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Posts Tagged ‘comedy

“The circus comes as close to being the world in microcosm as anything I know; in a way, it puts all the rest of show business in the shade.”*…

Come one, come all!…

While circus acts go back to the midst of time, the circus as commercial entertainment dates to the opening decades of the nineteenth century. In Victorian England, the circus appealed across an otherwise class-divided society, its audiences ranging from poor peddlers to prestigious public figures. The acts that attracted such audiences included reenacted battle scenes, which reinforced patriotic identity; exotic animal displays that demonstrated the reach of Britain’s growing empire; female acrobatics, which disclosed anxieties about women’s changing role in the public sphere; and clowning, which spoke to popular understandings of these poor players’ melancholy lives on the margins of society.

The proprietor and showman George Sanger (from whose collection the following photographs come) was a prime example of how the circus was to evolve from a small fairground-type enterprise to a large-scale exhibition. Sanger’s circuses began in the 1840s and ’50s, but by the 1880s, they had grown to such a scale that they were able to hold their own against the behemoth of P.T. Barnum’s three-ring circus, which arrived in London for the first time in that decade.

Like many circuses in the nineteenth century, Sanger’s was indebted to the technology of modern visual culture to promote his business. Local newspapers displayed photographs alongside advertisements to announce the imminent arrival of a circus troupe. Garish posters, plastered around towns, also featured photographs of their star attractions. And individual artists used photographic portraits, too (in the form of the carte-de-visite or calling card), to draw attention to their attributes and to seek employment. One striking image in this collection [the image above] poses six performing acrobats amid the other acts—a lion tamer, an elephant trainer, a wire walker, and a clown—in one of Sanger’s circuses, all in front of the quintessential big-top tent. Maybe the projection of the collective solidarity of the circus in this image belies personal rivalries and animosities that might have characterized life on the road. Moreover, at the extreme edge of the image, on the right-hand side behind the dog trainer, there appears to be the almost ghostly presence of a Black male figure. By dint of their peripatetic existence, all those employed in the circus were often viewed as marginal and exotic. However, this image is a reminder of how racial and ethnic minorities were a presence within circus culture, even if, as here, they appear to have been banished to the margins of the photograph.

That most democratic of Victorian popular entertainments: photos from the Sanger Circus Collection.

* E. B. White

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As we head for the big top, we might recall that today is International Yada Yada Yada Day. Lenny Bruce is often credited with the first use of “yadda yadda” on the closing track on his 1961 album “Lenny Bruce – American,” though earlier uses are documented in vaudeville. Employed by comedians and TV shows to convey that something unimportant or irrelevant was being elided, it gained vernacular currency when Jerry Seinfeld’s show featured a variation on this phrase as an inside joke between characters Elaine Benes (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and George Costanza (Jason Alexander).

The Yada Yada,” the series’ 153rd episode, focused on just how badly using the phrase can backfire when the details being omitted are actually extremely important– the fact that George’s new girlfriend is actually a kleptomaniac who steals to kill time, or that Jerry’s new girlfriend is both racist and antisemitic. (That episode also introduced the term”anti-dentite.”) Hilarity ensues when both these unwitting men find out what kind of people they have been dating, and must break off the relationships.

In 2009, the Paley Center for Media named “Yada, Yada, Yada” the No. 1 funniest phrase on “TV’s 50 Funniest Phrases.”

“Barbecue may not be the road to world peace, but it’s a start”*…

As we noted in an earlier post, Robert C. Baker– “the George Washington Carver of chicken,” a member of the American Poultry Hall of Fame– is best-remembered for his invention of the chicken nugget. But on his home turf, he’s remembered for something else entirely…

In 1950, Robert C. Baker, a professor at Cornell University, published Cornell Cooperative Extension Information Bulletin 862, which changed summer in upstate New York forever. Entitled “Barbecued Chicken and Other Meats,” the bulletin describes a simple vinegar-based sauce that can be used to turn broilers—chickens raised for their meat rather than their eggs—into juicy, delicious barbecue heaven.

At the time, this was an innovation. When Americans ate meat, they preferred beef and pork, and the poultry industry was just beginning to increase production. As an agricultural extension specialist, part of Baker’s job was to convince Americans to eat chicken. Before he passed away in 2006, he invented chicken bologna, chicken hot dogs, chicken salami, and, most famously, a prototype chicken nugget.

