Saturday, 17 December 2011

The Stench of Regimented Fun

Stand-up comedy is traditionally where someone stands on a stage and says stuff that makes you laugh, and it has become a massive industry over the last decade, leading unfortunately to a reduction in the quality of chuckles one can expect when attending whichever one of the four million comedy clubs you've picked out by stabbing a random pin into a page of the comedy guide. In England (at least during the late 1990s) this aforementioned downward turn made the practice of popping out to see a comedian of a Saturday night an increasingly haphazard experience, and often a surprisingly miserable one  - particularly if you happened to live in East Dulwich and had the misfortune to stand next to someone as they opened a packet of crisps, an event which would almost certainly draw the attention of local "funnyman" Stephen Frost. This encrappening process seems to have arisen due to the increased general popularity of stand-up comedy in turn leading to a million mildly amusing blokes in works canteens across the land finding themselves surrounded by howling mates all crying out nahahahahahah stoppit Kevin, I'm pissing meself, you should be on stage you should you stupid bleedah!

I'm guessing that's what happened. Just before I gave up on live comedy, I saw one hell of a lot of deeply unamusing middle-aged blokes standing around in jeans and sweat shirt whining about girlfriends not understanding them, hilarious occurrences transpiring whilst smoking jazz cigarettes, timeless hangover anecdotes, general self-conscious efforts towards appearing to be a Cockney Barrow Boy and not, for example, the upper middle class child of award winning artist Sir Terrance Frost. Because we all love a bit of dope don't we... we all love a spliff as we jingle our car keys in a back pocket and ponder upon how great it is to be just this bloke, just some geezer who AIN'T FANCY...

Anyway. There's too much comedy around, and not enough of it is funny. Now that I'm resident in the United States and no longer able to look to funeral warm up acts like Stephen Frost, Andy Smart, or Ed Byrne for my jollies, I occasionally scan Netflix for something that might raise a smile. So far I've found the mighty Bill Hicks and not a whole lot else. There are a lot of Jams, and a lot of Roasts, and many pictures of chaps in casual dress doing that face to the camera, the one that says hey... you don't have to be crazy to work here, BUT IT HELPS!!!, the one that usually accompanies a failed joke cracked by someone who has just spent ten minutes telling you how much they earn.

Jam is a fruit preserve that one spreads upon either toast or scones (and if you have no idea what scones may be, please feel free to go right ahead and develop civilisation); or a weirdly amusing TV series written by Chris Morris; or a memorable 1970s punk band formed by Paul Weller, Bruce Foxton, and Rick Buckler; or, at a stretch, what happens when a bunch of musicians get together to improvise a piece of music that will never be enjoyed by anyone other than those involved, excepting perhaps drug-addled friends who tend to like anything. Apparently Jam is also something that happens when stand-up comedians get together, although I don't really understand how that works, but it has the stench of regimented fun about it, so it's probably not for me. Anything which induces Hiroshima volume levels of hootin' and a-hollerin' before the Bringer of Hilarity has even said his first word inspires my distrust

Roast is the other term which confuses me, given that it only makes real sense when applied to something one takes out of the oven at Christmas. In comedy terms I gather a Roast is similar to a Jam. One prefixes a Roast by high-fiving one's buddies, rolling one's eyes, and a-hollering hoo boy, Sherman Bingley sho' am gon' git hi'self a roastin' when he see what them guys got in sto' fo' his ass yesireebob. It presupposes gut-busting hilarity, and I have a sinking feeling that said gut-busting hilarity in this case tends to range from how fat yo' mama be to asking bagels... man, what is up with those things, that little bitty hole in the middle and all made of bread 'n' shit, and what few points exist between the two.

Today's handy hint is therefore directed at the next generation of America's comedians: calling something either a Roast or a Jam does not make it inherently amusing. That's what jokes are for. And whilst you think on that, here's some PROPER music:

Ah Paul... how did it all go so terribly wrong?

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Garfield = Jeremy Clarkson

Ah the broad new horizons to which one is exposed through the joys of handing control of the TV over to a small boy, Garfield for example. I never warmed to the famed pizza scoffing feline in his newspaper strip incarnation, so it seemed a safe bet that it wasn't going to happen with twenty or so minutes of bog standard, clunky CGI animation the production of which almost seems to be saying fuck it, that'll do...

