Wednesday, October 8th, 2014
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'SNL,' the Groundlings, and the Parallel Thinking Excuse

snlgroundlingstinaturnerMembers of Los Angeles' famed Groundlings theater company have made headlines by accusing SNL of lifting their sketch during last weekend's Sarah Silverman episode. The piece in question, "River Sisters," featured Silverman, Cecily Strong, and Sasheer Zamata as a Tina Turner tribute act performing "Proud Mary" on a crummy river cruise, which many have noticed bears a strong resemblance to a sketch that has been running at the Groundlings for several weeks, with Kimberly Condict and Vanessa Ragland as identically-dressed Tina Turner lookalikes, similarly bemoaning their careers to the song (except in a casino). Groundlings teacher Ian Gary claimed that SNL writers have plagiarized "many, many" of the theater's bits in the past, with victims too intimidated to ruffle the feathers of the gatekeepers that could one day give them their dream jobs. Splitsider mentioned the similarity in our review of the episode, and several other sources (Deadline, AV Club, Good Morning America) have more or less rendered a guilty verdict for the show.  SNL hasn't responded, other than to take down its Twitter and Instagram photos of the sketch. Meanwhile, a source close to the show attributed the sketches' similarity to "parallel thinking."

Of course, this isn't the first accusation of joke thievery we've heard directed at SNL. Many of them, in retrospect, appear to be baseless. In 2010, when the show featured a tiny hat gag in a 10-to-1 sketch, Tim and Eric pointed out that they had done a similar bit in 2007, essentially trying to claim ownership over the idea of tiny hats. (The controversy has been mentioned in a few articles covering this recent dispute.) Then, a year ago, comedian Iliza Schlesinger accused the show of lifting a joke she had about airport boarding zones for a sketch in the season premiere, despite the fact that air travel is regular comedic fodder for SNL (and, hell, everyone). And let's not forget the few similar premises that aired on Key & Peele and SNL in the same week… though those never made headlines.

Some accusations have been proven valid, however: former cast member Jay Mohr admitted in his 2004 memoir Gasping for Airtime that he stole a joke from New York comedian Rick Shapiro and turned it into a sketch. Add Mohr's admission on top of the well documented examples of joke stealing by comedians like Carlos Mencia and Dane Cook, as well as Patton Oswalt's elegant clarion call against the practice, and it's no wonder why people might roll their eyes at the "parallel thinking" excuse. READ MORE

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The Artist Is Present and Also a Robot

Between 2004 and 2008, I worked as a video editor in Hollywood. This description comes with plenty of qualifiers: It wasn't a job with any artistry or excitement (it was, as I described it to curious/confused parties back then, "industrial editing"). The motto of the company I worked for was "Know Better," and its logo looked eerily like an Illuminati eye; it sold itself as a way for corporations/PR companies/freelancing-citizens-full-of-vanity to amass knowledge about their place in the business world through the monitoring of media. To do this, it recorded TV and radio broadcasts from around the country, and resold commercial-free chunks of said broadcasts to the as-yet uninformed. Need to see how your opposition is being perceived by CNBC's Jim Cramer? We got what you need. Want a shot of you catching that foul ball at the game? Give us a call.

When I was first hired, there was an editing staff of twelve. We edited how teens did in the nineties: two VHS decks, lots of trial-and-error. Already, by 2004, the cracks in the company's model were already evident, as the introduction of live-streaming and TiVo meant ambitious interns could accomplish what we were charging top dollar for. When YouTube hit, you could remove the ambition, and the intern, entirely. If an exec wanted to see how local Topeka news was covering his sex scandal, all he needed was an Internet connection and a few keystrokes. (Since the branch I worked at was based in Hollywood, in the same building where Larry King's suspenders were filmed on a nightly basis, the most common requests were from movie studios wanting compilations of quips and anecdotes and fluff pieces that aired during the promotional round of their latest blockbusters. We also catered to Ron Jeremy, who'd forgo the custom of splurging for a delivery service and personally schlep into the office, once a month or so, to collect a mixtape of his mentions; personally, I worry for his surely-hermetic state following the invention of Google Alert.)