Cornell Chicken Barbecue Sauce, though, was his first great triumph, and what he is best known for in upstate New York. All summer, every summer, Cornell Barbecue Chicken features at backyard parties and family get-togethers. Younger generations of Finger Lake residents don’t even recognize this as a regional specialty so much as the default way to cook chicken outdoors. “Every fund-raising event, every fire department cookout, every little league barbecue, must serve this recipe or nobody would come,” writes barbecue expert Meathead Goldwyn

The way Baker told the story, he first came up with the idea of the chicken barbecue when he worked at Penn State and the governor came to visit. When he went to Cornell a short while later, he started putting on barbecues regularly, enlisting his family and the young men who worked with him at Cornell as basters and turners.

“My father was quite a promoter,” says Dale Baker, the eldest of Baker’s six children. “He would have me and others go out in high school and cook for groups.” Roy Curtiss, who worked with Baker as a Cornell undergraduate, remembers killing and butchering chickens in the basement of Rice Hall, on campus, freezing them, and using them all summer long to create barbecues for 50 to 100 people.

“We’d charge them a buck and half, for a roll, an ear of corn, and half a chicken,” Curtiss says. All summer, they set up for church groups and farm bureaus, toting collapsible grates in the back of a pickup truck, all around the Ithaca area. “It was very popular,” he says. “People would hear about this, and think it was a great alternative to hamburgers and hot dogs.”…

Perhaps the most ambitious use of the sauce, though, has been at Baker’s Chicken Coop, the barbecue stand Baker started in the 1950s at the New York State Fair. (His daughter still operates it today.) “We would cook, when I was younger, 22, 23,000 half-chickens in 10 or 11 days. It was a pretty big thing,” says Dale Baker. When he finished college, he and his dad estimated how many half-chickens they had cooked up until that point in time. It was more than a million…

The recipe (* today, many use less salt)

The true legacy of the Cornell professor who invented the chicken nugget: “Why All of Upstate New York Grew Up Eating the Same Barbecue Chicken.”

* Anthony Bourdain

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As we baste, we might recall that on this date in 1982 Saturday Night Live viewers decided the fate of Larry the Lobster. In an early example of interactive television, Eddie Murphy held Larry, a live lobster, aloft and declared that the show’s audience would determine whether he lived or died. He read two “900” phone numbers, one for those who wanted to spare Larry, and another for those who wanted to see him cooked. Calls cost $0.50 each.  (Murphy tended to read the number to save Larry very quickly, as opposed to his giving the number to cook Larry very slowly and clearly.)

Updates on the voting were given by other cast members over the course of the episode, and in the span of 30 minutes, viewers made nearly 500,000 calls, sending phone traffic soaring– indeed, the heavy phone use stood as a record or near-record for many years.

Larry was spared by about 12,000 votes; 239,096 callers voted to save him and 227,452 voted for him to be boiled. (Though on the following week’s show, a lobster– reputedly Larry– was eaten on-air.)

To this day the sketch is cited in discussions of classic comedy routines, cruelty to animals, and in rosters of famous animals.

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“Presenting honest stories of working people as told by rich Hollywood stars”*…

A self-contained four-man comedy troupe of writers/actors whose medium was the audio record, they created brilliant, multi-layered surrealist satire out of science-fiction, TV, old movies, avant-garde drama and literature, outrageous punning, the political turmoil of the Sixties, the great shows of the Golden Age of Radio, the detritus of high and low culture (James Joyce meets the found poetry of used-car pitch men) and their own intuitive understanding of the technological possibilities of multi-track recording. Their thirteen albums for CBS, recorded in various group permutations between 1967 and 1975, reveal them to have been at once the Beatles of comedy, the counter-cultural Lewis Carroll, and the slightly cracked step-children of Kafka, Bob and Ray, Jorge Luis Borges, Philip K. Dick, Stan Freberg, Samuel Beckett and the Goon Show.

Stereo Review

Firesign Theatre started to assemble during 1966 at KPFK, a freeform stereo FM radio station in Los Angeles, which was then a very new thing, during Peter Bergman’s “Radio Free Oz” show. Phil Austin and David Ossman worked at the station and would appear on RFO, while Philip Proctor, an actor friend the “Wizard of Oz” (Bergman) knew from Yale, was invited to join a bit later. The name refers to the fact that all four were born under fire signs in the zodiac, and to Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre. The late night Radio Free Oz show was so popular—and they were regularly gigging in Hollywood’s folk and rock clubs—that they were quickly offered a record contract.

