Tag Archives: comedy

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Why I Don’t Perform Comedy As Often

So for those who don’t know, occasionally I do comedy. And I like it. And people, by and large, enjoy when I do it.

So why don’t I do it more often?

 

I get this question a lot, and in fact, I ask myself this question a lot.

Or at least I used to, when I first started in comedy. Initially, my answer was common to a lot of comics — it’s hard to find the right opportunity to get up. Unless you’re in just the right situation, it can be a chore finding places to perform.

You can go to a bunch of open mics, but open mics aren’t necessarily a great place to be, because they’re full of other comics, most of whom are, to be polite, less than skilled. They range from being doe-eyed neophytes who can’t believe they’re actually doing this!! to angry, bitter, lazy or stoned hacks who think audiences won’t notice if you recycle the same five jokes about drugs, sexuality or religion into endless permutations of dreck. Sitting through that, night after night, week after week, can wear on you.

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RACIST SUPERHEROES: A Comedic Origin Story

So here’s the deal.

I’ve been doing comedy for about two years now (actually writing comedy for three years, performing it for two) and the bit that I personally think is my best is one that I like to call “Racist Superheroes.”

Now unfortunately, I don’t perform in venues often where I can get good video, so I don’t have a good recording of this bit yet (though there are plenty of others you can watch — and besides, I can’t give away the whole store, otherwise you have no incentive to come out and see me live).

However, I haven’t done much writing about my comedy yet, and recently a friend was asking me about how I come up with my routines. Given that I’m scheduled to give a talk on this very subject at the Faith & Culture Writer’s Conference in a few weeks, I figured this post would be a good way to get the juices flowing and give you an insider view on what my creative process looks like.

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Black-ish Is the New “Orange”

Okay, so let me fess up, right off the top.

That is a horrible, clickbaity title, a ridiculous, derivative and obvious reference, comparing two TV shows that couldn’t be more different if one of them were set on a different planet.

But they have one thing in common, that thing that most successful TV shows manage to pull off with some level of success. They can take a specific cultural situation and make it broad and relatable enough for people outside to appreciate and understand it, and by the same token, take basic and timeless themes and filter them through the lens of a specific perspective and worldview. They make the specific general, and the general specific.

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Black Jesus Modest Proposal: Watch It At Church

(Editor’s Note: If you don’t know the history behind the term “modest proposal,” you won’t understand unless you read the whole thing.)

 

Well, last night happened and, as far as I can tell, the four horsemen of the apocalypse have yet to appear.

Which world-shattering event am I referring to? A new development in the Israel-Palestine conflict? A new executive order signed by President Obama? Another Mark Driscoll scandal? No, no… I’m talking about something important. 

Last night was the premiere of the new Aaron McGruder comedy, “Black Jesus.” For the uninitiated, here’s a trailer:

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You Done Messed Up, A-A-Merica

Right now, Christena Cleveland and Keegan-Michael Key are two of my favorite people in the world. Though they operate in different disciplines and run in very different circles, they are both excellent at what they do. And I often find myself highlighting their work on social media.

christena clevelandChristena Cleveland, a social psychologist with a focus on overcoming racial and cultural divisions between groups, blogged recently about a phenomenon she refers to as the white male industrial complex. Adapted from an Emily Rice quote about the “ally industrial complex,” it’s her term for the ways in which Christian social justice work, like everything else in American society, tends to be oriented around the tastes, whims, and emotional climate of white men. (More on this later.)

Keegan-Michael Key is the taller, lighter-skinned half of Key & Peele, the incredibly funny sketch comedy duo on Comedy Central. And his brilliant comedy chops are the key to this, one of their most popular, sidesplitting sketches, entitled “Substitute Teacher.”

Behold…

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What It’s Like Being Black In Portland

So it seems that a series of circumstances have all led me to reminisce, Pete-Rock-&-CL-Smooth-style, about my upbringing here in Portland Oregon, the undisputed whitest major city in America. Reconnecting with old friends from high school, being a little less homebound and a little more out-and-about in the city (which is a typical, if subconscious spring ritual), and responding to people emailing me about Mitchell S. Jackson’s March essay in Salon, about his experiences growing up here.

I’ve written about this issue before, but usually only tangentially. It’s not something I feel the need to discuss all that often, not because my experiences aren’t novel or interesting, but because there are so few genuine opportunities to talk frankly about racial issues without the issues being sidetracked or hijacked by local or national politics. I actually have several compelling interests that could incentivize my sharing what it’s like growing up here (at or near the top would be to promote my creative works). But in practice, it’s hard to do so without being burdened by the advancement of a particular agenda – as in, talking about diversity in the context of Why We Need To Do Such & Such About The Problem – or, more honestly, without bumming white people out.

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Just Saw Fred Claus. No, Really. It’s Good.


So I gave into a small guilty pleasure tonight.

I watched the movie on the airplane.

Usually if I’m watching a movie on an airplane, it’s something I’ve brought myself for that express purpose, and I’m watching it on my computer. I normally can’t stand watching the movies that the airlines play, because I hate craning my neck, staring at that tiny little screen, and listening to the terrible audio.

But I made an exception, and I’m glad I did, because I enjoyed it pretty thoroughly — more evidence that a fun story with compelling characters can cover a multitude of shortcomings. If a film’s characters are cardboard cutouts and the story does nothing interesting, then it can be showing on an IMAX screen ten times a day, for free, and I’ll still probably avoid it like the plague.

