NPR’s Wits Behind the Scenes and The Comedic Genius of Fred Willard

I did a taping of the NPR show Wits last night, playing bass with Shinyribs.  The other guests on the show were Carrie Rodriguez and legendary comedian Fred Willard.  There were two things that really surprised me:

1.  The first was how much work went into the show.  The show was supposed to begin at 8pm.  We showed up at 1:30 to soundcheck.  Now, that is pretty common in the musical world, to soundcheck hours before a gig.  However, we were the first of many things that needed checking and the staff that was there worked from before we got there to after we had left the theater.  (11pmish)  Now again, for sound guys, roadies, this kind of long hours is normal.  I had never seen it done for a radio show though, just the insanely long hours put in for a one off taping.  Also, once we were done sound checking Carrie Rodriguez had to sound check and then they did a two hour script run-through.  The script run-through was the thing that really surprised me.  Every radio show I’ve been on we show up, set up our gear, right before we play the radio personality enters, and we do the thing.  However, everyone that was on the air got up and did parts of all the script, at times doing whole skits. It again took close to two hours.  Even Fred Willard, who could probably do whatever in his sleep, was game and did the whole run through.  I’m not saying that one could not deduce that an NPR show would be professional, but actually seeing the amount of work put into it was surprising to me for some reason.  This was show business in the sense that it was entertaining and fun, but people were clearly putting in a lot of work to make something as good as they could.

2.  The other thing was how fucking funny Fred Willard is saying just about anything.  I’ve seen stand-up comedy shows, but I’ve never seen anything quite like this, which is partly scripted and partly off the cuff.  He could say just about anything and the crowd laughed.  This wasn’t because he was famous, or because he had writers who gave him part of the script, or because he had spent weeks and months crafting his material like many stand-ups do; he just had great instincts, impeccable timing, and a quick mind.  There is a clearly a reason someone like that has gotten so many roles in comedies.  I’m not saying that when he is in a movie or TV show that good editing might not help him be even funnier, but in the flesh, just shooting things off the top of his head, he had the crowd in the palm of his hand.

Mad Men Finale Will Never Live Up to Expectations

Mad Men Finale Will Never Live Up to Expectations

This is more about television in general and not any kind of real review.  I largely agree with it.  It talks about how finales should be viewed in the context of the larger work, in the same way that the last chapter in books or the last minutes of a film are.

Thoughts On Better Call Saul and Big Ideas in Entertainment

I found myself rewatching Breaking Bad this morning, starting at the beginning.  It’s amazing how entertaining this show is given that this will be the third time I’ve seen this season.  Also, as almost everyone knows, for a show this entertaining it sure was able to deal in some really heavy themes.  I think that is what makes it so great, that it works on different levels, from base entertainment to American tragedy.

I finished Better Call Saul the other day.  Seeing the whole season now has made me want to watch Season 2.  There were several times in the first season that I wasn’t so sure about the show.  The acting has always been excellent.  I’m used to modern TV shows taking a little time to develop and find their voice.  After the amazing ride of Breaking Bad I determined that I was going to give Vince Gilligan the benefit of the doubt, even when the show was slow.  Several seasons of Mad Men have taken a little time to develop, only to pick up steam in the second half and be unbelievable.  Modern TV, when its at its best, can have almost the detail of great literature.  Mad Men definitely falls into that realm.  I think what Better Call Saul ended up doing throughout the season was great, but it really took me the full season to become invested on an emotional level, where Breaking Bad had an opening episode that hooked you from the start.

I think that any kind of art form has to work on an emotional level first.  If it can expand your mind, deliver big ideas, on top of that, all the better.  I want to get something more than just being entertained out of something if possible.  However, I think if a writer, musician, painter, can pull you in on some way that is emotional, especially if they have a big idea, it is going to have a far greater chance at affecting how people think.  George Orwell is brilliant not only for his ideas, but for his clarity and readability too.  Even if he is talking about something highly intellectual, I am always struck at how the way he writes pulls you along with him.  It’s almost as if you are arriving at the conclusion with him.

That doesn’t mean that every moment of a book or TV show or whatever has to be easy.  I like to be challenged.  I like to hear that weird soundscape in the middle of an album of pop songs, for a show like Mad Men to take its time developing characters so the emotional payoff is bigger by the end, to see a play that has an act that sets the stage for later. Only fools need everything spoonfed to them.