There are four undisputed “classics” in the vast Firesign canon, all recorded between 1967 and 1971, titled (in order) Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like HimHow Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All (which includes their most famous creation, “The Adventures of Nick Danger, Third Eye”), Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, and I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus. Their first album was recorded in the same CBS radio studio where The Jack Benny Show was taped using vintage microphones and sound effects. By the time of their second record they were using 16-track tape machines in the studio, constructing tightly assembled radio plays with extremely creative sound effects and spatial cues that suggested time travel, watching something at a domed planetarium, being on a people mover, getting into a car where the inside is bigger than the outside and so on. These four records are the ultimate presentation of their unusual artform—literature as much as performed comedy that’s been carefully sculpted in a recording studio—but there are at least 20 other albums, dozens upon dozens of hours of live performances recorded onstage and during their radio shows, and TV and film work. Dear Friends, a 1972 released two record compilation of the best of their syndicated radio show of the same name is also considered to be a classic Firesign album, but being culled from live radio, it’s less elaborately constructed, and more spontaneous and improvisational. 

These five albums represent the cream of the crop and they are all masterworks of surrealist “theater of the mind” sci-fi counterculture comedy. There was nothing else like them, and the sole thing I can think of to compare them to would be the Monty Python albums. Firesign Theatre were often called “the American Monty Python,” but this comparison would stop at the Python albums, as Firesign were a strictly audio proposition for the most part, and certainly during their late 60s/early 70s golden years. [They are actually much more akin to lysergic Goon Show, of which all four of the Firesign Theatre were fanatical fans. In fact, Peter Bergman wrote some TV comedy sketches in London with Spike Milligan in the early 1960s.]…

These days, everybody is always listening to their favorite podcasts, at the gym, in the car, cooking, whatever, they’ve all got a podcast going on in the background. Why not think of the Firesign oeuvre as the greatest comedy podcast ever made?

Well, you’re in luck as all of the major (and much of the minor) works of Firesign Theatre are streaming from the exact same sources as that weekly true crime thing you always listen to. Spotify, TIDAL, YouTube, Amazon Music, Apple Music, all of them are pumping Firesign Theatre directly into your home. The four (or five) classic albums are super easy for you to listen to. Just a few clicks away from where you are reading this…

An appreciation of past masters: “Firesign Theatre’s ‘Dope Humor of the Seventies’” from @DangerMindsBlog.

* Firesign Theatre

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As we slip on the headphones, we might recall that it was on this date in 1987 that ABC premiered Max Headroom (which had originated on the UK’s Channel 4 in 1985). Painfully prophetic, the series followed the near-future exploits on the digital avatar of Edison Carter, a news host/reporter who hosts the most popular show on Channel 23.

As SyFy Wire explains, this future is a:

…dystopia in which several television networks essentially rule the world. That’s no exaggeration — the government knows all about it too, and plays along, while the networks do what they want without anyone to curtail their schemes. There are no “off” switches on TVs, so you can’t escape the watchful eye of the networks, who’ve even gone so far as to watch citizens through their TVs.

Each episode revolved around the various evil plans the television conglomerates planned to enact on the unsuspecting public. Network 23 is one of the major stations with the highest-rated “new” program, which Edison Carter himself hosts. Real-time ratings are more important than ever in this world, as they translate to money put toward advertisements. In fact, ads have taken over stocks in this world, making whoever performs the best on-air essentially the most powerful entity on the planet.

Every installment of the series is about the inner workings of the crooked conglomerates, up to and including advertisements known as “Blipverts,” which are completely capable of killing people just by airing on television. They’re meant to condense longer ads into a few seconds so the station can run more, but they’re much deadlier than that…

Catch an episode here.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 31, 2021 at 1:01 am

“You should say what you mean”*…

No head injury is too trivial to be ignored.

At first this seems to mean “No head injury should be ignored — even if it’s trivial,” but reflection shows that it really means “All head injuries should be ignored — even trivial ones.”

“This difficulty has certain interesting properties,” write psychologists Peter Wason and Shuli Reich. “When the correct interpretation was explained it was often adamantly rejected in our informal studies, as if the informants literally could not see an alternative view.”…

Fun with language: “Grammatical Illusions

* Lewis Carroll

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.

“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least—at least I mean what I say—that’s the same thing, you know.”

“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter…

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter VII [source, and of the image above]

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As we grapple with grammar, we might send silly birthday greetings to Joseph Grimaldi; he was born on this date in 1778. The most popular English entertainer of his day, Grimaldi was an actor, comedian, and dancer who effectively invented the character of The Clown as today we know it.  He became so dominant on the London comic stage that harlequinade Clowns became known as “Joey”; both that nickname and the trademark whiteface make-up that Grimaldi created were, and still are, used widely by all types of clowns.  His catchphrases “Shall I?” and “Here we are again!” still get laughs in pantomimes.

Grimaldi’s memoir, edited by his fan Charles Dickens (who had, as a child, seen Grimaldi perform), was a best-seller.  The annual memorial service held for him (in February at Holy Trinity Church in the London Borough of Hackney) is attended by hundreds of clown performers from all over the world– who attend in full make-up and costume.

