Friday, December 24, 2010

Damn You, Steve Martin

It may be too soon, and perhaps a tad excessive, to blame the downfall of Western civilization on Steve Martin, but we reserve the right to say “I told you so” if and when the time comes.

Steve Martin is, by any account, a tremendously gifted comedian, actor, musician, and writer, having won an Emmy Award (in 1969, for his work on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour), four Grammy Awards (for his 1978 and 1979 comedy albums Let’s Get Small and Wild and Crazy Guy, and 2002 and 2009 musical albums Foggy Mountain Breakdown and The Crow), and a best actor award (from the New York Film Critics Circle for 1984’s All of Me). His novellas Shopgirl and the Pleasure of My Company have sold pretty well and been well-received, as have his humorously offbeat collections Cruel Shoes and Pure Drivel.1 

His sense of humor ranges as wide as his other talents, too; he’s equally at home with goofiness (note the bunny-ears photo above, or his King Tut music video from Saturday Night Live), satire (L.A. Story, Bowfinger), or sociopolitical analysis of race relations and wealth stratification in pre-recession 1970s American society (The Jerk).2 

For all his valuable contributions to society, though, Steve Martin may eventually be best remembered—or perhaps vilified—for popularizing, if not actually creating, a hand gesture more offensive than the fig, the bird, the arm of honor, or even the legendary Belgian Elbow: 

Air quotes.

Except for Chris Farley—who is only playing a character here3—what
looking at is an awful mix of smarminess, insanity, and
ill-advised mustaches.
Don’t be like these fuckers.

Steve Martin, according to author David Frum, used air quotes extensively in his early, wildly successful stand-up routines.4 Had Martin been less funny, less famous, or less likeable, the gesture may have died a quiet and well-deserved death, but, sadly, he was not.

It was hoped that having a roundly disliked public figure of approximately equal stature adopt the same gesture could counteract Martin’s influence and kill the air quote, but, regrettably, the ideal choice for the job lacked the motor skills needed to correctly accomplish the gesture.
“Blast these damned arms! That’s it, you bastards, I’m putting you both on my list.

Despite our noble Nixon’s best efforts, air quotes not only survived but thrived in post-Watergate America. More recent attempts to defame the air quote, involving increasingly despicable participants on a global scale, have met with spectacular failure for much the same reasons.

“Is this right? No? Shit. I really suck at this, but it’s Israel’s fault.
I’ll figure out why once
my anti-psychotics wear off.”

It would be reasonable to worry that air quotes are here to stay. Most troubling about this is that not only do people use them too often—especially in cases where regular human voice inflection and facial expressions do a better job of conveying meaning than extraneous pseudo-punctuation ever could—but also that the damned things simply get used at the wrong times.

There is a proper time to use what are called scare quotes: when you want to change the meaning of a given sentence. Here’s how it’s done. We’ll start with a straightforward sentence, explain it, and then show how scare quotes alter its meaning. Stop us if you get dizzy:

  • Billy is a smart guy. This perfectly normal sentence implies (by which we mean “states”) that Billy is a smart guy.
  • Billy is a “smart guy.” This implies that Billy is actually not a smart guy.
  • “Billy” is a smart guy. This implies that the smart guy’s name is not actually Billy.
  • Billy is “a” smart guy. This implies that Billy is actually multiple smart guys. You’re not likely to run into this state of affairs all that often, either in grammatical or interpersonal situations.
  • Billy is a smart “guy.” This implies that Billy is smart, but that we know something you don’t about “his” gender.5

If your aim is to imply any of the above, use the quotation marks accordingly and you’re all set. Unfortunately, though, most people use air quotes for emphasis rather than to change the implied meaning of a sentence, which means that they’re unwittingly saying something far different than what they mean.

For example, let’s say you run into your all-time favorite singer, Bono,6 and want to tell him that you think he’s great. What you want to say is this:

I love your CD!

But instead, because you didn’t keep your hands in your pockets, what you said was this:

I love your CD!

Congratulations, jackass, you just told Bono that his CD sucks, that you hate it, and that you’re willing to go way out of your way to let him know. You’re the worst fan ever. He’s going to go home and cry himself to sleep on his huge pile of money, and probably throw away the macaroni-shell portrait you sent him.7

So the power is in your hands. It’s up to you to choose whether to begin to undo the damage done by Steve Martin and his wacky hands, or continue to follow his most misguided footsteps—acting like a smarmy prick, an musclebound asshole with a bad mustache, or a space alien masquerading8 as a pop musician—butchering unoffending English and making Bono cry. It’s all on you now. Don’t screw this up.

