Audio Drama Sunday: Wooden Overcoats, A Conversation with David K. Barnes & Felix Trench

Wooden Overcoats is one of the best British comedies in years. But it doesn’t involve Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright. You won’t find it playing in a movie theater or streaming through Netflix. This is distinguished, sometimes eccentric, and frequently hilarious comedy carefully honed for the ear, a production that is both of our podcasting age and that naturally jumps off from Spike Mulligan and Peter Sellers’s goofy radio experimentation.

Telling the tale of two rival funeral homes competing for business on a mile-wide island of Piffling (a forgotten strip in the Channel Islands), with embittered local Rudyard Funn (“displaying the athleticism that comes only to a man whose entire fortunes rest on burying a seagull before six o’clock”) brushing up against a dashing new mortuary upstart named Eric Chapman, the listener is immediately struck by how fresh, original, ambitious, and committed this show feels. The story is narrated by a memoir-writing mouse, for one thing, voiced by veteran actor Belinda Lang. Amazingly, the show was produced entirely independent. The scripts were so good that the crew behind this massive operation not only persuaded veteran actors and nimble newcomers alike to work for nearly nothing. They even assembled a small orchestra to record the show’s theme.

Last September, Wooden Overcoats unveiled its first season of eight episodes. While this seemingly out of nowhere release earned deservedly rapturous praise from many in the audio drama community, it remains a great mystery why this wonderful and truly sui generis production hasn’t been more passionately endorsed by those who profess to know all culture. In addition to being terribly funny, Wooden Overcoats is also highly accomplished audio drama with energetic voice work and nimble effects and a meticulously timed pace. It is the kind of program that might never have found support within the limited ambitions of current media institutions.

Of course, Wooden Overcoats isn’t done by a long shot. It is now in the middle of a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for its second season, but it needs listener support. It is presently just a few thousand pounds (and a few thousand George Washingtons) away from being able to do this.

Within minutes of listening to Wooden Overcoats‘s first episode, I suspected that the program had been put together with a great deal of thought, care, and attention. After I plunged into this magnificent show, discovering that I could not stop listening, I contacted head writer David K. Barnes and actor Felix Trench (who plays Rudyard) to find out just how this show was made. These two affable gents responded to my many questions. And we fell into a two week frenzy of perspicacious banter, which has been presented below.

You can listen to the show here. You can contribute to the Kickstarter campaign here.

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EDWARD CHAMPION: Aside from the sheer fun I had binge-listening to the entire first season in less than 24 hours, there were a number of curious qualities that I noticed about Wooden Overcoats. There’s a certain cultural history of narratives set on islands, ranging from Daniel DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe to Muriel Spark’s woefully underrated novel Robinson (of which Wooden Overcoats suggested close associations!), to the islands that populate David Mitchell’s novels, to Gilligan’s Island and Lost and the beautifully nutty 1973 film The Wicker Man. In all of these examples (and even Sherwood Schwartz populated his island with an eccentric ensemble!), the island’s geographical limitations somehow provided their creators with a kind of license to go big, whether it meant a labyrinthine plot or an allegory or an exploration of strange behavior. I’m wondering how your own island came about. Did you consider other island narratives before making this? Why did you feel that radio was the best way to tell this story?

DAVID K. BARNES: We started with the basic premise of two competing funeral directors and knew that they’d have to be in a small community for the comedy to work. I decided very early on whilst plotting the first episode that it’d be best if Rudyard had lived in this community all his life and that Eric was brand new, arriving in that episode, and that the power struggle would be essentially one-sided. A village on the mainland seemed to me to provide too many avenues of escape — Rudyard could essentially move, if his pride would let him — and so we thought setting the series on an island would isolate everybody and raise the stakes.

Though I’ve read Robinson Crusoe and seen The Wicker Man and so on, I can’t say I was inspired by any of them, though I am generally very interested in the history of tiny islands and countries. Small communities developing their own traditions and taking whatever they want from the culture of the outside world… I was also born and raised in Portsmouth, UK, which is an island steeped in naval history. Quite honestly, however, very little of all this is reflected in Wooden Overcoats!

FELIX TRENCH: I’ve listened to radio comedy since I was a teenager; I suspect that’s the same for a lot of us who get into it. I grew up in mainland Europe and an abiding memory is staticy BBC Radio 4 LW fading Dead Ringers in and out as we waited for the lights to turn green.

I began Audioscribble with a couple of other actors in 2012 (in a graveyard weirdly) as a way to make work for ourselves in a medium we love but has few openings. There’s a long tradition in comedy of starting out on the radio and coming back to it (like Mitchell and Webb did recently or Stephen Fry’s series on etymology). Having a state broadcaster like the BBC who run much of the most listened to/watched radio and TV and make their own content probably has something to do with that. It never occurred to me that we’d do it another way.

CHAMPION: What accounts for some of the unusual mathematical factors (a mouse tells the story — a very small being; two competing funeral parlors)? Do you feel that scope inevitability arises from creative limitations?

mousecuteBARNES: It’s usually a function of storytelling. There are two competing funeral parlours because three would dilute the impact of the narratives and characters. The island has one of everything because then you can keep going back to those locations and develop recurring characters. The narrator being a mouse arose from the fact that when writing the first episode I wanted to tie the narrator into the action, and felt that the episode needed to end on a twist that would intrigue the audience enough to listen to Episode 2. I’d early on established that Rudyard’s only friend was a mouse and then thought, well, why not make the mouse narrate the show? A mouse can observe everything without being observed itself! And she’s writing a memoir for commercial gain, which explains why she’s (a) telling us all this, and (b) telling us only the “good bits”. Almost everything that happens in WO is a result of a carefully decided plan on how best to tell the story in an involving and entertaining way.

TRENCH: Limits are amazing. They force you to focus on story which is the most important thing. In Season 1, David purposefully looked for writers for the team who had a background in playwrighting knowing that he could add the jokes later if needed. Giving yourself a limit (or even better having someone give it to you) pulls you out of the patterns you’re comfortable with and makes you think in ways that you wouldn’t have before. I’ve worked as an actor both on roles I’ve written and roles I haven’t and I vastly prefer the latter – it’s more satisfying to look for a way into someone else’s mind than roll around in your own. The pitching process to the usual radio channels in this country recently became a lot harder to break into which is what ultimately forced us to gamble on podcasting.

CHAMPION: Did such a mantra extend to some off the writing (such as many of the seaside adventures)? Also, just how in the sam hill did you two goofy fellows hook up for this?

channelislandsBARNES: There’s certainly a lot you can do with audio. There are huge sequences in some of our episodes which would be very expensive to film as television, and tricky to do on stage (the flooded mortuary swimming in corpses, Rudyard’s clifftop excursion…). So, as long as we can effectively communicate what’s happening to the audience, we like to try out a few big set pieces. Also, the idea that the island is a mile wide and yet has all these things on it is conceptually very interesting and ridiculous in a way I think is best suited for audio. You couldn’t visualise it on TV, and in written prose you’d probably notice how improbable it was. On audio you kind of go along with it. I told my writers to establish whatever they wanted on the island because Piffling could certainly accommodate it.

TRENCH: David and I have known each other since 2006. We were both studying at Edinburgh, along with our production manager, Liz. I graduated the year before them and moved to London and, long story short, we all ended up living together. I met Tom Crowley on a playwrighting course in 2012 and he and I have worked on projects together ever since. We’ve often noted how our careers tend to parallel each other’s and we’ve ended up in the same spot from different performance backgrounds. I initially pitched to him a short film about rival undertakers for us both to work on/be in and we made some plans but never followed through. Six months later, we revived the idea as an audio sitcom and brought it to David as a concept. He disappeared for twenty minutes then came back with a treatment for episode 1, I had a quiet word with Tom, and we asked if he’d like to run the show. I’d worked with David on a couple of other projects before — including an audio comedy — and knew that whatever he’d do, it would be good.

CHAMPION: Wooden Overcoats has this interesting tension between a bustling cadre of characters and the inherent limitations of a small community. Given the intimacy of the medium, how ambitious do you think audio drama can be in sustaining an epic scope? As you point out, you can certainly stage epic incidents, such as flooded mortuaries.

TRENCH: Radio 4 adapted Neverwhere recently, Naxos gave us a Michael Sheen-led Sophocles cycle, there was a big Lord of the Rings adaptation in the early 80s, Hitchhiker’s crossed the axes of time, space and probability, and just last year we had all the John Le Carré Smiley books so… pretty ambitious. I think the size is in the storytelling choices. Radio is well-suited, as you say, to intimate because you’re talking in somebody’s ear. You’ve got a different set of toys at the IMAX, different again at the theatre. There’s a truism in acting that goes something like “play the size of the room, not the size you want to play”. Radio is to an audience of one which is strange in any other medium (I think, I can’t think of any examples right now) so it’s up to us as creators to create that sense of the epic, if that’s what we’re going for, for a single audience. I think who that audience of one is is changing though. There is a difference between listening to the Afternoon Play while chopping vegetables and listening to Night Vale while curled up in bed or on the tube. If I tell you a story from three feet away, it’s different to if I tell it in your ear. The current wave of podcast dramas are even more direct than what we’re used to — probably more so than ours which takes a very traditional approach but adds in the Madeleine narration to tie us to the podcasting world.

CHAMPION: During the writing, the pragmatics of production, or the jarring discoveries in post-production, have you run into any hurdles that have caused you to scale back in any way?

clockworktoyTRENCH: Not yet! David’s a good enough writer not to demand the impossible and the producers are good enough producers to provide the impossible anyway. We were constantly surprised listening to Season 1 how much detail they’d put in. There’s a moment in Episode 4 where Madeleine is chased by a clockwork toy which you only catch if you listen carefully, Antigone’s survival suit became a full on 60s cosmonaut’s outfit, and our composer provided specific background music for the big set pieces.

CHAMPION: I also noticed that, in your Kickstarter campaign, you’ve invited your supporters to devise a creative form of death. To what degree are you beholden to entertaining an audience? In what creative ways do you diverge from this?

BARNES: I’d say that we’re entirely beholden to entertaining our audiences. However, the best way of doing that is to create what we personally believe is an entertaining programme and hope that our audiences enjoy it too. I tend to write my scripts with a view to thinking up a dramatic and/or amusing situation, and then going, “If I were in the audience, what would I want to see?” And then once I’ve come up with a few scenes on that principle, I finish with, “How can I put a twist on this that they wouldn’t have imagined themselves?” I think that’s the way to satisfy your audience, hold their attention, and keep them wanting more.

