Deadpan Walking

In the realm of silent comedy, Chaplin is the most famous, but Buster Keaton is the funniest. In fact, Keaton is hilarious. My favorite Keaton films are Seven Chances and Sherlock, Jr.

Here's what Roger Ebert has to say about Keaton.

An excerpt:

I'm immersed in his career right now, viewing all of the silent features and many of the shorts with students at the University of Chicago. Having already written about Keaton's "The General" in this series, I thought to choose another title. "The Navigator," perhaps, or "Steamboat Bill, Jr.," or "Our Hospitality." But they are all of a piece; in an extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929, he worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies.

Three Buster Keaton movies made AFI's list of the one hundred funniest American movies: The General (18), Sherlock, Jr. (62), and The Navigator (81). (Keaton is also in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (40), but that's not really a Buster Keaton movie.)

Censor Sensibility
Here Steve O'Donnell recalls the "Kafkatoon" hassles of dealing with NBC's Standards Department back when he was the head writer for Late Night with David Letterman.

The first two paragraphs:

Lord knows, I'm a burly, adult man. Why am I standing in a fuzzy brown bunny costume yelling into a phone at a representative of NBC's Broadcast Standards Department? And why is there a snare drum hanging around my neck?

The show has already started. Paul Shaffer and the band are pounding out the last couple bars of the Late Night theme. I can see on a control room monitor that the sliding doors to the backstage area are closing behind Dave Letterman. When the applause subsides, the "opening remarks" will begin. I've got only a minute or two to convince the (presumably) non-bunny-suited executive on the other end of the line that the Top Ten List the writing staff has just finished slapping together, "Signs John Hinckley Is Rehabilitated", does not amount to a plea for the release of an attempted assassin. "These are jokes!," I'm screaming for the thousandth time since becoming Head Writer. "They actually emphasize how not rehabilitated Hinckley is!" There's a pause as the Permanent Employee considers what the Temporary Employee is saying. "Then why not title it 'Signs He's Not Rehabilitated'?" How do I explain to this perfectly decent man that then it would be pretty much devoid of what little humor we could cram into it in the previous hour's frenzied gagathon?

Click here to continue reading.

The following is the first paragraph of this 1986 Newsweek cover story about Late Night:

Steve O'Donnell, head writer of NBC's Late Night with David Letterman, is trying to explain his boss. He's having a hard time. He needs props. "Take the giant doorknob," he says, referring to a Late Night prop that is exactly what it sounds like. "Maybe in the 1930's some comic had a prop that was a giant doorknob, and his take on it was: 'WAAH! IT'S GOOFY!!' It's different with Dave. Here's a guy standing there on network television saying calmly, 'This doorknob is really large. It's much bigger than it ought to be. It's just plain big.' I don't know. Maybe every generation reinvents the wheel for itself. Or the giant doorknob."

Side Splitting
Sarah Vowell wrote this Salon article about Andy Richter back in 1999 after it was announced he was leaving Late Night. Richter can currently be seen in the hilarious movie Elf.

John Boy
Here's a Salon piece from a couple of years ago about Johnny Carson.

The Museum of Broadcast Communications website has this bio of Carson.


The Tell-Tale Art

On this episode of On Point, the guest is Harvard professor Maria Tatar, author and editor of The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales (read a Harvard Gazette piece about the book here).

Here is an online collection of annotated fairy tales. The site includes many wonderful illustrations, such as the one above by Arthur Rackham.

Type Righter
This Ian Frazier essay, about a typewriter repairman, is lovely.

The first three paragraphs:

I write on a manual typewriter, but don't bug me about it, okay? I know that recently certain machines have been developed that produce manuscripts more efficiently than a manual typewriter ever could. When these machines began to take over, people constantly asked if I used one; for a while that was the fact about me people seemed most interested to know. When I replied that I didn't, people usually became vexed, or in some cases nearly enraged. The arguments that followed were of a pattern. Those in favor of the new machines described their many advantages, never failing to include the ease with which the new machines could move paragraphs around. I defended myself with explanations that started out mild and reasonable and quickly descended to a whiny "I just don't like them!" None of this got anybody anywhere. Then one day a champion of the new machines pinned me down on the subject, extolling them, as usual, and finally confronting me with the inevitable question: Did I use one? My panic began to mount as I saw what lay ahead -- the arguments, the rebuttals, the recriminations. I took a deep breath. "No ... I mean, yes!" I replied. Satisfied, the prosecutor moved on to other topics, as my heart rate returned to normal.

Then suddenly that question was not around anymore. No one has asked me it in years. I guess the victory of the new machines has been so complete that there's no longer a need to hunt down resisters. Why bother? Time will take care of us. Meanwhile, I continued to write on the same Olympia portable manual I had bought with my first paycheck from Oui magazine, in Chicago in 1973. I liked it so much that when I got a little money I bought other Olympia manuals, fancier models, but all of them used, of course. They are perhaps not the best manual typewriters ever made -- experts often give that distinction to Underwoods or Hermes -- but they suit me, and I've stuck by them. The hell of it is, though, that after about twenty years they start to break. One afternoon in 1994 the e key on my favorite Olympia stopped working. E is not a rarity, like @ or %, that you can mostly do without. I was living in Brooklyn at the time. I called around and found a guy there who claimed to be able to fix anything, typewriters included. When he returned the typewriter to me, all the keys were at different heights, like notes in a lilting tune, and the e bar hit the ribbon hard enough to make a mark only if you helped it with your finger.

The Manhattan Yellow Pages has so many listings under "Typewriters" that you might think getting someone to fix a manual would not be hard. The repair places I called were agreeable enough at first; but as I described the problem (Fixing an e, for Pete's sake! How tough can that be?), they began to hedge and temporize. They mentioned a scarcity of spare parts, and the difficulty of welding forged steel, and other problems, all apparently my own fault for not having foreseen. I took my typewriter various places to have it looked at, and brought it home again unrepaired. This went on for a while. Finally, approaching the end of the Yellow Pages listing, I found an entry for "TYTELL TYPWRTR CO." It advertised restorations of antiques, an on-premises machine shop, a huge inventory of manuals, and sixty-five years of experience and accumulated parts. The address was in lower Manhattan. I called the number, and a voice answered, "Martin Tytell." I told Mr. Tytell my problem, and he told me he certainly could fix it. I said I would bring the typewriter in next week. "You should bring it in as soon as possible," he advised. "I'm an old man."