I just got done reading Voltaire’s Candide.  It was written in the 1700’s.  There is a reason, beyond the big ideas contained within, that it has lasted several hundred years.  It is highly entertaining as well as being highly intelligent.

One thing I realized is that one will never ever read every book that is ever written.  One will never hear every piece of music ever created.  One will never see every show that or movie that has ever been made.  Therefore you must choose what you expose yourself.  It’s fine to watch or listen to things that are escapist at times.  The brain needs downtime if it is going to function on a higher level at other times.  But one should seek things out that help to understand the world around you.  If you are looking to understand something in a very specific technical way, then that is a different matter.  However, if you are looking for some kind of broader understanding of the world, there is no reason that one can’t enjoy oneself while doing so.  If you are interested in something, or some idea, or just looking for new ideas, the chances are there is someone that has communicated what you are looking for in a way that is enjoyable too.  A great journalist, dramatist, or songwriter, can do more than one thing at a time.

The Walking Dead Season Finale (Spoilers Involved)


I really enjoyed the season finale of The Walking Dead, which I finally caught today on Amazon as I don’t have cable.  I think it tied up what was an excellent season on all fronts and left us, as viewers, wanting more, which is exactly what a TV show that has more to go should do.

What I love about The Walking Dead is that first and foremost it is entertainment of the highest order.  It creates a largely believable alternative world and gets us wrapped up emotionally in what goes on there.  Anyone that loves the show will tell you that it keeps you on the edge of your seat.  The characters, for the most part, are well written, with their own interior lives.  You care about these people and what becomes of them.  It is exciting and it is emotional.  I would watch the show for these reasons alone.

What makes The Walking Dead even better, and keeps me thinking about it after viewing it is over, is the intelligence that lies behind the entertainment.  Music should be great music first, television should be great television first.  That is the first order of any art form.  If it can do even more than that, that is what sets the greats aside.

There are many ways that you can interpret this show.  Here is just one way you can interpret this season.  I’m not saying this is an original interpretation, or that if I had more time to think about it that I wouldn’t think of a better one.  The fact that it posts up ideas without definitive conclusions is the mark of a good drama.  This is not our world.  It allows us to reflect upon it, but there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong way to interpret it.  It is complex and complexity in entertainment is a good thing.

The zombies pose a threat to people.  Different people respond to this threat differently.  Some become inhuman themselves, and some, like the citizens of Alexandria, respond to it by almost ignoring it.  They are safe behind their walls and are haven’t had to adapt in any great way to the new world and the threats that are a part of it.  The Grimes gang, meanwhile, have had to  live among the terrors of the world.  They have a realistic viewpoint of what is going on, even if what is going on throughout the season is in danger of making them lose their humanity.

In the season finale it looked as if events were going to prove the Grimes gang correct, even if they essentially have been all along.  Rick and his people were even considering killing certain members of Alexandria for the good of the whole.  It looked as if this was going to be needed.  Meanwhile the citizens of Alexandria were mostly content to keep living in their bubble, even if there was literally “wolves” at their door.  (I would argue that the people of Alexandria aren’t really doves in the political sense, but delusional.  Doves will still go to war when necessary, they just try to make it a last resort.  Though like any political group there are variations.  Compared to those of Terminus or the Governor, the Grimes gang are doves.  For the sake of not making this article incredibly long, lets just keep the political tags somewhat simplified.)

The season finale was called Conquer.  It looked as if Rick and his gang were going to have to use violence to conquer Alexandria.  Often in real world events there are hawks and doves.  There are people that believe in peace and people that believe that violence is a way to achieve and end.  It looked like the show was setting things up to make the doves of this scenario and episode look foolish while the hawks looked like they were right.

However, the Grimes gang was able to peacefully take over Alexandria not through violence, but because of their compassion.  Yes the episode ended with an act of violence, but this was directed by one of the members of Alexandria, even though Rick carried it out.  But all of the main characters demonstrated that they had held on to their humanity at the end, and this at least left the viewer with the impression that they were going to be the leaders of this new society.  At the same time, they were able to bring the members of Alexandria to understand the world that they were facing and bring them closer to their world view.