Midway through my term, the company came to understand its place in the world, and dumped the VHS decks for an expensive digital encoding system. Soon, we were no longer wasting time fast-forwarding through tapes; we wasted time surfing the net as the combination of fewer orders and quicker output times led to six hours of downtime per shift. Among other things, this allowed me to become adept at flicking playing cards into a hat. In 2011, the company filed for bankruptcy. It had outlasted its usefulness, and was summarily dispatched by the cold force of free market evolution. This is how progress works. READ MORE

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The Starbucks Booze Worst-Case Scenario

Does this Williamsburg coffee shop owner sound a little paranoid? Sure:

Bell, who leaped into action this week after finding out about Starbucks' plan to sell alcohol, said granting the chain a liquor license could embolden the company to seek a more and more. She said there could end up being a Starbucks-affiliated business on every corner, making it one of the only places to go.

It does not seem to be Starbucks' plan to open a "Starbucks beer garden, a Starbucks sports bar," or anything quite like that. But I do think the Starbucks alcohol initiative—there are locations with a "Starbucks Evenings Menu" in Chicago, Portland, Los Angeles and Atlanta—represents something potentially big and, for a particular type of establishment, ruinous.

In some towns, bars are holdouts—some of the only non-chain (or at least non-national-chain) establishments available to patronize. Chicago and Portland and Los Angeles and Atlanta are not these towns, so while they might be good markets for Starbucks to test out new concepts for viability, they're poor markets for understanding what effects the introduction of Starbucks wine bars might have on smaller, more fragile commercial ecosystems. They can absorb a lot.

READ MORE

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The mystery of the bear cub found dead on Monday in Central Park is one step closer to being solved: It was revealed on Tuesday that she died after being hit by a car.

The state’s Department of Environmental Conservation announced that the results of a necropsy showed that the cause of death was "blunt force injuries consistent with a motor vehicle collision."

I rest my case.

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Sylas, "Shore"

A relaxing synth bath from London duo (and Brian Eno collaborators) Sylas with a sound that unfolds, with a little volume, into something lush and expansive. Try "Hollow," too.

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New York City, October 6, 2014

weather review sky 100614★★★★ A hazy shimmer lay over the morning. Off down the avenue, it deepened to dirty brown. Light flared and bounced; backlit green leaves glowed. It was possible to get away with short sleeves, even by the river, though more people had gone to their fall coats. Buttons of sun flashed in the wet dimples on the sidewalk of Prince Street. A long plume of cigarette smoke rose from a woman slowly pushing a two-wheeled cart. By afternoon, the brown had cleaned itself up to a luminous off-white. The three-year-old, damp-haired and bored with the wait through his brother's swimming lesson, insisted on snapping a photo of the sunlit building across the way.

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The Best Thing About New York City in the Fall

The best thing about fall in New York City is that it smells less like piss.

"There's something about New York City in the fall," says DNAInfo. "In honor of this change of seasons, we asked New Yorkers to share their favorite things about being in the city this time of year." Among the answers:

"Crisp air. Turning leaves. Knicks b-ball"

"Thousands of kids."

"Leaf-peeping at @TheBronxZoo"

"The return of hot drinks and the natural colors of the season!"

These are all nice things, but none of them are as nice as how, in the fall, you smell less piss. I walk the same block most days, between the unmarked rear of a mixed-use building and the front of the Transit Adjudication Bureau. In the spring, this block, like many blocks, begins to smell like piss. In the summer the piss smell intensifies; by the end of the summer it has fermented. It is overwhelming and distinct: the block does not smell like trash, or rot. Only piss. Old piss. Drying piss. Fresh piss.

In the fall, this piss smell breaks noticeably. This is what is special about New York in the fall: The relenting of the piss. The crispness of the non-piss. The olfactory reminder that all that piss and grime are about to commingle into a thin and scentless winter permafrost that you can either ignore or, in the gray slush season, wade through in boots.

Another nice thing about fall in New York is how sunsets, scattering through the dryer-than-usual air—which no longer smells like piss—display a broader range of colors than in the summer. It is quite beautiful.

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I Dressed a Girl and I Liked It

baby dressWhen I found out that I was going to have my first child, and then, soon after, that it was going to be a girl, I had few preconceived ideas about parenting or babies. I hadn't spent much time around babies, and didn't have very many opinions about how best to raise one. I knew just two things: That, until she could decide for herself, she would not eat animals, and that she wouldn't be dressed like a "girl" in the traditional sense. That meant pink would be avoided, as would most dresses, hair bows, and all manner of fancy gear which I had spent my entire adult life loathing.