My guilty pleasure was last year’s Fred Claus, starring Vince Vaughn (The Break-Up, Dodgeball) and Paul Giamatti (Sideways, The Negotiator). Like many interesting pictures, Fred Claus is a mashup of three time-worn story archetypes, the wholesome holiday fairy tale, the fish-out-of-water tale, and the slacker-does-something-good-for-once story.

The heart and soul of the movie comes from the bond of two brothers – Nicholas (a.k.a. Santa Claus) and his maladjusted younger sibling Fred, frustrated and misunderstood after living in the shadow of his jolly, charismatic older brother.

I had relatively low expectations for this film, but found myself being pleasantly surprised over and over. Some of this was Vince Vaughn’s patented blend of abrasive charm. Despite maintaining the grounded, smart-alecky style of delivery that made him a star in the first place, many of Vaughn’s lines as Fred sound downright conservative. This is what makes Fred such a sympathetic character, because even though Fred doesn’t always make the best decisions, his heart is always in the right place – like when he lectures a young girl who attacks him for repossessing her family TV. That scene is golden.

Mostly, though, it was the interesting family dynamics that really pulled me in. In a sense, Fred Claus is like many holiday films based around families (The Family Stone, Dan in Real Life, This Christmas), except that the deftly-cast family involved just happens to belong to good ol’ Saint Nick.

As such, the movie has a winning way about it, because it manages to depict a well-known — but normally boring — character as a three dimensional figure. Sure, he’s Santa Claus, but first he’s a regular guy, who has regular guy issues. He struggles with enforcing his boundaries. He’s got weight issues. He has to deal with tension between his wife and his mother.

Most distressing is the pressure he receives from a joyless suit (Kevin Spacey) intent on cracking down on inefficiency at Santa’s workshop. This is the first movie I’ve ever seen that manages to make Santa Claus seem not only human, but downright vulnerable.

Fred Claus is not without its issues, of course. It still maintains many common Christmas movie clichés, including wrapping up every conflict way too neatly — gift-wrapped and bow-tied for the convenience of screenwriter and viewer alike. And for those who suffer from acute saccharine intolerance, there are a few scenes that will prompt bouts of eye-rolling and plenty of oh-please-give-me-a-break.

But staving off the overdose is a nice combination of levity and gravitas. Two of my favorite scenes have good amounts of both.

[MINOR SPOILER ALERT!]

There’s a scene where Nick confronts his brother and the confrontation goes downhill, first into name-calling, and then into a full-on brawl. And then later there’s a scene where Fred visits a support group for siblings of famous people. (Cameos aplenty here.) In both scenes, the humor is undergirded by the simmering tension of decades worth of unresolved issues between the two brothers.

As Christian, I have to learn how to extract the laudable and virtuous elements from the other aspects that might not be in line with my standards or worldview – otherwise, I just wouldn’t watch any movies at all. Fred Claus is no exception. The main message is that troubled kids are just as deserving of love and attention as nice kids, and this is a great message that I wholeheartedly endorse. That this message is saddled with the baggage of ambiguously relativistic morals is unfortunate, and occasionally annoying.

Key example: the film’s shining reunion between Fred and his love interest [ANOTHER SPOILER] culminates in him magnanimously announcing that he’s moving into her apartment and they’ll be living together. The scene is written, shot and edited as a climactic, romantic proposal. His proposal, though, is mere cohabitation.

NOTE TO SCREENWRITERS: in a real family film, this couple would’ve actually gotten MARRIED. It’s called commitment, Vince Vaughn. Check it out sometime.

On the plus side, though, there is no profanity whatsoever, and very little crass humor. (One suggestively-costumed, cleavage-showing woman, and one fleeting reference to marital sexuality.)

That, combined with the powerful relationship between two adult brothers, makes Fred Claus more than worth the price of a rental. It might actually be the rare holiday film that is, dare I say, rewatchable.

Just make sure you don’t let any of those Santa-themed Christmas songs get stuck in your head. Those things are brutal.

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Really, Apple… A Vending Machine?

I’m not the type of cat to throw stones at an innovative company like Apple, Inc.

(Even though I don’t have a problem with laughing with others who do.)

As a Windows man, I have a healthy amount of respect for Apple’s slick, easy-to-use products — many of which (including the ubiquitous iPhone and all the iterations of the iPod) have achieved significant market penetration for Apple, if not outright domination.

But I do believe there can be too much of a good thing, and I saw it with my own eyes during a layover in the Houston airport recently – when I walked past an iPod vending machine.

Yes, that’s right. A freaking iPod vending machine.

It’s always been my understanding that vending machines depend primarily on foot traffic. So in this economy, it seems like a major stretch to expect Charlie and Cathy Consumer to shell out several hundred dollars on an impulse purchase, even one as popular as an iPhone or an iPod.

Yet, there it was, in the middle of the concourse.

So I guess that must be what the brain trust at Apple is banking on. Either that, or they’re just expecting spontaneous brand conversions, as consumers cave to the massive waves of peer pressure that result from such market domination.

Or maybe this is just one big ego boost.

Screw it, I’m Steve Jobs, and I say we sell iPods in vending machines. Don’t give me figures, lets MAKE THIS HAPPEN.

I enjoy seeing that kind of moxie when it’s depicted as comedy – like the fictional Gillette exec in this great archived piece from The Onion (WARNING R-rated language).

But in real life, it’s not as funny. I hope nobody loses their shirt over this, because as far as I know, they’re not selling those in vending machines yet.