For starters, the voice is weird. I know this is a common hazard with animated translations of popular cartoon characters (see also Asterix the Gaul which, for my money, they screwed up big time), but it is perhaps inevitable that whatever voice is used, it will never come close to whatever was in your head when you first read the thing to yourself. I'm not sure quite how I imagined Garfield to sound, but probably not like someone from Insane Clown Posse on horse tranquilisers.

The episode we watched as a family this evening, as apparently you are supposed to do in order to promote something or other, kicked off with legal proceedings taken against Jon (Garfield's hapless owner) in order to (unless I misread the situation) reclaim a substantial unpaid debt accrued by the cat's heavy pizza habit. As if to add insult to injury, even as Jon is discussing this matter with the prosecuting lawyer, Garfield walks past carrying a stack of fifteen or so pizza boxes, grinning in that characteristic fashion which seems to say I could have you killed if I so desired. Jon, rather than insist that his cat adopt a more traditional (and less financially demanding) feline diet, elects to have a yard sale so as to raise funds which will, I presume, go towards the cost of mounting legal defense. Of course Garfield decides to help in his own "inimitable" fashion. He does this by selling Odie (the family dog) at the yard sale, although the point of this sale seems to be more in order of providing amusement by forcing Odie to confront his own worthlessness as perceived by Garfield - achieved by insisting the dog is worth a mere two cents, and then insisting that the buyer pay only half that, all the while rolling around upon the path, beating a paw upon the lawn as tears of mirth stream down his whiskers: the worthlessness of others is hilarious you see.

So at this point Garfield is not only directly responsible for his owner's financial ruination, but is wilfully compounding it by prioritising his own callous sense of humour over all else. Jon is ultimately saved from bankruptcy due to some obscure deal involving the lawyer's puppyholic son (who has purchased Odie for one cent) melting his father's black, litigious heart whilst Garfield (apparently either unaware or unconcerned that he is himself the architect of all this suffering, and who has spent the last twenty minutes grinning his arse off at the raw hilarity of the situation) rather sanctimoniously reminds us that one cannot put a price on true friendship.

Clearly Garfield considers himself a great wit, although his actions are those of the worst sort of sociopath. He is Jeremy Clarkson on four legs, chuckling at the stench of his own farts, belching pizza into a human face forever. And filming himself doing it.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Don't do the Mario, please...

Having been born in 1965, my generation grew up to be at the cusp of that whole thing with computers, information technology, and so on. Computer science wasn't an option at my high school, although it became so by the time I attended sixth form college; but as it worked out, I went in one direction, whilst my friends went in another, specifically towards the room with the computers with their formidable 2KB of processing power programmed by cassette tapes of noise that would prove popular with amateur Throbbing Gristle enthusiasts. The first game I played was called, I believe, Pong, which the internet describes as a tennis sports game featuring simple two-dimensional graphics. It was this game which provided the big grand slam finale of BBC TV's Crackerjack every Friday towards the end of the 1970s, with two lucky tousle haired raggamuffins batting a black square slowly back and forth across a screen in order to win a pencil. I could never really see the point.

Games developed, with programmers attempting to give their creations personality in, I suppose, an effort to help persons such as myself see the point. And so we come to the Mario Brothers. I never played the game, or indeed any game (this being due to my remaining unable to see the point), but so far as I can tell, Mario Brothers had some vague sort of narrative, something about a Princess, sentient mushrooms, reptile people, and Italian-American plumbing contractors. If it was all in aid of jazzing up various bleeping things chasing each other around a screen, fair enough I guess, but sadly it went some way further. There were animated cartoons based on the game, a TV show, even a film with Bob Hoskins. Whilst I may have been something of a moron back in those days, even then I knew it just didn't add up. Mario Brothers was a poor title for any form of narrative, and Super Mario Brothers made even less sense whilst being as aesthetically pleasing as Doctor Who retitled Really Good Time Travel Man; furthermore, forcing this shit into the shape of a story was just ridiculous, like making a film out of Chess, Snakes & Ladders, or Monopoly with Kate Winslett playing the little scottie dog.

None of which would really trouble me were it not for stepfatherhood bringing me into close and alarming proximity to something called the Super Mario Brothers Super Show which may possibly be the most headachey bit of children's TV I think I've ever had the misfortune to encounter; which is why I've chosen to moan about it here.