I have known writers who entirely disregard their audiences, which I think is arrogant and foolish. Your audience buys tickets to your shows — or downloads your podcast — and recommends you to their family and friends. You’ve got to provide them with something worth their while, or they’ll find it elsewhere. But equally, the old maxim that “people don’t know what they want until they’ve got it” holds true. We all enjoy getting some more of the same but we tire of it very quickly. It’s why I like having guest writers on the series: not only does it take some of the pressure off me, but they also come up with fresh ideas and perspectives that I’d never have come up with by myself, which reinvigorates the series.

I think it’s the dramatic qualities of the show which keep our audiences listening and re-listening. When I delivered the “Bane of Rudyard” script to my directors and was asked to produce another seven, they said they wanted to do this show in the studio rather than in front of a live audience. They wanted me to explore the dramatic potential of the characters and situations without having to flood the series with one-liner gags (which can make a comedy sound superficial unless the writing is exceptionally sharp).

overcoatcoffinAs Felix mentioned above, I tend to approach writers from theatrical backgrounds like myself. Not all of them had even written comedy before but they all had superb instincts for creating dramatic situations. I said to them, “Don’t concentrate on being funny, whatever you do. Let your imagination run free, and focus on being interesting.” It doesn’t take a great deal of work to take something serious and make it amusing (or the other way around). My favourite episode to write in the first season was “Georgina and the Waves,” in which one of the silliest situations of the series evoked some of the most wrenching character drama, and still managed to be — I think — very funny. In this respect, I’m heavily influenced by Alan Ayckbourn’s The Crafty Art of Playmaking, an essential read for any writer.

From the feedback I’ve read, our audiences have really taken our characters to heart, and I believe that’s because whilst Rudyard and Antigone etc. are ridiculous, they’re also based in something very real. They’re hurt and ennobled and motivated by the same things we are. They never do anything just to make the audience laugh, yet I think they’re very funny characters all the same.

CHAMPION: Since we’re on the subject of ambition, I am curious if the large cast was always part of the plan. Was your approach simply to create a fun story and figure out how to attract high caliber talent (along with figuring out their schedules) in the act of production?

TRENCH: We always knew we could get highly talented writers and actors because London is brimming with them. There’s a real problem here, like in other big creative cities, of the opportunities being scarcer than the workforce. We owe a lot to Max Tyler, Sarah Burton, Peter Wicks, Pip Gladwin, and Holly Campbell who play many of our islanders and smaller roles throughout the series, or help out at live shows when the series actors can’t make it, and are all brilliant.

Bringing in producers Andy [Goddard] and John [Wakefield] gave the project bigger scope than we had originally thought about. They introduced the ideas of full scoring and live instruments, episode guests on top of the regular company, and approaching a few household names.

CHAMPION: Did you have any narrow production scheduling confines that you had to meet (either out of necessity or self-imposed)?

TRENCH: Once the studio’s booked, those are your dates. It’s difficult to rearrange when you have a big team.

CHAMPION: it is my understanding that many of your actors worked for free. This leads me to wonder whether you forewent rehearsal and simply recorded the sides in the time slots that the actors available. (Obviously, any working actor is going to have to say yes to paid work first.) Is a quality script enough of an incentive for a talent to commit time and energy for a long-form production?

heartpizzaTRENCH: All of our actors worked for expenses in Season 1 — we covered food and travel for the initial readthroughs and the recording. There was a lot of pizza. Rehearsals are unusual in radio, at least here they are. You’ll have the readthrough, maybe a few readthroughs if the script’s in development, and then perhaps a rehearsal before the take which will include a bit of blocking but it’s not like theatre. The whole process is closer to TV. We had a bit of flexibility with the recording process which gave us the luxury to record in sequence — which we did over four days. A couple of scenes had to be done out of order when guest’s schedules changed but not much. From an actor’s perspective, in sequence is amazing because you know exactly were you are in your mind at any one point and it’s easier to play the moment. As to the script, depends on the actor! The people who came on board with us did so because of the scripts.

CHAMPION: What deals did you have to cut to get people on board beyond this?

TRENCH: None that I know of. Maybe Andy secretly makes breakfast for the actors every morning. If he does, I want in.

CHAMPION: How many of the principals have pledged to return to the second season?

TRENCH: We haven’t yet reached the stage where an actor’s unavailability has led to re-writes, though I must always remain prepared for that being a potential issue until recording takes place.

BARNES: The scripts are still being written and cast requirements being drawn up, though those actors to whom we’ve already spoken about returning to Season Two have stated how keen they are to do it. Our four principals – Felix, Beth, Tom ,and Ciara – are certainly on board.

overcoats2CHAMPION: Has actor availability forced you to alter any of the scripts (in either season)? I was also hoping to learn more about how David works with the other writers. What replaces a writer’s room in radio drama? Lots of Skype sessions? Emails? Dropbox and Facebook groups?

BARNES: All of my writers live in London, so it’s always feasible to meet them in person. However, they’re also all very busy, so it’s rare that I can get them into the same room at once. The pattern for Season One, which I repeated for Season Two, was to meet each writer individually to discuss the series, its characters, and any ideas they had. Then there’d be a meeting of the whole writing team — which, because of availability, is probably the only time we’ll be together in one place — during which everybody gives the broad outline of a few episode ideas. These are bounced around, discussed, and by the end of the meeting every writer has an idea that everybody is excited about. From then on, I keep in contact with each writer individually by e-mail or telephone.

My feedback on breakdowns and drafts is often extensive because I tend to know what I want from each episode once the writer has devised their idea. But the flip side is that I want to allow writers a lot of room to work by themselves the rest of the time; nobody likes somebody breathing down their neck when they’re trying to create!

CHAMPION: How much revision do you think is enough?

BARNES: Most problems with a story can be solved very early on at the scene-by-scene breakdown stage. That’s when you know if things don’t make sense, or an episode isn’t likely to be paced properly, or lead characters don’t have enough to do. If necessary, I’ll rework a writer’s breakdown myself and suggest that it’s probably a good compromise between their original idea and how it might be best deployed within the context of the show.

overcoats3After that, the writers will do a first and then a second draft. I then take over, doing any necessary edits and re-writes. If the writer is happy with those, it goes to my producers for their opinion, and I may carry out additional edits based on their feedback. Then it goes to a full reading with available actors, with the writers and producers present, and a discussion will ensue. Any additional edits (usually very small by this stage) will occur before we get into studio to record. For Season One, I could count the number of lines that needed alteration in the studio on one hand, really. We really knock them into shape and ensure that everybody is happy.

Generally, the more work put in earlier at the planning stage, the fewer headaches later on. When we did our Season One readthrough, it was a case of, “This particular line doesn’t work,” rather than, “This plot doesn’t work.”

CHAMPION: What mistakes do you feel you made during the first season? How do you keep the door open for continued “on the job” learning?

BARNES: Everybody was, as you say, learning on the job, so I’m sure everybody can point to things they’d do differently the next time round. The trick is to carry on doing the things that worked and to experiment to make them work even better! From a writing perspective, I’ve never been entirely happy with how the last episode devotes a considerable amount of the climax to the machinations of a secondary character; that was me trying to tie up as many plot threads as possible in too short a space of time. The production certainly pulls it off, but I should have found a more elegant solution at the time. I’m trying to pace things slightly better in Season 2, with the final episode placing the leads front and centre. Otherwise, for my first attempt at head writing and script editing an entire series, the whole thing went much more smoothly than I’d imagined!

CHAMPION: Audio drama is a free and liberating medium with many very cool, exuberant, and passionate people forming a magnificent community. But do you foresee any dangers to the inevitable professionalization of audio drama?

TRENCH: Bigger companies coming in with bigger budgets will make it harder for smaller outfits to be heard. We’re in a time of opportunity where nobody quite knows the rules and we’re all working out how we fit together and that’s lovely. But I agree. It won’t necessarily last. My hope is that if something’s good, the democracy of the internet will give it coverage to flourish. This is a really great medium for new creative voices everywhere to make themselves heard and reach a wide audience without too much outlay. I’m looking forward to finding out who else is out there and what stories they want to tell. The downloadable podcast drama I’m aware of is based mostly in North America … and us. Even if we stick to the English-speaking world, where’s everyone else? I want to hear a really great Australian or New Zealander or Irish or South African podcast drama. There’s one being put together in South Korea but recorded all over I’m very excited about, because of how it’s being made as much as the story – that’s a product that just couldn’t have existed until recently.

CHAMPION: In describing how Wooden Overcoats came into fruition and the way in which the second season is being put together, it seems to me that the creative/production process is very much about reacting to concepts and working out the expression of these reactions through revision and readthroughs. But you can’t calculate everything. I’m wondering the degree to which you two agonize over this and how you contend with any perfectionist streaks.

BARNES: I have deadlines I need to meet: it’s as simple as that. At the moment, I’m several months away and the writing is still pretty slow. I’m agonising over every line, every syllable, revising as I go, pacing the room and pondering if this is the best way to go about constructing a scene. I’ve just spent three hours deliberating over whether Georgie should be having a certain conversation with the Mayor or Madeleine. Pretty soon, however, I won’t have the luxury of time, and I’ll just have to fly by impulse, which is when I tend to do my best writing on the whole (so long as I’ve got my stories planned in advance, which I’m happy to say is the case). I need adrenalin, I need to stop second-guessing everything. But then again, I do dedicate a lot of time to ensuring that my dialogue is going to sound right in the mouths of my actors, and a single misplaced syllable can ruin the comic flow of an entire scene, so my perfectionism certainly comes in handy. Just so long as I meet my deadlines.

davidbarnesTRENCH: I’m not involved in the writing decisions and deliberately keep myself separate. I’ve bounced a few ideas around and suggested things when asked at readthroughs but David has written extensively within the genre, studied at a respected institution, takes an active interest in his craft and is continually analysing and learning from other people’s work, working out and refining his own opinions and pallet. Throw me into that mix and I’m just a nuisance. I’ve only got the vaguest idea what’s planned for Season 2; I’ll find out at the first readthrough and I’ll really enjoy doing that and picking up the reigns with the things I do. From an actor’s perspective, as far as agonizing and perfectionism goes, I put as much prep and scriptwork in as I would for any other part then trust to that. The lion’s share of my work happens in the time leading up to recording. But I don’t really get retake envy on listening because that way madness lies and anyway that’s what directors are for. I always try to learn from listening to the finished episodes and look for room to make whatever the next thing I do is better. My only frustration is that the nature of audio work, unlike film or stage, means it’s inherently on-script. When you’re recording eight episodes back-to-back over four days, there’s not enough time to learn it securely and this isn’t the kind of material that takes paraphrasing kindly, nor is that particularly fair on the others with you in the studio. I try to do a loose learn and put the script aside as much as possible because the sound of someone reading is very different to the sound of someone in the moment, you can usually tell. That’s something I’ll be working on getting better at.

