Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Top Ten Tuesdays: How did we drive ourselves crazy this past week?

or Anatomy of a Comedy Breakdown!

As I mentioned on Friday, I entered a video for Slate’s comedy news contest. The premise was simple: write a joke based on an actual news story and film yourself delivering it. The folks at Slate would select 10 finalists, who would then be judged by a celebrity judge: Kevin Bleyer, a writer for The Daily Show. Right up my alley, right?

The problem is that, when I have some external pressure to be funny, I sometimes turn into Ted Knight after Rodney Dangerfield says, “1000 bucks says you miss that putt.” I immediately felt the greasy, ethereal clump of writer’s block clogging my psyche. I read through the Sunday New York Times, scanned the Web for news stories, and watched The Daily Show for inspiration. After a week, my best effort was a mildly amusing joke involving Dolph Lundgren. Not the stuff that wins contests. But since writing is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration, I managed to keep grinding away and finally had a breakthrough two days before the contest. I wrote about four pages of jokes, whittling it down to 10 I really liked. Now all I had to do was pick one and film it. Piece of cake, right?

I don’t have any kind of video device in the house, so I picked up a Microsoft Web cam. Of course, I forgot that Microsoft is English for doesn’t work worth a shit. The picture was grainy and the audio kept going out of sync with my lips, which would have been hilarious if my joke was about fucking Godzilla. I returned it for a Logitech cam, got it to work flawlessly, and seemed ready to go. I planned to finish work for the day, then film myself that evening, plenty of time to meet the midnight deadline.

Except that when I was ready for my closeup, the video started stuttering for some reason. I tried disabling programs, installing it on another computer, and offering to blow someone at Logitech if it would result in 25 seconds of workable fucking video. After a good hour of troubleshooting, I figured out the light settings were cocking up the works and got the video back to acceptable quality. Now I was ready.

Except I wasn’t. I couldn’t for the life of me get the delivery down. Despite being a ham, I am not really a performer. I am not kidding when I say that I did at least 50 takes. I would get my voice right but my face wrong, or my face right and the voice wrong. I looked stiff, I looked stoned, I looked like a man who had been saying the same thing over and over. After all that, I got a take I liked and showed it to The Lovely Becky.

“Why did you add ‘there’ at the end? That’s throwing off the whole joke.”

Fuck! She was completely right, one word I had added almost unconsciously screwed up the joke. I broke for dinner(!), deciding that only the soothing meatiness of a Culver’s Butterburger could take the edge off. Rehearsing in the car, I managed to get the joke just as I wanted while I was waiting for my food. I came back, ate my dinner, and finally recorded 21 seconds of video I was happy with. If by some stroke of luck I happen to win this thing, the $500 should cover the cost of my medication.

Anyway, after all that, here are my ten favorite jokes that came out of this process. Number one is the one I submitted.

10) Researches at New York University believe they have located two parts in the brain that trigger optimism in people. Still undiscovered: the parts of the brain that caused people to vote for George Bush twice.

9) Legendary rock group Led Zeppelin has finally agreed to release its songs in digital form on iTunes. The band promises that these new digital versions will sound even more overplayed then the originals.

8) Top forest officials in the U.S. said that global warming may be contributing to “hotter and faster” fires like the ones that spread through Southern California. A spokesman for the Bush administration denied those claims before leaving to tour the devastation in his coal-fired Hummer.

7) British biologists said that changes in the shape of a St. Bernard’s head can only be explained by evolution, and that these changes offer strong evidence against creationism. Creationists responded that the St. Bernard could not be used as evidence since the dog is not mentioned in the Bible.

6) Recently declassified files revealed that during the 1968 presidential elections, the FBI monitored candidate Eugene McCarthy, who vowed to fire FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. It’s believed Hoover oversaw the operation personally as the files were smeared with lipstick.

5) According to a recent study, inflation and a drop in real earnings are making it harder for Americans to live paycheck to paycheck. The study also finds that it’s easier than ever to find employees willing to give dollar handjobs in the executive washroom.

4) This past week, wildfires decimated Southern California, Turkey prepared to invade Iraq, and a nuclear-armed Pakistan suffered a series of destabilizing attacks from Islamic terrorists. This prompted the White House to announce that it is way ahead of schedule in triggering The Rapture.

3) Scientists this week reported progress in developing a blood test for Alzheimer’s. In other news, scientists this week reported progress in developing a blood test for Alzheimer’s.