Click here to continue reading.

Mall Gall
Here you can listen to Ian Frazier talk about the Mall of America, America's biggest mall.

Brit Crit-Lit Wit
On this episode of On Point, the guest is the brilliant, hilarious New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane.

Here is Lane on Bookworm.

Here is Lane's Identity Theory interview.

Here's Lane's page over at Bold Type, where you can read samples from his book Nobody's Perfect, such as this essay about Lego, and this survey of cookbooks (which for some reason has been stripped of its title, "Look Back in Hunger").

Silly Tilley

Here you can listen to several New Yorker humorists read their work at the 2003 New Yorker Festival. The readers are Susan Orlean, Bruce McCall, Anthony Lane, Calvin Trillin, Patricia Marx, and Paul Rudnick.

There are other New Yorker Festival recordings here, including an interview with Nick Nolte and readings by Zadie Smith and Sherman Alexie.


Shopper Toppers
Here is a list of newspaper headlines featured on The Simpsons.

My favorites:

#2 Is #1


Dick Cavett Born

Credits Long Life To Satan


by Homer Simpson, Food Critic

Ants, Picnickers, Reach Last-Minute Accord

Slow News Day Grips Springfield

Slippery Tusks
J.R.R. Tolkien & the Oxford English Dictionary

An excerpt:

Some words, including walnut, walrus, and wampum, seem to have been assigned to Tolkien because of their particularly difficult etymologies. In the case of walrus, he wrote out many different versions of the etymology - six of which, remarkably, have survived in the archives thanks to Tolkien's habit of recycling discarded slips by turning them over and writing on the other side. In fact walnut, walrus, and wampum were among the few entries singled out by Henry Bradley when the fascicle W to Wash was published in 1921 as containing 'etymological facts or suggestions not given in other dictionaries'. Characteristically, Tolkien continued to puzzle over some of these etymologies long after he had left the OED to take up a post at Leeds University: a notebook survives in the Bodleian Library in Oxford containing many pages of notes on walrus written in the 1920s, and he may have lectured on this topic in Leeds.

Music Buff
Phil Spector added orchestra, chorus, and other such high-flown hoo-ha to the Beatles album Let It Be. In other words, he most certainly did not let it be. His embellishments flew right up the noses of many critics and fans. "Denude the album," they beseeched in unison, "of Spector's pretentious frillery!" Well, it's taken over thirty years, but now, finally, their wish has been granted. EMI has released a de-Spectorized version of Let It Be, called, embarrassingly enough, Let It Be...Naked. All Things Considered reviewed the new version.

Here you can listen to two hours' worth of rare recordings from the Let It Be sessions.


Plum Crazy

Stephen Fry on P.G. Wodehouse

The P.G. Wodehouse Appreciation Page

The Russian Wodehouse Society

Lunchin' Sandy, Jamaica
Click here to eavesdrop on Ian Frazier and Jamaica Kincaid as they eat oysters and reminisce about the old New Yorker. (From here.)

Satan's Whiskers
Here's an excerpt from a Stephen Fry essay called "The Moustaches from Hell," which was written during the 1991 Gulf war.

It is incidentally fascinating, isn't it, how so many of the wicked characters of this century have been comically moustached? The Kaiser had a perfectly priceless pair of nonsenses that looked as if they were melting. Stalin's moustache, of course, grew bigger every time you turned away from it and gave the appearance, as P.G. Wodehouse used to say, of having been grown under glass. Hitler's becomes especially amusing when you picture him shaving every morning. The point about facial topiary, after all, is that it is deliberate and therefore screams the owner's vanity. Each a.m. Hitler must have got his razor and delicately reaffirmed the boundaries of that silly black thumb-print of bristle with two careful downstrokes. Had his moustache been a freak of nature, like Gorbachev's gravy-stained pate, we would have felt sorry for him, but it was in fact absolutely deliberate.

Saddam, for some reason known only to himself, favours the Silent Comedy Barman style. Every time he appears on television I feel certain he is about to cross his eyes, haul up his apron, spit on his hands and throw Laurel and Hardy into the street for nonpayment of a bill.

Here is the website of the World Beard and Moustache Championships.

Looney Tunes
There were two great things on Fresh Air yesterday:

1. A long interview with John Flansburgh and John Linnell of They Might Be Giants.

2. A history of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. The Bonzos performed their song "Death Cab for Cutie" in the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour movie. Bonzo Neil Innes was a good friend of the Monty Python boys and can be seen in the films Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl. Innes was also Ron Nasty of the Rutles. Click here to listen to Innes sing "How Sweet to Be an Idiot," a song he performed at the Python's Hollywood Bowl show, sounding more than a little like John Lennon. Many more Neil Innes songs can be heard here. Years ago, Terry Gross interviewed Innes.

The Artful Dodger
From The Writer's Almanac via Ken Krimstein:

On this day [November 26] in 1864, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson sent Alice Liddell a handwritten manuscript called Alice's Adventures Underground as an early Christmas present. He published Alice in Wonderland the following year, and Queen Victoria liked it so much that she dispatched a letter to him saying she would be "pleased to accept any other works by the same pen." She soon received a copy of a book called Syllabus of Plane Algebraical Geometry.

The Purrfect Crime
Giant Kitten Terrorizes Midtown!
Targets Yarn Factory, Own Tail


Issue Twelve Issues Forth

Marvel Carvell
Tim Carvell is hilarious. His essays are among the funniest ever. Here, for example, is a dazzling gem called "The Short Essay That Conquered the Planet" (from here):

It started quietly. The writer finished the short essay and sat back, pleased. He sent it off for publication, and the essay was distributed into the world. A few people read it. They showed it to others. Others began reading it. Soon, they noticed changes: They felt younger, more alive. Their warts and blemishes disappeared. Their reproductive organs swelled. Their hearts were filled with song.

