Paar Excellence

Jack Paar died earlier this week. Below are Paar's New York Times obituary (in its entirety) and an essay about Paar written by Dick Cavett, which was published in the Times yesterday.

Jack Paar, Unpredictable TV Host Who Kept Americans Up Late, Dies at 85

Published: January 28, 2004

Jack Paar, the prickly, often emotional and always unpredictable humorist who turned late-night television into a national institution when he was host of the "Tonight Show" from 1957 to 1962, died yesterday at his home in Greenwich, Conn., his son-in-law, Stephen Wells, told The Associated Press. He was 85.

"Before Jack Paar, there were various variety shows doing the midnight watch," the critic John J. O'Connor wrote in The New York Times in 1997. "He simplified the format into a talk show, complete with the sofa-and-desk set that remains a fixture. His secret? Interesting guests, far more so than the celebrity hordes working on product plugs today, and an uncanny ability to listen carefully and actually engage in clever and often witty conversation."

In introducing highlights from his programs some years ago, Mr. Paar said, "I hate the word 'talk show.' It makes it seem as if all I did was invent a davenport."

But in truth Mr. Paar's couch became a sounding board for social gossips like Elsa Maxwell and national political figures like Robert F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon and Barry M. Goldwater. It was also a hangout for witty regular guests like the irascibly neurotic Oscar Levant and the equally fine raconteurs Alexander King, Peter Ustinov and Clement Freud.

William Grimes, watching some old Paar shows, observed in The Times that it was "clear that good talk was the foundation of Mr. Paar's success, along with an ability to coax, and sometimes coerce, colorful stories out of guests who, in television's earlier days, did not always seem to know what exactly they were supposed to do."

"Long before David Letterman," Mr. Grimes continued, "Mr. Paar had an anarchic streak that inspired him to pair guests like Liberace and Cassius Clay, or Jayne Mansfield and Zsa Zsa Gabor, or to get in the ring with a professional wrestler or to shuffle the cue cards in the middle of a Robert Goulet-Judy Garland duet."

In time he was joined by a kind of repertory company that included Hugh Downs, his announcer; José Melis, his pianist; Cliff Arquette, who portrayed a down-home character named Charley Weaver; Genevieve, a French chanteuse who mangled the English language; and the comedians Jonathan Winters, Dody Goodman and Peggy Cass.

Mr. Paar's couch in the NBC studios at Rockefeller Center in New York also became a launching pad for dozens of unknowns who would get national exposure on his show, among them Bill Cosby, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Carol Burnett, Woody Allen, the Smothers Brothers and Godfrey Cambridge.

"Everyone thinks Ed Sullivan discovered the Beatles," he once complained. "That's not true. I had them on before he did. I did it because I thought they were funny, not because I liked the music. I'm a Muzak kind of guy — my home's like living in an elevator."

In 1960 he wrote a book with John Reddy, "I Kid You Not," echoing his best known catch phrase.

An avid traveler, Mr. Paar liked to bring the world beyond show biz to his audience. Tom Shales of The Washington Post remembered, "He took his viewers to Africa, to Cuba (immediately after the revolution), to Hawaii shortly after it became a state and to the late and unlamented Berlin Wall. Paar was a true television auteur; his shows were all reflections of his own insatiable curiosity and fascination with the world."

Mr. Paar's show was so successful that no one is really certain why he suddenly left it while it was still being watched by seven million Americans on NBC every night. Mr. Paar said years later, "I've never really had a good answer to that."

But many Americans remember an earlier farewell. Mr. Paar quit his show twice, the first time in 1960, after NBC censored a joke that included the letters W. C., for water closet. Tearful and angry, he looked straight into the camera and said: "I am leaving the `Tonight Show.' There must be a better way of making a living than this." Three weeks later, he was back, proclaiming, "As I was saying before I was interrupted . . . "

There always seemed to be a neurotic edge to Mr. Paar and his pals. Mr. O'Connor once said people watched to see if anyone would have a nervous breakdown on camera. Mr. Downs once explained affectionately, "Jack's not mentally ill; he's a carrier of mental illness." Levant, asked what he did for exercise, mumbled, "I stumble and then I fall into a coma."

"I hate my emotion," Mr. Paar said of all his tearful controversies. "Knock it off, I tell myself, but I just can't help it."

Mr. Paar was preceded on NBC late-night television by Jerry Lester and Steve Allen and succeeded by Johnny Carson, who kept the show for nearly 30 years. ("I should never have given the `Tonight Show' to him," Mr. Paar once cracked. "I should have rented it or married him.")

Jack Harold Paar was born May 1, 1918, in Canton, Ohio, the son of Howard and Lillian Paar. Howard Paar was a division superintendent for the New York Central Railroad.

Mr. Paar did most of his growing up in Jackson, Mich., and later Detroit. When he was 5 years old, an older brother was killed by a car. When he was 10, his best friend died. When he was 14, he had tuberculosis. He grew stronger and worked on a railroad gang to build himself up. He went out for wrestling in high school but quit school when he was 16.

Although he stuttered, he aspired to be a radio personality. He cured himself of the stutter, he said, by putting buttons in his mouth and reading aloud. He enjoyed his solitude, reading biographies of great men. In the late 1930's Mr. Paar had a series of jobs in small radio stations in Youngstown, Ohio; Indianapolis; Pittsburgh; Cleveland; and Buffalo, serving as both a disc jockey and comic. The jobs paid as little as $3 a week.

In 1942 he was drafted into the Army and assigned to Special Services, a noncombat unit that entertained troops overseas.

After the war, determined to become an actor, he somehow induced Howard Hughes to give him a screen test at RKO, and within a few years, started to play minor characters in minor movies, both at RKO and 20th Century Fox. Among his movies were "Walk Softly, Stranger," (1950), "Love Nest" (1951) and "Down Among the Sheltering Palms" (1953).

His first significant early recognition came not in films but in radio, when he was selected as the 1947 summer replacement for Jack Benny, whose Sunday evening radio show was an American institution. He was also a vacation replacement for Don McNeill on "The Breakfast Club," a popular radio show in the 1940's and 50's.

In 1953 he was asked to do a CBS radio show called "Bank on the Stars," and on the basis of his performance was asked to be a vacation replacement for Arthur Godfrey. In 1954 he replaced Walter Cronkite as host of the "CBS Morning Show." Although he received good reviews, he did not attract as many advertisers as the network would have liked, and he left after 11 months.

Quite a number of Mr. Paar's shows failed over the years, so many that John Crosby, the television critic of The New York Herald Tribune, said in the 1950's that he did not know another performer in the business who had so many shows canceled. Asked once about Mr. Paar, Fred Allen said, "Oh, you mean the young man who had the meteoric disappearance."

But eventually his stints as a replacement led to his selection as the host of "Tonight."

Mr. Paar was variously described as sophisticated, manic, weepy, vindictive and clever: a whirlpool of appeal, arrogance and, on occasion, sullenness. An odd mixture of ego and self-denigration pervaded his work. He was thin-skinned, but he also could direct his barbed wit at people he did not like.

And so Mr. Paar had some running feuds with journalists, including Walter Winchell. In one exchange, he referred to Winchell as a "nut" who "wrapped himself in the American flag whenever you criticized him" and "wore the American flag like a bathrobe."

Mr. Paar also sometimes feuded with some of the people who worked for him. In the late 1950's when his NBC show was quite popular, he squabbled with Dody Goodman, his foil, and dismissed her. (Later, they settled their differences on television, with Mr. Paar weeping for joy.) He drew to his show some of the most talented people in television. One of his writers was Dick Cavett, who went on to have his own talk shows; another was Garry Marshall, who later produced and directed films and television programs.

From 1962 to 1965 he was host of a weekly prime-time talk and variety show.

In the late 1960's he bought a television station in Poland Springs, Me., then sold it at a profit of many millions, saying that he wanted to travel in Europe and Asia. By the time he was 50 he was mostly retired and had all the money he wanted. He said he wanted to spend more time with his family and pursue his primary passions, tinkering with electronic gadgets in his basement and fighting crab grass.

He is survived by his wife, Miriam Wagner Paar; a daughter, Randy; and a grandson.

In his later years Mr. Paar returned to television from time to time to do nostalgic specials. Rarer still were appearances before live audiences at occasions like a tribute to his work by the Museum of Television and Radio. ("Most people think I've been in the witness protection program," he joked.)

But during his last appearances he demonstrated that he still had a clever way with a story, a talent he characteristically deprecated with the observation, "I've been doomed all my life to the small chuckle."


Anyone That Funny Is Entitled to Cry

Published: January 29, 2004

"What is Jack Paar really like?" The question was so persistently asked that for a time it became a sort of national catchphrase, and it dogged Jack for years. No one has ever answered it to anyone's satisfaction and I will not (sorry) be the exception.

Jack Paar, who died on Tuesday at 85, was an immense talent. He appeared to be uninfluenced. His delivery of material was like that of no one who came before. He was a genius as a monologuist, and I'm not sure anyone has revealed that he did his monologue without cue cards or prompter. He selected the material he wanted and then wrote it out for himself with a fountain pen, and he had it. This is unheard of.

He had looks and brains and talent, but so do many people. But you never hear anyone say, "He's a Jack Paar type." Mercurial may come closest to describing that unique makeup that was Jack's personality. He was smart, sentimental, witty, irritable, loyal, insecure, infuriating, hilarious, neurotic and totally entertaining.