What the writers of this episode seemed to be saying was that although we must be willing to look at the world as it really is, it is essentially holding onto our compassion in the face of threats that will allow people to build a better world.  Many of the people that have resorted to nothing but brute violence in this show may survive awhile, but they are not as strong as people that also possess compassion for others.  So far they have all been wiped out eventually.  Meanwhile those that completely ignore real world threats will essentially find their time coming to an unpleasant end as well.  Although different people, in reality, can argue that the show is taking one side or the other, as it is interpretive, this is how I interpreted this episode.  I am also fully aware that this is only a midpoint in the series as a whole, and that anything may change based on further episodes.

However, I think, even if you philosophically disagree with different ideas on the show, this is an interesting point to contemplate.  One must face the world as it really is, even the worst of it, but trying to hold onto one’s compassion is essential even in the face of the darker truths of the world.

One of the really great things about this series is that if you read about it on the internet, there are a whole host of different ways to interpret different plot points and story arcs.  Again, I think fiction that gets people thinking in different ways is always a good thing.  

Birdman, Confusing Appreciation With Love, and The Virtue of Ignorance,


Yesterday the weather in Austin was like the movie Bladerunner.  After being sequestered in my house all day, I started getting stir crazy.  I finally decided I had to get out for awhile and I went to see the movie Birdman.  The movie stars Michael Keaton and it is as fantastic as all of the reviews say it is.  It is one of those rare movies that is full of ideas, completely original, and is extremely accessible.  The human drama of it and the pacing are enough to keep one involved in every moment of the movie, even if one didn’t get off on all of the multiple levels of ideas and meaning in every scene.  It is extremely funny, sometimes sad, and often poignant.  The movie itself is largely about the human ego.  It follows Keaton as a washed up actor trying to make a comeback, as actors, and artists in general, are a great subject to be able to examine the ego with.

One of the key lines in the film is about how Keaton is confusing admiration for love, which is something that so many people get confused on.  People often confuse being appreciated for something they do, whether that is art they make, being good at their job, being a great athlete, whatever, with being loved for who they are as a person.  Being appreciated for something you do is a superficial kind of love where people are only approving of one aspect of your life, that has nothing to do in the overall picture of who you are as a person.  Whereas, if someone loves you they accept you for who you are, warts and all.  As soon as you stop being good at what you are doing, appreciation can fade, whereas love should continue.  I think that is why so many people in the entertainment industry, or in the public eye in general, have egos that have run amuck.  It is also why so many are needy emotionally.  Being appreciated is a thing that has to be constant to fulfill.  If you have even just a couple people that really love you, you know that it is fulfilling in a way that all of the appreciation in the world can never equal.

The subtile of the movie is The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.  I had a really strange experience on the way into the movies.  This movie was in South Austin, the height of hipsterdom.  While I was walking out of the parking garage there was a couple that looked like they were in 70’s costumes.  Every article of clothing they wore was straight out of that decade, even if they were in times with current fashion.  Then next to me sat a rocker looking couple where the guy had long blonde hair and a bandana, like Bret Michaels, but more hip.  It was like I was at a costume party at the movies, but these weren’t costumes, just people dressing to some kind of strange fashion ideal.  But fashion is a construct created by society and has nothing to do with if someone is a good person or not.  All of a sudden the movie title and subtitle came up and it all made sense.  Although you can still play with fashion if you are aware it is all a game, how much easier is it to take yourself seriously in one of those get ups if you are ignorant of the construct?

Also, isn’t it morally easier for someone to sellout, if they never had integrity in the first place.  Although there are some people that definitely “sellout”, I would imagine that many people in the public eye are ignorant of the ethical quandaries that, say, endorsing some product bring up.  If you buy into the larger economic system, or are even completely unaware of what is going on, isn’t it so much easier to go along with the program?  In modern society ignorance is a virtue to some degree.

Anyway, those were just two of the ideas that the movie gave me.  It really has so much going on, on so many levels, in not only the ideas that it contains, but also in the way that it is constructed as a movie.  It is a fantastic viewing experience that I think most people would like, even if they aren’t consciously aware of all the ideas the movie is bringing up.  It is entertainment in the best sense, in that it completely sweeps you into its world, holds your attention, yet it also somehow does the trick of making you think at the same time.  And I should mention again that it is often funny as hell!