They began to tell others about the essay. Soon, the essay was being copied—emailed around the world (with an appropriate copyright fee always, always being sent back to the author), and placed on websites. It was tacked up in offices, schools and churches. It was read from pulpits and from podia, and from the balcony of the Vatican. It was appropriated by a columnist for the Boston Globe.

The essay was set to music; it became an opera, a play, a blockbuster film. It became a well-reviewed ballet, and an avant-garde production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, staged by Robert Wilson, with music by Tom Waits—whose music seemed happy for quite possibly the first time ever. The essay became the shortest piece of writing ever to receive the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. It went on to win the Caldecott Medal, the Nobel Peace Prize, and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. Then it swept the Grammies.

Miraculous reports began to trickle in: The essay had closed an unclosable wound. It had brought peace where there had once been strife. It scratched the places that could not be itched. It tamed lions.

Word of the essay spread to other lands. It was translated into many languages. Relief organizations stopped shipping food, and began simply dropping the essay on blighted areas, which miraculously revived. The essay created droughts where there were floods, and floods where there were droughts. It converted water to wine, and vice versa. It partitioned those parts of the world that had hitherto been thought to be unpartitionable. It sowed peace and love. It raised the dead and smote the wicked.

After months of planning, the people of the world, at a given hour on a given day, all stood in the streets and read the essay aloud, in unison, billions of voices mingling into one as the essay soared out into the heavens in a fantastic global murmur. The heavens parted and the sun shone on the entire world at once, in a cataclysmic expression of joy, and all animals were given the power of speech, and all humans were given the ability to fly, and the unicorns returned.

The writer beheld all this and smiled. "This," he thought to himself, "is a fine beginning."

Here are links to some of Carvell's other funny things.

Auteur Guide

On this episode of The Treatment, Wes Anderson discusses his film Rushmore. On this one, he discusses The Royal Tenenbaums.

Good Noose
Here's a great Donald Barthelme story: "Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby."

More Barthelme stories can be found here.

Class Scythes
Donald Barthelme's brilliant short story "The School" is hilarious and profound at the same time.

Talk-Show Guest
Christopher Guest discussing each of his movies, on The Treatment:

Waiting for Guffman

Best in Show

A Mighty Wind

Here Guest is interviewed by New Yorker writer Susan Orlean.

Mr. Show Business
Bob Odenkirk and David Cross on The Treatment, November 22, 1996 and September 4, 2002.

Kogen's Heroes
Jay Kogen, on this episode of The Treatment, talks about writing for The Simpsons.


Here you can listen to producer George Martin talk specifically and at length about his work with the Beatles.

Jazz Hands
Here you can listen to Woody Allen talk about the great jazz musicians of the past.

On this episode of Studio 360, Woody recalls the New York of the forties.

Gag Order
Here are the one hundred funniest jokes of all time.

If you like lists, there are plenty more where that came from (i.e., Blue Donut).

Blue Donut is the site of one Don Steinberg, a very funny fellow. Read his very funny Shouts & Murmurs piece "Brainteasers: The Aftermath."

The Rule of Three
Here you can listen to Fresh Air interviews with Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling, and Jay Leno.

King David
Here's a print interview with Larry David that ran in Laugh Factory Magazine in the mid-nineties. It's hilarious.

Click here to listen to a 1992 Fresh Air interview with Larry David.

Verse Vice
In 1961, Randall Jarrell won the National Book Award in Poetry for his collection The Woman at the Washington Zoo. Here's his acceptance speech (found here):

Sometimes I read, in reviews by men whose sleep I have troubled, that I'm one of those poets who've never learned to write poetry. This is true: I never have learned. Sometimes a poem comes to me -- I do what I can to it when it comes -- and sometimes for years not one comes. During these times the only person who helps much is my wife: she always acts as if I'd written the last poem yesterday and were about to write the next one tomorrow. While I'm writing poems or translating Faust I read what I have out loud, and my wife listens to me. Homer used to be led around by a little boy, who would listen to him: all I can say is, if Homer had ever had my wife listen to his poems, he would never again have been satisfied with that little boy.

It is customary for poets, in conclusion, to recommend poetry to you, and to beg you to read it as much as you ought instead of as little as you do. The poet says this because of the time he lives in -- "a time," writes Douglas Bush, "in which most people assume that, as an eminent social scientist once said to me, 'Poetry is on the way out.'" Now poetry -- if by poetry we mean what Frost and Dostoevsky and Freud and Ingmar Bergman share -- isn't on the way out, unless humanity is on the way out; when poetry "goes out of a place it is not the first to go, nor the second or third to go,/It waits for all the rest to go, it is the last." Poetry doesn't need poets' recommendations. And perhaps it is a mistake to keep telling people that poetry is a good thing after all, one they really ought to like better; tell them that about money, even, and they will finally start thinking that there's something wrong with it. Perhaps instead of recommending poetry as a virtue poets should warn you against it as a vice, an old drug like love or dreams. We say that virtue is its own reward -- know it too well ever to need to say so. Let me conclude by saying, about poetry, my favorite sentences about vice. They come out of Crime and Punishment. The murderer Raskolnikov is shocked at Svidrigaylov's saying that he has come to St. Petersburg "mainly for the sake of the women." Raskolnikov twice expresses his disgust at Svidrigaylov's love of "vice." Finally Svidrigaylov says with candid good-humor: "It seems to me that you have vice on the brain.... Well, what about it? Let's say it is vice. There is something permanent about this vice; something that is always there in your blood, like a piece of red-hot coal; something that sets it on fire, that you won't perhaps be able to put out for a long time, not even with years. You must agree it's an occupation of a sort."

Poetry, art -- these too are occupations of a sort; and I do not recommend them to you any more then I recommend to you that tonight, you go home to bed, and go to sleep, and dream.

Spin Doctor

During the Second World War, Dr. Seuss published scads of political cartoons, many of which can be eyeballed here.