2) An Australian barmaid was convicted of indecency for crushing beer cans between her bare breasts and hanging spoons from her nipples. During the trial, police noted that the investigation was especially arduous, requiring two dozen officers, hundreds of hours of overtime, and thousands in tips.

1) In the recent Republican presidential debate, Senator John McCain mocked Senator Hillary Clinton’s support for a Woodstock museum, joking that he could not participate in the legendary music festival, because as a POW, "I was tied up at the time." When asked for his opinion of the museum, President Bush said he couldn’t attend Woodstock because, "I was way too drunk to drive."


The Uncanny Canadian said...

Brando, you are are hero to the comically-deficient among us. I think the best comedy sketch could have been your frustrating attempts to get the video. All your jokes are easily Weekend Update quality. I think numbers 9 and 3 rocked my world the hardest. Good luck with the long putt.

blue girl said...

Brando, you are a most excellent jokester. I feel for you with all you went through! Isn't that always the case? All the shenanigans that never work when you need them to?

Good luck!!

I'm pulling for you!!

Kathleen said...

awesome job. I love the "behind the scenes" look at comedy. Is this why the Daily Show only really does 11 minutes of jokes 4 times a week? illumination!

I laughed teh hardest at #1, #9 and #2.

Good luck!!

Brendan said...

Good luck on the Slate thing.

I think one of the things that made this hard for you is that your humor is spontaneous -- you're one of those people who doesn't crack wise on command, but who has a skewed enough perspective that the most innocent of remarks becomes a set-up line obvious to the rest of us only in retrospect. The stuff that comes from you that really makes me laugh is what leaks out in your day-in-the-life stories, like your travelogues and descriptions of barbecues and moving, or the idle thoughts that come from thinking about what's playing on your iPod. And there's no chance I could forget your one-liners, delivered while half-asleep, that TLB reports over at her blog.

If, by some chance and the great unfairness of the fascists at Slate, this contest isn't your breakthrough into the big time, here's my suggestion for the next: Figure out a way to have the camera follow you, rather than thinking about working for the camera.

Maybe just use a voice-activated dictaphone gizmo. Have some conversations with TLB, and try to forget that the tape is rolling. Do this a few times.

Later, scan the tapes for when she's laughing the hardest. That's the one you want.

Churlita said...

Each joke was better than the next. you are so lucky to have the lovely Becky. She will tell it to you straight and always be right.

Snag said...

I bet all of us here would pay to see a video of you trying to get the Microsoft camera to work. I know I would.

fish said...

I'm with UC, #3 is hilarious.

fish said...

I'm with UC, #3 is hilarious.

Brando said...

The outtakes would just be me starting the joke and then going "fuck me!" Funny the first two dozen times it happened, tops.

Thanks for all the nice words, everyone. Glad you liked the jokes.

I think the Alheimer's and Australian barmaid jokes are the funniest, but topicality was part of the judging criteria, so I felt the Woodstock joke was the best combo of humor and political bite.

I actually have a fair number of pieces that I have either written a lot of or even finished that have never made it to the blog. Some because they didn't gel the way I wanted, some because they might have been uber-topical and I didn't finish them before shows like TDS beat them into the ground. Some week when I need a break, I may do a "Greatest Misses" series.

Chuckles said...

I was able to picture quite a few of these with the Weekend Update people, particularly Chevy Chase.

Well done, sir. Well done indeed.

Noelle said...

I kept trying to pick my favorite so I could mention it in a comment, and they just kept getting funnier. Good work!

almostinfamous said...

shit, i laughed at all of them!

but #10 made me sad.

Mendacious D said...

Good stuff, actually. You should call these guys.

The Uncanny Canadian said...

I think we should keep adding jokes to this thread as they become topical:

On Tuesday, president Bush criticized congress for having, "the worst record in twenty years". Bush added that it was no competiton for his own personal record of 'worst president in last two hundred years'.

Shit, this stuff ain't easy.

fish said...

I hope you win Brando. I'm pulling for you. And no, that isn't a reference to the blog title.

Distributorcap said...


i would bet the tape left on the floor is well worth the price of admission

keep all the scenes and takes --- you will apppreciate it later

BOSSY said...

'Cocking up the works'. Gotta be a new favorite.

BOSSY said...

The alzheimer joke rocks. What joke?

Grendel said...

I totally agree with Brendan. Actually, I would love to watch a reality show about you and TLB. I'm quite serious.

Brando said...

After this experience, I don't know if I ever want to be on camera again.

However, I am toying with the idea of some video blogging. And who knows, maybe I'll put some of the outtakes up at some point.