CHAMPION: The trio of mini-episodes that you recently released — especially the poignant “Casebook of Dr. Edgware” — reminded me that Wooden Overcoats has somehow found a distinct style that allows for occasional tonal shifts. The humor can often be conceptual (I think of the tape recorder in the newsroom), committed to cheesy puns (Random Mouse), farcical (Antigone’s romantic pursuits), and adventurous (the later episodes set more around the sea). Did you gravitate towards any particular comic strain in the beginning? At what point were you aware of a particular Wooden Overcoats house style?

gothicBARNES: My original conception of the series was to infuse it with Gothic horror leanings, drawing upon some of my literary interests, but as I developed the characters in the pilot script – and as the other writers brought their ideas to the table – it was the humour that came to the forefront. Essentially, I just wrote what I personally thought was funny: obsessives who cause their own problems and can’t see it, being repressed when everyone else is a libertine, a touch of mild surrealism and perversity. There’s a dark thread running through it all, of course, which arises from the subject matter, but I try not to push it too much. It’s meant to be inherently enjoyable, not gross people out. I also like to avoid vulgarity and swearing, partly to increase the potential listenership but also because it forces more interesting uses of character, language and rhythm.

I’ve seen the series compared to Fawlty Towers, Blackadder, Father Ted, Keeping Up Appearances, and so on, mainly as it’s a British sitcom and those are some of the closest references (especially to an American listenership), which is immensely flattering. My own radio / TV influences are in fact somewhat older – Hancock’s Half Hour and Steptoe and Son are the ones I mention most – though also take in literature (Wodehouse) and theatre (Alan Ayckbourn). Ayckbourn in particular wrote tremendous roles for women and his great work in that regard always goes under-reported. But the other writers for Season One –- and now for Season Two -– will bring their own influences to bear, and then my directors and the actors will shape it all themselves and provide a consistent tone.

TRENCH: The readthroughs. I’ve worked with David and I’m familiar with his work and Overcoats is very him. He knows the rhythms needed in a scene to build up to a joke. I remember in early drafts he’d talk about putting in a placeholder joke until he came up with something better while he retooled the actual story around it but he knew instinctively where the joke had to be and the scene scaffolding that needed to go around it. I did a play with David once that had a gag in it that required someone overfilling a cup of tea. He spent hours experimenting with cups and muttering lines to himself to find the exact length of line that would work after putting in the stage direction. That’s the Barnes touch.

Beth, Ciara and I found during recordings that a house style emerged in performance. When we’re outside Funn Funerals or outsiders come in, the focus is on the characters who don’t work for the business. Every character is big and funny and ours become vehicles for their comedy. Any time the Mayor steps in, for instance, everyone becomes the straight man to him because he has the absolute highest status (and his insecurity in that status brings the comedy). But when it was just the three of us in the parlour, we found a sort of manic energy — like being constantly at Red Alert on the Enterprise — that worked for us. We really love doing those scenes. The character who breaks that boundary is Eric. Because he’s the antagonist, he can never quite be one of us but on the other hand he’s frequently the sensible audience lens for us so becomes the straight man against the Funns. A lot of the comedy comes from us assuming the higher status against Eric then being undermined by reality — except for in the Eric/Georgie storyline which has its own dynamic that gives Eric the punchlines.

CHAMPION: Are these mini-episodes your effort to show the audience where you intend to shift towards?

BARNES: Not really. They’re opportunities to experiment with form and expand upon our secondary characters, which helps us to develop their role in the main series. Rosie Fletcher’s “Random Mouse” was written to be an entertaining way to essentially trail Season Two; “Agatha Doyle and the Honey Trap” is a lighthearted Christie-style mystery by Tom Crowley; and “The Casebook of Dr. Edgware” by Tom and myself provides a new perspective on Season One from the viewpoint of a character who only originally had one line of dialogue. The ones we have coming up are entirely different too. But Season Two will continue the style and tone that we created in Season One, whilst taking the stories in a new direction.

CHAMPION: What input have the actors had on where you’re moving towards stylistically? Or is this really something that comes about naturally when you assemble a large cast of characters?

TRENCH: David has suggested I answer this one because he’s being even handed about breaking up the questions. Which is very lovely of him and I haven’t a clue. He told me the other day he now writes Rudyard with my voice in mind so with any luck I’ll be considered for the part if we do Season 2.

CHAMPION: Also, I listened to an Audio Drama Production Podcast interview with David and John Wakefield where the two of you described being very committed to homemade foley. How early in the production did you have the FX in place? I’m especially curious about the timing of Madeleine’s squeaks, which always seem to punctuate the right moments and remind us that we are in a comic environment. The squeaks also tend to soften some of the more unusual premises, weirdly rooting the narrative into something that’s real. The squeaks almost feel like something on a score sheet. At the risk of outing myself as a sonic obsessive type, I have to ask about the squeaks! How many do you have? Did you time them in the script? To what degree did you mess with the squeaks in post? Did the squeaks ever save your ass on a flub?

BARNES: They are indeed all script; Madeleine insisted on that. She’s a true professional, providing us with vocals that could run the full emotional gamut that a mouse can reach. It’s very difficult to find talent like that. After lengthy negotiation, she’s agreed to come back for Season Two, and the production team is immensely grateful. We wouldn’t know what to do without her.

scrambledeggsCHAMPION: Well, David may be a fair-minded gentleman, but I’m not going to let him get away from unpacking this point! Does the concern for status, which I feel is a staple of good drama, emerge as much in the act of production as in the writing, even when you have a large character such as the Mayor? Or is this as rigorously planned as David’s inherent fixation upon timing? David’s placeholder jokes remind me of how Paul McCartney had “Scrambled Eggs” in place of “Yesterday” as he was still working out the lyrics for that now classic song (with the “Scrambled Eggs” version later performed decades later in a newly enhanced form with Jimmy Fallon). This may simply be the approach of a highly obsessive mind, for which I have nothing less than the most heartfelt appreciation for, but I am very curious how David contends with the vast unknown story element, perhaps an invisible territory of pages going well beyond overfilling a cup of tea! David, do you feel that story sorts itself out easier than specific lines?

BARNES: There’s the old story about [Billy] Wilder and [I.A.L.] Diamond spending ages trying to come up with a decent last line for Some Like It Hot and ultimately going with their placeholder gag because they couldn’t think of anything better, and now of course that line is one of the most famous in movie history. But of course it’s not a line that sings out of context; entire plot threads have been leading up to it, and it’s an immensely satisfying — and very, very funny =- capstone.

On the other side, writers can come up with an absolute zinger of a line and then tie themselves into knots trying to make their story support it, and typically that line will be one of the first to get cut by a decent editor. The best dialogue is the dialogue that fits the situation you’ve created.

Every writer has sat down at some point and just started writing dialogue without an actual purpose, and it’ll typically go nowhere and not be very good. It’s easier to sort out dialogue than a story, because plotting is torturous, but I think it’s nearly impossible to sort out good dialogue if you haven’t sorted out the story first. And then your story might change in the writing of the dialogue, which is great too. Switching destinations is fine, but you ought to have at least one in mind when you set out.

CHAMPION: Might this also account for the island’s vast tableau? Do the other writers serve as relief pitchers for your vivacious baseball game on this front?

BARNES: I feared when I wrote “The Bane of Rudyard” that we might exhaust the story potential within a few episodes, but then the other writers showed me that, yes, there was much more you could do with this set-up. I took a lot of inspiration during that first writers’ meeting, where my job was essentially to ask “What excites you about all this?” and then decide which answers inspired me the most. For both seasons, I’ve found it easiest to help the other writers develop their stories first and then formulate my own in response, but I begin with some firm ideas about what I want the series to do, to say and to explore, and I’m OK with telling a writer, “I’m not wild about this idea, can we do something else?” But then, all of the writers have come to the table with at least one idea I’ve adored instantly, and those ideas get developed into full episodes.

CHAMPION: What’s the biggest mistake you made in Season 1?

BARNES: Owing to busy schedules. the episodes were edited concurrently with release dates, which led to a lot of pressure and sleepless nights for all involved. The sound design is very involved and Andy and John require a lot of time to do their magic. We’ve sorted this out for Season Two. But remember: always allow for more time than you think you need.

CHAMPION: What’s the most extraordinary thing that you had to do to get an actor on board Wooden Overcoats?

BARNES: Character comedian and attractive man Kieran Hodgson was lured to the studio with the promise of sparkling dialogue. Instead he was placed before a microphone and told to moan orgasmically in French whilst we scrutinised him thoroughly for about forty-five minutes. He’s since gone on in other productions to speak whole lines of actual dialogue, albeit for far more disreputable companies such as the BBC.

CHAMPION: What’s the greatest piece of advice you could offer to any emerging audio drama producer?

TRENCH: Be professional. Be original. Be ambitious. Sorry, that’s three but I think they’re all very important.

Professional means treating every aspect of your production with equal importance. Strive to work with new people and strive to create opportunities. As soon as you position yourself as someone making a thing, you enter a world with thousands of unheard voices who maybe don’t have the luxury of your ear so make it easy for them to find you and work with you. It also means learning about what came before and positioning yourself within that. Listen to as much as you can, not just drama podcasts, from as many different countries.

I say original because I’m seeing a lot of very good audio drama coming out in similar areas of storytelling. There’s a leaning towards genre and faux-documentary — maybe the Night Vale and Serial influences. I think a canny producer would ask themselves what they can do to separate themselves from the trend. A police procedural? A period piece? I’d listen to a Western. It also means thinking about what you can do with the medium. Beef & Dairy Network and The Bright Sessions are great examples of being playful with the fact that, at the end of the day, a podcast is just a sound file. Two examples from recent(ish) years on the radio: have a listen to Continuity, which was Alistair McGowan as a radio continuity announcer having a breakdown on air between fake trailers parodying Radio 4 formats, and Warhorses of Letters by Marie Phillips and Robert Hudson which was an exchange of love letters between Napoleon and Wellington’s horses.

And ambitious is the fun one. We can do anything in audio drama so… do. Submarine scrap yard? Two enzymes chatting while they ferment grapes? The parliament of the birds? I want to hear these worlds. What can you do that would require a massive time and money budget on telly? And what can you do that’s not been done in other media? Equally, be ambitious in how you make it. Look for great studios, look for unusual recording spaces, see how many countries you can get people involved in one project… there’s more (and more immediate) scope for us in this medium than any other I can think of so use that advantage to the full.

