Bob Odenkirk’s Genius

Eight Mr. Show skits that prove Bob Odenkirk is a genius

With Better Call Saul coming out, I thought I’d prove Bob Odenkirk is a genius with these skits from Mr. Show. It wasn’t difficult. You may think I’ve missed one, and you’re probably right.

  1. Progressive Pastor

In which Bob is the put-upon straight man to David Cross’s glass-eating slave-making lunatic. Bob’s humble decency good cheer balances the absurdity and strangely makes you want to see him fail.

  1. Mundee’s Mustmayostardayonaisse

This three-commercial sequence concludes with Bob controlled by the work he has to do spreading Mustardayonaisse and Mayostard while ignoring his daughter until she dies. The haunted melancholy here recalls Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous, depressing maxim that Hell is other condiments.

  1. Lie Detector

Again, Bob is playing the straight man to David and Paul F. Tompkins, who are baffled that he cannot tell a lie because he’s done everything they ask him. Again, Bob’s nonchalance makes the ensuing absurdity funnier.

  1. Nil’s Guitar School

Bob and David were so perfect at finding the right tones to play off of each other. In this case, Bob is a compassionate guitar school teacher whose compassion only goes so far, while David is a baffled sufferer of imminent death syndrome. The way hep-cat Bob keeps convincing David that he’s the greatest guitar player ever is played with masterful false enthusiasm. Bob excels at playing “nice guys” who are also complete phonies.

  1. The Dr. X Save the Earth Telethon

Bob is Dr. X, who is going to destroy the planet unless he gets his money, so he puts on a telethon. Because what this gregarious evil genius really wants to be is Jerry Lewis. My favorite part is when they have a fake Bob.

  1. Car Wash Change Thief Action Squad (starts at 1:45)

Bob was born to play Robert Stack types who tried to convince you that the world was a scary place through hokey reenactments. He mimicks the same sense of paranoid moralism. As the head of an action squad dedicated to catching punks who rob change at car washes, he is the reason we can sleep well at night,

  1. Take Back the Streets

As F.F. Woodycooks – the mustachioed vigilante ice cream serving crime-stick shaker – Bob gives perhaps the goofiest, most inventive performance in all of Mr. Show. Forget Better Call Saul. I want Better Call Woodycooks.

AND MY FAVORITE:

Van Hammersly – he does pool tricks and you can earn your GED by watching him. The smile, the clap, the old-school show business charm, and a pool table!

 

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Mass Effect and the Noble Lover

Mid-20th Century Conservative Platonist Richard Weaver once made the following seemingly reductive yet entirely accurate statement about the affective power of language: “It can move us toward what is good; it can move us toward what is evil; or it can, in a hypothetical third place, fail to move us at all.” Weaver extrapolates this (brilliantly, I think) from Plato’s Phaedrus, in which we’re presented with three types of love that correspond to the above three types of speech: the noble lover, the base lover, and the non-lover. The noble and the base are fairly straight-forward – one dehumanizes his beloved, the other seeks to uplift. It’s the non-lover that I continue to be fascinated with; writing in the 1950s, Weaver compared the non-lover to the semanticists of the 1930s who sought to “purify” language, to seeks linguistic practices that were characterized by “sober fidelity” and “serviceable objectivity.” Yet that tendency towards what I call an “idealized neutrality,” linguistic or social or political, has its roots in the history of science as well (the origins of objectivity), and continues in the kind of thing that Jon Stewart does when he snickers at the excesses of the news.

I could keep going with that – it’s the subject of my on-going research. Richard Weaver would probably be pretty surprised to find himself in an article about video games, but his thinking here aligns so perfectly with Mass Effect and its deceptively simple  conversation wheel. Standard non-interactive video games have yet to figure out a way to do dialogue naturally, and most of the time translation makes it merely awful. To wit:

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Other than interactive fiction, if you wanted to have a conversation while playing a video game, it was going to be limited to, “Sorry Mario, But Our Princess is Another Castle.” Even advanced games would operate more like a film script that you unlock by completing the actions of the game. Final Fantasy III for the SNES was typical in its monological interactions, and the only variations were in moments that were almost like mini-games. For instance, at one point you had to sing the right notes of an aria in order to lure an amorous airship owner. In another, diplomatic responses to an enemy emperor gave you points that would win you items and gold.

