When Breaking Bad is over, let’s all shut the fuck up for 24 hours before the inevitable White noise
Breaking Bad is my favorite show, but here’s the thing:
Right out of college, I worked at an ad agency with a whole bunch of people who were at least twice my age—and one person who was my dad. Everyone was really nice, but there was this one woman who didn’t talk to anyone and made people extremely uncomfortable. Let’s call her Amy. Tall and wiry, like a sentient coat hanger, she had a habit of cutting people off and snapping at employees when they didn’t get something right, blowing things way out of proportion. Her office was an intimidatingly cavernous space with a solitary lamp hovering over her disproportionately tiny desk. She always wore big clunky shoes, too, so you could hear her coming and have plenty of time to commence shivering. I already had a hard-enough time making friends at this office, being the boss’ barely 23-year-old son. I sure as hell wasn’t going to be taken in by Amy.
It all changed when she found out I watched Lost.
This wasn’t the Lost where they traveled back in time and the source of all its power was a large funnel in a cave that somehow related to the smoke monster because ?????. No, this was the halcyon Lost days where a mysterious man in a hatch had to push a button every 108 minutes because ?????. The good kind of mystery. This was the epitome of a “watercooler show,” inspiring coworkers from all disparate industries to gather together and wonder where Boone was getting all his hair product.
Throughout my work day, I’d get calls from office 205. That was Amy’s office. Nobody wanted to get calls from that office. I’d sigh and pick up the phone. “So, who do you think Penelope is?” She wasn’t any less formal or abrasive, but she had a million Lost conspiracy theories, and spewed them out before I could even follow up. Then, eight seconds later, “This show…is…crazy.” *Click* Every time. Thanks to the healing power of television, I’d managed to soothe the savage Mrs. Eko.
The connection and lack-of-being-yelled-at I got from Amy justified the obsessiveness by which I watched Lost. My theories were my own, and they earned respect. Maybe not tangibly, but I felt it.
This feeling has splintered though the advent of Twitter and media outlets that claim “comprehensiveness” as a virtue. Every little detail of every facial expression on Breaking Bad is deconstructed instantaneously, and constantly. Think Jane’s still alive? There are probably a half a million tweets hashtagged “#zombiejane,” written by people with 29 followers, for you to peruse. Or, just wait for some pop culture blog to write its many, many posts about Jane’s lipstick color and its relation to a second-season scene from Deadwood. The Internet was definitely a thing back before the days of Nikki and Paulo, but the microtransaction of ideas is impossible to keep up with nowadays. I’d venture to say a good 90+ percent of the Internet will be talking about Breaking Bad. Heisenberg would be pleased with those numbers.
But what if not? What if, for the sake of a badass show probably killin’ it (and people) in the finale, we all just…watched the episode? Then, you know, thought about it? Television manages to be an inclusive form of art, in that we all see the same thing, but it’s still supposed to be deeply personal. Why rush to dissipate—or, worse, blindly validate—your purest feeling?
Just give it 24 hours. ONE DAY to scrub that misplaced sense of obligation to thrust your opinion about Breaking Bad onto the world like a meth head thrusting an ATM machine on the head of another meth head.
Look, I know I can avoid Twitter on Monday if I want. I can go about my leisurely way pretending [insert name of blog I probably have worked for] doesn’t exist. But when I do eventually come around (and I’m sure I will; far be it from me to turn down the invitation to the Internet’s non-sclusive Breaking Bad party) it’d be nice to think I’d be reading the thoughts and ideas of people who’ve taken time alone—maybe with a small group of friends, maybe over by the water cooler—to really reflect on what they want to say. Share why they think all of us were so captivated and disgusted with Walter White. And breakfast. Maybe it wouldn’t be about comment counts, mad RTs and faves, it’d just be about making the Amys of the world hate you slightly less.
On Tuesday, I’ll have a whole bunch of ideas, they’ll be my own, and I’ll want desperately to talk about them. Then—THEN—let’s break the Internet.
A former intern of mine, Crissy Milazzo, asked to do an informational interview for her journalism class—which I'm posting here because I have very high self-esteem.
1) If I remember correctly, you said you really felt like you launched your career when you became an editor at Time Out Chicago. When did you begin freelance writing?
Pretty much right around then. The job was to be the Comedy Editor, which was part time, and so I had to fill the other 20 hours of the week—WHO ARE WE KIDDING WE ALL WORK 10000 HOURS A WEEK—with other assignments to make ends meet. I could have gone the get-another-part-time-job route, but the other editors at TOC were really kind, and started asking me to fill in and write stories for them. And because of the rules of TOC, that counted as freelance. It was really easy to just walk across the hall and pitch a story, so it felt like grad school for freelancing, giving me some cajones to approach other editors at other Chicago publications, then national, then now, as of this morning, international.