Josh Ostrovsky, Plagiarist: His Lies to Katie Couric and His Serial Instagram Thefts

“You gotta understand. The Internet is like a giant, weird orgy where like everything gets shared. A lot of people are using stuff that I make. And every time that I make a photo and I put it out there, it gets reblogged on a million sites, and I would never put my name on it. ‘Cause we’re like all in this giant — it’s kind of like we’re all on ecstasy at a giant rave.” — Josh Ostrovsky, after being asked by Katie Couric about his plagiarism

Josh Ostrovsky is an unremarkable man who has built up a remarkable fan base of 5.7 million Instagram users by stealing photos from other sources without attribution under the handle The Fat Jew, claiming the witticisms as his own, and turning these casual and often quite indolent thefts into a lucrative comedy career. His serial plagiarism, which makes Carlos Mencia look like an easily ignored bumbling purse snatcher, has understandably attracted the ire of many comedians, including Patton Oswalt, Kumail Nanjiani, and Michael Ian Black. The ample-gutted Ostrovsky transformed his gutless thieving into a deal with Comedy Central (since cancelled by the comedy network), CAA representation, and even a book deal. Ostrovsky is an unimaginative and talentless man who believed he could get away with this. And why not? The unquestioning press fawned over the Fat Jew at every opportunity, propping this false god up based on his numbers rather than his content. While the tide has turned against Ostrovsky in recent days, the real question that any self-respecting comedy fan needs to ask is whether they can stomach supporting a big fat thief who won’t cut down on his rapacious stealing anytime soon.

Ostrovosky’s lifting has already received several helpful examinations, including this collection from Kevin Kelly on Storify and an assemblage from Death and Taxes‘s Maura Quint. But in understanding how a figure like Ostrovsky infiltrates the entertainment world, it’s important to understand that, much like serial plagiarists Jonah Lehrer and Q.R. Markham, Ostrovsky could not refrain from his pathological need for attention.

After a two day investigation, Reluctant Habits has learned that every single Instagram post that Ostrovosky has ever put up appears to have been stolen from other people. His work, his lies, and his claims were not checked out by ostensible journalists, much less corporations like Burger King hiring this man to participate in commercials and product placement that he was compensated for by as much as $2,500 a pop.

In an interview with Katie Couric earlier this year, Ostrovsky offered some outright whoppers. Ostrovsky, who claimed to be “such a giver,” presented himself as a benign funnyman who said that “it’s just my gift” to find photos and apply captions to them. Tellingly, Ostrovsky declared, “It’s the only thing I can do in this world.”

“A lot of stuff I actually make myself,” said Ostrovsky. “Like sometimes if you see a tweet from like DMX, you know, or some kind of hardcore rapper being like, ‘About to go antiquing upstate,’ like ‘I’m refinishing Dutch furniture,’ like he probably didn’t write that. I Photoshopped that.”

Actually, the sentiment that Ostrovsky ascribed to DMX (assuming he didn’t pluck the image from another source) on April 14, 2015 (“YEAH SEX IS COOL BUT HAVE YOU EVER HAD GARLIC BREAD”) had actually been circulating on the Internet years before this. It started making the rounds on Twitter in November 2013 and appears to have been plucked from a now deleted Tumblr called whoredidthepartygo. This tagline theft is indicative of Ostrovsky’s style: take a sentence that many others have widely tweeted, reapply it in a new context, and hope that nobody notices.

The Couric interview also contained this astonishing prevarication:

Couric: I like Hillbilly too. You took half-Hillary, half-Bill Clinton.

Ostrovsky: Yup. A friend of mine actually made that and like just really exploded my brain into like a thousand pieces.

If this is really true, then why did Ostrovsky wait four years to share his “friend”‘s labor? Especially since it had “exploded his brain into like a thousand pieces.” After all, doesn’t a giver like Ostrovsky want to act swiftly upon his “generosity”? The Hillbilly pic was posted to Ostrovsky’s Instagram account on January 7, 2015.


But this image was cropped from another image that was circulating around 2011 — nearly four years before. If Ostrovsky’s “friend” gave the Hillbilly photo to him, then why was it cropped, with the telltale link to (a now defunct link) elided?


* * *

Reluctant Habits has examined Ostrovsky’s ten most recent Instagram posts. Not only are all of his images stolen from other people, but Ostrovsky often did not bother to change the original image he grabbed. In some cases, it appears that Ostrovsky simply took a screenshot from Twitter, often cropping out the identifying details.

For the purposes of this search, I have confined my analysis to any photo that Ostrovsky uploaded with a tagline. As the evidence will soon demonstrate, not only is Ostrovsky incapable of writing an original tag, but he appears to have never written a single original sentence in any of his Instagram captions.

I have included links to Ostrovsky’s Instagrams and the original tweets. But I have also taken screenshots in the event that either Ostrovsky or his originators remove their tweets.

OSTROVSKY INSTAGRAM 1: August 16, 2015.



As if to exonerate himself from the theft, Ostrovsky’s Instagram post included a callback to Instagram user @pistolschurman, who posted it onto Instagram that same day. One begins to see Ostovsky’s pattern of behavior: bottom-feed from a bottom-feeder.

But the image had already been widely distributed on Twitter with the tagline, “The international symbol for ‘what the hell is this guy doing?’,” “The international symbol for ‘what the hell is this douchebag doing?,” and “The international symbol for what the fuck is this nigga doing?'” But have traced its first use on Twitter to Betto Biscaia on August 10, 2014:


OSTROVSKY INSTAGRAM 2: August 16, 2015.



On August 16, 2015, the user @tank.sinatra posted this to Instagram, failing to acknowledge the original source. Ostrovsky linked to @tank.sinatra.

This was first tweeted by user @GetTheFuzzOut on August 14, 2015.


OSTROVSKY INSTAGRAM 3: August 14, 2015


SOURCES OF PLAGIARISM: While it appears that Ostrovsky or one of his minions may have typed the sentiment upon a new image, a Google Image Search shows that this sentence has been widely attached to photo memes. The first use of the joke on Twitter appears to originate from @TinyCodeEye on March 11, 2015.


OSTROVSKY INSTAGRAM 4: August 14, 2015


SOURCES OF PLAGIARISM: This has been a long-running tagline/photo combo, but Ostrovsky didn’t even bother to swap the font for this photo. The tagline appears to have been added to the photo for the first time by user @ViralStation on July 17, 2015:


In other words, Ostrovsky was so slothful in his theft that he couldn’t even be bothered to generate a new image.

As for the tagline context itself, I have traced its first use on Twitter to hip-hop artist EM3 on July 14, 2015:


I have reached out to EM3 on Twitter, asking if he was the first person to take this photo. He responded that he did not take the photo, but that he plucked it from eBay. (The latter response may have been facetious.) What EM3 may not know is that his quip was stolen by Ostrovsky and monetized for Ostrovsky’s gain.

OSTROVSKY INSTAGRAM 5: August 14, 2015


SOURCES OF PLAGIARISM: The joke was first tweeted by Andrew Grant on July 24, 2015.


But Grant, in turn, stole the joke from a Reddit thread initiated by user youstinkbitch on July 10, 2015.

OSTROVSKY INSTAGRAM 6: August 14, 2015


SOURCES OF PLAGIARISM: The photo/tag combo appears to originate with user @FUCKJERRY, who tweeted this on July 2, 2015.


OSTROVSKY INSTAGRAM 7: August 14, 2015


SOURCES OF PLAGIARISM: This was among the oldest tags I discovered and quite indicative of the desperate thieving that Ostrovsky practices. It appears to originate from Alex Moran, who tweeted it on July 17, 2014.


I have reached out to Mr. Moran to ask him if he was the person who snapped the photo. He has not responded.

OSTROVSKY INSTAGRAM 8: August 13, 2015


SOURCE OF PLAGIARISM: This was first tweeted by user @natrosity on November 5, 2014.


OSTROVSKY INSTAGRAM 9: August 13, 2015


SOURCE OF PLAGIARISM: This joke has become so widely circulated that only the world’s worst hack would use it. Ostrovsky thinks so little of his audience that he’s circulating a joke that’s been around since at least August 2012, when it first started appearing Tumblr. The first Twitter link to this is from August 2, 2012:


OSTROVSKY INSTAGRAM 10: August 13, 2015


SOURCE OF PLAGIARISM: The source of this appears to come from a now-defunct Tumblr called Luxury-andFashion. The earliest mention on Twitter appears to be on November 12, 2014 — a link to its Tumblr distribution.

The Bat Segundo Show: Sara Benincasa

Sara Benincasa appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #436. She is most recently the author of Agorafabulous.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering whether or not he has actually left the house.

Author: Sara Benincasa

Subjects Discussed: How to get out of bed and leave the house, the unanticipated benefits of contextual noise, overstuffed schedules, voices inside one’s head, the picaresque existence, commitments and surprise, occupations that depend upon approval, the adventurous spirit within the urban domicile, “I Am a Rock,” mental illness metaphors, freakishness as a choice vs. those who are innately freakish, Lee Redmond‘s automobile crash, mania and obsession, envy towards freaks, long-distance walking and The Great Saunter, how one’s “normal” behavior is viewed by others as different, seeking willful disapproval, freaks and confidence, Tod Browning’s Freaks, the close alignment between educators and comedians, Sicily as “the Alabama of Italy,” American problems with geography, regional stereotypes, being part of The Other in New Jersey, punching one’s father, family fistfights, domestic violence, Benincasa’s migratory impulses, sustaining lasting friendships while moving from city to city, National Lampoon’s Vacation, F. Scott Fitzgerald, celebrity wordplay, deciding what real-life incidents and people can be reused in a memoir, writers who write for revenge, The Boston Phoenix‘s Thomas McBee, Jeanette Wells’s The Glass Castle, Kambri Crews’s Burn Down the Ground, needless humiliation through a writing platform, holding figures up for public ridicule, what Benincasa learned from blogging, revenge and negativity, working for untreated bipolar people, being treated like dirt while younger, deep needs for approval and love, growing up in a take-out family, Benincasa’s cooking progress, an itemization of the dishes Bennincasa can cook, scrambled eggs and kale salad, Alice Bradley, gaining weight on the road, being career-focused, lack of spare time, finding down time and blowing off steam, Stuff You Missed in History Class, Tara Brach, playing Dave Matthews over and over again, The Sound of Music, sound as a soothing sensation, giving away a giraffe, Momfidential, claiming adulthood at 31, being in touch with your inner child, peeing in bowls and urine constituency, memoirs written from a privileged position, outpouring and audience approval, Girl, Interrupted, discussing the complexities of Flemington, New Jersey, court reenactments of the Lindbergh trial, Bruno Hauptmann, the Lindbergh kidnapping trial vs. the Salem witch trials, supernatural powers and pining for mysticism, Weird New Jersey, WFAN, the decline of local radio show hosts, and the future of radio. Sirius XM, and online radio.


Benincasa: I’m doing well. I mean, I got out of bed and out of my house.