Grimaldi, au naturel
Grimaldi, in character

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 18, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Don’t be afraid to break things. Don’t be romantic. Don’t take the time to breathe. Don’t aim for perfect. And whatever you do, keep moving.”*…

Eric Feigl-Ding picked up his phone on the first ring. “Busy,” he said, when asked how things were going. He had just finished up an “epic, long” social media thread, he added — one of hundreds he’s posted about society’s ongoing battle with the coronavirus. “There’s so many different debates in the world of masking and herd immunity and reinfection,” he explained, among other dimensions of the pandemic. “We at FAS, we’ve been kind of monitoring all the debates and how we’re seeing signals in which the data goes one way, the debate goes the other,” he said, referring to his work with the Federation of American Scientists, a nonprofit policy think tank. He rattled off a rapid-fire sampler of hot-button Covid-19 topics: the growing anti-vaxxer movement, SARS-CoV-2 reinfection and antibodies, the body of research suggesting masks could decrease viral load, along with a quick mention of the debate among experts about what “airborne” means.

This whirlwind tour through viral Covid-19 themes felt like the conversational equivalent of Feigl-Ding’s Twitter account, which has grown by orders of magnitude since the dawn of the pandemic. The Harvard-trained scientist and 2018 Congressional aspirant posts dozens of times daily, often in the form of long, numbered threads. He’s fond of emojis, caps lock, and bombastic phrases. The first words of his very first viral tweet were “HOLY MOTHER OF GOD.”

Made in January, weeks before the massive shutdowns that brought U.S. society to a halt, that exclamation preceded his observation that the “R0” (pronounced “R-naught”) of the novel coronavirus — a mathematical measure of a disease’s reproduction rate — was 3.8. That figure had been proposed in a scientific paper, posted online ahead of peer review, that Feigl-Ding called “thermonuclear pandemic level bad.” Further in that same Twitter thread, he claimed that the novel coronavirus could spread nearly eight times faster than SARS.

The thread was widely criticized by infectious disease experts and science journalists as needlessly fear-mongering and misleading, and the researchers behind the pre-print had already tweeted that they’d lowered their estimate to an R0 of 2.5, meaning that Feigl-Ding’s SARS figure was incorrect. (Because R0 is an average measure of a virus’s transmissibility, estimates vary widely based on factors like local policy and population density; as a result, researchers have suggested that other variables may be of more use.) He soon deleted the tweet — but his influence has only grown.

At the beginning of the pandemic, before he began sounding the alarm on Covid-19’s seriousness, Feigl-Ding had around 2,000 followers. That number has since swelled to over a quarter million, as Twitter users and the mainstream media turn to Feigl-Ding as an expert source, often pointing to his pedigree as a Harvard-trained epidemiologist. And he has earned the attention of some influential people. These include Ali Nouri, the president of FAS, who brought Feigl-Ding into his organization as a senior fellow; the journalist David Wallace-Wells, who meditated on Feigl-Ding’s “holy mother of God” tweet in his March essay arguing that alarmism can be a useful tool; and former acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Andy Slavitt. (“We all learn so much from you,” he tweeted at Feigl-Ding in July.) Ronald Gunzburger, senior adviser to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, even wrote a letter to Feigl-Ding attesting to how his “intentionally provocative tweet” in January “elevated the SARS-CoV-2 virus to the top of our priorities list.”

But as Feigl-Ding’s influence has grown, so have the voices of his critics, many of them fellow scientists who have expressed ongoing concern over his tweets, which they say are often unnecessarily alarmist, misleading, or sometimes just plain wrong. “Science misinformation is a huge problem right now — I think we can all appreciate it — [and] he’s a constant source of it,” said Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist at George Mason University and the University of Arizona who serves on FAS’ Covid-19 Rapid Response Taskforce, a separate arm of the organization from Feigl-Ding’s work. Tara Smith, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Kent State University, suggested that Feigl-Ding’s reach means his tweets have the power to be hugely influential. “With as large of a following as he has, when he says something that’s really wrong or misleading, it reverberates throughout the Twittersphere,” she said…

A scientist has gained popularity as Covid’s excitable play-by-play announcer. But some experts want to pull his plug: “Covid’s Cassandra: The Swift, Complicated Rise of Eric Feigl-Ding.”

* Social media “influencer” Gary Vaynerchuk

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As we interrogate influence, we might send bombastic birthday greetings to Ted Knight; he was born on this date in 1923. An actor and comedian, he was well-known as Henry Rush in Too Close for Comfort, and Judge Elihu Smails in Caddyshack; but he is surely most famous for his role as newscaster Ted Baxter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, Ted Knight, Mary Tyler Moore, 1970-1977

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