I very quickly learned a truth about parenting: In the early days, when the fetus, and then baby, has no stated preferences and can't disagree with you, it's as much about you as it is about the child. And if dressing my baby was all about me, there was going to be plenty of baggage.

I was my mother's only daughter, the second of four kids. My mother, who was kind and funny and intelligent, wasn't shy about forcing her preferences onto me. What else can a mother do? The baby won't dress itself. My mom put just as much effort into dressing me as she did herself. Which is to say, a lot. So, for the first seven or eight years of my life, I didn't wear pants, as far as I can tell from the photographic evidence. I wore dresses, fancy ones, little white tights and patent leather shoes, my long hair curled and styled daily, seemingly without occasion. As a truly slovenly adult dresser, I've often looked at those pictures of my past self and laughed at the irony of it. These days, I'm inclined to be touched: She put so much effort into me, dressing me like a tiny doll. READ MORE

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The Rise of Fake Good Cocktails

look at all that fruit

New York City’s restaurants are in the midst of an epidemic of not-goodness. Sit down in any new dining room, and you are handed a cocktail list. Each drink on this document will have one ingredient you have heard of and seven that were apparently named after distant planets. Sometimes you may think you recognize a cocktail that you like (a good cocktail, in other words), but everything you like about it has been replaced by some other thing that you’re not sure about. “Hello there, that sounds like an old-fashioned!” you think. “But with burdock syrup instead of sugar, Croatian absinthe instead of bourbon, and hemlock bitters instead of Angostura.” If curiosity gets the upper hand and you ask for one, you will wonder why you couldn’t have had an old-fashioned old-fashioned.

New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells laments the rise of fake good cocktails. While he focusses mainly on their burgeoning presence in restaurants, they are becoming a true epidemic, having also crept into a number of lesser bars, looking to ring up the higher drink prices previously commanded by superior establishments. Like the rise of fake good coffee, places that pour fake good cocktails rely heavily on a handful of once-useful visual signifiers, forged by the actually good cocktail joints, in order to convey their supposed quality: "ingredients [that] appear to have the right pedigree," as Wells put it; concoctions which appear in or allude to the spirit of pre-Prohibition or tiki or some other favored era of fancy bartenders; rows of bitters; beautiful barware; whimsical cocktail names; a bartender's choice option; and the coup de grâce, suspenders.

Unfortunately for the average drinker, when a mediocre bar or restaurant cocktail program puts on its camouflage carefully, the only way to discern whether the cocktails on the menu are good, or merely fake good, is to try one—or rely on the internet, which is just as useless as looking at the bottles lining the back of the artfully constructed bar. (If a bar has recently opened and it's STILL pushing the speakeasy or pre-Prohibition thing, however, RUN DON'T WALK to the nearest actual bar.) Of course, you could always just order a whiskey, neat. Or a negroni.

Photo of what may be a perfectly potable cocktail by Sam Howzit

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Elle Varner, "Fuck It All"

Via The Fader, a song for slumping in your office seat or belting in your car. (See previously: "Refill.")

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Nostalgia is history viewed through a toilet paper tube.

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Inside the Silly, Dark, Intelligent Tweets of Molly Hodgdon (@Undeadmolly)

undeadmollyMolly Hodgdon lives in Vermont. She’s currently in grad school studying criminology and is a contributing writer for Rifftrax. On Twitter, Hodgdon goes by the name Molly Manglewood, or simply @undeadmolly. Her tweets meld the macabre with observational humor and silliness. I recently asked Hodgdon to elaborate a bit on three of her favorite tweets, and she spoke with me about her pet turtle, her reasons for adopting a pseudonym, and the importance of conversation on Twitter.