Correspondent: You got out of bed?

Benincasa: I’m very excited.

Correspondent: How do you get out of bed?

Benincasa: Magically.

Correspondent: I mean, I think I got out of bed this morning. Obviously I met you here.

Benincasa: Yes.

Correspondent: But I obviously don’t know how I do it sometimes.

Benincasa: Well, you know what? I was awoken by a fire alarm going off in my building. Which as it turned out was just a test. But it was very exciting. And it motivated me to get up. Because like most people who deal with depression and anxiety and certainly agoraphobia, getting out of bed is sometimes a challenge. Getting out of the house is a challenge. But in this case, I was so rudely awakened that it was just great, actually. And I got to work on time. It was amazing!

Correspondent: So you need a contextual noise these days in order to get out of bed?

Benincasa: I need you to yell at me.

Correspondent: I mean, how difficult is it now for you? Just out of curiosity.

Benincasa: It depends. Most of the time, it’s all right. A lot of times, I wake up and my first thought is, “Oh no!”

Correspondent: Oh no?

Benincasa: Oh no! A day!

Correspondent: I don’t think you have to be agoraphobic to have that thought. (laughs)

Benincasa: That’s true. Absolutely. I think that’s more of a function of probably an existential crisis.

Correspondent: It’s the default setting for 21st century life.

Benincasa: Pretty much. But I think generally it’s a lot better these days. I feel more motivated. Especially with the book coming out. I found that it helps to keep extremely busy. Like to overstuff my schedule. Because that is a very strong motivating factor. The fear of disappointing someone.

Correspondent: Overstuff your schedule? Like how overstuffed would you say? Down to every hour booked?

Benincasa: Oh gosh. Not every hour.

Correspondent: Two hour blocks?

Benincasa: You know, I do a lot of writing. I write for and for, which is LogoTV’s gay site, and I write for And I write for a startup called, a publishing startup. And then I make videos. And I travel. And I talk to colleges. And I do comedy. And so I really take on too much on purpose. Because it keeps the brain demons away.

Corespondent: Oh yeah. The brain demons. You allude to the voice saying “I want to die!” many times in the book. When was the last time you heard that voice?

Benincasa: Well, it’s interesting. Because in the book, I chose to personify these urges I was having. It wasn’t like having a voice outside my head. It wasn’t like having a schizophrenic break, where I was experiencing auditory hallucinations. But it was like — when you listen to yourself and you think, “I need to listen to my inner voice. What is my gut telling me to do?” But your gut is all screwed up. Because all the signals are messed up. Because your brain is crazy. So it was more like that. It was more like, “Okay. I want to die. Yeah. Definitely want to die.” It wasn’t that long ago. It was really like four or five months ago. It was when I was finishing the final edits on the book. And I was in a relationship that ended in a sense. Because the guy moved a couple of continents away.

Correspondent: This is a recurring experience in your life, based on the book. (laughs)

Benincasa: Like I said, I think I need a lot of activity to distract me from the demon voices or my inner struggles. So that relationship was certainly a distraction. And the book was certainly a distraction. And with both of those things coming to an end in one sense, I didn’t have these distractions. So I had to face what was actually going on. And I didn’t really like that. So hence that. So actually my editor at William Morrow was really great and very empathetic. And so I went home for a couple months to Jersey to just kind of get better and get my shit together. And my boss at Bookish was great too and let me work remotely. So that’s the benefit of being a freelance writer. You generally aren’t making enough money. But you can do it from anywhere.

Correspondent: And it’s good when you have situations like this. I mean, these migratory impulses of yours. I’m really curious. You were saying — I learned before we talked that you had made yet another move. And this is very much a picaresque tale.

Benincasa: Yes!

Correspondent: It takes us to Boston. It takes us to Asheville.

Benincasa: It’s like Moll Flanders.

Correspondent: Yes, I know.

Benincasa: Which I think is a picaresque.

Correspondent: Yes, yes.

Benincasa: Right. I think so.

Correspondent: I think Thackeray or someone along those lines was an impulse. Or Defoe. But I’m curious. Do you have difficulties often staying in one spot? Do you feel the impulse to flee sometimes?

Benincasa: Yes! I have trouble with commitment on many levels. Commitment sometimes to a person. Commitment to a place of residence. Commitment to a career.

Correspondent: I’m surprised that I got you to commit to this interview. (laughs)

Benincasa: Yes! I did! Very exciting. I decided to marry this interview.

Correspondent: Although it was last minute.

Benincasa: So it worked. A lot of times, the last-minute stuff works best for me.

Correspondent: So short-term commitment, okay. Long-term commitment?

Benincasa: I get surprised into committing.

Correspodnent: Surprised? (laughs)

Benincasa: I have to be surprised.

Correspondent: Being shocked and galvanized into committing.

Benincasa: Oh yeah. I’m really shocked.

Correspondent: To wake up. “Wow! I’ve been married to this guy for three years.”

Benincasa: Surprise! Oh great. I have a kid?

Correspondent: (laughs)

Benincasa: I have been surprised by my commitment to New York City. Because I’ve moved around quite a bit within New York City. But I’ve been here for six years. Six and a half years. And that to me is shocking. That I’ve spent that much time in one place. And so of course, I’m itching now and thinking about moving to Los Angeles or Asheville again or somewhere. But I don’t know what that is. I have a restless nature, I guess.

Correspondent: Is this why you have applied to jobs out-of-state over the years?

Benincasa: Oh yeah.

Correspondent: Hey, if the vocation takes me here, I can blame the job.

Benincasa: Exactly.

Correspondent: As opposed to my own decision.

Benincasa: Yeah. So that I can keep moving. Kind of like a shark that never stops moving. I don’t know if that’s a myth or true.

Correspondent: Or just a Woody Allen saying.

Benincasa: Or just a thing. Yeah. I find it necessary to just keep moving. Always keep busy. Always keep busy. And the upside of that is that I’ve got to have a lot of adventures and do fun things and meet a lot of cool people. And the downside is that eventually something does happen where you have to stop. And for me, when I’ve gone through a really deep-seated depression in my life, which has happened about three or four times, that has been just a screeching halt and has made me reflect on who I am and what I’m doing.

Correspondent: I was going to ask you about — I had one question just dissolve.

Benincasa: That’s okay.

Correspondent: As they sometimes do. But I wanted to ask you. I mean, here you are. You’re a comedienne, a freelance writer. These are occupations that depend very much sometimes — especially with comedians — on approval.

Benincasa: Yes.

Correspondent: And I’m wondering how you deal with this. Because if you have all sorts of inner demons committing you to self-loathing, so to speak — at least temporarily, short-term commitment — and you can’t get a laugh from an audience or you can’t get a gig, how do you deal with that? I mean, do you have a good support base?

Benincasa: I have a really good support system in the form of a pathologically approving family and supportive family.

Correspondent: Pathologically? (laughs)

Benincasa: A really disturbing, supportive…

Correspondent: They’ve never said a bad word about you. (laughs)

Benincasa: You know, sometimes, they should have.

Correspondent: Really?

Benincasa: There are times where they should have been more critical, but just sort of very, very loving. Very supportive. So there’s that. And then I also have some great friends. But yeah, I think we all come to — those of us who are comedians often come to comedy for reasons that are not entirely healthy. And sometimes it is out of a twisted desire to be held up for ridicule. Sometimes it is out of a desperate need for love and affection. That’s me. And other times, it’s for the high of performing. And for me, I don’t think I’m chasing that high. I think it’s more about affirmation. Which is kind of ridiculous. Because it’s a losing battle. Because no one is going to be liked all the time. No one is going to be approved of all the time. So I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily the most psychologically healthy choice for a career. But it is the choice that I’ve made at this point. And writing, I think, is so similar. Comedians are writers. We just tend to do our writing in notepads and then perform very short-form stories on stage.

Correspondent: Yes. My query that had dissipated into the ruminative mist has come back.

Benincasa: Ah, excellent!

Correspondent: And it was about this notion of adventures taking you away from home. I mean, you clearly have had adventures inside an apartment and so forth.

Benincasa: Oh yes.

Correspondent: So I’m wondering why you feel that the adventurous spirit is not necessarily there within an urban domicile.

Benincasa: Well, it’s a little boring when you’re just adventuring with your television set and your books and your comfort objects. I love the song “I Am a Rock” because, you know, “I have my books / And my poetry to protect me / I’m shielded in my armor.” And he refers to the room as a womb. And that really is how it feels. So I can go adventuring in my mind when I am in my apartment. But especially because I’ve had times in my life when I was afraid to leave, I find that I need to make myself leave. It’s this impulse. Perhaps that’s part of my wandering nature. If I can wander and not be afraid, it proves to me that I’m not a slave to my particular form of madness.

Correspondent: Yeah. You still feel very much enslaved by it? I mean, it seems that you’ve had some success.

Benincasa: Sure. Definitely.

Correspondent: You’ve managed to, at least, emerge unfettered to the microphones right here.

Benincasa: I don’t feel enslaved it. But it’s there. It’s kind of like the way people who are in recovery talk about their addictions. It’s something that they manage. But it’s not something that is cured. That’s how I feel about mental illness for me. Because if I don’t take good care about myself, doing basic things like sleeping enough and eating properly and making myself leave the house and acting against type — so acting against what my instincts are sometimes — it can come back. Or it’s like, I need to constantly — it’s like keeping your house clean so that mold doesn’t grow on the corners. Because it will do that if you don’t keep it clean. That’s sort of another metaphor that works.

The Bat Segundo Show #436: Sara Benincasa (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Weird Al Yankovic

Weird Al Yankovic appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #418. His most recent album is Alpocalypse. Many thanks to Jay Levey for helping to make this unlikely conversation happen.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Got skills, he’s a champion of D&D.