The Super Mario Brothers Super Show was made in 1989 or thereabouts, or at least I suspect that would turn out to be the case if I could be bothered to look it up. It features two actors, one skinny, one more generously built, magically transformed into the brothers of the title by virtue of unconvincing moustaches and-a talking-a like-a this-a, because-a if-a television-a has-a taught-a us-a anything-a, it-a is-a that-a Italian-a-Americans-a speak-a that-a way-a. I'm not sure quite what these actors get up to in their allotted twenty or so minutes of show, but some of it almost certainly involves terrible quality CSO effects, and an animated segment involving a Princess, sentient mushrooms, reptile people, and Italian-American plumbing contractors. I've seen it once, but appear to have blocked the memory. However, the feature which has incurred wrath sufficient for my actually bothering to sit down and write this, is the closing credits, and specifically the song, Do the Mario.

Doing the Mario seemingly entails swinging ones arms from side to side which, as one YouTube subscriber notes, is actually very similar to walking. Worse still, it purports to be rap, but the sort of rap which existed in the wake of Grandmaster Flash splitting from the Furious Five and prior to Eazy-E getting disappointing exam results, in other words rap of the wilderness years which, aside from Public Enemy and Whodini, was for the most part at least as pointless as Pong. Presumably someone somewhere thought this was what the kids wanted. And maybe it was.

Maybe I'm too old to understand, but I don't think so. Saying that something is really intended for children does not excuse one from producing a steaming great pile of multicoloured shite, because shite is shite no matter how many ringtones one may be able to download from it. Winnie the Pooh, Fungus the Bogeyman, and Asterix the Gaul were all produced with children in mind, and it is not difficult to see why these represent quality and craftsmanship.

That is all.


Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Writer's Block

Those four of you paying hypothetical attention cannot have failed to notice the slow transformation of this place into one of those blogs comprising two enthusiastic entries and then nothing for the three years that have passed since the most recent. This silence has transpired for several reasons, none being the want of anything to say. As a matter of general principle, I tend to frown upon writing about writing, films about the medium of film, and blogging about the act of blogging, but what the hell...

Prior to my emerging blinking from the space capsule into harsh San Antonio sunlight, I harboured this vague ambition of being a writer. Well, I suppose technically I am a writer, but specifically I imagined my endless wit and wry observations bringing the gift of laughter to the ten-gallon-hat-wearing people of this Parish, a successful newspaper column spun off from an award-winning blog in which I would cast an eye upon the things of Texas and make jokes about how they were different to the things of England. This, I reasoned, would be easy, lucrative, and a pleasant alternative to standing on the corner of Rittiman and Wurzbach at 6AM each morning, waiting for the truck to take my Mexican brothers and I away for another day of hard labour in the taco fields.

Okay, so this wasn't an actual plan, really just a vague formulation of something that wasn't entirely beyond the bounds of possibility. As usual I was making it all up as I went along, and when it came to actually keeping this hilarious record of nationality-based scrapes and comical misunderstandings here in the Land of the Free, I noticed that certain aspects of the idea were in fact somewhat crap. I already maintain another blog, as some of you may be aware, and whilst not exactly either serious or brimming with momentous revelations, it serves as a dumping ground for essays, thoughts, observations or anything that seems like it might be otherwise worth sharing. This Englishman in Texas deal was, on the other hand, intended to be less formal, more conversational and accessible to people who might not really care about Clifford D. Simak or how the God Huitzilopochtli founded Mexico-Tenochtitlan. The problem, to my surprise, was that whilst any number of topics covered by my other blog might be deemed indulgent by virtue of reflecting such obscure and perhaps specialised interests, I have a much stronger aversion to this sort of blog, or at least to what this sort of blog might become if it all went horribly wrong: the Here's What I Think of Stuff school of writing which presumes that someone you've never heard of will have an interesting take on something you have heard of. The worst excesses of the genre, at least those I've come across, might be epitomised by a column in The Guradian wherein some painfully middle class gentleman supplied weekly updates upon the goings on of his children (probably called Toby and Jessica) and the blazing rows with his wife, each one prompted by her having read the previous week's column and objected to statements made regarding her role within said blazing rows. I think the author was called Sam something-or-other, and to this day I am unable to imagine a scenario in which his continued existence proves in any sense useful to life on this planet. Me me me me me is not inherently an interesting subject, and I think D.H. Lawrence (a song, a dance and a frown) expressed this extremely well in much of his writing, and particularly in The Plumed Serpent (1926):

'Man is a column of blood, with a voice in it... And when the voice is still, and he is only a column of blood, he is better.'