I once asked the British critic Kenneth Tynan why no matter who was on the screen with him, you watched Jack. He replied, "You can't look away for fear of missing a live nervous breakdown on your home screen."

Jack was repeatedly ridiculed for his crying. He did cry now and then. Although it was plain to me that it was genuine, not everyone enjoyed it. At a party just before Johnny took over the "Tonight" show, I heard someone say, "If Carson is on that show 10 years [!], he will never shed a single tear."

Someone else responded, "For which I will be profoundly grateful to him."

Could Jack ad-lib or was it all written? the unwashed would ask. One night Jack said backstage: "Watch this, kid. When fat Jack Leonard comes out, I'm just going to freeze him out with silence."

Jack did, and after Leonard had exhausted his one-liners to no reply, in panic he seized on a fact.

Leonard: "You know, my wife is an acrobat."

Paar: "She'd have to be."


There were moments with Jack that I have yet to puzzle out. When I was dropping off my material for the "Tonight" show on Jack's desk one day, he looked up and said, "Hey, kid, you haven't given me anything I could use in weeks."

Shattered, I pointed out some of my recent lines that he had used, to no avail.

"Oh, and go a little easy on the fag jokes, O.K.?" he asked.

"I didn't know I had written any fag jokes, Jack."

"Just go easy on 'em, O.K.?"

"Sure," I said, stupefied. I told one of the older writers, and he said: "That's just Jack. He's forgotten it already." That sort of thing took some getting used to. The rewards made it worth it.

He gave me the best advice I ever got. I asked him what the secret was in doing such a show.

"Don't make it an interview, kid," he said. "Make it a conversation. Interviews have clipboards."

Jack envied education. He once asked, "What's the magazine?" I had a copy of, of all things, The Partisan Review under my arm. "Have you finished it?"

"Yes," I said, lying.

"Leave it off."

The next day he told me what he thought of an article on Marilyn Monroe titled "Marilyn and the Law of Negative Compensation," or some such pretentious title. He then analyzed the article so impressively that I had to reread it.

"She was a nice girl" he said. I didn't know then that they were in a film together.

The next thing Jack relieved me of was my copy of The Observer of London. Hearing him say on the air, "I just read in The Observer . . ." made me proud of my, um, student.

The bad part of this schooling envy of Jack's was that he would sometimes abase himself before guests who hadn't a scintilla of his wit or native intelligence.

Every time I thought I now knew Jack, something would prove the contrary.

One memorable night I shared the hotel elevator with a Who's Who of Hollywood. Eager to score points with Jack, then my new boss, I rushed to his door and pounded. The room was dark, and he was half-dressed, had a bottle of wine and was watching the show. And his hairpiece was askew. Oblivious to the degree to which I was not welcome, I blurted: "Judy Garland, Cary Grant, Jack Benny . . . are at a party right upstairs. I knew you'd want to know."

The only part of the ensuing tirade that I recall included the repeated use of an expletive and "Don't tell 'em where I am! I'd rather die!" The door was closed energetically.

I survived.

What have we lost? A giant of the entertainment industry whose foibles and neuroses were probably far more fun for us than they were for him.

I asked Jack once, "What's the formula for how to handle things when you don't like a guest?"

He said: "You think of it as what you would do in real life. Smile, be nice and then suddenly kick 'em under the table."

Dick Cavett was a writer for Jack Paar and later helped to revolutionize the late-night talk show.


On this episode of Fresh Air, TV critic David Bianculli pays tribute to Paar. The segment includes clips from Paar's show.


Picked-Up Pieces
Two years ago, an interview my friend Michelle Orange conducted with her dad was published on McSweeney's. The topic under discussion was a colossal jigsaw puzzle -- depicting the Sistine Chapel's entire ceiling -- that he had recently completed. It had taken two and a half years. The interview was reprinted in Brick magazine.

Now Michelle has produced a radio piece about her father and his puzzling. The piece is funny, poignant, and beautiful. You can listen to it here. The piece is also deeply personal, which made Michelle a smidge uncomfortable. The following is from an essay Michelle wrote about the making of the radio piece.

After three days in Woods Hole we had come up with a framework and had completed enough of the piece that I felt comfortable leaving the rest of the assembly in Jay's hands. A few weeks later I heard a cut, and like I said, it was jarring. I like it, but I'm jarred. On paper, it's much easier to conceive of yourself as a character in your own narrative, and when it's you talking, there's really no trap door to fall through. It may seem dichotomous but I consider myself a very private person, and I felt I was walking a fine line in exploiting my experiences, which I have never felt before. My dad trusted me in agreeing to be recorded ad nauseum and I took that as my cue in dealing with Jay. He was absolutely invaluable in keeping the spirit of this piece in focus, and I trust him implicitly - another bred-in-the-bone capacity of every writer. Not. So it didn't come easily, but it came, and here it is.


A Whiskery History
This week, The Big Jewel features a piece I wrote called "The Natural History of the Mustache."

Feature Story
The following is from here. (Via Czeltic Girl.)

Saturday, January 24, 2004
By Rob Thomas The Capital Times

If Onion entertainment writer Jackie Harvey was delivering the news, he might enthuse: "The Onion blossoms in Tinseltown!"

A feature film written by the writers of the Madison-born satirical weekly newspaper should hit movie screens this summer. Shooting began on the film, tentatively and imaginatively titled "The Onion Movie," in November in Los Angeles and is close to being completed.

Onion Editor-in-chief Carol Kolb said the newspaper staff has confidence that first-time directors Tom Kuntz and Mike Maguire, who have filmed commercials and sketches for MTV, can bring that unique Onion flavor to film.

"We got these directors that we think completely and totally understand what the Onion is all about," Kolb said from the Onion's editorial offices in New York City. "It's kind of a subtle thing, our voice, and we totally trust these guys. A couple of us have gone out there, because they were nice enough to give us little tiny parts. And seeing what they're doing, we can totally see that they get the Onion."

A feature film seems like the next logical step for the Onion, which also runs a popular Internet site and has had several books on the New York Times' best-seller lists. The newspaper had its humble beginnings in Madison in 1988, and is now available on newsstands in Milwaukee, Chicago, Denver and New York City.

The screenplay, which is credited to longtime Onion writer-editors Robert Siegel and Todd Hanson, is entirely original material, with a couple of references that longtime Onion fans will recognize.

"We tried to be topical, as much as we could," Kolb says. "It was two years ago when we started thinking of the sketches that we would put in the movie. So it's not extremely topical, but most definitely we did try to comment on the world today."

Much like how every issue of the Onion contains several stories, the film will feature a number of sketches tied together by a news theme. The movie information site Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com) lists "Ivy Leaguer" and "Texas Chainsaw Killer" among the characters in the film.

Kolb said that writing a screenplay wasn't a totally alien experience for writers who have spent years writing fake news stories like "Gen. Tommy Franks to Leave Army to Pursue Solo Bombing Projects" and "Area Man Confounded by Buffet Procedure."

"We'll see how we do," Kolb says. "We won't know that we've succeeded until people like it. Writing the Onion, it's not such a huge leap. OK, it is. But luckily we're sort of used to writing dialogue."


Woody Wordpicker
The following are excerpts from Eric Lax's Woody Allen: A Biography.

[Woody Allen's] first New Yorker piece, published in 1966, was "The Gossage-Vardebedian Papers," a series of increasingly hostile letters between two men playing a game of chess by mail -- although, judging by the positions of the pieces on each man's board, not the same game -- both of whom are convinced that the other is deranged. In the polite way of the magazine, the editors asked if Woody was willing to rewrite the ending. "Willing" understated his readiness. "I would have been willing to turn the ending into an aquafoil," he said a few years afterward, so eager was he to appear in the magazine.


[Woody said:] "I think that had I been better educated, I could write poetry, because a writer of comedy has some of that equipment to begin with. You're dealing with nuance and meter and ear, and one syllable off in something I write in prose ruins the laugh. Sometimes an editor will correct something in a story I've written and I'll say, 'Can't you see that if you add just that one syllable, the whole joke is ruined?'"

A succession of his syllables where no joke is ruined: "It began one day last January when I was standing in McGinnis' Bar on Broadway, engulfing a slab of the world's richest cheesecake and suffering the guilty, cholesterolish hallucination that I could hear my aorta congealing into a hockey puck. Standing next to me was a nerve-shattering blonde, who waxed and waned under a black chemise with enough provocation to induce lycanthropy in a Boy Scout."

Except "like everybody else, I would have liked to have written the Russian novels," Woody has no envy of other writers: "I've never thought of wanting to have written something else." He alternates Benchley and Perelman as his favorite comic writer and enjoys reading others he finds naturally funny: novelist Peter DeVries and essayists Russell Baker, Art Buchwald, and Fran Lebowitz; he is, he says, amazed at how the essayists especially can be so funny so often. Of contemporary writers, however, he puts Saul Bellow "at the very top of achievement in terms of comic writing. In Humboldt's Gift, for instance, the wit is so cascading and so wonderful, it reminds me of the feeling I got when I first saw Mort Sahl: that endless invention of great wit and great comic notions one after the other."