Guest: Weird Al Yankovic

Subjects Discussed: Whether most people in the world are doing okay, Weird Al’s longevity, a fastidious concern for the English language, Weird Al as a storyteller, epic songs, writing about human behavior vs. writing about food, thinking of new ways to be funny, narrative songwriting, parodies in which words are transposed, Freytag’s triangle, recording dates, why original songs and style parodies are recorded for explicit parodies, trying to finish an album while responding to present a musical trend, how Al studies an artist’s oeuvre, earlier songs as prototypes for later songs, “One More Minute” to “You Don’t Love Me Anymore,” “It’s All About the Pentiums” to “White and Nerdy,” confronting the defects of earlier material, the number of lists that Al keeps, when your laptop is more organized than your life, Amy Winehouse, keeping up with the increased cycle of emerging artists, the Arcade Fire and Muse, Weird Al’s criteria for selecting hits to parody, finding number one hits despite the rise of Internet culture, rap and polka medleys, attempts to break into long-form film and television, UHF, parts in movies that Al turned down, clearing up several suggestions made by the critic Sam Anderson, whether a gang of barbarians will delete the Internet to the ground, efforts to clarify Weird Al’s vegetarianism status amidst recent self-allegations of cheating, spouses who salivate in response to billboards depicting prime rib, not forcing children into a specific dietary direction, Matt Stone’s tendency to eat junk food, references to bowling in Weird Al’s work, Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, watching 100 episodes of The Flintstones for “Bedrock Anthem,” whether intense research gets in the way of spontaneity, fake educational films, the Prelinger Archive, responding to charges that Al is “a parasite of ubiquity,” “Dare to Be Stupid” and The Transformers, Michael Bay, digital distribution, maintaining a long-term legacy, the accidental iconic nature of songs, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Mick Jagger, Weird Al’s confidantes, how Weird Al listens to music, including burps and other delightful gastrointestinal sounds in songs, avoiding profanity in work, Shel Silverstein’s “Get My Rocks Off,” the pros and cons of being family-friendly, Radio Disney asking Al to change lyrics in “The Saga Begins,” Nickelodeon asking Al to remove “gay,” why doesn’t Weird Al always call the shots, art vs. commerce, lines that Weird Al won’t cross, multiple versions of “The Night Santa Went Crazy,” choosing edgy animators for music videos, John Kricfalusi and the “Close But No Cigar” video, why there isn’t an Al TV installment for Alpocalypse and why these haven’t been released in video, taking advantage of blanket waivers, why Al took so long to sit in the producer’s chair after Rick Derringer, “Don’t Download This Song,” applying mainstream cultural values to hip-hop, whether “I’ll Sue Ya” props up reactionary values, unanticipated advocacy of the status quo, tort reform, Hot Coffee, attempts to keep songs non-political, fans who defaced the Atlantic Records Wikipedia page, the consequence of words, political groups who made Weird Al as a poster boy for tort reform, donating proceeds of songs to charity foundations, morality and the gray areas of parody, the breakdown of revenue, contemplating the end of albums, digital distribution, whether Weird Al will reinvent himself on schedule on January 24, 2018, William Shatner’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Has Been, playing the camp card, how Weird Al has stayed sincere over the years, and “Since You’ve Been Gone.”


Correspondent: Weird Al, how are you doing?

Yankovic: I’m doing well. Thank you for asking. Yourself?

Correspondent: Oh. I think I’m doing okay.

Yankovic: Good. I’m glad to hear that.

Correspondent: I’m glad we’re on the same page.

Yankovic: I’m glad we’re all doing very well.

Correspondent: Do you think everyone’s doing okay in general?

Yankovic: In the world? Probably not.

Correspondent: Okay.

Yankovic: If you go with the percentages, there are certainly some people in the world who are not doing well currently.

Correspondent: Yeah. I hope you don’t mind. But I may have to — well, actually I will. I will start this off on a tenebrous tone. We’re talking about a year of heavy losses. We have seen the end of REM. The end of the White Stripes. The dissolution of the marriage of Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore. And I look to you, Weird Al, and I say to myself, “Wow, this guy’s been in business for 28 years. He’s had the same manager. The same band.” How do you do it, Al?

Yankovic: Yeah. Everybody’s wondering. When is Weird Al going to break up?

Correspondent: Yes.

Yankovic: And I don’t know. I keep waiting for my limbs to fall off. It just hasn’t happened.

Correspondent: Really? Really? Your mind perhaps?

Yankovic: You know, I have actually had the same band from the very beginning. Which in rock and roll terms is pretty unheard of. But I just still enjoy doing what I’m doing. And apparently the world at large hasn’t gotten completely sick of me yet. And the people that I work with still enjoy working with me. So it just seems to have all worked out. It’s pretty ironic. Because a career like mine, historically speaking, should not have lasted more than a few months. And here I am still.

Correspondent: Well, how do you avoid the fights and the fractiousness? Or is it all very carefully concealed so that the public doesn’t know about how dangerous things are backstage?

Yankovic: Well, I’ve got incriminating Polaroids of everybody in the band and crew.

Correspondent: Oh, I see.

Yankovic: If they don’t want them in public, I’ll play nice.

Correspondent: I’ve detected a fastidious concern for the English language in the course of my research. There was, of course, the infamous 2003 interview with Eminem that you did in which you corrected his triple negative.

Yankovic: Yes indeed.

Correspondent: But also, in an interview with Nardwuar, who I like quite a bit, you actually repeated “Otis Wedding’s Riffs.”* Where he said that to you. And you were very

Yankovic: Don’t remember that. Otis Wedding…what?

Correspondent: He said to you, “Otis Wedding’s Riffs.” And you corrected and repeated that back to him.

Yankovic: Oh.

Correspondent: But the point I’m trying to make here, Al, is why, in an age of increasing illiteracy, would you be concerned with such quaint things as English grammar?

Yankovic: I don’t know. You pick your battles, I guess. I mean, I’m one of those kind of guys — you know, I will not ever text the letter U instead of writing out “Y-O-U.”

Correspondent: Oh yeah?

Yankovic: I am not Prince and I’m not a 13-year-old girl.

Correspondent: You’re not Prince? I’m getting out of here.

Yankovic: Oh, sorry. Sorry. Waste of time. No, I don’t know what it is. It’s kind of a knee-jerk reaction. I mean, I just enjoy the English language and several other national languages as well. So I prefer not to bastardize it.

Correspondent: Does it relate to your increasing need for precision in your audio, in your shows, in your songs…

Yankovic: It’s probably an extension of my whole OCD, anal retentive, compulsive control freak personality.

Correspondent: You’re a control freak. Well, how so? How do you keep it at bay? Because you have to work with people.

Yankovic: No. I mean, it’s not obnoxious. Or at least, if it is, people aren’t telling me about.

Correspondent: Oh, I see. You have handlers to prevent people from getting the truth.

Yankovic: No. But I mean, I work with people who understand that what I do is very precise. When we do parodies these days, we’re trying to emulate a sound exactly. And I don’t have to crack a whip. Everybody in the band knows. They know what we’re looking for. And they’re as OCD as I am. They’re very fastidious about getting it exactly the right sounds.

Correspondent: I want to ask you. Two recent songs, as well as your children’s book, suggest that what you’re really working toward more as an artist is storytelling. I’m thinking of “Skipper Dan” on this latest album, which transcends the Weezer style parody to become this really harrowing tale about this poor man. This guide. As does “Trapped in the Drive-Thru,” where it isn’t really about the R. Kelly parody after a while. You listen to it and you say to yourself, “Wow, this thing’s going on for eleven minutes. And I’m not conscious of it.”

Yankovic: (laughs)

Correspondent: Which is kind of a carryover from “Albuquerque” from the album before. These songs seem to me more about human behavior than your typical obsessions with TV and food and the like. And I’m wondering if these are efforts to get away from the fact of “I’m stuck in parody and I’m stuck of having to replicate things.” And also, in contrast to things like “The Saga Begins” and “Ode to a Superhero,” which are really just cultural retellings of what we already know. I’m more interested in this new Al that’s talking about human behavior. Are we moving towards that? Are you consciously trying to move?

Yankovic: Well, it’s not conscious or calculated. But I’m always trying to think of new ways to be funny. Because I get stuck in ruts sometimes. Like in the ’80s, I wrote a lot of songs about food. And that was pointed out to me by a number of people for a few years. And then I wrote a lot of songs about TV. And currently I think I’m stuck in an Internet/nerd culture era where I’m writing a lot of songs about that. Because I surf on the Internet for a disproportionate amount of time per day. And you write what you know about. But I’m always trying to figure out different ways to be funny. And the nerdom style is a classic way of being funny, of telling a joke, doing a song. I’m a big fan of all those narrative songs from the ’70s. Like, you know, Gordon Lightfoot and Harry Chapin and things like that. And every now and then, I’ll throw a song of that ilk. “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota” is something along those lines as well. Again, I try to mix it up and be eclectic. And I wouldn’t want to do all narrative songs. But every now and then, it’s nice to throw one in there. Because people like a good story.

Correspondent: Well, why not? What’s so wrong about these really quirky behavioral narratives that we’re talking about here? I mean, why not more of those? The problem here is that, when you think of something like “I Want a New Duck,” well, that whole humor thing comes from transposing “drug” and “duck.” And it doesn’t always work. Although in the case of “Trapped in the Drive-Thru,” which I think is epic and wonderful, that just transcends the parody. What of this conundrum?

Yankovic: It really depends from song to song. “Trapped in the Drive-Thru” — I mean, the reason I wrote that particular narrative was because I figured I needed to do something with the R. Kelly song. It was such an iconic song. It was such a big part of the zeitgeist at the time that, you know, what can I do with this? Because it’s already pretty much about as ridiculous as it can possibly be. Kind of the same problem I had recently with Lady Gaga. How do you go a step above? So instead of even attempting that, I decided to go the other direction and make the song as banal as possible and do a very dramatic, a melodramatic eleven minute song where basically nothing happens. So that was my challenge there. To try and keep a compelling narrative and still have the story be pretty much about nothing.

Correspondent: But I would argue that actually is about something. Because it subscribes to Freytag’s triangle. You have escalating conflict from absolute banality.

Yankovic: Yes.

Correspondent: So as a result, I would say, “Well, despite the fact that he tried to bore the tears out of the audience, you’re absolutely hooked on every consequential step forward!”

Yankovic: Very much like Waiting for Godot or Seinfeld.

* — Yankovic scholars may wish to consult the source to determine if indeed Our Correspondent has his facts correct. Additionally, one word has been uttered throughout this program exactly 27 times.

The Bat Segundo Show #418: Weird Al Yankovic (Download MP3)

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Review: Certifiably Jonathan (2007)

Jonathan Winters has an inviting interstate of a pure American face etched in pure pouches and clover dimples that, aside from the inevitable swelling of age, has changed very little in the past fifty years. He conveys jokes with the deceptively leisurely delivery of your grandfather telling you a tall tale. These two qualities, also shared by the great actor Walter Matthau, may have taken you far as a comedian or a light entertainment actor in the 1950s or the 1960s. But the 21st century’s less elastic notions of masculinity and comedy no longer allow for such talents to persevere.

This is a great shame. Because James David Pasternak’s flawed but fairly entertaining mockumentary Certifiably Jonathan (only just being released in New York, despite being in the can for four years) shows that the old man still has it.

The film opens with Winters sitting in a makeup chair, preparing for a talk show appearance. He asks the makeup lady how long she’s been married. “Twenty years,” she replies. “Well,” Winters improvises, “there’s no sense in getting out if you’ve been in that long. It’s a disease that doesn’t go away.”