In other words, shut up and get on with it - as opposed, I suppose, to blogging about blogging as I appear to be doing right now. Anyway, my point, which I'm not sure if I've actually yet made or not, is that a lot can go wrong if one writes too specifically for an audience, and particularly if that audience is oneself, or how one imagines oneself to be. And I fear I may have initially written whilst following a vague trajectory that would ultimately lead to Bridget Jones - the film of which derives from a twee newspaper column - except I'd rather eat animal droppings than see myself portrayed on the screen by Hugh Grant, and would have to insist on Henry Rollins for the role which would itself lead to all sorts of problems what with his being an American and physically of a very different type to myself. Nothing of worth is ever done whilst one envisions the praise it might ultimately accrue, and I would extend this to myself sitting here imagining the chuckles that might be sublimated by some remark about Popeye's chicken (chortle) and how we don't (titter titter) have it in England (snurf snurf).

Ugh. Please....

So that, if any of it makes any sense whatsoever, is what has kept me from writing, or at least what has kept me from writing here. I fear this blog turning into a Fred Basset cartoon. The solution (following this entry which will hopefully serve as a sort of literary laxative), is that I'm dropping any self-imposed requirement of subsequent writing necessarily 1) making sense to anyone but me, 2) providing anything which could easily translate into a film with Hugh Grant, 3) containing obligatory amusing comparisons between England and Texas as a matter of course, 4) explaining anything the reader can look up on Google if they so wish (see The Guradian). In practical terms, this means I'm probably going to write for my own amusement (which I differentiate from any motive described above by means that you'll have to work out for yourself if it isn't obvious), and hopefully some of it will be enjoyable, but whatever....

Happy Stars 'n' Stripes Day everyone!

Monday, 15 August 2011

How's Life in Texas...

It's different to what I expected, that is to say I knew living here would be a quite different experience to simply visiting, although by the time my great masterplan came into effect (or specifically the great masterplan formulated by my wife and I) my view of Texas had changed considerably in comparison to what it had once been. I knew this due to friends and acquaintances coming out with the sort of rubbish I'd dismissed some years before. Gormless comments, if annoying, can at least serve as pointers by which we mark our own progress.


Perhaps I'm being a little harsh, after all, those of my peers subscribing to a view of all Texans as either J.R. Ewing or Daisy Duke grew up with the same distorted image of Texas as myself, and it's only through chance that fate has chosen to set me straight on a few things. In case the previous sentence suggests that English children spent much of the 1970s speculating upon the reality of Texas, and whether or not Bonanza should be regarded as Cinéma vérité, I should probably point out that this was not the case. Although ironically, our sketchy impression of Texas suggested a race of ten-gallon-hat wearing cowpokes who imagined we spent a lot of time thinking about them, their rodeos, and their cactus-strewn landscape.


Desperate Dan, although never to my knowledge identified as originating from a specific state, is a long-running children's comic character who may be broadly taken to represent the English child's view of an archetypal Texan. He first appeared in The Dandy in 1937, arguably a wild-west variant upon Popeye (whose national characteristics seem less obvious to us foreigners), sort of like five John Waynes in one, a man who regularly dines on cow pie, uses phone poles for toothpicks, and yet still lives with his Aunt in Cactusville for reasons that don't really interest you that much when you're eight years old. In the event of Dan's escapades (shaving using a meat cleaver and blowtorch and so on) proving too understated for English youth, TV Comic brought us Texas Ted (renowned for the girth of both his cranium and accordingly his milinerial ornamentation, as the legend had it). Texas Ted would brush his teeth with a broom, drain a lake when thirsty, eat uranium for chuckles... you get the picture, and in case you didn't he had some sort of weaselly English sidekick (identified by the bowler hat) to point out the obvious by complaining about anything he considered too big... or some deal like that. Then of course there were Texan Bars and Toffos... sweets (that's "candy" to you lot, or rather to "all y'all") advertised by cartoon Texans in the Desperate Dan mode, lots of cacti on display, wild-west style shoot outs, granted last requests of a packet of Toffos to chew upon whilst the firing squad stand around twiddling their thumbs because, as the slogan had it, a man's gotta chew what a man's gotta chew...