During the last half of the 1960s, Woody turned out dozens of pieces for The New Yorker. On average, each took seven or eight days to write. Often the idea came while he was filming, so he would work three or four weekends on it, usually rising before 8 a.m. (if only from the habit of needing to be up early during shooting). He likes to write and finds the chance to spend a day at home doing it a treat: "It's the most pleasurable part even of a film," he says, adding, "Tennessee Williams said, 'It's a pain in the neck to put plays on. It would be nice to just write them and throw them in a drawer.' That's how I feel."

An idea may take years to mature, however, and it is often the idea rather than the finished piece that is stuck in a drawer. Woody tried ten times over a period of seven years to work out "Fabrizio's Criticism and Response," a restaurant review with angry letters of criticism from readers in the manner of a particularly high-minded academic journal, before one day it fell together for him. Another story idea that took years to jell before it was quickly written is "The Kugelmass Episode."


Woody writes his prose pieces in a tiny and meticulous hand on a legal pad while lying on his bed, the pencil and his nose pressed to the pad as he puts words in, takes words out, and rearranges what he's written with a series of arrows, cross-outs, and margin notes. Once in a while he'll laugh over a line as it comes to him "because it's a surprise to me as it emerges," and think, "Wait until people read this, it's so funny" -- and often that is the line his editors don't think quite comes off and is cut from the piece. Every couple of hours he takes a break to practice on his clarinet or go for a walk and then returns to work.


O Brother, Ware Art!

The forthcoming issue of McSweeney's -- issue No. 13 -- was edited by the amazing Chris Ware, creator of Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. Here's the McSweeney's store's write-up about it:


Issue 13 is a Very Special Issue. We might say that a lot, and we mean it every time, but this time we really really mean it. This issue is all comics. It is edited by Chris Ware (author of Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid on Earth), and features so many artists to know and love: R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Daniel Clowes, Lynda Barry, Los Bros Hernandez, Adrian Tomine, Julie Doucet, and on and on. The issue also includes essays from Michael Chabon, Ira Glass, John Updike, Chip Kidd, and others. Hardcover, clothbound, with an enormous dust jacket that does much more than guard against dust. This one makes our throats go tight.

The below image is from Ware's Acme Novelty Datebook.


Never-Been Don
Don Steinberg wrote one of the funniest New Yorker "Shouts and Murmurs" pieces of 2003 ("Brainteasers: The Aftermath"). This week, The Big Jewel features a hilarious new piece of his called "What Hasn't Happened Yet." You can find more of Steinberg's stuff at his website, Blue Donut.

The Daily Planet
The following is from Daniel J. Boorstin's book The Discoverers: A History of Man's Search to Know His World and Himself.

By the third century the seven-day week had become common in private life throughout the Roman Empire. Each day was dedicated to one of the seven planets. Those seven, according to the current astronomy, included the sun and the moon, but not the earth. The order in which planets governed the days of the week was: sun, moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn. This order was not that of their then supposed distance from the earth, which was the "normal" order in which Dante, for example, later described the zones in the heavens, and in which the names of the planets were recited in the schools down to the time of Copernicus.

Our familiar order of the names for the days of the week came from this order of the planets that the Romans thought "governed" the first hour of each day in turn. The astrologers of the day did make use of the "order" of the planets according to their supposed distance from the earth, to calculate the "influence" of each planet on worldly affairs. They believed that each planet would govern an hour, then in the next hour would give way to the influence of the next planet nearer the earth, and so on through the cycle of all seven planets. After each cycle of seven hours, the planetary influences would begin all over again in the same order. The "governing" planet for each day, then, was the planet that happened to preside over the first hour of that day, and each day of the week thus took its name from the planet that governed its first hour. The result of this way of calculating was to name the days of the week in their now familiar order.

The days of our week remain a living witness to the early powers of astrology. We easily forget that our days of the week really are named after the "planets" as they were known in Rome two thousand years ago. The days of the week in European languages are still designated by the planets' names. The survival is even more obvious in languages other than English. Here, with the dominant planet, are some examples.

[He lists the names of the days of the week in French, Italian, and Spanish, but I'll just show French.]

Sunday (Sun): dimanche
Monday (Moon): lundi
Tuesday (Mars): mardi
Wednesday (Mercury): mercredi
Thursday (Jupiter): jeudi
Friday (Venus): vendredi
Saturday (Saturn): samedi

Line Backer
Terry Teachout recently posted the following comments regarding What's My Line? I, too, enjoy that show. Over the holidays, at my parents' house, I saw an episode on which one of the panelists was a very young Johnny Carson. He was introduced as "John Carson, the host of Who Do You Trust?"

I was watching an old episode of What's My Line?, my all-time favorite game show, earlier this evening. (To read an essay about What's My Line? that I wrote not long after 9/11, go here.) This particular program must have originally aired in 1961 or 1962, because in introducing panelist Bennett Cerf, the president of Random House, Arlene Francis mentioned in passing that two of Cerf's authors, William Faulkner and John O'Hara, had gotten good reviews in that morning’s papers.

This offhand comment took me by surprise. Bear in mind that What's My Line? was no ordinary game show: it was so popular that CBS broadcast it in prime time every Sunday night for a quarter-century. This being the case, does it strike you as at all surprising that the president of a publishing house was sufficiently famous in 1961 to have been a regular panelist on a high-rated network series? Or that Arlene Francis took it for granted that the viewers of What's My Line? might be interested in knowing that two major American novelists had just published new books, much less that they’d been favorably reviewed in the New York papers that day?

I hit the pause button and tried without success to envision some latter-day equivalent of this phenomenon. Can you imagine Paul Shaffer casually mentioning to David Letterman that he'd just been reading about Martin Amis's latest novel on Maud Newton's blog? For that matter, can you imagine Letterman or Leno interviewing any novelist at all? (O.K., maybe Stephen King, but that proves my point.) Or mentioning a piece they'd just read in The New Yorker? Or inviting Donna Murphy on the show to sing a song from Wonderful Town?

I could parse this cultural sea change in a dozen different ways, but it's past my bedtime, so I'll simply settle for reporting it.


McCalling: A Bluff
The following appeared on Suck on November 5, 1998.

Let's face it: Suck has always been the online equivalent of The New Yorker: erudite, self-regarding, compulsively star-humping, appealing to just about anybody except that legendary cadre of little old ladies in Dubuque. Yet somehow, while the besieged behemoth of 43rd Street continues to generate buzz and career-making book deals, we remain typecast as the Tim Kazurinskys of the Web, preening to be noticed by a publishing elite that considers us about as noteworthy as Zwieback. If Tuesday's Suck daily had some of the delightfully droll qualities of a Shouts and Murmurs piece from The New Yorker, that's because it spent a few days in the legendary magazine's editorial loop before we hijacked it for our own modest purposes. The deep-cover Suckster who penned the piece has produced volumes of Tilly-worthy prose over the years but had never collected anything from The New Yorker except Xerox-generated rejection letters. That is until last week, when our anonymous scribe crashed the glass ceiling by submitting an article under the alias of one of the magazine's superstar writers. Sure enough, we can now close the book on everyone's worst suspicion about the New York publishing scene: It's the byline, stupid. When the piece was sent to The New Yorker's clunky new email system under the alias bruce_mccall@cheerful.com, it received not the usual terse and tardy thanks-but-no-thanks but a speedy, gushing acceptance from Shouts and Murmurs editor Susan Morrison. (An invitation to lunch with Steve Martin only served to gild the lily.) We were tempted to shepherd this prank through to publication, if only to observe whether the real Bruce McCall would notice the unfamiliar article or merely accept the extra paycheck as a bonus for years of yeoman service. But with the hoax complete, and The New Yorker's legal department on alert, the writer cut bait and made for a safe harbor. After all, such hi-jinks deserve neither to go unpublished nor unpunished. Of course, we're happy to have such stellar writing in our own pages, but we can't help feeling a little depressed at the degree to which a famous byline rates higher than the spew of words attached to it. It's just not fair that dustpans like Jon Stewart dine out at Cafe des Artistes on Si's dime, while Suck's eager-but-obscure commentary brigade appears doomed to a life of covering school board meetings for the local Green Leaf. But if stealing the identities of famous writers hasn't helped us sneak into The New Yorker's Augean stable of literary stallions, we remain hopeful that it might add some brio to our own humble rag.

Monkey See, Monkey Laugh
John Moe has a great blog called Monkey Disaster. Moe is the author of some of the best McSweeney's Lists ever written, including "Terrible Names for Hair Salons" and "Possible Follow-up Songs for One-Hit Wonders."


Are You Crazy?
Mad magazine is looking for a senior editor. They've posted the following notice on Monster.com. (Via Boing Boing.)

Posting Job Title: Senior Editor

Posting Job Description: MAD Magazine seeks a Senior Editor for the Editorial department. Position identifies, solicits, and, develops freelance comedy writers. This includes but is not limited to attending events and reviewing newspapers, magazines, internet and other media outlets to recruit, train and develop potential comedy writers. Attends creative sessions and contributes story ideas. Edits and rewrites articles as needed. Performs other duties as assigned by Editor. Performs other related duties and responsibilities as required.

