all this time I still grieve for my Saphira…and hate Galbatorix from what he tore from me.

(Those ellipses are written into the text; that was a full excerpt directly from the book.)

It’s not terrible by any means! But it doesn’t really read like what someone would say on their deathbed, and the driving point of this whole speech–that he still loved his dragon and hates Galbatorix–is just plopped right there.

Consider a similar (though obviously separate) scene from Harry Potter. Severus Snape is dying, instead of going on a speech of why he felt the way that he did or did what he did, he showed Harry with a memory.

“But this is touching, Severus,” said Dumbledore seriously. “Have you grown to care for the boy, after all?” “For him?” shouted Snape. “Expecto Patronum!” From the tip of his wand burst the silver doe. She landed on the office floor, bounded once across the office, and soared out of the window. Dumbledore watched her fly away, and as her silvery glow faded he turned back to Snape, and his eyes were full of tears. “After all this time?” “Always,” said Snape.”

The doe was Lily Potter’s patronus. Snape never stopped loving her. It’s not only an extraordinarily powerful statement, but it’s presented perfectly, with an exactness that Paolini often lacks.

But, still, after reading “Eragon,” I was reminded why I loved it. Eragon and Saphira’s relationship is real and genuine. The world is well-constructed. The pace is quick and the book flows smoothly. Sure, it was written by a teenager with no prior writing experience, and it shows. However, creativity knows no age, and “Eragon” is as genuine as it comes.

 

Taylor Swift and the search for musical authenticity

The other week, I was doing that late night Youtube thing–you know, when you’re going to go to bed in a bit but see if there’s something fun to watch and then, crap, hours have passed, it’s 2am, and you’re watching a video of a chorale version of Smash Mouth’s great single All Star. Somehow, in one of my more sane Youtube black hole nights, I came across the below video. It’s a live performance by Taylor Swift of her top-ten single Wildest Dreams from her 6x platinum album 1989. It’s just Swift, an electric guitar, and a microphone, on stage for an intimate concert for a small audience at the Grammy Museum in December 2015.

Even if you’re not a Swift fan, this is the kind of performance that commands begrudging respect. There’s no pomp and circumstance, no fancy lighting, no backup dancers, no backing band, no random feuding with other pop stars, and is as exposed as a performance can possibly get. It’s a great version of the song, with the electric guitar rather than an acoustic guitar serving as an inspired choice–as is the decision to slow down the song just a tick or two.

 

Now, I’m a classically trained musician. I play multiple brass instruments and sing in a respectable choral ensemble. My college degree says ‘music’ on it. I once played a passable piano (passable enough to pass my keyboard proficiency, which is to say not very much but I at least did that). The point is: I’m not the key Swiftie demographic.

And yet: I quite enjoy listening to Swift’s music, much to the chagrin of my wife. There’s a reason for that, but we have to step back a little bit to get to an explanation.

Swift and her career is a fascinating case study about celebrity, the modern music industry, feminism, and even class. There’s so many routes of her success to explore, and what that success means. If you want to therefore launch an inquisition into the creation and implosion of Hiddleswift, for instance, go for it.

But the most fascinating part about Swift’s success is how she achieved it. From an extra-musical standpoint, there are two big assisting factors. First, Swift is gorgeous. Being pretty is a huge leg up; that’s just life. Second, Swift has an extraordinary ability to adeptly navigate celebrity without scandal, which is an underrated tool in a celebrity musician’s arsenal. There is a musical factor, though, and that’s the biggest one.

Theodor Adorno, German philosopher and critic, was born in 1903, a year where air flight was science fiction. Gustav Mahler, Charles Stanford, Giacomo Puccini, Anton Dvorak, and Camille Saint-Saens were all alive at Adorno’s birth. Adorno died at the age of 65 in 1969, one month before a quartet of nerdy Brits who named themselves ‘The Beatles’ released some album called Abbey Road and half a century after the first transatlantic airplane flight. As with most things at the start of the 20th Century, music was changing rapidly. A new, simpler, more accessible type of music was growing, fueled by the dual powers of globalization and recording technology.

