Category Archives: comedy


A clip of  Charles Fleischer,  a stand-up comic, wearing an endigitted blazer and performing a routine with a lot of numerology in it:

I think the very first joke in this is funny and concise, but it quickly degenerates into a kind of sub-Robin-Williams “I talk loudly and quickly and change accents a lot and am kind of manic, is it funny yet?  No?  LOUDER, QUICKER, MORE ACCENTS!” schtick.

But the joke is on us, because Fleischer’s not kidding about his theory of “moleeds.”  In 2005 he gave a TED talk about it.  This is a weird and in some ways uncomfortable thing to watch — the audience still thinks they’re watching a comedy routine, and just keeps chuckling while Fleischer argues, with ever-increasing fervor,  that the equation 27 x 37 = 999 somehow explains mirror symmetry and the theory of Calabi-Yau manifolds.

The talk doesn’t cast TED in the best light, to be honest.  Don’t they have someone on staff who can do some minimal vetting of talks that claim to be about math?

(Note:  there is always the possibility that Fleischer’s whole act is an extravagantly thorough Kaufmannesque send-up of people’s tendency to attach themselves to meaningless patterns and theories.  But it doesn’t read that way to me.)

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A useful slogan from Steve Martin

“…there is no harm in charging oneself up with delusions between moments of valid inspiration.”

(From his surprisingly interesting memoir, Born Standing Up.)

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That garment which is supposed to denote virile command

Just finished Trollope’s The Last Chronicle of Barset. I’ve read many of his parliamentary novels, but none of the clerical ones until now; this one, as the title suggests, is the last of his books centered on the clergy of Barsetshire, and thus functions as a kind of “whatever happened to…?” for characters I was unacquainted with.  But it functions well on its own, especially as a portrait of Mr. Crawley, yet another of Trollope’s acutely observed obsessives.  (The best of them, among the books I’ve read, is Trevelyan from the amazing He Knew He Was Right.)  On the whole it’s not as good as his best books; too much rests on coincidence and the denouement is allowed to denoue too long.  Trollope himself, though, writes in his autobiography:

Taking it as a whole, I regard this as the best novel I have written. I was never quite satisfied with the development of the plot, which consisted in the loss of a cheque, of a charge made against a clergyman for stealing it, and of absolute uncertainty on the part of the clergyman himself as to the manner in which the cheque had found its way into his hands…. Such fault I acknowledge,–acknowledging at the same time that I have never been capable of constructing with complete success the intricacies of a plot that required to be unravelled. But while confessing so much, I claim to have portrayed the mind of the unfortunate man with great accuracy and great delicacy. The pride, the humility, the manliness, the weakness, the conscientious rectitude and bitter prejudices of Mr. Crawley were, I feel, true to nature and well described. The surroundings too are good. Mrs. Proudie at the palace is a real woman; and the poor old dean dying at the deanery is also real. The archdeacon in his victory is very real. There is a true savour of English country life all through the book.

Trollope doesn’t mention that the book, like everything he writes, is funny.  Here’s a joke I liked.  Mr. Crawley is speaking with the more easy-going churchman Mr. Robarts:

“And I have, methinks, observed a proneness in the world to ridicule that dependence on a woman which every married man should acknowledge in regard to the wife of his bosom, if he can trust her as well as love her. When I hear jocose proverbs spoken as to men, such as that in this house the grey mare is the better horse, or that in that house the wife wears that garment which is supposed to denote virile command, knowing that the joke is easy, and that meekness in a man is more truly noble than a habit of stern authority, I do not allow them to go far with me in influencing my judgment.”

Crawley understands his companion’s nature and makes a game effort to express himself in the casual language of a country gentleman; but he can’t quite bring himself to utter the words “wears the pants,” and so has to resort to paraphrase.  Comic gold.