Hodgdon: I like jokes that take a familiar phrase and give it a new twist or meaning. I've always liked this tweet because it does that in a way that is representative of the elements I love in humor. I like things that are dark and macabre but also extremely silly. Cannibalism and infanticide aren't funny, but that's the point. Some things are so inconceivably terrible that we use humor to cope with the idea of them existing, make them less threatening to our psyches. It's an important theme to me because I'm a grad student in criminology, so I have to read and write about a lot of terrible things. Humor helps me to manage the low-grade vicarious trauma of that. READ MORE

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Provocations of a Bad Jingle Writer

It’s Thursday afternoon in late August. I am recording a dismal power-metal jingle for CBS Sports and the NFL. Football: a sport that should have died 65 million years ago. To record this jingle, I am using my iPhone’s GarageBand app. This isn’t composing; this is clicking. I am assembling a loop of sludgy, charmless instrumental samples. “Dark and Heavy Riff 06.” “Indie Rock Riffing 02.” “Double Punk Drumset 01.” I am 30 years old, and a songwriter. A singer-songwriter. Multi-hyphenate. But since my music is virtually unknown outside a narrow circle of Chicagoans and South American women, and since there’s about five thousand dollars left in the entire music industry, I’m also a composer for advertising.

I freelance for three agencies. Every week or so, I get an email from a music supervisor. It will start with: “we have been tapped to find the just-right song” or “we have a new spot that needs some rad music.” It will end with: “we need this in two days.” There will be a brief description of the commercial or, if I'm lucky, an attached script. Sometimes the client or advertising agency will be named. Occasionally the client will be ambiguous. A “big box retailer.” An “automotive company.” In the early stages of an advertising campaign, either the brand, the ad agency, or, more often, the director will become eye-wateringly fixated on a pop song. This song will be used temporarily while filming. However, usually for budgetary or ego reasons, it will be unlicensable. So, a knockoff version is requested. That’s when a music agency is contacted, and I receive an email. I’m often told the music should be “almost exact to the references.” At best, this is a creative process lacking creativity. At worst, it’s plagiarism.

I’m not always asked to steal melodies from contemporary songs. Sometimes a music supervisor will indicate light creative freedom. It’s like finding a few inches of space in a feedlot. In these rare moments, the music brief will say: “looking for songs that are heartwarming in a folk/pop way” or “looking for something upbeat and happy.” Empty descriptions. Once these original, or orginalish, songs are submitted, the client will request changes. “Good start, but we dig this new Black Keys song. Can we get something almost similar to that?” For Redd’s Apple Ale, I submitted several songs from my own record, Delicate Parts. My lyrics were “too challenging.” The client also wanted the word “Red” in the lyrical hook. So my words and voice–everything essential and human and exclamatory–were removed from the mix. Throwaway lines jammed with “red” were dashed off. The songs were edited into 30-second clips and a female singer recorded over them. My music became part karaoke, part evisceration. And I permitted it.

How did this happen? How did I become a jingle man?

READ MORE

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Aberdeen and Churchville, Maryland, to New York City, October 5, 2014

weather review sky 100514★★★★ The cornfields were tall walls of brown, showing traces of pale green in their upper parts. Purple leaves sifted down over the choir where they sat in their vestments on folding chairs; the candle flames flicked back and forth and their glass enclosures swung in the breeze. But still insects were singing somewhere nearby, and red salvia bloomed in the bed along the church, even as the tops of the maples had gone flame-orange and yellow. The impression of stillness held, despite constant activity–the leaves flurrying, swifts or swallows fluttering overhead, light planes buzzing through the clear blue. A big, silent vulture glided right overhead. One of the dogs in the congregation growled under the Prayer of St. Francis. A hermit crab was brought up for blessing, its cage wrapped in a towel against the chill. Gusts kept coming, till the fluttering scriptures and collection made an early and hasty recessional for the shelter of the church proper. The sun on the early accumulated leaves cast a warm glow before the door of the parish hall. A red-shouldered hawk studied the field from a wooden utility pole across the road. Off the edge of the parking lot, the ground was strewn with red apples, and more still hung in the old apple tree. The interstate was open and clear. From the Delaware Memorial Bridge, the view stretched to the tiny Philadelphia skyline clustered in the distance. Fields by the Turnpike were rich yellow in the low sun. The rising gibbous moon was ghostly from New Jersey, but by the Manhattan evening it was sharp and bright.