Now if you laugh at that answer (and I certainly did), you’re probably over the age of 35 and you’re probably going to enjoy Pasternak’s little movie for what it is. While Certifiably Jonathan makes several disastrous attempts at low-rent improvisational Curb Your Enthusiasm-style scenes featuring Winters refusing to leave Jeffrey Tambor’s home, Winters golfing with Ryan Stiles, Winters with Sarah Silverman at the video store, and every member of the Arquette family who has ever worked in the acting business, it does succeed as a somewhat accidental chronicle of changes in contemporary comedy.

Winters, incidentally, was married to Eileen Schauder for 61 years (until her death in 2009). She’s seen in the film twice: young and dutiful in an archival clip and, in recent years, where she and Winters are sleeping in different rooms. “She snores,” quips Winters, who then commends the many pictures of himself in his room and the fact that they can both appreciate different Presidents this way. Much like his face, Winters’s comedy before the camera is like a familiar friend who hasn’t changed too much over the decades. His wife, on the other hand, wants the cameras to go away by the time Pasternak comes around.

The film’s “story” is about Winters trying to pursue a late-life art career. But as Winters’s website reveals, he’s actually been painting for quite some time. His art, featuring frequent coat hangers and neatly aligned bunches of blunt metaphors, has been making the rounds since the 1970s.

When the film forces Winter to be funny, it is uninteresting. Pasternak, a man who cannot carry a convincing screen moment to save his life, has this obnoxious tendency to want to “act” with Winters. And one greatly wishes that Pasternak had blown his vanity on a midlife crisis Camaro rather than taking the spotlight away from an underrated comedic legend.

What Pasternak does not understand is that Winters is simply funny, and especially funny when Certifiably Jonathan enlists old television clips. There’s one clip featuring a series of improvisations with a stick that uses the same comic science that Robin Williams famously employed with a pink scarf on Inside the Actors Studio. Both Winters and Williams are funny. But Winters came first. I can’t find the specific Winters clip Pasternak uses on YouTube, but this marvelous clip of Winters monkeying around with a pen and pencil sit should give you an idea just how much debt Williams owes Winters. At one point in the film, Winters confesses that Williams gave him an $8,000 watch as a gift. “He should,” says Winters. “He stole a lot of my material.”

Pasternak does manage to get Williams and Winters together for a number of scenes. But strangely enough, Winters has better chemistry with the tremendously underappreciated Howie Mandel when the two men are running around a Target. The footage appears to have been shot shortly before Mandel sold out to become a game show host (and who can blame him? Mandel almost quit showbiz in 2004), but Mandel squeezes his entire body into a shopping cart and is just as quick with the quips as Winters. These two men want to make each other look good. And that’s what great comedy is about.

Jonathan Winters certainly deserves a first-rate documentary. I don’t think this one entirely cuts the mustard, but better Certifiably something than nothing.

Review: Pleasure at Her Majesty’s (1976) and The Secret Policeman’s Ball (1979)


You know that cultural journalism is in a sorry state when only four people show up for a screening, and not a single dead soul (save for myself, still chortling with pulse) has the courage to laugh at legendary comedy material or get excited by consummate performers tinkering with sketches like tetchy scientists.

I was in a darkened theater for a film called Pleasure at Her Majesty’s, part of The Secret Policeman’s Film Festival, which kicks off this Friday at the Lincoln Center. The Festival even includes, for those cineastes saddled with an equine constitution, a full screening of the 660 minute film, A Conspiracy of Hope — essentially Amnesty International’s 1986 answer to Live Aid, but probably not up there with The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus. Despite the hopeful title, you won’t find Freddie Mercury wowing at Wembley. This screening seems to be a wild gamble on the Film Society’s part. For who out there in New York is really interested in 23-year-old footage of Jackson Browne and Bryan Adams? (Then again.)

The common assumption is that, if an esteemed film society is holding something called The Secret Policeman’s Film Festival, you should probably check out the main film. But I’m here to tell you that you can probably skip the primary offering. The true can’t-miss movie here is Pleasure at Her Majesty’s, which features some fascinating behind-the-scenes footage of, among many geniuses, the Monty Python troupe (sans Eric Idle) rethinking the Courtroom Sketch. We see the Python team trying to pinpoint why the sketch doesn’t entirely work. They make changes. They argue. And even after they have performed the sketch later in the film and have received laughs, John Cleese walks off-stage and remains unconvinced that it worked with the audience.

This is fascinating if you’re interested in dramatic rhythm. And it isn’t just Python here. Deep division among the Beyond the Fringe performers is intimated in a conversation with Alan Bennett and Terry Jones, both seemingly unaware of the camera. “I could never do anything you do,” says a wan-faced Bennett. “The atmosphere with you is different. You don’t seem competitive in the way we were.” And we begin to wonder if Beyond the Fringe’s anti-authoritarian comedy was motivated by internal strife. At what social cost does one break new ground?

The Secret Policeman’s Ball, which doesn’t permit us these interesting peeks behind the curtain and features more music in the place of many comedy sketches, remains an enjoyable if badly dated film. The Amnesty organizers began changing the formula. And the contrast can be seen in the choices. Pleasure has Neil Innes’s delightful “Protest Song.” Policeman gives us Tom Robinson’s “Glad to Be Gay”: brave at the time, but precisely the kind of sanctimonious fury that Innes was satirizing.

In Policeman, Peter Cooks’s sendup of the Jeremy Thrope 1979 trial is funny, but only if you know all the scandalous details. It is indeed ironic that the very sketch Cook wrote in response to criticisms that the Amnesty shows contained nothing more than regurgitated material has secured its own time capsule. And the less said about Billy Connolly, the better.

On the other hand, one of Policeman‘s highlights is a wild and wonderful performance from a pre-Doctor Who Sylvester McCoy. McCoy hammers a four inch nail into his nose and attempts to dodge a toy train approaching his testicles with a fork while he remains chained to a chair. The late David Rappaport is even involved. McCoy’s antics, which involve jumping atop audience heads while wearing a kilt, are almost unthinkable today. McCoy — and Rowan Atkinson, who appears in an early version of his Schoolmaster sketch — presents the kind of free-wheeling comic anarchy no longer welcomed in our sanitized corporate atmosphere, where uncourageous Establishment types like John Hodgman stand before an audience, tell them the “clever” niceties they like to hear, and fail to challenge their assumptions. (Stephen Colbert, on the other hand, had stones.)

But Policeman stands in the shadow of Pleasure. Unlike Policeman, which features “slight direction by John Cleese,” Pleasure really permits us to see just how brilliant Cleese is on stage. A filmed version of a stage show limits itself by necessity to subjective camera angles, but the sheer authoritative energy that Cleese brings to the Dead Parrot sketch (with the line “This is your nine o’clock alarm call” added when he beats the parrot) is a marvel to behold.

Pleasure‘s vérité format permits us to witness a strange old boy’s world where John Cleese is seen with a McDonald’s cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and everybody is fiercely competitive. There’s one moment in which Jonathan Miller and Barry Humphries puff nervously on their smokes and bitch about who’s the oldest. Small wonder that it took a high-energy legend like Miller to corral these guys together.

But the lack of women in both films, aside from Eleanor Bron and Carol Cleveland, is unsettling. A few decades (and a few more Policeman films) later, women are now finally permitted to be funny, even when Christopher Hitchens declares that they aren’t. It’s just too bad that comedy remains shoehorned by the cobblers who wish to keep talent running inside the track. The Policeman films document a bygone era in which you could get crazy for a good cause. Perhaps it’s still possible today, if some innovator with deep pockets conjures up some charitable comedy that’s feral and progressive and inclusive.

Miss March (2009)


Zach Cregger and Trevor Moore are part of a comedy group called The Whitest Kids U’ Know [sic], a television show presently airing on the IFC Channel. One of their more popular sketches, the unimaginatively named “Slow Jerk,” can be viewed on YouTube. 4.8 million people have watched this tired retread of the Austin Powers phallic silhouette/camera placement gags, with many apparently finding it funny. But the difference between “Slow Jerk” and Austin Powers sketches is that the latter found creative methods of playing with perception. What the camera or the characters viewed wasn’t necessarily the truth. And it didn’t really matter that Austin’s naked stretching was implausible. Because there existed a pleasant choreography that made the joke worthwhile. Artistry was attached to Austin’s unseen member in the positioning, and audiences laughed accordingly.

The same, however, cannot be said of the “Slow Jerk” sketch. We see two men engaging in banal office banter. One man makes a casual masturbation gesture and says, “Just joking.” Then the other man attempts the same gesture in slow motion. But when one compares this to the Austin Powers sketches, what artistry is there? The obvious joke is that such locker room banter is happening around the water cooler. The imaginary dick is needlessly large. But just about any simpleton capable of curving his hand and stroking it up and down can perform the same gesture. So it’s hardly advancing comedy.

Presumably, the “Slow Jerk” sketch caught on because many YouTube viewers needed a quick chuckle while trapped in a grim office job. If only they could get away with that and not be charged with sexual harassment. Another sketch, “Cubicle Boss,” uses this same phony populism as its basis. A boss asks his employee if he fucked his girlfriend, threatening to fire him if he doesn’t reveal the private info. Then the two draw images of what they did the previous night on a whiteboard. (In a telling sign of this show’s lack of originality, the boss rips off Dr. Evil’s “Zip it!” during the sketch.) Again, we have a case where forbidden office behavior is “funny” in the context of a stolen moment on the clock. Because the sullen office worker watching this could likewise draw stick figures and a giant cock on a white board if only he were allowed. But is this really funny outside the workplace? In four minutes, does the “Cubicle Boss” sketch come close to the amount of artistry and comedy information contained within a minute of one episode of The Office? I’m certainly capable of appreciating a well-deployed lowbrow joke as much as anyone, but is there anything in this dialogue to distinguish the joke? Is there anything ridiculously class-conscious here, such as Mel Brooks’s “Oh, piss-boy!” from History of the World: Part I?

One must therefore ask if the “comedy” that The Whitest Kids U’ Know perform is any different from a group of high schoolers joshing around after gym class. If we remove the social restrictions of office behavior, could not any of us mime jerking off to our cubemates or drawing crude figures on a white board? And without that ability to offer that unusual juxtaposition in Austin Powers or Mel Brooks, isn’t such a comic stance insulting to the millions of people who have watched these sketches?

But none of the Whitest Kids‘s comedic deficiencies can possibly compare to the worthless material contained within Miss March, a film written, directed, and starring Cregger and Moore. Make no mistake: This is a vile and condescending piece of shit. You would get more laughs spending 90 minutes strangling an animal. It is a film so mind-numbingly atrocious that nothing would delight me more than to lead a glum and exhausted team of vigilantes in a dutiful lynching of these talentless cretins. And if Trevor Moore does not win a Razzie for Worst Actor, I may be forced to approach the Golden Raspberry Award Foundation in person. (More on this anon.)