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George Saunders, “The Bohemians”

I remember being really charmed by his book Pastoralia, which is all about garbled management-speak and commercial items with wacky MultiCapNames and the basic human inability to step off stage ever.  In Persuasion Nation is just like that too, but it starts to feel like a schtick; yeah, yeah, in the future people think the most meaningful thing they can do is view advertisements, it’s comic yet eerily like our present condition, I get it.  But then again there’s “The Bohemians,” the best story here and a completely different thing:

Eddie Sr. rushed to the hospital with his Purple Heart and some photos of Eddie as a grinning wet-chinned kid on a pony.  He found Eddie handcuffed to the bed, with an IV drip and a smashed face.  Apparently, he’d bitten one of the Armenians.  Bail was set at three hundred.  The tailor shop made zilch.  Eddie Sr.’s fabrics were a lexicon of yesteryear.  Dust coated a bright-yellow sign that read “Zippers Repaired in Jiffy.”

“Jail for that kid, I admit, don’t make total sense,” the judge said.  “Three months in the Anston.  Best I can do.”

There’s really no other explanation for this but that George Saunders woke up one day and said “I want to write a Grace Paley story.” Well, why shouldn’t he?  Rock bands should cover the Velvet Underground and short story writers should try to write Grace Paley stories, though inevitably, in both cases, most will fail.

You can read “The Bohemians” online at the New Yorker.  Or watch him read it at Housing Works in NYC.  He plays for yuks more than I think is correct.

Part 1:

Part 2:  (the quoted paragraph is right at the beginning of this part.)

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Lamb and black truffle sausage: Osteria Papavero, you crazy bastard, I love you

One of the appetizers at Osteria Papavero is “antipasti di tartufo” — three dishes with black truffle, subject to chef’s whim and different every night.  Truffle is one of those ingredients that I know is distinguished and I know is expensive but which has never really revealed its charms to me.  Papavero is helping me out with that problem.   I think I’m going to go ahead and order this dish every time I go, because it’s consistently the highlight of the meal.

Tuesday night, one of the plates was a truffled lamb sausage. Long, dark brown, a little pocked, served in a loose coil, looking a little disturbingly like — well, I’ll bet you can guess what it looked a little disturbingly like.  But it was superb:  coarsely ground, a little gamy or smoky, and rich as hell, without being, you know, stupidly rich.  One of the best things I’ve eaten in Madison.

Papavero has a Christmas tree with comic photos of the staff in place of ornaments.  Also a Xerox of the greatest New Yorker cartoon of all time:

Image courtesy of a post by Daniel Radosh, who observes that the caption is not identical with the one that originally ran in the magazine.  But this version is the one I know and admire.

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Show report: Fountains of Wayne

Several thoughts about Fountains of Wayne, who played last night at the High Noon.

  • Very old crowd.  Oldest crowd I’ve been in since I saw the Bangles.  But the Bangles were really popular more than twenty years ago, and Fountains of Wayne had their biggest hit (“Stacy’s Mom”) in 2003.  So why was everybody so old?
  • They played an amplified acoustic set, which isn’t the best fit for them.  Intense production and sonic variety is part of the Fountains of Wayne sound.  Many of their songs, when strummed, sound alike.
  • But the standouts, as they ought to, stood out:  “Stacy’s Mom,” “Bright Future in Sales,” “Red Dragon Tattoo,” and, above all, the magnificent “Radiation Vibe.”  It is one of the great rock mysteries that this absolutely flawless piece of 1990s slightly grunge-tinged powerpop, backed by a major label, wasn’t a massive hit.  Last night the band played this as a medley with “Jet Airliner,” “Carry on My Wayward Son,” and “Reunited,” delivered with exactly the right mix of giggle and respect.  Except “Reunited.” That was all giggle.
  • Now’s my chance to point out that “Bright Future in Sales” features the slickest use of internal rhyme in rock lyrics I know:

I think I had a

black wallet in my

back pocket, with a

bus ticket, and a picture of my baby inside


  • “Stacy’s Mom” started out listless and loungy, as if they were taking the piss out of their only hit.  But it ended up someplace kind of stately and great, like what the song would have been if it were supposed to be fake Big Country instead of fake Cars.  I like the original version better, but I like the Cars a lot more than I like Big Country.
  • The band’s namesake, a New Jersey furniture store,  just closed.
  • If I were the kind of guy who wrote 30,000 word essays about cultural capital in rock music — OK, let’s face it, I aspire to be that kind of guy — I would write one about the confusing role of funniness in rock music.  Some funny bands, like Fountains of Wayne and They Might Be Giants, are ghettoized as semi-novelty acts because so much of their act relies on lyrical cleverness and whimsy.    Others, like the Divine Comedy and the Magnetic Fields, are valorized as latter-day Cole Porters on essentially the same grounds.  What’s the difference?  Extra credit questions:  what about Robyn Hitchcock?  And is it true, as people I kind of trust have told me, that the Barenaked Ladies are actually really great?