Isis Using Video Games for Propaganda


ISIS Using Video Games for Propaganda

The above link is to a Salon article about how ISIS and other jihadist groups are using video games for propaganda.  As someone that just got a video game console for my birthday from my girlfriend, video games are on my mind.  Over the years I have played video games on and off.  There are some like Final Fantasy X, one of my all time favorites, which are really incredible works of art.  If you haven’t played many games you would be surprised to know that there are some which are emotional experiences with stories rivaling good movies.  There are also some where the amount of artistry and creativity that goes into them has to be seen to be believed.  Some have so much detail that just looking at the background can be like looking at a fantastic landscape painting.

However, this Salon article got me thinking about how are own video games are subject to propaganda.  This is not a new subject, but simply one I have never addressed here.  If you read the article you will see that certain games are designed in conjunction with the US Military.  There is one game they provide a link to that even includes General Petraeus.  (seen above)  It’s probably not surprising to many of you, even those of you that don’t play games, that there are games where players portray soldiers fighting generic Middle Eastern bad guys.

Earlier this year I read a book which talked about how the the military and CIA manipulated Hollywood to put propaganda in movies and television.  It is no different in video games or really any form of entertainment.  Entertainment is one way in which the Military Industrial Complex can shape the views of citizens.

I am no fan of censorship of any kind.  I am also aware that violence in video games has been linked to all kinds of societal ills which are really more complex.  Often video games get scapegoated because we don’t want to look at how we treat the mentally ill in our country, among other things.  However, when someone is playing a game, just like if you are watching a movie or reading a book, one must ask oneself what message it is trying to get across.  Also, much more than just violence, I think parents should be concerned at the propaganda that their kids might be consuming.  We must always be taught to think and to question.

Thoughts On The Walking Dead and Texas Politics

My allergies have been really bad the last few days, on top of other things, so I haven’t been as productive as usual.  Also, to create anything, be it a blog or a song, you need to take in a large amount of material.  Other than listening to records, which I never stop doing, about the most I have been able to concentrate on is watching The Walking Dead.  I am finally caught up with the newest episode.

Zombies have typically been used as metaphors for different political situations.  George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which takes place in a mall, has been seen as commenting on consumer culture.  I feel like because of the complexity of the storytelling, and the density of the imagery, the politics of The Walking Dead are complicated, and it can’t be simplified down to a left or right thing.  There are different scenes and story lines and images that feel like part of red and blue America.

One of the things I really like about it is the fact that the cast is racially diverse in a way that most mainstream entertainment is not.  I also feel that, for the most part, the characters are sufficiently complicated and are represented as human beings.  While the characters, such as Tyreese and Glen, are not stripped of racial characteristics, they are never defined by them either.

All art is political at some level.  Sometimes you just have to read between the lines.  Even pieces of work that are expressly non-political are political.  Things that are just escapism, which can perform the altruistic function of allowing you to disconnect from the stress of daily life, is essentially saying that everything is OK.   In not challenging the dominant narrative of society you are you are making a political statement by abstaining from the discourse.  Again, I do believe that escapist entertainment can have an altruistic purpose, but one shouldn’t say that it is non-political.

However, in the realm of escapism I think there are different levels of worth.  Some escapism champions materialistic values.  Something like American Idol is not only not asking you to not think about the real world, it is also full of the kind of shallow materialistic values that are a burden on our society.  A great deal of mainstream country and mainstream rap, whether singing about trucks or bling, communicate the message, that is hidden under the guise of fun, that you are what you own.

I do think that The Walking Dead, while being entertainment largely, manages to ask questions about human nature.  How far can people go and still retain their humanity?  Even though the killings in Episode 3 of Season 5 seemed to be justified, they were filmed in such a way that was meant to make the viewer feel uneasy.  In Season 4, especially, you see the damage that a society structured on violence starts to psychologically damage the children that grow up in it.  The show is still asking you to think even while it creates a narrative entertaining enough that it whisks you out of real life at the same time.  It is an interesting balancing act.


Today I have also been doing some reading on the current political races in Texas.  If you want to see the definition of despicable, google Dan Patrick, who is running for lieutenant governor in Texas.  He is a former radio shock-jock that has now gone into politics.  If you are not from Texas, and want to learn about who this man is you can read the following article:

Man Who Believes God Speaks to Us Through “Duck Dynasty”

If you are in Texas, then I hope very much you will do whatever you can in your power to make sure this man loses the election.  Even Rick Perry looks respectable next to this moron, and that is saying something.