In 1984, Dr. Seuss was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery inside a Diaper
In 1972, Donald Barthelme won a National Book Award in the Children's Literature category for a book called The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine. Here's his acceptance speech, which I found here:

Writing for children, like talking to them, is full of mysteries. I have a child, a six-year-old, and I assure you that I approach her with a copy of Mr. Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity held firmly in my right hand. If I ask her which of two types of cereal she prefers for breakfast, I invariably find upon presenting the bowl that I have misread my instructions -- that it was the other kind she wanted. In the same way it is quite conceivable to me that I may have written the wrong book -- some other book was what was wanted. One does the best one can. I must point out that television has affected the situation enormously. My pictures don't move. What's wrong with them? I went into this with Michael di Capua, my editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, who incidentally improved the book out of all recognition, and he told me sadly that no, he couldn't make the pictures move. I asked my child once what her mother was doing, at a particular moment, and she replied that mother was "watching a book." The difficulty is to manage a book worth watching. The problem, as I say, is full of mysteries, but mysteries are not to be avoided. Rather they are a locus of hope, they enrich and complicate. That is why we have them. That is perhaps one of the reasons why we have children.


Sketch and Release
On the audio track that accompanies this slide show, two New Yorker cartoonists -- Sam Gross and Matthew Diffee -- discuss their work.


Norman Conquest
Norm Macdonald was hilarious as anchor of Weekend Update, which he always called "the fake news." Here's a wonderful archive of his Weekend Update bits. There are transcripts with photos and, often, audio files, which is great, since Norm's devil-may-care delivery contributed a lot to the funny. (I found this via Deckie Holmes's blog.)

Dutch Treat
The Dutch used to have the most beautiful money in the world. Here, for example, is the fifty-guilder note. Sadly, these bills aren't in use anymore, now that guilders have been replaced by euros.

Idiom's Delight
The Bright Young Things website contains a wonderful device called The Splendidiser. Give it a swatch of prose, or even an entire website, and it will convert it to the language of the "bright young things" of 1920s London. For example, here's what it did -- with absolutely no assistance from me, I swear -- to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth marvellously on this continent, a simply unbearable new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the bloody proposition that all men are shriekworthily created equal. It's just too dull.

I say, now we are frightfully engaged in a dratted great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure, my dear fellow! Good God old chap, we are, and I don't mean to be bogus, met fabulously on a great battle-field of that war. Now see here - we have come to dedicate a ghastly portion of that field, as a frightfully divine final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. How shaming! I dare say, it is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. Golly!

My dear child, but, in a horrid larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. Splendid! Spiffingly on the shriekworthy contrary, the ghastly brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our bogus power to add or detract. The priceless shame! Darling, the simply dashing world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. How boring! My dear child, it is dreadfully for us the simply dashing living, rather, to be dedicated here to the simply bogus unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. The horrid shame! Dear me, it is bloody rather for us to be here dedicated to the horrid great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the ghastly last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a divine new birth of freedom -- and that government of the frightfully boring people, by the people, for the ghastly people, shall not perish from the simply dandy earth. Ugh, how morbid!

Check out the Splendidised version of Danger Blog! (I can't make a link to it -- you'll just have to plop the web address into the ol' Splendidiser yourself.) Or Splendidise other websites. It's quite a lot of fun. The Splendidiser is, in a word, splendid.


Deep, Phat Fry

Stephen Fry is one of my all-time favorite people. He may well be the funniest man alive. Well, now he's written and directed a movie called Bright Young Things, which is based on Evelyn Waugh's novel Vile Bodies. Fry answers some questions about the project here. Click here to watch a video file (which I found here) of Fry talking about the movie.

Here, in several short video segments, Fry discusses the science fiction genre. (Transcripts are provided, for those without video capability.)

Click here to listen to a wonderful conversation between Stephen Fry and Jonathan Ross. (The Jonathan Ross archive has a lot of good stuff.)

Desert Python
To hear Michael Palin talk about his travels in the Sahara Desert, go here and scroll to the bottom of the page. The Sahara is big -- Palin says it's the size of the United States, and is growing larger all the time.

Here's a more personal conversation with Palin, about his idiosyncrasies, on a show called Survival Kit. Toward the end, he talks about Monty Python.

To learn more about Palin's travels, go to his travel website, www.palinstravels.co.uk.

Canis triumphicus
On Thursday, Terry Gross interviewed Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.

The Man Who Would Be King
Stephen King recently received a fancy writing award. Hear him talk about S & M and getting hit by a van, on Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

Click here to listen to King, on The Leonard Lopate Show, talk about the award, his Dark Tower series, and why he doesn't like Kubrick's movie version of The Shining.

Johnny, We Hardly View Ye
Johnny Carson used to be as much a part of American culture as baseball and Chevrolet. It seemed like he would always be around. Then, suddenly, eleven years ago, he vanished. No reruns, no specials, nothing.

If you need a Johnny fix, or are just feeling nostalgic, you can visit Johnny's Monologue Archive and watch clips ranging from the early seventies to the early nineties.

When you're done with those, you can go here and get your Carnac fix.

There's also a hall-of-fame selection of audio clips of Johnny's guests.


The Daily Male
Click here to listen to Jon Stewart on Charlie Rose. (This interview is from May 21, 2003.)

Fe, Fi, Fo, Fey

This -- the November issue of The Believer -- contains a topnotch interview with SNL head writer Tina Fey.

Fey is also the subject of this recent New Yorker piece.

Words of Wisenheimerdom
Conan O'Brien's Commencement Speech to the Harvard Class of 2000:

I'd like to begin by thanking the class marshals for inviting me here today. The last time I was invited to Harvard it cost me $110,000. So I was reluctant to show up. I'm going to start before I really begin by announcing my one goal this afternoon. I want to be half as funny as tomorrow's Commencement speaker, moral philosopher and economist Amartya Sen. That's the job. Must get more laughs than seminal wage-price theoretician. By the way, enjoy that. Bring a calculator. It's going to be a nerd fest.

Students of the Harvard class of 2000, 15 years ago I sat where you sit now. And I thought exactly what you are now thinking. What's going to happen to me? Will I find my place in the world? Am I really graduating a virgin? Still have 24 hours. Roommate's mom very hot. Swear she's checking me out. There was that Rob Lowe movie.

Being here today, on a sincere note, is very special for me. I do miss this place. I especially miss Harvard Square. Let me tell you, you don't know this, Harvard Square is extremely unique. Nowhere else in the world will you find a man wearing a turban and a Red Sox jacket working in a lesbian bookstore. I'm just glad my dad's working.