Too much deep thought.  Time to listen to “Radiation Vibe” again.

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Deals and Steals

Two people have e-mailed me today to alert me that you can temporarily buy the complete run of the greatest TV show ever aired on DVD for $37.50.  If I were you, I’d strongly consider it.

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Matt Groening likes Gershon Legman, Gershon Legman likes John Sanford

I was pleased to see that my culture hero Matt Groening, likes my other culture hero Gershon Legman:

Examining humor too closely does seem to destroy it. I think an example of that would be the movie The Aristocrats, the retelling of the filthy-aristocrats joke over and over again in so many different ways by all these comedians. What’s fascinating to me is not the joke, which is pretty bad, but the inability of the tellers of the joke to understand what it is they’re giving away with their own versions of the joke. [Laughs.] To me it’s like truth serum. So what that says about the work I do and the work they do in collaboration with others, I’m not sure exactly. But I will say that definitely hostility and fear are at the core. There’s a great couple of books that are really demented, ultimately, but have moments of insight, and they’re both written by Gershon Legman. One’s called Rationale Of The Dirty Joke, and the other one’s called No Laughing Matter: An Analysis Of Sexual Humor, and they’re Freudian analyses of dirty jokes. I think anyone who is a humorist or working in comedy should read these books if they want to understand better about their own internal insanities.

Legman’s books (really one long book in two volumes) run to about 1,500 pages and are a masterwork of obsessed cognition like few others I’ve encountered.  At their core, as Groening says, is the claim that every telling of a dirty joke is a vengeful act of aggression; and that to know someone’s favorite dirty joke is to know against whom, or what, they desire revenge.  Here’s how it starts:

Under the mask of humor, our society allows infinite aggressions, by everyone and against everyone.  In the culminating laugh by the listener or observer– whose position is often really that of victim or butt — the teller of the joke betrays his hidden hostility and signals his victory by being, theoretically at least, the one person present who does not laugh.

In an excellent New Yorker piece, Jim Holt writes about Legman and about the strange project of joke-collecting more generally.

Legman mentions at one point that John Sanford’s Seventy Times Seven is a “Great American Novel,” which was enough incentive for me to take it out from the library.  It isn’t great, but it’s good, and its virtues are unusual.   It features the kind of flourishes conventional to the big 1940s social-realist American novel — words runtogether in a way that I think of as “e e cummingslike” but which Steve Burt tells me are, in this context, imitation Dos Passos; little departures from the prose fiction format into stream-of-consciousness, court stenography, lines of attributed dialogue as in a play.  But it is in fact a very simple book — really just about two characters, one who’s had it hard, one who’s had it easy, and the resentment of the one towards the other.  The resentment builds in what feels like a physical way, like pressure on the boundary between two regions of different mass densities.  Which is what makes it work as a piece of 1940s social realism — to participate you have to believe that economics and sociology and maybe psychology too are a lot more like physics than we now think.

The book is well-written in places but feels antique in others.  I think Sanford makes the idea of the book too explicit in the last section — but maybe to participate in 1940s social realism you also have to make the point of your book more explicit than we now like.

Fun fact:  Seventy Times Seven was reissued in paperback with the more commercial title Make My Bed In Hell.

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Just wait till I take off my shoe and reveal the lower shriek

If I’m going to make fun of what philosophers think is funny it’s only fair that I cop to laughing at this:

(via Graham Leuschke)


This is apparently very funny if you’re a philosopher

I had dinner with a bunch of philosophers tonight at Sardine and the following story was told, to much acclaim. One of the philosophers was standing outside an Irish bar on Capitol Square when a woman came up to him and said, “Is this the same bar as the one on Monroe Street?” The philosopher replied, “No; a bar can’t be the same bar as any bar except itself.”

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