BA/BS degree in related field required or equivalent related work experience. Must have excellent humor writing skills. Must have superior contacts and ability to attract other comedy writers. Proven ability to maintain relationships with freelancers required. Must have high energy and an ability to work under tight deadlines. Copyediting and rewriting skills required. Familiarity with MAD Magazine strongly preferred. Must be able to communicate effectively and tactfully with individuals at all levels, both on the telephone, in writing and in person. PC and Microsoft Word proficiency required. Requires an individual who is team-oriented. Ability to prioritize and maintain several projects at once required. Must have ability to travel locally on occasion. Experienced comedy writer required. Must be able to provide writing samples. Minimum 3-5 years related experience. Prior copyediting and proofreading experience required.

Eight Days a Week
The following is from Daniel J. Boorstin's book The Discoverers: A History of Man's Search to Know His World and Himself.

Our own Western 7-day week, one of the most arbitrary of our institutions, came into being from popular and spontaneous agreement, not from a law or the order of any government. How did it happen? Why? When?

Why a seven-day week?

The ancient Greeks, it seems, had no week. Romans lived by an 8-day week. Farmers who worked in the fields for 7 days came to town for the eighth day -- the market day (or nundinae). This was a day of rest and festivity, a school holiday, the occasion for public announcements and for entertaining friends. When and why the Romans fixed on 8 days and why they eventually changed to a 7-day week is not clear. The number seven almost everywhere has had a special charm. The Japanese found seven gods of happiness, Rome was set on seven hills, the ancients counted seven deadly sins. The Roman change from eight to seven seems not to have been accomplished by any official act. By the early third century A.D. Romans were living with a 7-day week.


Rag against the Machine
The following are excerpts from "Morning in America: The Rise and Fall of the National Lampoon" by Tony Hendra, who was an editor at the magazine in its heyday.

In the fall of 1971, on one of those washed-clean, windswept, dazzlingly sharp mornings--peculiar to Manhattan and perhaps to America--when the light makes everything glitter with the promise of something utterly new in the course of human events, I was asked by Henry Beard, cofounder and editor of the National Lampoon, to become its first managing editor. In keeping with the egalitarian temper of the times, Henry was not "editor in chief" but simply "editor," and "managing" would soon be dropped from my title, putting us theoretically on the same footing. In keeping with another prevailing notion--that money and in particular capital would soon be obsolete--I was to be paid the handsome sum of $18,000 a year--not much more than I'd earned previously for writing one TV special. The magazine was a year old, with a circulation of 200,000. I accepted the job on the spot.


Joining the Lampoon was my third professional suicide attempt. The first had been to abandon my comedy act in 1969 despite having made a very comfortable living sucking chuckles from the sort of Americans whom Abbie Hoffman was then calling "Pig Nation." That career had ended abruptly during my fifth Ed Sullivan Show appearance, not long after the Tet Offensive. Ed, like most of his showbiz peers, was a passionate hawk on the need to spend young lives in a goose-bumpy rerun of his generation's finest hour. He'd placed a group of recently returned Vietnam vets in the front rows of the audience. All had lost one or more limbs in combat. During the dress rehearsal Ed directed lights and cameras to them and whipped the studio audience into a jingoistic frenzy. When he really had the crowd frothing, he turned to the vets, pumping his crablike arms, and quacked: "Stand up, boys--TAKE A BOW!" The poor guys tried obediently to get up from their wheelchairs. Several listed badly or crumpled to the floor. The APPLAUSE sign flashed. The place went crazy. Then and there, I came to the dramatic, income-shrinking realization that you couldn't collaborate with a system that threw up stuff like this. To do so, in George Carlin's words, was to be a traitor to your generation.


I'd been writing for the Lampoon since its first issues and knew the core group slightly. These were people who had their chops down. They were sharp, sure, and took no prisoners, revving at breathtaking speed, the Formula One of funny.

Nothing I'd done comedically was currency here, which was fine by me; what was startling was the heady lack of respect for the Movement, whose glib worldview "if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem"--had always seemed to me problematic. Habituated to the sanctimonious solons of San Francisco and lugubrious lefties of L.A., for whom the Hollywood Ten were still a hot-button issue, I found this environment hilarious and liberating: an abattoir where the new breed of sacred cows could be eviscerated along with the old. At last, there was no line drawn beyond which things were "just not funny, Tony." Indeed, the Lampoon's humor worked largely because it was about things we weren't supposed to laugh at. Radical, yes, but the radicalism of the White House--or the White Panthers--demanded it.

Henry Beard, a world-class mental athlete, was the head of this operation in every sense and its last court of appeal, though authority sat on him awkwardly. Except when in his cups, he was agonizingly diffident, his most likely response to any editorial suggestion being a sinus--clearing snort and the single word "Tempting," which could mean anything from "Christ in Heaven, that blows chunks" to "I'm about to have a prolonged intellectual orgasm."


Henry's cofounder and co-comic genius, Doug Kenney, could hardly have been more different. With Joe College good looks and shoulder-blade-length blond hair, he would've been the natural leader of this group, except that this group, including him, wanted all natural leaders dead. And he was a terrible editor, given to remarks like: "This sucks but I don't know why." In the first moments after I met Kenney he informed me that all British humor was totally unfunny. Moments later he was improvising flawlessly in the manner of Thackeray--and I mean Thackeray, not Trollope or Mrs. Gaskell or Dickens--and moments after that, he was demonstrating that he could put his entire fist into his own mouth.


Presiding over all this was Matty Simmons, whose grandiosely named company, 21st Century Communications, had backed a Harvard parody when Doug and Henry were there and backed, subsequently, the Lampoon. The magazine could hardly have had a less likely steward. As someone later put it, Matty most resembled "a stripper's agent." Once during the run of the Lampoon's off-Broadway hit, Lemmings, he was asked by its three male stars, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, and Christopher Guest, for a modest raise. According to Guest, he refused, telling three of the more intriguing comedic talents of the late twentieth century, "You guys are a dime a dozen."

And then there was Michael O'Donoghue. Stringy chestnut ringlets surrounded a fierce white face with bloodred lips, death cell of countless Virginia Slims. He wrote with incredible precision, each perfect word set in its perfect place like a razor blade concealed in a mouthwatering amuse-gueule. He had a unique gift for drawing humor from things that normally make people recoil, without ever cheapening them. He was the funniest of the group; laughter followed him everywhere. But yucks didn't do it for O'Donoghue; making people laugh, he said, "is the lowest form of humor."


Click here to go to the article.

You can learn more about Michael O'Donoghue, and Dennis Perrin's biography of him, here.

Here's Hendra's introduction to his book on the humor of the baby-boom generation, Going Too Far.

An excerpt:

From a historical point of view, Boomer humor dealt for the first time with subjects that had been completely off-limits in popular comedy. Furthermore, it dealt with them aggressively, challenging rather than confirming attitudes and assumptions. Thus, for example, where the previous generation had made jokes at the expense of blacks, now it was White prejudice that became the butt (in every sense of the word). The cozy ethnicity of the great radio comedians, important in its own way and in its own day, was replaced by self-questioning about the same ethnicity and its social and religious roots. The "traditional" values that family comedy had always affirmed became themselves the object of satire. Stereotypes were no longer familiar cartoons but disturbing caricatures. Titillation was not the object of this comedy - but rather the sexual attitudes that made titillation necessary.

Needless to say, those in society who had appointed themselves to oversee such subjects did not take kindly to this intrusion of their airspace. A category of performers whose social status had up to this point been roughly equivalent to that of professional masseurs had suddenly abandoned their traditional function of kneading the public into a pleasant torpor. Instead, they were doing quite the opposite - disturbing people, making them sit up abruptly when they should be lying down, and what's more doing it in ways that were at least as interesting as those of the self-appointees, and far more fun. These people were pirating their public, trespassing on their territory; these people were Going Too Far.

Tommy Smothers was once told during the period immediately following the cancellation of the highly successful and controversial "Smothers Brothers Hour" that he was "incompetent to make social comment." The person who made the remark was the owner of a television station in the Midwest. Regardless of the merits of the Smothers' opinions, which in this context had mostly to do with the war in Vietnam, what this arrogant nobody was saying was that merely by the expense of capital he had become competent to judge a matter of life and death to the public, but Smothers, who had proved on innumerable occasions that the public was only too delighted to hear what he had to say, was not. Clowns do not comment on wars; clowns make you laugh. Clowns who did comment on wars were stepping out of their floppy shoes and baggy pants, were becoming indistinguishable from station owners, were Going Too Far.

What's important to stress here is that the comments in question were not preachments stuck inappropriately in the middle of a routine. On the contrary, one of the continuing elements in the Smothers' television success was the ability to deal hilariously with public affairs, in particular President Johnson's conduct of the war. In these terms, Smothers proved his competence every time he got a laugh. No other performer except the politician is as sensitive to public reaction as the satirist. He needs no poll to tell him whether he has correctly expressed what his audience thinks and feels about a given issue. If he chooses to comment on such an issue, then he had better get it right, for he is solely responsible for its content, and there is no rejection as devastating as dead silence.

Boomer humor has had to contend throughout its history with station owners, night club owners, theater owners, record company owners, publishing house owners, and studio owners and the owners of those owners. In many ways, the history of Boomer humor has been simply one of struggling to be heard. And once heard, to be accorded the respect that any art should enjoy.