1. I thought they were pretty damned funny, anyway. I don’t actually know if anybody else on Earth actually liked them, or even read them.
2. That’s what that movie is about, right?
3. I realize that Mike Myers is technically playing a character as well, but I would argue that Goldmember puts him safely in the “smarmy” list, and The Love Guru suggests insanity.
4. According to How We Got Here: The ’70s: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life—For Better or Worse, 2000.
5. Did you pick up on what I was doing with the scare quotes around “his”? Nice.
6. You want us to believe it’s Bono, but it’s not. It’s actually Tiny Tim. Seriously, what’s wrong with you?
7. Yeah, we know all about that.
8. Until recently.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Why You Won't Find Us on Twitter

Because Twitter is stupid.

One of the many reasons why you should be embarrassed
to be associated with Twitter.
While I haven't paid much (any) attention to Twitter since its creation, my hunch is that the majority of what goes on there falls into one of two general categories: (1) events in which you are (or were, or will be, or want to be) involved, or (2) thoughts you’ve had, or heard from others, that you’ve decided are worth sharing.

First, the events: if anything that happens to you can be satisfactorily summed up in 140 or fewer characters, what chance does it have of being genuinely worth telling people about? Answer: very slim. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but the odds are good that most of the details from the average life that are worth broadcasting to total strangers are either completely made up or stolen from a movie. The following are some completely-true examples from my everyday life:
  1. I once beat the Queen of England in a belching contest. She was kicking my ass until she got a bit overconfident and barfed a little.
  2. I am in a ballroom surrounded by hundreds of monkeys in tuxedoes. I can’t tell which ones are millionaires and which ones are butlers. 
  3. The penguins, surprisingly, are dressed quite casually.
  4. I ate a whole lot of fiberglass insulation. It wasn't cotton candy like that man said. My stomach’s itchy.1
Be honest, how often does a mundane detail of somebody else’s humdrum life really interest you? Probably not many. Your mundane details aren’t likely to be any more interesting to anybody else.
    Second, thoughts: if anything you think can be satisfactorily summed up in 140 or fewer characters, odds are good that you’re a profoundly shallow thinker or just straight-up stupid.2 There are notable exceptions to this, of course; some very clever people were also quite pithy:
    1. I think, therefore I am. (R. Descartes)
    2. The needs of the many far outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. (Spock)
    3. If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they'll kill you. (O. Wilde)
    4. C is for cookie; that good enough for me. (C. Monster)
    The obvious problem here is that you are not Rene Descartes or Oscar Wilde, and neither is anybody you know. (For that matter, I’m no Oscar Wilde either, although I do have this nifty blog and he doesn’t.3)

    Thanks in part to the recent death of Mark Twain,4 the quality of wit in this country has fallen to the point that we’re apparently willing to believe that bumper stickers are clever. That probably helps explain (to some degree) the success of Twitter. And it’s not surprising that, given our country’s obsession with even the most run-of-the-mill celebrities, that plenty of people out there are just dying to know, say, whether Ashton Kutcher’s jock itch has cleared up yet. But those two still-pathetic reasons aside, I have a hard time understanding why we believe that it’s anything but embarrassing to circulate statements like, for example, “he might be f—— you but he’s thinking of me.

    . . . although that may be a bad example. The more I think about it, the more sure I am that it’s probably a direct quote from Oscar Wilde.

    1. Brick Tamland (Steve Carell), Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, 2004.
    2. For the record, this shallow and straight-up stupid post weighs in at exactly 2,926 characters, not including the title or spaces. That’s way more than 140—put that in your ass and smoke it, Twitter fans!
    3. Also, he’s been dead for 110 years, and I have not.
    4. Samuel Langhorne Clemens, b. 1835, d. 1910.

    Sunday, December 12, 2010

    More Evidence—as if You Needed It—that the World Isn't Fair

    1. John Lennon, a flawed and often self-contradictory but sincere advocate for peace, love, and kindness, is dead.

    2. Fred Phelps is not.

    A world without war and a God that despises His own creations and even revels in their destruction may both be products of their particular creators’ imaginations, but it should be pretty clear which one is an admirable dream and which is sick, cruel, and blasphemous.

        Thursday, December 9, 2010

        Separated at Birth: V and the Burger King?

        Clones, stunt doubles, or long-lost evil twins? And how are we to tell
        which one is actually the evil one?

        Geneticists and conspiracy theorists have long speculated on the possible relationship between V for Vendetta’s mysterious masked antihero and Burger King’s ├╝ber-creepy masked, uh, Burger King. We may never know if these two are indeed evil twin brothers—or, if so, who we should thank for separating them so many years ago and sparing the world the horror they surely would have wreaked had their strengths been combined—but I’m not convinced that’s even the most important question to ask.

        The crazy ones always get the girls.

        More important is this: If you had to choose to be doggedly pursued to the ends of the Earth by one of these two, which would you pick? The verbose but violent, vengeful, potentially psychotic and mercilessly murderous anarchist V, a master of explosives, edged weapons, and poisons, with both the will and the ability to kill you in any of a dozen creative and probably ironic ways if he’s convinced you’ve wronged him . . . or the Burger King, a creepy dude with a ridiculous frilly collar, who wants only to sneak into your most private spaces, hand you a hamburger, and then leer at you with his fucked-up plastic head?