Adorno witnessed the rise of this ‘popular music’ or, as an average teenager might think of it today, ‘music.’ Regardless, like your cranky old grandpa who refuses to consider to bestow the title of music to anything written in the last thirty years, Adorno was having none of the ‘pop music’ thing. In his essay On Popular Music, Adorno lays out why art music (or ‘classical’ music to some of you) is so much better than popular music. Adorno’s 1938 essay also expresses his distaste for the commercialization of music. Check out this quote, which seems like it was written yesterday, as opposed to 79 years ago:

Provided the material fulfills certain minimum requirements, any given song can be plugged and made a success, if there is adequate tie-up between publishing houses, name bands, radio and moving pictures. Most important is the following requirement: To be plugged, a song-hit must have at least one feature by which it can be distinguished from any other, and yet possess the complete conventionality and triviality of all others. The actual criterion by which a song is judged worthy of plugging is paradoxical. The publisher wants a piece of music that is fundamentally the same as all the other current hits and simultaneously fundamentally different from them.

To save you a whole lot of effort in reading the rest of Adorno’s thick prose on this subject: Adorno thought popular music was inherently and objectively inferior. According to him, it relied on extreme standardization and lacks meaningful musical development, its songs slaves to the churning money-making machine. Everything it does, ‘serious’ music can do better.

But there’s something that Adorno misses, either because 1930s music is indeed a different beast than 2010s music or because Adorno’s noggin is stuffed awfully far up his gluteus maximus. That is this: writing and recording a successful hit pop song is difficult precisely because it must check off so many boxes and adhere to such a strict formula. Writing a hit song necessitates operating within a constrictive box; it’s like trying to cook an entire three course meal utilizing only a microwave. The song must be between three to four minutes, fit into some version of a verse/chorus/bridge format, stick to a small collection of chords, and yet still invoke an emotional response and be catchy and/or memorable.

So what makes a song different? There are hundreds of thousands of musicians writing their own songs. Yeah, most of those songwriters don’t have the strength of the industry behind them, and yeah, hit songs are often the result of a cultural or musical zeitgeist; in other words, timing helps, too.

What makes Swift so good is that she operates within the constrictive pop music box just like everyone else, but her songs still achieve greatness. One reason is that their construction is impeccable, and they can be scaled down to an acoustic level or blasted to arenas and maintain their integrity and meaning. But the second, most important reason is that they come from a sincere place that just can’t be faked, no matter how hard one tries to do so. Millennials are great at sniffing out what is fake and what isn’t, and true originality shines like a bright lighthouse.

Watching an acoustic version of Wildest Dreams is a fantastic reminder of Swift’s great talent from multiple angles. It shows off her musicality, proves the song can work without all the flashy touches of modern pop music, and shows off Swift’s personal connection with her art. Swift, if nothing else, is authentic, which is her greatest achievement.

None of this would have happened if I didn’t see the video in the first place, of course. Maybe we should all go on more Youtube adventures. We might find something exciting. Well, that, or more dumb cat videos and memes.

Revisiting the Inheritance Cycle

Twelve years ago, as a wee high school freshman, I read the books “Eragon” and “Eldest.” “Eldest” had just been released a few months prior. One of my family members gave me the hardcovers for Christmas, thinking I would like them. I was hooked.

We’re outside the Eragon zeitgesit now, the prime dragons of modern pop culture being Daenerys Targaryen’s trio of terrifying tyrants instead of Eragon’s Saphira, but “Eragon” was the pre-social media young adult novel craze (non-Harry Potter category). “Eragon” sold a million copies within six months of Knopf’s wide-release publishing of the novel, the series going on to sell a few dozen million more worldwide in the following years. The film was a sad flop, but it existed in the first place, and it still made a bunch of money.

In many ways, Eragon was my Harry Potter. I remember checking fan boards and looking up theories and voting in polls on what we thought would happen. Two times I ravenously consumed the newly-released entry in the series. I began the first book while a freshman in high school, and I finished the last book a junior in college. Those intervening years were some of the most impactful of my life, and Inheritance was there with me the whole way.

Somehow, I’ve not re-read Inheritance, the last book in the series. And that means that I have never read them all the way through, from “Eragon” to “Inheritance,” without years or months of distance between them.

This summer will change that. After almost six years since I last touched the series, I’m now in the process of reading them all once more, together for the first time. In those years, I’ve become a significantly better writer and have read many more books. I’m excited to read them in a different light, and to see if what I remember about the books still rings true.

But mostly, I’m interested in spending more time with Eragon, Saphira, and friends. It’s been too long.