It's particularly sweet for me to be here today because--this is true--when I graduated I wanted very badly to be a Class Day speaker. Unfortunately, my speech was rejected. So if you'll indulge me I'd like to read a portion of that speech. This is the actual speech from 15 years ago. "Fellow students, as we sit here today listening to that classic A-ha tune which will definitely stand the test of time, I would like to make several predictions about what the future will hold. I believe that one day a simple governor from a small southern state will rise to the highest office in the land. He will lack political skill, but will lead on the sheer strength of his moral authority. I believe that justice will prevail and one day the Berlin Wall will crumble, uniting East and West Berlin forever under Communist rule. I believe that one day a high-speed network of interconnected computers will spring up worldwide, so enriching people that they will lose their interest in idle chitchat and pornography. And finally, I believe that one day I will have a television show on a major network seen by millions of people at night which I will use to reenact crimes and help catch at-large criminals." Then I had a section on the death of Wall Street, but you don't need to hear about that.

The point is that although you see me as a celebrity, a member of the cultural elite, a demigod if you will, and potential husband material, I came here in the fall of 1981 and lived at Holworthy Hall as a student much like you. I was, without exaggeration--this is true--the ugliest picture in the freshman facebook. When Harvard asked me for a picture the previous summer, I thought it was for their records, so I jogged in the August heat to a passport photo office and sat for a morgue shot. To make matters worse, when the facebook came out, they put my picture right next to Catherine Oxenberg, a stunning blonde actress who was expected to join the class of '85, but decided to defer admission so she could join the cast of Dynasty. Folks, my photo would have looked bad on any page, but next to Catherine Oxenberg, I looked like a mackerel that had been in a car accident.

You see, in those days, I was 6 feet 4 inches tall and I weighed 150 pounds. True. Recently, I had some structural engineers run those numbers into a computer model, and according to the computer, I collapsed in 1987, killing hundreds in Taiwan.

After freshman year, I moved to Mather House. Mather House, incidentally, was designed by the same firm that built Hitler's bunker. In fact, if Hitler had conducted the war from Mather House, he would have shot himself a year earlier. Saved us a lot of trouble.

Nineteen eighty-five seems like a long time ago now. When I had my Class Day, you students would have been seven years old. Seven years old! You realize what that means? Back then I could have beaten any of you in a fight. And I mean really badly. Like no contest at all. If anyone here has a time machine, seriously, I will kick your seven-year-old butt right now.

A lot has happened in 15 years though. When you think about it, we come from completely different worlds. When I graduated in 1985, we watched movies starring Tom Cruise and listened to music by Madonna. I come from a time when we huddled around the TV set and watched the Cosby Show on NBC, never imagining that there would one day be a show called Cosby on CBS. In 1985 we drove cars with driver's-side air bags. But if you had told us that one day there would be passenger-side air bags, we'd have burned you for witchcraft.

Of course I think there is some common ground between us. I remember well the great uncertainty of this day, the anxiety. Many of you are justifiably nervous about leaving the safe, comfortable world of Harvard Yard and hurling yourself headlong into the cold, harsh world of Harvard grad school, a plum job in your father's firm, or a year abroad with a gold Amex card and then a plum job at your father's firm. Let me assure you that the knowledge you gained here at Harvard is a precious gift that will never leave you. Take it from me, your education is yours to keep forever. Why, many of you have read The Merchant of Florence, and that will inspire you when you travel to the island of Spain. Your knowledge of that problem they had with those people in Russia, or that guy in South America--you know, the guy--will be with you for the rest of your life.

There's also sadness today. A feeling of loss that you're leaving Harvard forever. Let me assure you that you never really leave Harvard. The Harvard fundraising committee will be on your ass until the day you die.

This is true. I know for a fact that right now a member of the alumni association is at the Mount Auburn Cemetery shaking down the corpse of Henry Adams. They heard he has a brass toe ring and they aim to get it. These people just raised $2.5 billion and they only got through the Bs in the alumni directory. Here's basically how it works. Your phone rings, usually after a big meal when you're tired and most vulnerable, and a voice asks you for money. Knowing--you've read in the paper--that they just raised $2.5 billion, you ask, "What do you need it for?" There is a long pause, and the voice on the other end of the line says, "We don't need it, we just want it." [Sinister laugh.]

Let me see--by your applause--Who here wrote a thesis? That's nice. A lot of hard work went into that thesis. And no one is ever going to care. I wrote a thesis--this is true, I don't lie--"Literary Progeria in the Works of Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner." Let's just say that during my discussions with Pauly Shore, it doesn't come up much. For three years after graduation I wanted to show it to everyone, and so I kept my thesis in the glove compartment of my car, so that I could show it to a policeman in case I was pulled over.

What else can you expect in the real world? Let me tell you. As you leave these gates and re-enter society, one thing is certain. Everyone out there is going to hate you. Never tell anyone in a roadside diner that you went to Harvard. In those situations, the correct response to, "Where did you go to school?" is "School? I never had much in the way of book learnin' and such." And then get in your BMW and get the hell out of there. Go.

You see, kids, you're in for a lifetime of "And you went to Harvard?" Accidentally give the wrong amount of change in a transaction, and it's "And you went to Harvard?" Ask at the hardware store how the jumper cables work, and hear "And you went to Harvard?" Forget just once that your underwear goes inside your pants, and it's "And you went to Harvard?" Get your head stuck in your niece's doll house 'cause you want to see what it's like to be a giant, and it's "Uncle Conan, you went to Harvard?"

So you really know what's in store for you after Harvard, I have to tell you what happened to me after graduation. I'm going to tell it simply, I'm going to tell it honestly, because, first of all, I think my perspective may give many of you hope, and, secondly, it's such a cool, amazing rush to be in front of 6,000 people and just talk about yourself. It's just great. It's so cool. And I can take my time.

You see, kids, after graduating in May, I moved to Los Angeles. I got a three-week contract at a small cable show. I got a $380-a-month apartment, a terrible dump, and I bought a 1977 Isuzu Opal, a car Isuzu only manufactured for a year because they found out that technically it's not a car. Quick tip, graduates--no four-cylinder used vehicle should have a racing stripe.