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Fifteen years later, Mass Effect was able to work with a much more complex gaming engine that allowed dialogue to weigh heavier even than the action. It doesn’t matter how many times you were killed by a Krogan Battlemaster, the memory of your saved-game only recalls the successful runs. You can cower behind a crate and let your squad take out your enemies, and no one will call you yellow when you return to the Normandy. But if you tell your talkative paraplegic pilot to “Cut the Chatter,” you’re walking the road to be a renegade, man.

dialogue wheel

As the above screenshot indicates, Mass Effect gives you three dialogue options (and sometimes more; more on that in a minute): From top to bottom Paragon, Neutral, and Renegade. I was delighted how well this matches up to Weaver’s tripartite schema. And as in Plato, these choices for speaking are connected to the soul itself. If I answer “Convince me” to the above question, I’m setting up myself up as a paragon, as someone who will be trusted by the high and mighty “Council.” Saying “Too bad” might earn me the respect of some of the dissident members of my crew, but not playing well with others has its disadvantages. Yet there are advantages to both, as you can complete the game on any of the paths or ideally on all three by playing it through three times. So far as I can tell, based on reading through some walkthroughs, the neutral path is boring; in fact, if you click the X button, it will automatically choose that middle road. Basically, you’re choosing course of action, but you’re doing it through dialogue.

In that sense, the game enacts the overt message of Weaver’s linguistic and rhetorical theory in showing that by rejecting affective and affecting options, we limit the experience that the game offers. That’s not to say that Weaver would have been really into naming his Shepherd avatar. He felt that the arhetorical speech of the “non-lover” was itself a fantasy, an aspiration for “unqualified medium of transmission of meanings from mind to mind, and by virtue of its minds can remain in an unprejudiced relationship to the world and also to other minds.” But then, the technology is probably not there to make a game with 100 different choices of varying rhetorical nuance.

Where the game most uses rhetoric, is in its smart deployment of the traditional leveling up system that’s a staple of Role-Playing Games. As you become more experienced, you gain points for attributes such as “Assault Training,” “Fitness” and “Electronics.” However, you can also gain points for “Charm” and “Intimidate” skills. By mastering these, you get more conversational options, some that change the course of a particular mission. For instance:

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If you have a high enough Charm or Intimidate level, the options on the left are open to you; if not, “You can’t keep me out!” is your only choice. In this case, you’ve been sent to deal with a cult leader and his violent cultists. If you force your way in, you can expect a gunfight. If you charm or intimidate your way in, you might be able to get a peaceful resolution. Sometimes intimidation is necessary on those immune to charm, and vice-versa, so the way you build you character is dependent on whether or not you can unlock these dialogue choices. Here, Mass Effect is smart in showing the way skilled rhetoricians make choices based on the rhetorical situation. But it also shows the way that an ethos is necessary to make certain kinds of statements effectively: this is more of a Ciceronian perspective than Aristotlelian, as in Cicero the character of the speaker is more important the speech itself. If you’re a renegade, you can only get some many charm points.

In doing some Google work about the game, I found this brilliant teaching exercise that allows students to use Mass Effect to ” judge the consequences of Shepard’s rhetorical decisions.” I’ve really only skimmed the surface, but I’m delighted with the implications.

Black for Jailer!

blackforjailer

I’ve been seeing a lot of signs around for the election for Jailer in several different counties. I didn’t even know Jailer was something you ran for, so I’m throwing my hat in the ring. Our county jail needs a fresh face, not one of those politicians from Washington. Vote Andy Black for jailer.

Experience: I’ve watched a lot of prison movies and I was once invited to a charity event in which I would spend the night in jail.

My six point TOUGH ON CRIME policy:

  1. I will not spend the state’s money on alcohol for a fully stocked bar for the prisoners. My jail will be strictly BYOB.
  2. I will not repaint the cells merely because a prisoner requests a color change, unless the prisoner gives two weeks notice and assists with the painting.
  3. There will a dramatic improvement in the quality of the jail’s annual theatrical production. Next year’s performance of West Side Story is not to be missed!
  4. I am tough on crime, but I am tougher on toilet grime. I will dedicate at least ten percent of my state budget to Scrubbing Bubbles. My goal is to have the cleanest toilets in the state!
  5. Upon incarceration, each prisoner will receive an egg which he or she will have to treat as though an infant child.  If after two weeks, the egg is still unbroken, the prisoner will receive a full pardon.
  6. Finally, the prison will be will be run on the honor system. This includes all vending machines.