        I don’t know about you, but I’d take my chances with the guy who’d probably plan to kill me. I’m pretty sure that once the Burger King is done with you, he takes your soul.

        Monday, December 6, 2010

        Peyton Hillis: Best Peyton (or Payton) Ever?

        No, of course not. But he’s not bad.

        Among Denver Broncos fans’ biggest complaints about the very recently ended Josh McDaniels era is the dismissal of running back Peyton Hillis, who in 2008 led the team’s injury-stricken running corps with 343 rushing yards. After barely touching the field in 2009, he was informed that he “didn’t fit” the Broncos’ system1 and was traded to the Cleveland Browns for a highly-touted clipboard holder and a sack of moldy jockstraps.2

        We couldn’t find a picture of Brady Quinn anywhere,
        but Saturday Night Live’s Colin Quinn has seen just
        as much of the field for the Broncos this season, so we
        figure he’s close enough.

        Since then, the Broncos’ running game has enthusiastically sprinted to the bottom of the league, while Hillis has flourished for the Browns. At the beginning of 2010 training camp he was approximately 423rd on the depth chart, but thanks to a tragic photo-shoot accident, every other Cleveland running back was electrocuted, and Hillis ended up with the starting job.3 Through twelve games of the 2010 season, Hills has generally been between solid and spectacular, amassing 1,376 total yards (962 rushing, 414 receiving) and 13 touchdowns (11 rushing, 2 receiving),4 and has helped transform the perennially struggling Cleveland Browns into a team that’s actually not totally crappy all the time.

        More important than the Browns’ ride to near-mediocrity, though, is Peyton Hillis’s continued rise up the short and half-distinguished list of all-time greatest Peytons.5 For your entertainment, the thoroughly researched and comprehensive list is as follows:

        Greatest Paytons/Peytons of All Time
        1. Walter Payton, running back, Chicago Bears, 1975–1982
        2. Peyton Manning, quarterback, Indianapolis, 1998–
        3. Walter Payton. Yes, again. He was that good. Running the ball, to Walter Payton, was “like makin’ romance.”6
        4. Eddie Payton, kick returner, Detroit/Cleveland/Kansas City/Minnesota, 1977–1982
        5.  Peyton Hillis, Denver/Cleveland, 2008–
        6.  Leo Payton, running back, Rochester Jeffersons, 1923–1924
        7.  Jarrett Payton, running back, Tennessee, 2005
        8.  Payton Williams, defensive back, Indianapolis, 2000
        9.  Sean Payton, quarterback, Chicago (replacement player), 1987
        Football enthusiasts across the nation have one question on their minds: will Peyton Hillis end his career at the top of the list?

        The universal response to this question is a confident no—he remains some 19,000 total yards behind Walter Payton, and has done at least 250 fewer stupid commercials than Peyton Manning—but one thing remains clear: if the folks in the Broncos organization aren’t kicking themselves for letting Peyton Hillis go, there are plenty of folks around here who’ll be happy to do the kicking for them.

        1. From what we’ve seen so far, the Broncos’ primary objections to Hillis were his tendency to fumble and his insistence on crossing the line of scrimmage. Remaining Broncos backs do not seem to have these problems.
        2. I stand by the absolute truth of this statement, except the part about the jockstraps.
        3. My sources inform me that I may have confused the Cleveland Browns’ training-camp results with the introduction to the John Goodman movie King Ralph. You’d be surprised how often this happens.
        4. By way of comparison, the Denver Broncos—including the statue of Kyle Orton—have combined for 1,034 yards and 8 touchdowns rushing, and are averaging almost a full yard less than Hillis’s 4.5 yards per carry. Knowshon Moreno’s impressive 161-yard effort in Game 12 put the Broncos ahead of Hillis in total yards for perhaps the first time all season.
        5. Also included: Paytons.
        6. “The Super Bowl Shuffle,” Lennon/McCartney, 1985.

        Sunday, December 5, 2010

        Fun Facts about Sangria

        Sangria: Amazing.

        After having returned safely from a housewarming party, warmed by conversation with good friends, plenty of food and drink, and loads of general pre-holiday cheer, I am happy to report that I have learned the following things:
        1. Triple sec has alcohol in it. This probably isn’t news to most people, but as a mostly-beer-drinker, I didn’t know. I had always assumed, despite somehow ending up with a couple of bottles of triple sec in my liquor cabinet for several years, that it was just an alcohol-free mixer, like 7-Up, tonic, or Miller Lite. However, Mrs. Some Guy was pretty sure that triple sec—an important ingredient in sangria, which was served at the housewarming party—was indeed alcohol, so I looked it up when we got home, and she was right.
        2. Sangria is amazing. I learned this particular lesson forty-six times as I drove home. Sangria, as it turns out, has several kinds of alcohol in it.
        3. Amazing, believe it or not, can be pronounced as a seven- or eight-syllable word.