So I worked on that show for about a year, feeling pretty good about myself, when one day they told me that they were letting me go. I was fired. I hadn't saved any money. So I tried to get another job in television as best I could and couldn't find one. So with nowhere else to turn--true story--I went to a temp agency and filled out a questionnaire. I made damn sure that they knew I had been to Harvard, that I had written this thesis, and that I expected the very best treatment. And so the next day I was sent to the Santa Monica branch of Wilson's House of Suede and Leather.

When you have a Harvard degree, and you are working at Wilson's House of Suede and Leather, you are haunted by the ghostly images of your classmates who chose graduate school. You see their faces everywhere--in coffee cups, in fish tanks, you think you're going crazy, and they're always laughing at you as you stack suede shirts no man in good conscience would ever wear.

I tried a lot of things during this period. Acting in corporate infomercials. Serving drinks in a nonequity theater. I even took a job entertaining at a seven-year-old's birthday party. In desperate need of work, I put together some sketches and scored a job at the fledgling Fox network as a writer and performer for a brainy show called The Wilton North Report. I was finally on a network and really excited. The producer told me the show was going to revolutionize television. And, in a way it did. The show was so hated and did so badly that when four weeks later news of its cancellation was announced to the Fox affiliates, they burst into spontaneous applause.

Eventually, though, I got a big break. I had submitted along with my writing partner a batch of sketches to Saturday Night Live, and after a year and a half they read it, and they gave us a two-week tryout. The two weeks turned into two seasons, and I felt, hey, this is success, I'm successful now. Successful enough to write a TV pilot for an original sitcom. When the network decided to make it, feeling good, I left Saturday Night Live.

This TV show was going to be groundbreaking. It was going to resurrect the career of TV's Batman, Adam West. It was going to be a comedy without a laugh track or a studio audience. It was going to change all the rules. And here's what happened. When the pilot aired, it was the second-lowest-rated television show of all time. It is actually tied with a test pattern they show up in Nova Scotia.

So I was 28 and, once again, no job. I had good writing credits in New York, but I was filled with disappointment and I had no idea what I was going to do next. And that is when The Simpsons saved my life. I got a job there and started writing episodes about Springfield getting a monorail or Homer going to college. I was finally putting my Harvard education to good use--writing dialogue for a man who is so stupid that in one episode he forgot to make his own heart beat. Life was good.

And then an insane, inexplicable opportunity came my way, a chance to audition for host of the new Late Night show. I took the opportunity very seriously, but at the time--I have to be honest--I had the relaxed confidence of someone who knew he had no real shot, so I couldn't fear losing a great job that I could never hope to have. And I think that actually that attitude made the difference.

I will never forget being in the Simpsons recording basement that morning when the phone rang. It was for me. My car was blocking a fire lane. But a week later I got another call and got the job. So this, finally, was undeniably it. The truly life-altering break that I had always dreamed of. And so I went to work. I gathered all my funny friends and poured all my years of comedy experience into building the show over the summer. I gathered the talent, figured out the sensibility, found Max, found Andy, found my people. We debuted on September 13, 1993, and I was really happy, really happy, with our effort. I felt like I had seized the moment, that I had put my very best foot forward.

And this was what the most respected and widely read television critic, Tom Shales, wrote in the Washington Post: "O'Brien is a living collage of annoying nervous habits. He giggles and jiggles about and fiddles with his cuffs. He has dark, beady little eyes like a rabbit. He is one of the whitest white men ever. O'Brien is a switch on the guest who won't leave: he's the host who should never have come. Let the Late Show with Conan O'Brien become the late Late Show, and may the host return to whence he came." There's more, but it gets kind of mean.

Needless to say, I took a lot of criticism, some of it deserved, some of it excessive, and, to be honest with you, it hurt like you would not believe. But I'm telling you all this for a reason. I've had a lot of success. I've had a lot of failure. I've looked good. I've looked bad. I've been praised. And I've been criticized. But my mistakes have been necessary. I've dwelled on my failures today because, as graduates of Harvard, your biggest liability is your need to succeed, your need to always find yourself on the sweet side of the bell curve. Success is a lot like a bright white tuxedo. You feel terrific when you get it, but then you're desperately afraid of getting it dirty, of spoiling it.

I left the cocoon of Harvard, I left the cocoon of Saturday Night Live, I left the cocoon of The Simpsons. And each time it was bruising and tumultuous. And yet every failure was freeing, and today I'm as nostalgic for the bad as I am for the good. So that's what I wish for all of you--the bad as well as the good. Fall down. Make a mess. Break something occasionally. Know that your mistakes are your own unique way of getting to where you need to be. And remember that the story is never over.

If you'll indulge me for just a second, I'd like to read a little something from just this year. "Somehow, Conan O'Brien has transformed himself into the brightest star in the late-night firmament. His comedy is the gold standard, and Conan himself is not only the quickest and most inventive wit of his generation, but quite possibly the greatest host ever."

Ladies and gentlemen, class of 2000, I wrote that this morning. As proof that when all else fails, you always have delusion. I will go now to make bigger mistakes and to embarrass this fine institution even more. But let me leave you with one last thought. If you can laugh at yourself, loud and hard, every time you fall, people will think you're drunk. Thank you.


Laffs with Giraffes

I saw this at my local bookseller tonight and ended up purchasing it. I didn't want to -- it's a smidge pricey -- but I couldn't help it: it was just too gorgeous and hilarious to resist. It's wonderfully designed in the style of a children's nonfiction picturebook from the sixties. The book's full of photos and diagrams and charts and pie graphs, all of which are completely crazy and hilarious. They supplement the text, which is also crazy and hilarious. Honestly, this is one of the funniest books I've ever read. I'm pretty sure the whole thing was written by Dave Eggers and his brother Toph. Here's an excerpt:


Giraffes like to be where the action is, which is why most of them currently live in Terre Haute, Indiana. Through the years giraffes have moved many times, as a group, always using escalators. That is, when they decide to move to another locale, the Team of Giraffe Engineers sets to work designing and building a giant escalator which will take them from their current home to their next home. This designing and building process can take up to ten years, which means that they have to be very sure about where they are moving.