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The Pancake Monster

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Selections from the transcript of my meeting with Sesame Street from a tape recorder

ME: So when do I get to meet Big Bird?

ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT: (Garbled, unrecognizable talking)

ME: Okay, what about Oscar the Grouch?

ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT: (Garbled, unrecognizable talking)

ME: Do I get one of those tote bags?

ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT: (Garbled, unrecognizable talking)

ME: Yes, I am carrying a tape recorder.

(LATER)

PBS Executive: So what would the Pancake monster do?

ME: He could teach kids to count, using pancakes.

PBS Executive: But that’s what the Count does.

ME: Right, but the count uses numbers. The pancake monster uses pancakes.

PBS Executive: It sounds very similar to the Cookie Monster.

ME: Who?

PBS Executive: The cookie monster is a very famous character.

ME: I’m sorry, I’ve never heard of him.

PBS Executive: Are you recording this conversation?

(LATER)

ME: …so the pancake monster attacks people who are eating pancakes. And says, “paaaannn-caaaakes.” That’s all the pancake monster ever says. And then eats their pancakes.

PBS Executive: I have to admit,  he sounds . . .

ME: She

PBS Executive: Excuse me?

ME: She – the pancake monster is a she.

PBS Executive: Well, SHE sounds very similar to a zombie.

ME: Right, she is a zombie, but instead of human flesh, she eats pancakes.

(Pause)

ME: People love zombies. They’re very hip right now. Didn’t you see WORLD WAR Z?

PBS Executive: But don’t you think a zombie character would scare small children?

ME: Yes, that’s the point.

PBS Executive: Did you turn the tape recorder on again?

ME: What tape recorder?

PBS Executive: I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to ask you to leave.

ME: How about this – did you ever see BLUE VELVET?

PBS Executive: I’m calling security. Please give me my pen back.

ME: So when do I get to meet Big Bird?

I AM A_LION__ HEAR ME ROAR, CAST MEMBERS OF MODERN FAMILY

In which I pretended to be a Lion, and caught the eye of the director of Looper.

For the past month or so, I have pretended to be a lion on Twitter in order to amass a large number of followers and become a momentary internet sensation and thus the most famous person in the world. On these highly immodest goals, I failed spectacularly. Nonetheless, my narrative might seem impressive to people who don’t understand how the internet works. I managed to draw the attention of a handful of minor celebrities and the appreciation of a few people who found what I was doing mildly amusing and forgettable. However, since I only ended with less than 50 or so followers, and no one on Yahoo! News wrote a story about me, I must only live to fight again in this very, very stupid way.

I began with a simple hunch: people like lions. I also began with a highly speculative and supremely uninformed hypothesis: that only the stupidest of parody accounts become wildly popular. Therefore, I decided to Roar at people and hope that they retweeted me. That’s it. It’s even dumber than you imagined.

boehner

Though the length of the roar and the number of exclamation points would vary, all my communications would take the form of roars. Nothing coy or silly like, “Tired of lion around all day! :<>” No references to The Lion King. I would not find a zebra or a gazelle and digitally chase them. I wasn’t going to get in a pissing contest with Tony the Tiger. My ambition was to become immensely popular on Twitter by doing as little as possible. My enduring hope was that my creative bankruptcy and general laziness would be taken for high concept cleverness and that I would have one million followers by lunchtime.

To a small but slightly significant degree I was right about the yuk value of a lion using social media to make his or her presence known. I decided to target known quantitites, mostly those who had “verified accounts” and over 1000 followers. The less globally known celebrities – local news anchors, stand-up comics, and radio personalities, for instance – would probably pass me along to their larger-than-average audience. My first hit was some dude who had something to do with the BBC:

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Next, one of the bimbos dedicated to selling misogynist body spray responded:

axe

Slim Pickins’, I realize. No one was going to call me the best thing in the history of the internet because one of the bozos who get paid to tweet for Axe retweeted me. But I had a little more luck the next day:

ianbogostrjohnsonbradbird

If you aren’t a film buff or an academic, these names aren’t exactly “Beyonce” or even “Jerry Mathers as the Beaver.” But Ian Bogost is a superstar among critics: a brilliant thinker who has changed the way we think about video games. Rian Johnson directed Looper, which captured the Fall 2012 zeitgeist more than any other movie. Brad Bird directed for The Simpsons and most recently directed The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. When these three luminaries retweeted me, their audiences retweeted me as well. At this point, I was thinking: my new address would be easy street. Douglas Rushkoff would call to interview me and we would have a lucid conversation about the nature of online communities. I would become friends with Will Ferrell. Obviously, this didn’t happen, but I will now describe the minimal successes I had, one of which was confounding because it came so close to fulfilling my ridiculous, distracting ambitions.

First, if I were asked to lecture a group of wide-eyed social media would-bes, I would tell them to target a twitter force who will transmit you to his or her mass audience. My white whale was Justin Bieber, or at least the social media arm of his empire. Since Bieber is basically a kid, I thought he would find the idea of a roaring Lion on Twitter amusing enough to briefly mention. From there, his 4+ million followers would give me their endorsement, because they are teenagers, and because they think lions are funny. However, neither Bieber or the person who decides what to tweet for him recognized my activity. That’s the key, kids [kids feverishly take notes on their Newtons]:  becoming an internet phenomenon is all about kairos, being noticed at the right moment. I’m still convinced that if Biebs, Rhianna, or Taylor Swift had heard me ROOARRR!!!!!, as opposed to my transmission becoming lost in a sea of spam and praise, I would be making arrangements to build a flying mansion.

Here are some things that happened

  • Two of the young stars of Modern Family found me funny

hyland

So did nice guy character Peter Gallagher, who seems to have a genuine love of lions:

gallagher

Also: some soccer player, some stand-up comic, Joe Mantegna’s daughter, and fanboy extraordinaire Harry Knowles. Hyland particularly opened me up to a wider audience, but not enough to make a sensation.

  • Normal people loved me

I figured this would happen. People would hit me up to roar at them, and I delighted them by typing ROOOARRRRRR into the a small box on my computer screen.

gallagher

Even if Alice Cooper or Anthony Weiner didn’t retweet me, people would retweet me retweeting them. Also, roaring at Kevin Spacey led to some intense and amusing theorization by Uruguayan intellectuals:

spanishpeople

Since I don’t know Spanish, I’m led to believe by Google translate that this exchange has something to do with the fleeting nature of communication and the symbolic possibility that a lion using social media is evidence that the apocalypse is upon us.

  • Here is the one that came very close to the fourteen seconds of fame I so furiously desired:

gaff

JIM FREAKING GAFFIGAN! Social media superstar and big-time stand-up comedian! The most famous person to ever make a joke about Hot Pockets! However, you can see what happens: Gaffigan only favorited my tweet, which means that it doesn’t show up in his feed. Whenever Gaffigan tweets about his lunch, 5 gazillion people retweet him. Had the Gaffmeister retweeted me, I’m sure that you’d all be talking about those few minutes in Mid-December when a digital nation was captivated by the online adventures of the king of the jungle. But since the Great Gaffigan only favorited me, this tantalizing door of internet celebrity closed as soon as it opened. As it shut, forever, I could see that rotund weirdo who does gangnam style sipping Pinot Grigio with the “Charlie bit my finger” kid on streets of internet gold. And then the angelic hue was replaced by my wife asking me why I wasn’t spending more time on my dissertation.

What would I do differently? I wouldn’t roar so much. A typically day of activity featured me roaring at about thirty celebrities a minute – remember that I chose this idea because it required so little effort. I needed to be more patient: maybe three roars a day at carefully chosen subjects. Also, I wouldn’t tell my wife about it, because she made fun of me mercilessly for doing this.

And what did I learn? Nothing. I learned absolutely nothing. I suppose this makes it a metaphor for the internet, but even that seems too valuable a conclusion to result from pretending to be a digital lion.