However difficult and dangerous it is to create and perform comedy, and however rare real comedic talent may be, people always seem to have trouble thinking of comedy as an art. It's as if the ironic trivialization that lies at its core is in some way infectious or must be turned back by the audience on its creators. The distinction made by old-time vaudeville bookers between the "comedian" and the "artists" (meaning every other kind of performer) persists, no matter how profound the scope of his piece, or how brilliant its execution, or how far removed it is from two guys hitting each other with umbrellas. It's impossible not to notice how often Boomer humor, usually when it's at its most daring and innovative, has had to contend with such judgements as "childish," "immature," "adolescent," and above all, "sophomoric" (a word Michael O'Donoghue, one of its more daring and innovative practitioners, once defined as "liberal for 'funny'").

A Fine Line
In this audio slide show, New Yorker cartoon editor Robert Mankoff discusses the recent cartoon-caption contest and reveals the winner.

Clone Wolf

The following is from "Raising the Dead" by Scott Weidensaul, which was originally published in the May 2002 issue of Audubon magazine. It was republished in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2003.

The small animal is wrinkled and gray, its forelegs curled against its chest in an unintentionally protective position and a long, open incision running the length of its stomach. Stored in a clear jar of alcohol, it hardly looks like the stuff of high-tech science and acrimonious debate. This young thylacine, the marsupial "tiger" of Tasmania, was taken from its mother's pouch in 1866--at first a curiosity from a weird and newly settled land, and later a pitiable relic of a species recklessly driven to extinction.

But now, 136 years after its death and 66 years after its species was declared extinct, the preserved baby sits at the junction of molecular biology, conservation ethics, and endangered-species politics--and also at the locus of humanity's guilt and hopes in dealing with the natural world. That's a lot to pin to a dead creature you could easily cup in two hands, but ever since 1999, when the Australian Museum in Sydney announced its intention to clone a living thylacine from this pickled specimen, the reaction, both pro and con, has been surprisingly fierce. Critics have lambasted it as science fiction that will drain money from more important work; proponents see it as a way to mitigate a grievous wrong committed against the planet, while burnishing Australia's languishing scientific reputation.

The man at the center of the storm is Don Colgan, a soft-spoken evolutionary biologist who heads the museum's cloning team. He admits the odds of ever producing a live thylacine are long, but his group has already managed to extract unusually good-quality DNA from the preserved baby. Several other cloning projects around the world have focused on long-extinct species, but only the thylacine team has posted any significant success to date (see "Born Again?"). If Colgan succeeds where so many have predicted failure, he will not only have beaten his own odds but restored--at least in facsimile--one of the natural world's most unusual masterpieces.

To understand why the museum's project has attracted such attention, it's important to understand the significance of the thylacine from both a biological and a cultural perspective. Australia's unique, marsupial-dominated fauna has long been a textbook example of convergent evolution, and in this the thylacine is Exhibit A. Though more closely related to kangaroos and opossums, it was molded by the demands of its predatory lifestyle into a close analog of the wolf--a lean hunter with a short brownish coat, a stiff tail, and more than a dozen dark stripes along its back and hindquarters. At roughly 65 pounds, the thylacine was the largest of the carnivorous marsupials and an accomplished hunter of wallabies and other grazing species in the coastal scrublands, eucalyptus forests, and alpine meadows of Tasmania--"Tassie" to most Australians.

English settlers in the early 19th century--the first Europeans to have any close dealings with the thylacine--variously dubbed it the marsupial wolf, a native cat, or even a hyena. But the name that stuck was Tasmanian tiger, even though there was nothing remotely feline about the animal. (The name thylacine, coined by scientists, comes from the Greek words for "pouched dog.") Regardless of what they called it, sheep farmers accused the thylacine of attacking their flocks, and after a century of trapping, shooting, and poisoning, the last known thylacine died in a zoo in 1936--ironically, less than two months after the Tasmanian government extended legal protection to the species.

But Tassie has been reluctant to let go of its tiger. The beast has become an icon--stylized on automobile license plates, gracing the label of the state's best-selling beer, adopted as the symbol of everything from a regional television network to local sports teams. Of the animal itself, though, there is nothing but specimens locked up in museum cases or gathering dust on shelves. Most consist of stuffed skins or skeletal material, but a fair number are pouch babies, the nearly hairless neonates too young to be out on their own. The usual method for preserving such soft-tissue specimens is to submerge them in formaldehyde, but the Australian Museum's now-famous baby is embalmed in alcohol. That makes all the difference, Don Colgan explained, as he guided me through the warren of narrow corridors and cluttered labs in the museum's research wing.

Formaldehyde is hard on DNA's double helix of amino acids, Colgan said, but alcohol is much gentler--meaning that it has been possible to extract relatively high-quality DNA from several tiny samples of the thylacine's heart, liver, and muscle. Colgan pulled a large X ray from a file and held it up to the light, showing me five lines a couple of inches long and heavily crossbarred with light and dark bands--the DNA, treated with radioactive nucleotides and photographed. With his index finger, he indicated one of the blurry streaks.

"The DNA represented on this line would be about 40 copies of every gene in the thylacine genome," Colgan said. "That doesn't sound a lot, but it was extracted from probably a match-head-size piece of tissue." Scientists measure DNA fragments by the number of base pairs they contain--the rungs that form the twisted ladder of a DNA molecule. This thylacine's DNA contains 1,200 to 2,000 base pairs per section--badly fragmented when compared with samples from living organisms but 10 times better than is normal with ancient DNA.

Given the surprisingly good results, the museum's team is preparing to create a bacterial genomic library by inserting the thylacine genes into bacteria, which will allow the scientists to grow as much of the genetic material as they need. Beyond that, they hope to have the Tasmanian tiger genes sequenced--their genomic code "read" in its proper order. "It's like putting a jigsaw puzzle together; if you have large pieces covering the same area as a number of very small pieces, obviously it's a lot easier with the large pieces," Colgan said.

In the near term, genomic sequencing promises several scientific payoffs, he said, including genetic comparisons with other marsupials. But it is the prospect of cloning--creating a living, breathing thylacine--that raises the greatest expectations and presents the most serious challenges. In normal cloning, the nucleus of a host egg cell is removed and another living cell, containing the DNA blueprint for the organism being cloned, is inserted. (Because each clone is an exact genetic copy of the parent specimen, one must have multiple specimens of both sexes and a variety of family lineages to create a reproducing population. Colgan noted that there are hundreds of thylacine specimens in the world's museums, many of which may provide equally usable DNA.)

The trouble is that with ancient DNA, there is no living cell nucleus to serve as a starting point, so unless someone invents a way to tease a dead cell back to life, Colgan and his team must use what he calls "the brute force approach." This entails reading what they can of the thylacine genome and filling in any gaps with DNA from other marsupials, then creating artificial chromosomes, packaging them in artificial membranes, and inserting them into an egg from a closely related species. The Tasmanian devil and the numbat, the latter a small termite-hunter, are prime candidates for supplying both missing DNA and a host egg.


Click here to continue reading the article.

Learn more about the thylacine here.

P.G. Keen

The following was originally published on May 27, 1999, in the Telegraph. I found it here.

Wodehouse Saved My Life

by Hugh Laurie

To be able to write about P.G. Wodehouse is the sort of honour that comes rarely in any man's life, let alone mine. This is rarity of a rare order. Halley's comet seems like a blasted nuisance in comparison.

If you'd knocked on my head 20 years ago and told me that a time would come when I, Hugh Laurie - scraper-through of O-levels, mover of lips (own) while reading, loafer, scrounger, pettifogger and general berk of this parish - would be able to carve my initials in the broad bark of the Master's oak, I'm pretty certain that I would have said "garn", or something like it.

I was, in truth, a horrible child. Not much given to things of a bookery nature, I spent a large part of my youth smoking Number Six and cheating in French vocabulary tests. I wore platform boots with a brass skull and crossbones over the ankle, my hair was disgraceful, and I somehow contrived to pull off the gruesome trick of being both fat and thin at the same time. If you had passed me in the street during those pimply years, I am confident that you would, at the very least, have quickened your pace.

You think I exaggerate? I do not. Glancing over my school reports from the year 1972, I observe that the words "ghastly" and "desperate" feature strongly, while "no", "not", "never" and "again" also crop up more often than one would expect in a random sample. My history teacher's report actually took the form of a postcard from Vancouver.

But this, you will be nauseated to learn, is a tale of redemption. In about my 13th year, it so happened that a copy of Galahad at Blandings by P.G. Wodehouse entered my squalid universe, and things quickly began to change. From the very first sentence of my very first Wodehouse story, life appeared to grow somehow larger. There had always been height, depth, width and time, and in these prosaic dimensions I had hitherto snarled, cursed, and not washed my hair. But now, suddenly, there was Wodehouse, and the discovery seemed to make me gentler every day. By the middle of the fifth chapter I was able to use a knife and fork, and I like to think that I have made reasonable strides since.

I spent the following couple of years meandering happily back and forth through Blandings Castle and its environs - learning how often the trains ran, at what times the post was collected, how one could tell if the Empress was off-colour, why the Emsworth Arms was preferable to the Blue Boar - until the time came for me to roll up the map of adolescence and set forth into my first Jeeves novel. It was The Code of the Woosters, and things, as they used to say, would never be the same again.