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A Walking Tour Through the Living Wreckage of Penn Station

penn

Nearly everyone can agree that Penn Station, America's busiest transit hub, which routinely takes in and spits out some five thousand humans every minute, is terrible in nearly every conceivable way. On a Wednesday in late March, David Lewis, a professor of cocnstructed environments at Parsons, and a partner at the architecture firm LTL (he's one of the L's), agreed to walk with me through Penn Station during rush-hour to show me not just how broken it was, but how it had become that way.

I was standing by the entrance on Penn's southwest corner, at 31st Street and 8th Avenue, watching roadies haul equipment out of a semi-truck for a show that night, when Lewis walked up and introduced himself. "That's part of your problem right there," he said, pointing his finger at the semi, then up slightly toward at Madison Square Garden. "Getting as many people into a train station with a massive, twenty-thousand-seat multi-use performance space on top—it's insane."

READ MORE

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Stories Like Passwords

6555728847_ec956f5482_zThis past spring I attended a writing residency at an artists’ centre in Banff, Alberta. For seven weeks I lived in a dream. My studio was a refurbished boat in the middle of a small forest on top of a mountain; I spent my days floating inside, working on my terrible novel, and my evenings walking into town to buy overpriced wine. There was a large writing program already in progress when I arrived at the centre, and though there were men there, the people I’d connected to almost instantly were a group of women; all different kinds of writers, all different ages, all at different points in their careers. At night, we’d hang out together in the boat or in somebody’s room, and drink, and talk.

About a week in, I showed a few of my new friends some emails I’d been getting from an older male writer many of us knew. The messages weren’t explicit or threatening, but something about their tone had made me distinctly uncomfortable. It was hard to put my finger on. I passed my phone around, trying to explain why I’d felt so creeped out, repeating every few minutes that I knew there was nothing tangible, that I was probably just making it up. “Am I crazy?” I asked, over and over again. Everyone kept shaking their heads.

A story like this is a password. Once you say it out loud, doors start to open. For the rest of that night, and the rest of my time at that residency, the women who’d seen those emails would tell me stories. One talked about how in graduate school, a professor she admired and looked up to set up a meeting outside of class to talk about her work. She showed up to his home nervous and eager to discuss her poems and found him lying half-naked on his bed. He asked her for a massage. She made polite conversation for ten minutes before figuring out a way to make an exit that wouldn’t offend him. READ MORE

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Watching Every Episode of 'Murder She Wrote'

People drop things on the Internet and run all the time. So we have to ask. In this edition, Whisper head of news Slade Sohmer tells us more about the things you might discover by watching every single episode of Murder, She Wrote.

Slade! So what happened here?

Most people my age have that vague memory of watching Murder, She Wrote in their grandparents' house. At the time I viewed it as no more than CBS For Us By Us Old People Fodder. But a few years ago we were looking for a show to get into—crime-solving for me, something classic for my boyfriend—and we met in the middle when Netflix suggested M-S-Dubs. We tried the pilot and were hooked instantly. The murders keep you guessing. The plot twists are legit. Dame Angela Lansbury's acting is worthy of her twelve Emmy nominations in twelve seasons and four Golden Globe wins. And in the memetic era we're in now, drenched in our lust for irony and an inside joke, it was immediately refreshing to remember what unabashed sincerity and earnestness looked like. It's neither snark nor smarm; it's schmaltz, but the best kind. Don't sleep on a cozy mystery drama.

The murders themselves are just serialized rewards, though. The show is a broader case study in Jessica Fletcher Gives Zero Fucks. She's kind and sweet and polite, with a most neighborly etiquette. But she's also a ruthless advocate for justice, fearless in the face of intimidation and incapable of buying your weak bullshit. When the killer says "I was at a restaurant 'til 9:30," and she calmly refutes, "No, I don't think you were, Jerry," she does it with equal parts elegance and ferocity. She walks down every dark hallway, she opens every locked door, she meets every lying sack of shit with inquisitive charm. And she never judges you. 