Then came Dallas and The Dukes of Hazzard and we amended our image of you... of all y'all (sorry - keep forgetting) to encompass oil barons and good ol' boys, whatever they were; then the BBC cast Joe Don Baker as Darius Jedburgh in an exceptional television serial called Edge of Darkness which prompted my friend Andy to suggest that if one really must be American, then you should at least make the effort to come from Texas.

So, with such a wealth of historical and geographical information, it's probably no great surprise that so many of my English friends should have a lop-sided view of the place in which I have chosen to lay my bowler hat. I try to keep this in mind each time someone asks me about the rodeo, or the cacti, or the snakes, or George Bush, or the UFO abductees, or McDonalds, or kids who've never heard of France, or anything else of vaguely American caste which some underinformed individual has decided to blame on Texas.

So, in answer to any English people reading this, specifically any English people who may have fallen prey to any of the above mythology, the answer is no.... no they don't, they haven't, they aren't likely to, and you're probably thinking of somewhere else.

No-one in Texas really makes balloon animals with Zeppelins; and whilst there may be cacti strewn liberally here and there, it isn't a desert; Texans in my experience seem not only generally lacking in boastful tendencies, or evangelising tendencies, or tendencies necessarily leading to the election of whichever US President you happen to dislike the most, but for a people obliged to put up with 105 degrees Fahrenheit for two months of the year, they're surprisingly amiable.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Good Evening...

I realise we're hardly suffering from a shortage of travel writing. Stick a pin in just about any page of an Atlas and chance is that somebody from somewhere else will have been there and written about it. You can even expand the map to include bits of the moon should you so wish, although admittedly once you leave Earth, the breadth and standard of the narrative falls off somewhat, and tourist accounts of Venus and Alpha Centauri tend towards a certain cranky tone. So I'm aware that I'm not the first English person to come to Texas, and nor am I likely to be the first to write about the Lone Star State from the perspective of someone who wears a bowler hat, has terrible teeth, and probably knows the Queen. I may not even be the first English guy called Lawrence to show up in San Antonio with the intention of marrying, settling, and sharing my hilariously ill-informed observations, but here I am regardless, and no-one's forcing you to read. So, having established that a brick thrown from the window of a speeding vehicle will almost certainly hit the expatriate author of some blog about life in a different country, state, town, village, house, or dimension, and having also established that this isn't my fault, I suppose I should get down to business and address the most obvious question of just what I think I'm doing here.

About fifteen years ago I developed an obsession with Mexican history, specifically the parts of it that famously involved pyramids, sacrifice, and featherwork headdresses. It began with a few books, then gradually escalated into the sort of engrossing devotion that allows for heated internet debate about Zacatenco and Tlatilco pottery phases, interpretations of the Tonalpohualli calendar, and why generally respected Mesoamericanist Ross Hassig is wrong wrong wrong; in other words, some way beyond the level of being able to watch a History Channel documentary without wincing. Inevitably, although never having previously travelled beyond English shores (unless you count Wales), I visited Mexico on five separate occasions, travelling alone despite better judgement, clambering around ruins whilst rubbing my chin in vigorously thoughtful manner, and discovering Mexican cuisine. We don't really have Mexican food in England. Indeed, we hadn't even heard of nachos before Beavis and Butthead started flying that particular flag on one of our three television channels.

These Mexican excursions were all something of an adventure, and one that well disposed me towards both this side of the globe and any place with Mexican food. Additionally, these interests introduced me to the woman I intend to marry, albeit by a slightly long-winded and indirect route. The details of this particular soap opera are really nobody else's business - at least not until someone turns it into a film - but trust me, there was enough there to justify the lengthy process of applying for a Visa and moving here.

I've visited San Antonio before, so this hasn't entirely been a leap into the dark, but visiting and settling are very different things. Cute cultural or geographical quirks noted during a holiday prove far stranger when encountered as part of daily life. So - and I'm afraid there's no way to phrase this without it sounding at least faintly insulting - An Englishman in Texas is not necessarily the account of a tourist amused by your Hostess Twinkies and bewildered by the worrying scarcity of steak and kidney pie; it may in places read more like Cyrano de Bergerac's musings regarding life on other spheres, people who walk on all fours or have faces set in the middle of their chests, and the like. Please try not to take it personally.

It's a love letter of sorts, albeit a love letter that involves a lot of pointing, staring, and incredulous double takes in the manner of James Finlayson in an old Laurel & Hardy film. Hopefully we can all learn from the experience, and someone can hook me up with a good dentist.