The facts in this case, ladies and gentlemen, are simple. The first thing you should know, and probably the last, too, is that P.G. Wodehouse is still the funniest writer ever to have put words on paper. Fact number two: with the Jeeves stories, Wodehouse created the best of the best. I speak as one whose first love was Blandings, and who later took immense pleasure from Psmith, but Jeeves is the jewel, and anyone who tries to tell you different can be shown the door, the mini-cab, the train station, and Terminal 4 at Heathrow with a clear conscience. The world of Jeeves is complete and integral, every bit as structured, layered, ordered, complex and self-contained as King Lear, and considerably funnier.

Now let the pages of the calendar tumble as autumn leaves, until 10 years are understood to have passed. A man came to us - to me and to my comedy partner, Stephen Fry - with a proposition. He asked me if I would like to play Bertram W. Wooster in 23 hours of televised drama, opposite the internationally tall Fry in the role of Jeeves.

"Fiddle," one of us said. I forget which.

"Sticks," said the other. "Wodehouse on television? It's lunacy. A disaster in kit form. Get a grip, man."

The man, a television producer, pressed home his argument with skill and determination.

"All right," he said, shrugging on his coat. "I'll ask someone else."

"Whoa, hold up," said one of us, shooting a startled look at the other.

"Steady," said the other, returning the S.L. with top-spin.

There was a pause.

"You'll never get a cab in this weather," we said, in unison.

And so it was that, a few months later, I found myself slipping into a double-breasted suit in a Prince of Wales check while my colleague made himself at home inside an enormous bowler hat, and the two of us embarked on our separate disciplines. Him for the noiseless opening of decanters, me for the twirling of the whangee.

So the great P.G. was making his presence felt in my life once more. And I soon learnt that I still had much to learn. How to smoke plain cigarettes, how to drive a 1927 Aston Martin, how to mix a Martini with five parts water and one part water (for filming purposes only), how to attach a pair of spats in less than a day and a half, and so on.

But the thing that really worried us, that had us saying "crikey" for weeks on end, was this business of The Words. Let me give you an example. Bertie is leaving in a huff: " 'Tinkerty tonk,' I said, and I meant it to sting." I ask you: how is one to do justice of even the roughest sort to a line like that? How can any human actor, with his clumsily attached ears, and his irritating voice, and his completely misguided hair, hope to deliver a line as pure as that? It cannot be done. You begin with a diamond on the page, and you end up with a blob of Pritt, The Non-Sticky Sticky Stuff, on the screen.

Wodehouse on the page can be taken in the reader's own time; on the screen, the beautiful sentence often seems to whip by, like an attractive member of the opposite sex glimpsed from the back of a cab. You, as the viewer, try desperately to fix the image in your mind - but it is too late, because suddenly you're into a commercial break and someone is telling you how your home may be at risk if you eat the wrong breakfast cereal.

Naturally, one hopes there were compensations in watching Wodehouse on the screen - pleasant scenery, amusing clothes, a particular actor's eyebrows - but it can never replicate the experience of reading him. If I may go slightly culinary for a moment: a dish of foie gras nestling on a bed of truffles, with a side-order of lobster and caviar may provide you with a wonderful sensation; but no matter how wonderful, you simply don't want to be spoon-fed the stuff by a perfect stranger. You need to hold the spoon, and decide for yourself when to wolf and when to nibble.

And so I am back to reading, rather than playing Jeeves. And my Wodehousian redemption is, I hope, complete. Indeed, there is nothing left for me to say, except to wish, as I fold away my penknife and gaze up at the huge oak towering overhead, that my history teacher could see me now.

Auction Comedy
The following is from this "Talk of the Town" story by Tad Friend, which was published in the December 15, 2003, issue of The New Yorker.

For four years, the comedy team of Steve Brykman, Joe Oesterle, Sean Crespo, and Mason Brown—the Los Angeles-based staff of the National Lampoon Web site—were riding high. Their 2002 Hollywood Reporter spoof was one of the finest Hollywood-trade-publication parodies ever published, and an album they released this year, "Rules of the Road," was as devastating a satire of trucking songs as you're likely to find. Then, in September, without warning, they were laid off. To save money, the Lampoon site's owners were going to rely on freelancers.

After a month of reflection, the team decided to bestow their talents upon a more appreciative audience: eBay. Surely there were legions of people out there who needed help with a witty script, speech, or commercial, people who may not even have known exactly what they were looking for but who would catch auction fever once they happened on eBay Item No. 2966033287: "Former National Lampoon Creative Staff for Sale." The listing was designed to appeal to every market segment: Item A, Mason Brown, "The Aristocrat," embodied "a cautionary tale of dissipation and familial decay befitting Gibbon." Item B, Steve Brykman, "The Jew," was guaranteed to be "still in VG+ condition in original skin." Item C, Sean Crespo, had manifold strengths, including "Abstract/Conceptual humor, Spelling, Hubris," while Item D, Joe Oesterle, "The Confirmed Bachelor," had repeatedly proven himself, "changing the big Sparkletts water bottle when it got empty." As a bidding guideline, the team noted that its usual rates were "$14,000/week or $50,000/month or $250,000/six months or $400,000 per year."

Click here to read the rest.

The following is an excerpt from Michael Shermer's book How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science. Shermer writes the "Skeptic" column for Scientific American.

Werewolves figure prominently in mythology. The peak of prosecutions for lycanthropy -- the "condition" of a human taking on wolflike characteristics -- was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in France. The most famous case was that of Jean Grenier who, in 1603, boasted to three girls that he was a werewolf, telling them that a man "gave me a wolfskin cape; he wraps it around me, and every Monday, Friday, and Sunday, and for about an hour at dusk every other day, I am a wolf, a werewolf. I have killed dogs and drunk their blood; but little girls taste better, and their flesh is tender and sweet, their blood rich and warm." Looking at this tale with the distance of almost 400 years, it is likely nothing more than male boasting and posturing; but since several children had been murdered at the time Grenier was fingered and convicted. Why a wolf? The earliest myths are associated with a ceremony of a man putting on a wolf's skin for protection from the cold, or to act as concealment when hunting for food. This mutated into the theme that the wearing of the skin passed on to the man great magical powers of strength, speed, and stealth, not just for hunting, but for exacting vengeance or gaining power over others. From here it was but a small step to changing the man into a wolf through the common mythic motif of shapeshifting, where creatures or objects can change into other creatures or objects, either at will or under special conditions. An evolutionary argument could also be made that, as pack hunters, wolves were a principal competitor to early humans in northern latitudes. Dogs, as loyal friends and noncompetitors to humans, do not generate such myths as wolves. (It also should be noted that werewolves did not have a monopoly on the genre. There were werebears, weretigers, werehyenas, werecrocodiles, and werejackals. Vampires were a type of werebat. Shapeshifting is found in countless myths, including the Burma-Assam tiger men who can share a tiger's body, or the leopard men of certain regions of Africa.)


Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Time
The following is from Daniel J. Boorstin's fascinating book The Discoverers: A History of Man's Search to Know His World and Himself.

There seems no end to the desperate ingenuity spent on ways to count the passing hours of the night before inexpensive artificial illumination became universal. After the invention of the mechanical clock the striking hour was the obvious way of conquering darkness. A clever French inventor in the late seventeenth century, M. de Villayer, tried using the sense of taste. He designed a clock so arranged that when he reached for the hour hand at night, it guided him to a small container with a spice inserted in place of numbers, a different spice for each hour of the night. Even when he could not see the clock, he could always taste the time.

French Tickler
In this piece, Dan French explains what it's like to write for The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn, and provides tips on landing a network-television comedy-writing gig. (Thanks to Chumworth for the link.)

An excerpt:

I have an office (my own office, as compared to a cubicle in a trailer at FOX) at CBS studios, Television City, at the corner of Fairfax and Beverly. This is the studio most famous for The Price is Right, whose customers line up every day to pour in and see whether Bob Barker will keel over before they get their washer and dryer set.

I roll in every morning at 9 a.m. (about a 40-minute commute), roll out when we start taping at 6 p.m. (home by 6:45, not too bad).

My day has specific rhythms. From 9:00-10:00 all the writers meet in the conference room to drink coffee and eat free bagels and insult each other. A feature producer has laid off possible news stories into bite-sized stories from the overnight CBS news feeds, and we choose three of them that will be the foundation of our "In the News Segment." But mostly, it's about the coffee and bagels and insulting.

The Late, Late Show has four comedy segments: opening monologue (four or five jokes), desk piece (six or eight minutes of some kind of comedy feature, such as "What Up?" or some skit/sketch between the head writer, Mike Gibbons, and Craig), In the News (fifteen jokes), and Kilborn's signature 5 Questions.

So that's 25 jokes, and maybe another 25 in the desk piece, every night. Fifty jokes from eight writers. For which we write, I'd estimate, probably 300-500 jokes between us. I guess. Maybe. I don't really keep count.

Most of the writers write stuff for all four segments. One guy is straight monologue. I'm a write-it-all guy.

From 10-11:30 we write news parody jokes, which are gathered from all the writers by a writer's assistant, and taken to the guy who goes through the pile and chooses the ones he likes for a first draft collection. 11:30-1:00 is lunch-ish, or you can start on a Desk Piece if the topic has been decided. I usually use that time to get organized for monologue jokes and 5 questions. At 1:00 we meet and choose the jokes that will go into the actual news (basically by whatever jokes from the first draft get any sort of laugh, response, endorsement, cough, etc., in the room). 1:30 to 4:30 is filled with monologue, 5 questions, desk piece, and playing basketball outside on the roof of CBS or wandering into another writer's office to ask "What are you doing?"