CHRISTMAS APE GOES BACK TO SUMMER CAMP: ON FAN FICTION

alf

Might it be more productive to think of filmed adaptations of literary works as “fan fiction”? Of course, by its most frequent definition, “fan fiction” exists in some of the weirdest, most disreputable corners of the internet, where Harry Potter fans imagine sexual encounters between wizards and muggles, or defiantly non-professional authors extend and deepen the mythology of ALF. Yet the impulse is the same: both writers of fan fiction and directors of expensive productions such as Cloud Atlas and The Hobbit make choices; they adapt, extend, or remove significant features of the original based on personal proclivities and by ignoring or adhering to the demands of audience of the texts course audiences.

On the Urban Dictionary, someone calling themselves Mistaki corrects other his fellow urban lexicographers by noting that “other definitions completely trash fan fiction.” The prior reviewer “Cherrie” offers a paradigmatic definition that you probably share: “Something really fun for extrenely [sic] bored people who like their favorite show/movie/video game too much.” In an effort to bring some much need  decency to this forum, Mistaki admits that a lot of fan fiction is awful (just like a lot of normal fiction is awful), he or she is more sympathetic to the genre:

It is true, however, that some fanfictions are rather poorly written and only a few hundred words, and it is also true that some people just write them so they can have their favorite characters have sex (lemon). But, if you take the time to find something decent, you can end up with a fanfiction story that is so close to the original piece of art, that you’d barely notice the difference.

So in other words, according to Mistaki’s distinction: good fan fiction is an act of mimesis rather than departure. If you want to write Encyclopedia Brown and Sally’s boudoir romance, you miss the point of the author’s original intentions, and you give over to your own weirdness, which violates the sanctity of the original.  I agree that fan fiction deserves more sympathy than it gets, but I’m not sure I agree with Mistaki that “lemons” aren’t just as interesting as those stories in which you’d “barely notice the difference.” Of course, this didn’t really matter until recently, when writing fan fiction had a similar impact to drawing a picture of Optimus Prime putting onlipstick one a piece of notebook paper that you then threw away. But Fifty Shades of Grey changed things.

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Fifty Shades of Grey began as Twilight fan-fiction from “Snowqueen Icedragon.” An erotic adventure featuring characters from Twilight, it soon drew enough of a following to warrant its own website. It was published through a “virtual publisher.” Now it has sold a bazillion copies and created hours of cheap jokes for Jay Leno. No one is saying its good other than the bazillion people who have read it and its three sequels, and they saying it’s amazing. They are buying classical music anthologies “inspired” by the books. This could not have happened in 2004. What “Snowqueen Icedragon”  – now known as E.L. James – did was follow the deep fantasies that had emerged from the reading experience. And her new address is easy street.

What’s the difference, ultimately, between Fifty Shades of Grey, The Hobbit, and this story about the Kathy Bates character from Fried Green Tomatoes trying to lose weight, besides the medium of adaptation? The easy answer is authorization. (And money, I guess).Peter Jackson and New Line had the rights to transform Tolkien’s words into a visual form. And yet, is not on some level Jackson making the same kinds of choices that fan-fiction writers do? He’s bound by more expectations, of course, but he can choose to ignore them. In the first LOTR movie, he dropped Tom Bombadil – probably for economy and its intrusion of a uncinematic quaintness – and gave Arwen a more prominent role, probably because the studio was concerned women might not watch the movie otherwise. So there’s another distinction: the institution matters more for Jackson, while fan fiction writers operate with the blessing or curse of autonomy. Still, I think the point is not that Jackson made these choices because of the prominence of his adaptation, the point is that he made these choices at all. There are issues of fidelity and there are issues of departure, and Jackson got yelled at and celebrated for both of them from bookish kids who dressed up as Balrogs for their seventh grade costume day. But don’t fan fiction writers imagine themselves before the same kinds of audiences as Jackson? Much like Jackson sought inclusion and approval from a fervent and zealous tradition of Tolkien readers, fan fiction writers also have to think about the communities that they engage. And of course, in terms of what makes them different, the other answer is quality. As mediocre as Zak Snyder’s version of Watchmen was, it’s better than these.

By now I’ve completely conflated “adaptation” and “fan fiction,” and that’s the point. I hope to think about this later in terms of the fascinatingly flawed adaptation of Cloud Atlas by the Wachowskis, in which they revered the spirit of the book but (particularly in one instance) significantly changed its substance. But if we take away issues of authorization and quality, we’re left with some startling similarities rather than obvious differences.