Good Morning America: Happy Horseshit

Last day of the road as we are heading back to Austin. Good Morning America is playing in the hotel.  My god this stuff is depressing.  A bunch of a shallow people talking about meaningless nonsense.  Or, even worse, a bunch of intelligent people acting like shallow people pretending to care about meaningless nonsense.  The low point today was when Carson Daily came on and they debated whether a Joan Rivers Saturday Night Live skit was too soon.  If you are sitting around your house worrying about a Saturday Night Live skit, then the brain is dead, but the body still lives. 

I know I have been harping on the same stuff lately, but I can’t help it.  I remembered a very useful term that I used to use in college a lot: Happy Horseshit. 

This morning TV stuff is happy horseshit.  It is happy on the outside, but empty on the inside.  It can’t really even qualify as entertainment instead of news.  Entertainment allows you to escape and disconnect your mind.  It serves the altruistic purpose of letting you recharge your batteries.  This stuff gives you just enough real world info to make you worry or to make you think in a real shallow way, but not in anyway that is actually relatable and useful to your daily life.  Good Morning America: Happy Horseshit!

The Lowering of the Bar

I don’t have cable, but I see a lot of TV on the road.  It is fucking troubling how much senseless shit is pumped out over the airwaves.  There was a commercial for, I think it was the local Fox South Carolina News Morning Show, though constant travel makes things blurry, where one of the selling points of the ad was the morning news team dancing.  Is all it takes to be a newscaster to look presentable, be able to read a teleprompter, and have the ability to dance like the Caddyshack gopher on camera? 

Last night when we got in from the gig there was an infomercial for someone that had apparently designed a revolutionary pillow that makes you smarter.  We were all laughing in total disbelief. 

Now there are two shows on that are based upon the fact that the participants are naked.  These shows would be Naked and Afraid and Naked Dating. 

The bar is constantly being lowered.  Where will we be five years from now?  Sometimes swearing is the most appropriate response:  Holy fucking shitballs!   

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Review


Last night my kid brother and me went to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

“Hey Ben, I know you are moving back to Pennsylvania in two days.  Do you want to spend some meaningful time together?  Let’s go chew tobacco and see some fucking apes fight.”  I’m sure at this moment he thought it was the shittiest going away present ever, but hey, we had fun.

As far as popcorn movies go it was really good.  If you liked the first one you should like this one and vice versa.  It was more epic and battle oriented, but it was tied together with a solid story.  There is always a bit of ridiculousness when you see talking apes in a movie, and there were several parts where you could predict what was going to happen in the next scene, but overall it was done about as well as could be expected.  The special effects were phenomenal.  I hate when something looks like it was created with CGI and it takes you out of the moment.  Other than one or two shots in the beginning of the film, there wasn’t a moment when a visual kept me from being engrossed in the story.

Let’s not kid anyone and pretend that a movie that features apes riding horses is Shakespeare, but these movies feature a degree of intelligence that most summer blockbusters lack.  This movie, behind it’s summer entertainment factor, is a tragedy where we slowly see peace break down between groups over misunderstandings and rival factions.  In each group there are those that seek peace and those that seek power.  Much as in the real world, those that seek power rig the game so that the peace is lost.  Yeah, yeah, I know, as I said there are apes talking and riding horses.  But most of the time when a summer movie tries to be smart it only looks dumber.  This was one of the few examples where, and don’t get me wrong this movie is entertainment first, where a small degree of intelligence actually manages to be a part of the proceedings.

As a final note, I had a friend with a child ask me if this movie would be OK to take him to.  I think this movie’s PG-13 rating is earned, as it might be too intense for anyone younger then that.  Also, I’m usually not a fan of anything rated PG-13, as it usually means that they take anything adult or interesting out of a film to appeal to the widest possible audience, without a film having the magical whimsey of a kid’s movie.  However, I didn’t feel that this movie lost anything by being PG-13.  In fact, despite the fact that there was no graphic gore or nudity, I just had to double check the rating to make sure I was correct.

If they can maintain this level of quality for a third film I would be happy to attend.