At 4:30 we have rehearsal with Craig. He runs through the jokes, throws out the ones he dislikes (usually just a few), or rewrites things on the fly. It's a fast process, but he's usually good at knowing what works for him and what doesn't, so it has its own efficiency.

At 5:00 we head to the green room to grab free food and beer (yeah, free food and beer-it's like a really good road gig before the comics screw it up). If there are last minute changes we go back and write them, or throw in some more 5 questions.

Taping starts around 6:15, and sometimes I stay, sometimes I don't. Some of the writers are on-air a lot, so they stay the whole time, but once the script is set, there's not much to do, so it's onto the roads and back to the family awaiting in Glendale.


French has his own website -- FunnyPlanet.com -- where you can eyeball lots of funny stuff he's written.

For example:

Top Animal Moments They Don't Show on Nature Programs

The crying crocodile pleading, "Please, I don't care about your ratings, I can't kill again!"

The crew picking the remains of an endangered falcon out of the grill of the truck.

The mother wildebeest throwing its young to the hyenas so it can get away.

The big lesbian scene when Simba is away from the pride.

An ostrich trying to stick its head in the sand instead goes up a gopher's butt.

The host throwing his own crap at a tied-up monkey.

A sloth galloping along suddenly stops and barely moves when it sees the camera.

The sedative dart from a rifle hits a rhino in the left nut.

A cheetah slamming into a parked safari car.

A snake unhinging its jaws to pleasure an elephant.

A father antelope weighing into a pack of leopards with a flamethrower.

A bear taking a squat on the new intern.

Live Schmive
Here's a gargantuan excerpt from Live From New York: An Oral History of Saturday Night Live by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller. I think it's the entire first chapter.

An excerpt from the excerpt:


I always said one thing to these guys - and they didn't take my advice, and in this case I'm sure it's good they didn't—but I said, "This 'live' stuff, it's absolutely meaningless to me. I grew up on the West Coast. I didn't see anything live. It was always tape-delayed. If Ed Sullivan takes his pants down, I'm not going to see him." To me Johnny Carson was as live as you want to get. If you were bad, you were bad; nobody did it over again. But you did it earlier. You didn't have to stay up until eleven-thirty. So what happens when you stay up until eleven-thirty? Guys like Belushi do nine gallons of coke to make it up that late. I know from being a stand-up, the late show, the midnight show, was the one I hated the most. So my suggestion was, tape a show without stopping tape, do one at four, do one at six-thirty, put the best of those two together, and show me that at eleven-thirty. I'm in California; nothing's live.


Office Space
From BBCi Film's High Noon (via Maud Newton):

Galaxy Quest For Nighy And Freeman

Love Actually star Bill Nighy and Martin Freeman (Tim from The Office) are set to topline sci-fi comedy The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy.

Talking exclusively to BBCi FILMS, Nighy says he's been cast as alien planet designer Slartibartfast in the long-gestating adaptation of Douglas Adams' novel. Freeman will play Arthur Dent, the everyday Earthling thrust into an interplanetary adventure.

"I'm a big fan of the book and the people who are making it are very cool people and I think they're going to do a good job," says Nighy. "It's a really good script. It's really, really faithful [to the book]. All the jokes are there and they're big fat jokes. It's wonderful. And with all the technology we have now, it can not only be a big satisfying comedy but I figure it could be quite exciting as well."

Nighy also states that a director isn't set yet, although hotshot music vid team Hammer & Tongs (aka writer-director Garth Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith) were on board last High Noon heard. Fingers crossed, it sounds like this could finally liftoff.

Conan's Dad

Here's Dave's 1984 Playboy interview.


PLAYBOY: The first Late Night, with Bill Murray as your guest, established an anything-can-happen-here attitude that you have hung on to. Was that the attitude you wanted to establish or did it just happen?

LETTERMAN: I want viewers to feel that anything can happen on our show. When there's real jeopardy, that's when the fun begins. But that first show might have been just a touch too unstructured.

PLAYBOY: Because of Murray?

LETTERMAN: Yeah. [Laughs, tries to answer but laughs again] When we asked Bill to be on our first show, he said he'd like to do something different: Could he come up to the office and talk with the writers and see what they could come up with together? I said, "Great." So he arrived one afternoon when Merrill and I were out shooting a remote and brought six half-gallon bottles of whatever tequila was on sale, and he and the entire staff proceeded to get shit-faced all afternoon. When I got back, the place was a shambles; everyone was dangerously drunk; all the lamps were hidden, because Bill had convinced them that the fluorescent lights were draining their vitamin E; nothing had been written; and the only explanation I could get out of anyone was "Bill was here." And when we did go on the air, Bill didn't want to do any of the things we had finally gotten around to preparing. Instead, he had a sudden urge to sing Let's Get Physical and do aerobics. So he did. And it was very funny.


PLAYBOY: Do you have an all-time favorite stupid pet trick?

LETTERMAN: That would have to be the guy who trained his dog to go to the 7-Eleven store with a ten-dollar bill in a rubber band around its paw. The dog would pull a six-pack out of the freezer and put it on the counter. The cashier would take the money, put the beer and the change in a bag, and the dog would carry the bag home in its mouth.


PLAYBOY: One of your regular guests, Andy Kaufman, passed away this year. Be honest: When you first heard about his illness, did you think it was a prank?

LETTERMAN: Yes, and so did the people who told me about it. Even after he was gone, people were saying, "Is Andy Kaufman really dead?" As sick as that sounds, I think that in a peculiar way, it's a tribute to Andy's unique talent. I think exaggerated eulogies are in poor taste, so I'm not going to pretend to have considered Andy America's best value for your entertainment dollar just because he's gone. But he was one of my favorite guests and we had him on the show as often as we could get him, because I think it's important to have guests who annoy the public. It feels good to scream at the TV once in a while, to go to work the next day and tell everyone how annoyed you are. Andy was a real showman. And he was unique.


You'll find tons of old Letterman interviews, articles, and photos here.


Work Jerk
The Big Jewel's piece this week is a hilarious assortment of zingers with which a boss abuses his power and his employees: Neil Pasricha's "Executive Insults."

An excerpt:

Wow, that's a nice painting you've got in your office, Miller. I think I saw the same one down by the urinals at the Bowlerama.

Mighty Guest of Wind
Great interview with Christopher Guest in the Guardian. (Via Travelers Diagram.)

An excerpt:

Guest's mother was American, his father was an English lord: Peter Haden-Guest, the fourth baron of Saling in Essex, an actor and dancer who ended up a UN diplomat. His half-brother is Anthony Haden-Guest, the bibulous English socialite and journalist satirised by Tom Wolfe in Bonfire Of The Vanities. Christopher dropped the Haden when he started going to acting auditions in his 20s - he thought it sounded long-winded and distracting.

Guest went to school and then acting school in New York, and spent most of his holidays in London, where his father attended the House of Lords. "I spent more time in America, but I developed a very English sense of humour," he says. "I clicked into it deeply with Peter Sellers, who is still probably my favourite comedian. I loved The Goons and then I got into Beyond The Fringe and by accident I met Jonathan Miller and those guys. And, of course, they led straight to [Monty] Python."

Asked to define this tradition of English humour, to which he clearly belongs, he ponders a moment and steeples his fingers again: "Silliness framed in intelligence. Even when it's stupid, you know intelligent people are doing it and that makes it a different joke. Stupid comedy over here is just plain stupid. It's moronic and I don't find it funny at all."

The Hirsute of Justice

This photo is from the Starsky & Hutch website. Starsky & Hutch will be in theaters on March 5. (Via Off on a Tangent.)

"Happy" Days
The following article, by Hugh Boulware, was originally published in the Chicago Tribune on June 24, 1988. I found it here.

It's 3 in the afternoon, and two writers for TV's "Saturday Night Live" are standing on a stage in a North Side bar engaged in the serious business of being funny.

"I wonder," says Robert Smigel, "if the laugh isn't bigger if it just goes, 'That kid out front.'" His partner, Bob Odenkirk, replies, "Yeah, but '11-year old girl' really lays on the humor of the specific." "Yeah," Smigel answers, "but it's so generic and stupid, I don't know...."

The two men are haggling over the script of "Law Office," one of 18 sketches in "Happy Happy Good Show," in which they'll also act. The Mark Nutter-directed revue-in which Dave Reynolds, Debbie Jennings, Rose Abdoo and another "SNL" writer, Conan O'Brien, are cast-opened this week at Victory Gardens Theatre.

The genesis of "Law Office" tells something about what makes a funny person tick. "I had this thing - 'keen legal mind' -rattling around in my head all week," says O'Brien, a rail-thin man with red hair. "I kept saying to my partner at 'Saturday,' 'Keen legal mind.' It didn't do anything for him."

"But I loved it," says Smigel. And the sketch, a 'who's on first'-styled bit revolving around an outrageous visual pun, was born.

"It's weird," O'Brien continues, holding up his index fingers a couple of inches apart. "There'll be a little thing about this long, a little attitude that you do, and you have no place for it. You're walking around with it, it's like in your pocket, and then you'll bump into someone else, and you'll do it for them, and they'll laugh and add something to it. You start out with one third, somebody adds another third, and someone else walks in with the last third. It's humbling in a way."