Many years ago, the giraffes settled in Atlanta, which is known to most people as Hotlanta! But there were too many muskrats and six-fingered people in Hotlanta, and they soon moved to Columbus, Ohio. Columbus was indeed a very exciting place, and had many of the things they love -- grass, people wearing pink shirts, and plenty of ceiling fans -- but it didn't have one thing they were looking for -- a zip code that started with the numbers 4780.

So they moved to Terre Haute, Indiana (zip code: 47801), considered by most people to be the most exciting place on this planet or any other.


1. It is not in Micronesia.
2. Its name starts with an "I" and ends with an "A."
3. It has two "N"s in its name, and this is always good luck.
4. There are no Gila Monsters there, nor are there the nephews of Lee Iacocca (see p. 19) or anyone named Matthew Perry.
5. People always flush.

Terre Haute is known for many things, including buildings made of wood and ground made of dirt. It is widely believed that Terre Haute was founded in 1954 by a gigantic talking tree named Stuart. However, extensive research completed by myself, Dr. Doris Haggis-On-Whey, has determined that Terre Haute was actually built, in just over three weeks, by a team of crocodiles, all named Penelope and all lovers of sorbet. These crocodiles also loved country music, but not the kind played by people with gel in their hair.

Giraffes are not nocturnal, and do not like night, at all. This is why most giraffes live in houses where the lights are on twenty-four hours a day. They like to sit under ceiling fans, while eating sorbet and talking about ceiling fans and sorbet.

Is that all I can tell you about Giraffe Habitat? No, that is not all. I have 1,303 pages about Giraffe Habitat, and want to share it all with you, but I will not. I am not in the mood so just don't ask again. I'm serious. Don't look at me with that questioning look. Really, stop it. And wipe your mouth -- you've still got toothpaste all over it. Can't you keep the toothpaste on your teeth? Didn't anyone ever teach you how to do that? Go get an umbrella and ten yards of rope and I'll teach you how to properly brush your teeth. Go!

Click here (or on the book) for purchasing information.

Mr. Spacely
On this episode of Studio 360, Simpsons writer George Meyer talks about his collection of space memorabilia: Listen

In the late eighties, Meyer created a short-lived but legendary humor magazine called Army Man. I posted some Army Man excerpts here.

Here are some more:

Memories of Mac

My freshman roommate was a remarkable guy. The first week of school Mac and I drove out to a mixer at Wellesley. We had barely gotten in the door when Mac pulled me aside. "See that girl?" he said. I certainly did. She was a dark-haired beauty in a leather miniskirt, drinking a margarita out of a beer mug. "That's the girl I'm going to marry." Naturally, I laughed in his face.

On our way home, Mac was quiet. Clearly, the man was stricken. We stopped at a pancake house, where I noticed a cute waitress. I was about to point her out to Mac when he turned to me and whispered, "See that waitress? That's the girl I'm going to marry."

I was to hear that line countless times during the next four years. Rare was the woman Mac didn't vow to marry -- probably a thousand in all.

And the funny thing is, he did end up marrying around five hundred of them, so I guess you could say he was no different than the rest of us: part liar, part truth-man.


Pet Peeve

It always bugs me when a doctor uses a term like "vagina". C'mon, Doc. We all know what you really mean. We're not idiots.


Drug Warning

When you're part of a panel discussing the drug problem, never say, "Can I inject something here?"


Money-Saving Tip

At tax time, I like to save money by paying several hundred dollars less than I owe. Uncle Sam won't miss it, and I can always use the extra cash to pay for things I like to buy.

Or, if you prefer, you can donate your "windfall" to your favorite charity. If you do, don't forget to take a hefty tax deduction.


SPACEMAN: Even though we are from different worlds, Princess, I love you.

PRINCESS: What is "love"?

SPACEMAN: You mean you don't know what love is?

PRINCESS: And what is "what"? And what is "is"? I don't know many words. Where am I?



What this country needs is a good five-cent sports car.


I went to a nursery to buy some garden gnomes for my pal Tom's birthday. You know -- the kind with beards, smoking pipes and pushing little wheelbarrows. The lady said, "Gee, we don't sell many of these." I was too much of an asshole to just admit that I liked them, so I said the gnomes were for the set of a play I was doing.

Later, I felt guilty for the lie, so I rented a theater and put on a play, with the garden gnomes prominently displayed. Like a jerk, I forgot to invite the lady from the nursery. But it all paid off, because my play just won a Pulitzer Prize.


There's one thing to be said for crack: It sure does get you high!


PATIENT: I had a dream last night that my waffle iron suddenly spat out its waffle and stabbed my husband to death.

PSYCHIATRIST: Have you called the police?

PATIENT: (PAUSE) No. It didn't really happen. It was a dream.

PSYCHIATRIST: I see. Please continue.

PATIENT: Well... then... (QUICKLY) And this didn't really happen either...

PSYCHIATRIST: I understand.

PATIENT: I dreamed that I was doing somersaults down the freeway, and my head blew out, and I lost control...

PSYCHIATRIST: (INTERRUPTING) And you say this didn't happen?


PSYCHIATRIST: (PAUSE) Then I don't get it.

PATIENT: It was a dream.

PSYCHIATRIST: I understand. Please continue.

Heckles and Freckles
Conan O'Brien, who recently celebrated his tenth anniversary as host of Late Night, granted several interviews to discuss his show's first decade:

On Weekend Edition

On Fresh Air with Terry Gross

Click here to listen to Conan on Charlie Rose.

Homeric Language
From a 2001 BBC News story:

Homer Simpson's catchphrase "d'oh!" has made it into the updated online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

D'oh Boy

Dan Castellaneta does the voice of Homer Simpson. He also does many other voices on the show, including Grampa Simpson, Barney Gumble, Krusty the Clown, Groundskeeper Willie, down-on-his-luck Gil, Mayor Quimby, the scrawny teenager who works at Krusty Burger, and many others.