People always ask me to summarize it: Why do you like this show so much? Remember how J.K. Rowling popped up from obscurity to become an accidental mega-famous author? Now imagine Rowling is in her late fifties, a flawless specimen of folksy charm and social grace, growing ever more famous for her subsequent novels, traveling the country and the globe, personally solving 250+ murders over the next twelve years. And it's not simply that she solved more than twenty murders *every year* for more than a decade over the objections of misogynist detectives and interference from blundering inspectors—she coaxed full, teary confessions from the murderer in each instance. Wouldn't you watch that? Doesn't that sound like someone with whom you'd want to spend your evenings?  READ MORE

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A post-mortem on pre-mega-expansion Vice, by Alexandra Molotkow:

The magazine was a point of intersection for a number of subcultures that started balling together around the turn of the century. It’s hard to say what this scene was about, exactly: clothing-wise, Vice “style” was defined negatively—the Don’ts were always funnier than the Do’s—so it was more about what you couldn’t wear (dreadlocks, sandals, pubes) than what you should. Musically, it was far-flung, though artists like Andrew WK and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were staples, and I remember it as a leading champion of electroclash. Coke was the drug of choice, but in drugs as in all things, Vice was omnivorous. It was ahead of its time that way; the end of genre boundaries and style tribes—along with a new emphasis on sensibility over taste—is probably the most distinctive attribute of “youth culture” after the Millennium (and part of what makes a “hipster” so hard to identify).

That this piece is thorough and lucid and yet still leaves you disoriented is a testament to how inseparable the old Vice product was from its burbling sensibility; now but especially years from now, people will not remember issues of the magazine, or stories, so much as periods and places in which Vice just felt very present. The new Vice is conspicuously substantial, its output easier to point to, categorize, and put on a timeline. The most enduring product that old Vice produced was an enormous and marketable demographic. It was assembled from countless odd subcultures; its glue was insecurity (and maybe music and maybe drugs, a little). Apart, they were slippery and defied naming. Together they formed a cohort, fell into line, and became pitchable.

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Playing the 'Twin Peaks' Revival Odds

Normally, when one learns of the revival of a beloved intellectual property from prior decades, the only appropriate thing to feel in response is absolute dread. However, considering that the last half of the second season of Twin Peaks—except for the last episode—was a smoking wreck (and, according to most people, the movie was not much better!), the odds that the Showtime revival of Twin Peaks, coming in 2016, will degrade the series even further are only slightly higher than the odds that David Lynch and Mark Frost could in fact improve upon its standing. (Sylvester Stallone is a strange but true case study in this fact: His recent additions to both the Rocky and Rambo franchises were much better than the movies that originally capped them.)

As it stands, there is, roughly speaking, a twenty percent chance that the new limited series will elevate Twin Peaks; a forty percent chance that it will make it slightly worse; a thirty percent chance that it will stay the same; and a ten percent chance that it will truly and completely ruin it forever. I would take those odds, I think.

We will update these odds as the story progresses.

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Sarah Silverman's Racy Return to SNL

Sarah Silverman SNLSNL shifts into a different gear when a comedian hosts the show. In the early days, comic-hosts like George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Steve Martin were every bit as much a part of the show's countercultural brand as the cast members were. 40 years later, SNL has become part of the mainstream, with a product so formulaic that today's most innovative comics define themselves by how different they are from the comedy institution and the network TV legacy it represents. Popular comedians often struggle to bridge the gap between their delivery and the SNL machine, where the multicam format and demand for immediate laughs often leave little room for nuance. Sometimes the two are incompatible, like when Jerry Seinfeld brought in his own writers or Russell Brand's larger-than-life persona outshone everything on screen. Other times, the two sides meet in the middle, producing such delightfully offbeat fusions as Zach Galifianakis in "Darrell's House" or Louis C.K. in "Lincoln."

Sarah Silverman is a unique case. The megastar comedian is also a returning SNL cast member, which often lends itself to a specific kind of episode, with the host playing old characters and reuniting with contemporaries. However, Silverman was only on the show for one season, with no classic bits fans were expecting to see again. This freed Silverman to be her provocative self — at least, as much of her provocative self that the NBC censors would allow – and push SNL out of its pander-y, predictable comfort zone into some more dangerous territory. The night's first half featured Silverman in a Fault In Our Stars parody as a girl with Ebola, followed by Silverman as the late Joan Rivers, followed by a video about whites sad over losing their racial majority, followed by a sketch skewering society's fixation with watching women tear each other apart. And while not all of the daring concepts paid off, overall, Silverman's rep as a blue comedian gave SNL permission to play with fire. Hopefully that will be something it stops waiting for permission to do. READ MORE

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