The film offers racist stereotypes and rampant misogyny. It is artless and witless and stupid. Laugh at the overweight Spanish-speaking nurse named Juanita because she’s overweight and she speaks Spanish. Titter over a rap song because it repeats the phrase “Suck my dick while I fuck that ass” ad nauseam. (Wouldn’t this have been funny if there had been some escalation, with the sexuality becoming progressively stranger as the lyrics went on?) Smile at the two Russian lesbians who pick up our heroes and ask them to drive them to Los Angeles so that they can screw in the back of the car the entire time. For this setup, Cregger and Moore merely gape open their mouths the entire time while one of the women inserts a beer bottle in the back seat. And we’re supposed to find this funny. But what if the two men gradually grew more uncomfortable by all the sexual activity? What if their wildest fantasy (two women getting it on) led them to be disappointed and yet they pretended to be turned on in true macho camaraderie? With such a basic escalation, there might have been enough irony and conflict to sustain an amusing comic scene. But Cregger and Moore don’t have the brains to think about such basics. They think so little of their audience that they can’t be bothered to think themselves.

This is a movie that hasn’t a clue about the way the real world works. Even if one identifies Miss March as a male wish fulfillment fantasy, good entertainment needs to have some entry point. But Miss March occupies a paralogical realm in which you can casually flip through a stroke mag in a gas station (instead of asking for one behind the counter) and CDs can still be purchased up at Tower Records. (Never mind that the Tower chain collapsed three years ago, leaving one to wonder if this script had been rotting in a drawer for at least six years.) A woman opens an uncommonly large window on a bus, strips for one of the two protagonists, the bus bumps over something, and the woman is then sucked out the window. We’re supposed to find this funny because it’s “outrageous.” But anyone with an IQ over 75 will see the setup coming well in advance. And there are unanswered questions. What if the woman was killed? And why doesn’t anybody ask about her? Would not any of these points have provided more conflict and unpredictability for the narrative?

Another gag sees Cregger suffering from atrophy (days after he has awoken from a four-year coma) while trying to pump gas. You’d think that this would be a fine opportunity for Cregger to demonstrate his physical comedy chops. Alas, he has none. And the filmmakers know this. For they have Cregger wearing a hospital gown that is blown up by a preternatural gust. We see his ass. Some other people at the gas station see his dick. He’s naked. Ha ha. But what Cregger and Moore don’t understand is that random comic nudity along these lines must have some context. We laugh at the waiter’s buttcheeks in The Naked Gun (ripped from the “Sit on My Face” performance seen in Monty Python’s Live at the Hollywood Bowl) because we don’t expect to see it when he turns around. The waiter serves a role of service and propriety, and, when his ass shows, we see wild impropriety.

But, of course, Cregger and Moore, a pair so incompetent that any wretched soul sitting through this turkey may actually pine for Pauly Shore’s cinematic oeuvre, prefer gormless and badly conceived comedy. It is offensive not because it shocks (it doesn’t), but because it isn’t funny or artful. It is a film thoroughly against the human condition. It is stupidity writ large on a forty-foot screen. At the Playboy Mansion, a dog pisses into a playmate’s drink and she prefers this cocktail to the ones at the party. (Would any human in such an upscale context possess such a palate?) This is a film that thinks it’s edgy, but it is too cowardly to reveal any prominent anatomy in a Playboy centerfold. This is a film that steals the art direction from the motel room in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and attempts to pass it off as its own. This is a film so amateurish that one can actually see Raquel Alessi reading from cue cards when she juts her head out the window in an early scene. (The same, alas, applies to Hugh Hefner, who shows up in the end. Did he appear in this film because of his recent financial difficulties?) There isn’t even a compelling visual component to this. Most of the scenes are static long takes, with the actors (if one can, indeed, call this talentless cast “actors”) in TV-friendly camera placement.

There’s one promising idea involving vengeful firemen who are chasing our heroes in firetrucks with axes. I had hoped that the firemen might transform into modern-day Vikings, perhaps revealing a secret society of feral marauders. But the firemen are one-dimensional. We’re supposed to find them funny because they throw axes at a station wagon. I wanted to throw axes right back at the filmmakers for their inept cinematic execution. I guarantee that my aim would be more accurate because this film is so very, very bad.

I can report that I did laugh once during an early scene at a party, in which a bald muscular man wearing an orange shirt is randomly smashing his fist through glass cabinets. This was funny, only because I was exceptionally curious about this man. Who was he? Why was he there? Why is he committed to such gleeful violence? But I must conclude that this side character was a serendipitous aberration.

The promising comic actor Craig Robinson (Darryl from The Office) plays a rapper named Horsedick.MPEG. A tired joke involves Robinson constantly barking “Dot MPEG!” whenever another character refers to him as merely “Horsedick,” and this should give you a sense of how criminally the man’s talents are used.

And I haven’t even begun to tell you about Trevor Moore’s horrible performance. His character has been given an epileptic girlfriend, and perhaps this is a subconscious clue to the audience that his thespic ineptitude may indeed cause you to have a seizure yourself. Both actor and character are without appeal. Cregger and Moore are such condescending pricks that they believe that their audience hasn’t seen any movie older than five years. To this end, Moore’s character has been styled as an Ace Ventura knockoff. Like Jim Carrey’s character, he dons a Hawaiian shirt, an unruly shock of hair, and bulging eyes. Carrey, however, is an actor who has remained engaged in comic exuberance, even when he doesn’t have decent material. Moore, by contrast, does not have an expressive face, an ability to understand what’s happening in the scene, or a talent of any kind.

To get a true sense of the worthless specimen that Trevor Moore is, why not listen to his answer from this Orlando Sentinel video interview? Here he is, quoted verbatim, in a question asked about performance:

I mean, I think, you by and large, everyone kind of just writes their own characters for the most part. Like you end up just, sort of, you know, uh, I mean, it’s kind of a way that the group works troupe-wise. Um, I mean, everyone helps pitch in lines for everything. But you kind of formulate your own characters from those part. [sic] And it just kind of, you know? Uh, like with this movie, we never really sat down and we’re like we’re going to do this guy, we’re going to do this guy. We just kind of, you know, right up, uh, I’m going to go over here and do this and then, you know, and I’ll do this. Oh, you just kind of. It’s sort of how we work.

Keep in mind that this answer comes after Moore has been on the road doing publicity at 38 colleges for five weeks. Keep in mind that this stunning insight comes after this 28-year-old man — not a teenager — has been asked a variation of the same question over and over again. That this inarticulate answer, even accounting for the fatigue that sets in after heavy promotion, is the best rejoinder he can come up with should tell you everything you need to know about how inept and unqualified he is at his craft. It should spell out quite clearly that this guy is as dumb and as valuable to our culture as a commonplace rock. Indeed, he would be better suited chopping up rocks in a quarry.

I do not know if audiences will flock to this film in the same way that they rushed to Paul Blart: Mall Cop. And I do not think there is anything I can say that will prevent people from reveling in this cinematic fatuity. Miss March is, to say the least, a great disservice to popular comedy. It is a movie that left me so dispirited that I was required to walk about forty blocks in order to restore my faith in humankind. If an extraterrestrial species were to see Miss March and conclude that this was the kind of “art” that humanity was capable of, they’d surely nuke our planet from orbit ten times over.

In Praise of “Peep Show”

In the past two weeks, I have wolfed down all five seasons of Peep Show, a dark and frequently hilarious British television series written by Jess Armstrong and Sam Bain (with additional material from the two lead actors). I am now a fan. I am convinced that Armstrong and Bain may very well be the heirs apparent to Ricky Gervais. David Mitchell (no relation to the great author), who plays a portly Tory named Mark, who tries to pick up a woman by describing the battle of Stalingrad in the first episode, and Robert Webb, oozing solipsistic charisma as the rudderless romantic Jez, evoke an especially subtle chemistry that is one of the show’s silent strengths. Like Oscar and Felix, this odd couple bonds through inept bickering. But they also need each other in odd and self-destructive ways to get through the follies of life.

Yes, much of this plays like farce. But Peep Show is very much the antithesis to Friends. And thank goodness. Because good art, even art delivered through the populist medium of television, shouldn’t always involve pining for the expected. The storylines take unexpected turns, veering into truly godawful moments followed by further cringeworthy revelations.

While Peep Show does throw its characters into a few too many stock situations (weddings, pregnancies, relationships), it frequently refuses to take the easy way out. Consider one episode in which Mark’s sister momentarily moves into the flat to recuperate from a marriage on the rocks. Jez is alarmed to learn that his girlfriend has started to spend time with Mark, and it isn’t too long before he sleeps with Mark’s sister out of revenge. Midway through doing the nasty, Jez realizes that his conquest smells like his roommate and even says, “Tickety boo,” one of Mark’s pet phrases, in media Jez so to speak. And this is just the beginning of a series of remarkable and unexpected embarrassments that I wouldn’t dare spoil.

Peep Show is the kind of ballsy television show that is currently unthinkable in America: a program willing to venture fearlessly into uncomfortable truths while likewise relying upon jittery and amateurish camerawork (representing the perspectives of the characters, much like Robert Montgomery’s 1947 first-person film adaptation of Lady in the Lake). Unwanted pregnancy, drunken fellatio, grown men terrified by children, racist drinking buddies, accidental deaths of animals (see the above clip), and wedding disasters are just a few of the subjects the program explores. And when was the last sitcom you saw that featured a character being immersed into a Scientology-like cult while a LAN party was going on in another room?

Unfortunately, you’re not going to find anything more than Peep Show‘s first season on DVD in the States. While Peep Show aired over BBC America, I am fairly positive, given broadcast standards and the bawdy subject matter, that it did not air as its creators intended. But many of the episodes can be found at YouTube and downloaded through more illicit distribution methods.

The Great George Carlin is Dead

No words. The man was a genius, a major inspiration for me, a cunning linguist and iconoclast, and he will be sorely missed.

There isn’t a single YouTube clip that sums the man up. So start here:

George Carlin: On Location at USC (1977): (Part One) (Part Two) (Part Three) (Part Four) (Part Five) (Part Six) (Part Seven) (Part Eight)

Carlin at Carnegie (1982): (Part One) (Part Two) (Part Three) (Part Four) (Part Five) (Part Six)

Carlin on Campus (1984): (Part One) (Part Two) (Part Three) (Part Four) (Part Five) (Part Six)

What Am I Doing in New Jersey? (1988): (Part One) (Part Two) (Part Three) (Part Four) (Part Five) (Part Six)