Here is a short radio interview with Castellaneta: Listen

Here is a much longer interview with him -- it's over a half hour long. In fact, it's probably too long . It gets a little boring in spots. Nevertheless, here it is. (By the way, this interview is archived with a bunch of other interviews. Check out the archive -- it's a very odd list of folks. For example, the next three after Castellaneta are Sugar Ray Leonard, David Cassidy, and Ed Asner. Further down, there's King Nana Abrafo Owam X of Ghana, Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees, and Erin Moran, who was Joanie on Happy Days.)

Click here to listen to an audio file of Castellaneta and Harry Shearer (who also does truckloads of Simpsons voices) on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. (I found this here.)


Handey Info
This originally appeared in the January 2002 issue of Texas Monthly:

Deep Thoughts About Me
Questions I am often asked (and my answers).

by Jack Handey

Is that your real name? I thought Jack Handey was a made-up name. Jack Handey is a made-up name. It was made up by my parents when I was born. However, I am a real person. I was born in San Antonio on February 25, 1949, went to high school (Eastwood) and college (the University of Texas at El Paso) in El Paso, and worked for a while at the San Antonio Express-News—until my reporting job was eliminated after I wrote an article that offended local car dealerships.

I began writing for the comedian Steve Martin (also a Texan), which led me to a writing job for the TV show Saturday Night Live, where I have worked, off and on, for the past several years. I am the author of such sketches as "Toonces, the Cat Who Could Drive a Car" and "Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer." I also wrote and narrated "Deep Thoughts."

I live in the Chelsea section of Manhattan with my wife, Marta, who is from El Paso, and our three cats, whose names are all made up.

Who died and made you king? When my father, the emperor, died, I was made king. And when I die, the throne will pass to Spunky, my eldest cat. He is now Prince Spunky.

What's that stupid thing on your head? That "stupid thing," as you call it, is a crown. It is full of symbolism. The large, glittering jewel is symbolic of how glittering and glowing life is whenever the king is around. The spaceman is symbolic of how we must always be on guard against things from outer space. The skull is a reminder that when you rent a movie, make sure it's not too scary.

Uncle Jack, have you seen my piggy bank? I did see him, a little while ago. He was running away from home. I asked him why, and he said because nobody loved him. Then he left.

But if it makes you feel any better, you can have a sip of this beer I just bought.

Can you give me any reason why I shouldn't fire you? Yes, but it'll probably take a few months, and I'll need a raise.

What's with you? What's with me is a spirit, a spirit that has been with mankind from the dawn of time. It is a spirit of kindness and love and understanding. And that spirit is the spirit of Hercules.

Why should I believe you this time? Maybe the best way to answer that is with a story, the story of the frog and the bee. It's a very long story, involving how the frog met the bee, what made them become friends, the adventures they had together, and on and on and on. And I will tell you this whole story unless you believe me.

Who's out there? Is anybody out there? Is someone out there in the bushes? [No answer]

Do you understand these rights as I have read them to you? Now, what were they again?

Is this your idea of a joke? It's not the idea; it's the actual joke.


Jack Handey on Studio 360 reading a piece called "The Power of Nature": Listen

Here he is on a different episode of Studio 360 reading a piece called "The Greatest Fisherman I Ever Knew": Listen


Peter the Great

Peter Cook was a comic genius. He revolutionized British comedy in the sixties, paving the way for the members of Monty Python, who idolized him. His comedy partner, Dudley Moore, became a big star in the U.S. while Peter, who was about a hundred times funnier, remained virtually unknown here. To most of my generation, he is probably best known as the priest with the speech impediment in The Princess Bride. That is sad, since that role represents only the merest sliver of what he was capable of.

Stabbers.org is the home of the Peter Cook Appreciation Society. It has a bunch of great stuff, including scads of sound files (including the entire Misty Mr. Wisty album) and even video files of the various characters he did on Clive Anderson Talks Back near the end of his life. As those videos show, he, despite years of heavy drinking, was still capable of being hilarious.

Here you can download video files of some surviving sketches from Cook and Moore's sixties TV show Not Only...But Also that were not included on the tape called The Best of What's Left of Not Only...But Also. (Note: These files require the DivX 5.1 codec, which you can download for free here. Click the icon labeled "Standard DivX Codec(FREE)." Mac and Linux versions are also available, via links on that page.)

Here, if you scroll down, you can find an episode of a radio program called Comedian's Comedian in which comedians -- Python Eric Idle among them -- talk about Peter.

PeterCook.net also has some nice things. I recommend listening to "Cook's Tour," a well-done appreciation of Cook that includes lots of clips from Cook's performances and interviews, and comments from Python John Cleese, New Yorker critic John Lahr, and many other good people. "Cook's Tour," divided into three parts, can be found at the bottom of this page.

Cow Talk
Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson rarely grants interviews. But now, to promote his huge two-volume collection of his entire oeuvre, he's talking.

Here he is on Morning Edition.

On Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

Here's a 1999 Salon article about him. (Includes a rare photo of the mystery man.)

Good Marx
Morning Edition's series Present at the Creation is extremely well done. Each episode is supplemented with a slew of bells and whistles, which take the form of archival segments and video clips and Web links, all of which relate -- more or less -- to the topic at hand.

I was particularly impressed with the Night at the Opera show. The story itself is done quite well and includes comments from Groucho's son, Arthur. The bells and whistles are great: An archival NPR story from 1975 celebrating Groucho's 85th birthday, which includes an interview with Groucho's pal Goodman Ace. Dick Cavett's introductory comments at Groucho's Carnegie Hall performance. A 2002 interview with Kitty Carlisle Hart, who was in A Night at the Opera. Kitty Carlisle Hart is still alive, by the way -- she's 93. She mentions in the interview that George Gershwin asked her to marry him. She declined for some reason, and he died soon afterward. She's a walking time capsule.

Tricky Ricky
Ricky Jay is one of the greatest sleight-of-hand artists of all time. But there's more to him than just sleight of hand. He's written books -- one of which started as an article in The New Yorker. He's appeared in most of David Mamet's and Paul Thomas Anderson's movies, as well as in an episode of The X-Files. He has a radio show on KCRW. As if all this weren't enough, he now has a handsome website: www.rickyjay.com

Here's an entertaining interview with Ricky Jay.

First Link Ever!
Here's something to shove in your ear holes: The National Lampoon Radio Hour

First Post Ever!
I have no idea what I'm doing.