Although the writers' strike gave Smigel, Odenkirk and O'Brien a head start on their summer show, they were already planning to stage something in Chicago between TV seasons. Arriving in late May with a batch of unused "SNL" scripts, the three have since written about eight new pieces, including stories about a lonely salesman, psychotic convenience store employees and one very bad ventriloquist.

Absent from "Happy Happy Good Show" are topical skits. "There's no political humor at all in the show," says Odenkirk, a booming-voiced, crew-cut Naperville native who, at this rehearsal, is dressed in running shorts, baseball jersey and suit jacket. "We get to do plenty of that on 'Saturday Night,' and besides, we're not very angry. We eat well, our parents were good to us, no scars."

Aside from the drier, more low-keyed humor of their Chicago revue, Smigel says, "The main difference with 'Saturday Night' is if you write a script for a giant monkey, they go out and build a giant monkey. Here, we'll spend a large percentage of our time running around trying to find shreds of monkey." Odenkirk interjects, "We have flunkies there, but we're seriously lacking flunkies here."

So why are these well-paid professional humorists press-typing their own fliers and making papier-mache costume props when they could be peddling sitcom scripts in L.A.?

They miss performing. Smigel, Odenkirk and O'Brien all honed their craft in front of audiences. Smigel met Odenkirk at Jo Forsberg's Players Workshop here, which, Smigel says, "at first was really scary, and the theatre exercises were kind of embarrassing. But they broke you down to basics so you could build from there."

The two later helped write and perform the long-running Practical Theater Company revue "All You Can Eat and the Temple of Doom." Three years ago, Smigel was hired for "Saturday Night Live" and greased the wheels for Odenkirk, who joined last fall.

O'Brien, a Bostonian, began writing political parodies for Harvard Lampoon when he was 18. He performed stand-up and later worked with L.A.'s Groundlings troupe before joining the "SNL" writing staff a few months ago.

All agree that performing helps their writing. "It gives you that extra sense of what an actor needs," Smigel says. "Some things look great on paper, but somehow, they just don't play on the stage. Maybe an idea is too rich or requires too much exposition."

O'Brien adds, "It gets almost mystical. We'll have arguments about 'Gotta go' versus 'See you later,' and if you don't spend a lot of time thinking about comedy, it may seem like nonsense, but it isn't."

The three are not big fans of improvisation. "It's a good writing tool," says Smigel, "but if you're looking to set yourself apart, it's more impressive to write something, edit yourself, and make it really good, as opposed to getting laughs for something just because it's off the top of your head."

While the "Saturday Night Live" writers are clearly aiming for something off the beaten comedy track, O'Brien wants to make sure "Happy Happy Good Show" audiences know what to expect. "You know, our show isn't going to trouble or challenge anybody. Maybe it's a little over the edge or silly, but this is what's funny to us. We want to get a laugh."

Cross Talk
In this interview, David Cross discusses politics. (Via Kim Davis via Off on a Tangent.)


About a third of eligible youth voted in the 2000 election. Why do you think that is? People are lazy, ignorant, alienated from the process?

David Cross: Yes, I think it's all three of those things. You become ignorant because you're alienated and you don't think out the information and you allow yourself to purposefully get lazy so things don't bother you, so you use that as an excuse not to vote. It's pretty galling that I know people will wait in line for a weekend to see a f*ckin' movie that's gonna be there for three months, but won't wait in line for 12 minutes to vote. If not for yourself, then for everyone else, it's truly one of the most selfish things you can do. Just the fact that you won't educate yourself on the issues. It's truly one of the most selfish things you can do. Especially because so many people have suffered to obtain that right, or obtain the idea of that right.


Any politicians you admire and would vote for in 2004?

David Cross: I will vote for – it's really depressing to say it but it's just something I've resigned to and I'll have to swallow it – whoever the Democratic nominee is. Nobody is going to be as bad for free thinking, right-minded individuals than George Bush. I don't want to see that motherf*cker in office when he doesn't have to do anything for political reasons. That's really scary. If this shit doesn't scare you now, when he's making concessions for political reasons, giving him another four years where he doesn't have to worry about being reelected, we are f*cked. We're hugely f*cked. And you better get yourself a Bible.

Do you ever think the Bush hatred can backfire and allow people to label Bush-haters as misfits?

David Cross: That's always a danger. If all you do is spew this bumper sticker rhetoric and sputter these cute little catch phrases about how Bush is like Hitler, then you know you're a f*ckin' moron and yeah, that's distracting. But if you can articulate your reason and have a conversation and say, "Let me tell you why I hate Bush, and it's not because he's an evil guy," then hopefully, you won't be painted in a corner as a misfit. The individual has to have the information. You know, you might as well, f*ckin' take your top off and paint sunflowers on your face, you know, drop acid and do that dumb-ass Grateful Dead dance.

If you could change the way the average American thinks about one issue, what would it be?

David Cross: It's not an issue per say, but I would urge people to help create an atmosphere where they don't see this complete ideological divide. Because I think whenever you sit down with another human being who would absolutely disagree with you on every issue, you learn about them as a person and you relate, in human terms, and it's much more difficult for either side to dismiss out of hand, like that person's a freak, that person's a Nazi. You really do see these people as people and understand where they're coming from. That would really do more to help all of this. I think people, for the most part, actually want what they think is best. People are condescending, they don't listen, and it's contributed to a really unfortunate anti-intellectualism in this country.

Anchors Awry
Here you can read transcripts and watch video files of Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon's "Weekend Update" reports. (Via Off on a Tangent.)


Game Boy
This Strong Bad e-mail reply is AWESOME!!! (Via Mike Gerber.)

Future Shock
The following is by David Cross. I found it at BobandDavid.com.

Letter From The Future

Hello, I am from the future. My name is Tully Spetertrench and I am writing from my home state of Baja California Mexico California. The year is 2218. I would normally just use my Teleporter 3000 ™, and simply hand-deliver the letter, but my teleporter got fucked up in the Not Enough Beer Riots of last quarter, so, here it is. I have mailed it to a MailBox Etc in the fall of 1998, but we all know how lame the Post Office is so who knows when it will eventually get there. I can't recall, and I don't feel like looking it up, but how expensive are stamps back then? Now they cost over two children apiece! Anyhoo, hello there. What about me? What's going on with me?

I woke up this morning and when I opened my eyes, I could barely believe the official headline that floated above my bed-like© pseudo-bed®™. It read, "Nigger Elected President!" Wow! This was truly historical. A black man was in the White House©.

Jason Nigger had actually won. Mr. Nigger was able to overcome an unfortunate and ironic last name to claim the seventh most powerful position in The United States Of America And Friends. Personally, I had rooted (as "voting" is now called) for Devry Ahmad, a pre-post-op transsexual, and scion of the wealthy Ahmad family. The Ahmads made their fortune in the artificial heart sauce business, creating over twenty different sauces for artificial hearts. I didn't mind Nigger, but I was swayed by Ahmads promise of a free immigrant for every true American citizen if elected. There are some things I'm looking forward to in this new administration. Ahmad seems pretty intent on un-freezing Paul McCartney and Wings, and his radical idea to literally re-invent the wheel is intriguing, if not wholly impractical.

I looked out of my window and saw that the snow had started to lightly fall on the artificial trees. Enough lollygagging around, It was time to go to workfun. I popped a few shower pills®™, put one of my penises (evolution!) in the penis scanner and left my space.

I work at the local Water®© Treatment Plant. Officially my title is Head Of Crybabies I guess I should explain. When the last source of fresh water was poisoned in 2078, the country instituted a bold, and exciting new plan to replenish our water supply. De-salinization of tears! So, after it became legal to clone immigrants, Senate Pro-Tem Wal-Mart (R-Texas) came upon the solution of torturing them and extracting their tears! Now water only costs 14 tap-dances!

When I got to my workfun station, my boss, Angela Lansbury's Cousin the Third told me that she needed to see me in her office. "You're orifice?" I asked, thereby fulfilling my pun quota of the day. "Very good", she replied, "but seriously, I need to see you in my office." I knew this day was coming, but still, I was caught off-guard. When I got to her office she motioned me over to her bed. I took off my jacket, put on a hat, and crawled under the covers. We had a couple of minutes of sanctioned sex, I filled out the forms, and then she fired me. Fortunately, I had a contingency plan for income. I collected my severance meal, walked over to Sir Banks-A-Lots, cashed out all my savings, and went home. When night came, I broke into my neighbors space, hopped in his teleporter and ported back to early 2001. I invested all of my savings in American flags made by Chinese prison labor (I also invested heavily in Chinese prison labor) and then ported back to my current time and space. I went to my bank account the next day - Viola! The old "Teleporter Switcharoo". I can't believe it took me that long to figure out something so obvious, and a clean, simple ending to this little story. I am truly sorry for deflating the ridiculous hopes that some science-fictiony types out there might have of someday being able to travel through time, but, seriously, if a time machine ever was really invented at some point in the future, wouldn't there be a record somewhere of people coming back to any point in time prior to right now? Of course somebody somewhere would have. Even if only to make some quick millions of dollars in the stock market or sports betting. Which means, either there never will be a time machine invented, ever, or the people of the earth killed themselves before one could be invented. It's probably the latter, and it probably happened shortly after World War Three (the great "Assassinate Saddam Hussein" public works project we are embarking on currently).