2) What do you find to be the most challenging aspects about working on your own versus working in a team?
The constant self-doubt. I kid! But not really. When I’m the only one making decisions about work, I’m my own boss, intern, colleague, editor, researcher, transcriber…lover? Collaboration is such a natural part of the creative process that it only reveals its necessity when it’s suddenly gone. I go out of my way to be in touch with fellow freelance journos and meet editors IRL (shorthand for “in real life” just in case you have never heard of the Internet) to mitigate most of that anxiety, and reassure myself that I mostly know what I’m doing. Or give a human face to the byline. One that needs money. How can you say no to this face? [Please insert a flattering photo of me to garner sympathy…my assistant (me) can provide.]
3) How did you originally approach publications with your pitches and how has that evolved for you over time?
Well since I started at TOC itself, my pitches took the form of cornering an editor in the break room and saying, “You, me, article, yes?” I’ve learned since then that in the absence of a shorthand, you have to be very clear and concise about what the story is, why it’s a good one, and why I’m uniquely qualified to write it. No matter how well I know a person, all pitches have evolved to take that form; whether it’s laden with inside jokes or not is just a benefit of my friendship.
4) What is the difference between freelancing and permalancing?
I’m not sure there’s too much of a difference other than a vernacular one, but I tend to think of it as: A freelancer bounces from assignment to assignment, whereas a permalancer is tied to a specific job or publication, but not as a staffer. A sly way for employers to avoid paying benefits and increasing my taxable revenue, at the expense of providing me a bit of security as to when my next paycheck is coming.
5) You have a versatile writing portfolio: TV reviews, satirical FOD posts, interviews, A.V. Club lists and a whole lot of critical journalism, to name a few. Did you always want to write in a variety of mediums?
I’ll try anything once, but I have found over time that it helps to be very upfront and specific about what you want to do. There’s this knee-jerk fear that if you say, “I cover comedy, video games and television,” then people will be like, “THIS GUY KNOWS NOTHING ABOUT MOVIES NEVERMIND.” That’s just not true—good writing/writers win out every time. Saying, “I cover whatever” isn’t an invitation, it’s a blanket turnoff. That said, I’ve honed in on the fact that the comedy world is both the most welcoming one to me and the most curiosity-inducing. So I think critically about it, but can also provide an insider’s perspective through humor. Also, you might notice most of my TV reviews are about sitcoms or sketch shows. Comedy is everywhere. Look behind you! It’s comedy! RUN!!!
6) How has your blog helped you? Do you try to keep up with a “personal brand,” or do you think of it differently?
Over the last few years, I’ve learned that the specific media outlet no longer matters as much as having an individual platform, as far as getting my name out there. I’ll give you a vague example: I know an editor at a prestigious national monthly magazine, and she told me she hired some Twitter celeb to write a piece, and they went through nine—nine!—rounds of edits. Why did she hire this person, I asked smartly. “Well, you know, she’ll tweet it out when it’s done,” she replied, also smartly. Personal recognition is what snags people jobs nowadays, not necessarily a track record of repute. My personal blog is a way to ensure my “voice,” so to speak in the most pretentious way possible, has a home regardless of what editors decide to publish, and a sort of personally spearheaded grassroots marketing campaign for myself, in a way that I hope feels organic. Plus, it forces me to write things. If an editor says no, that’s no longer an excuse to fire up my PS3 (though pretty much every other thing is).
7) You wrote about the kerfuffle around UCB pay rates and encouraged both sides to strive for transparency and understanding. Do you think that sentiment applies to the world of writing?
Yes, absolutely. Really, it should apply to any form of art, of which journalism is one. I’ve noticed a disturbing trend recently in which every single media outlet I write for, when asked about their pay rates, replies the same way: “Oh, I’m almost embarrassed to tell you this because it’s so much lower than everyone else, but we can only pay [insert not very high number].” The thing is, they are all the same. So either there’s an obliviousness permeating the industry, or people are falsely modest about their lack of cash. I think the mistake a lot of people make is relying on the old school way of doing business, in that there was a separation between the money and the “performer”, of all stripes. Today, even the lowliest writer knows the economics of writing, because they have to in order to keep up. It should go the other way, too, with the business people trusting that we as artists understand the drill and don’t want smoke blown up our ass about how something might give us exposure to then start making more money. Because the money’s just not there. Be upfront. I’ll respect the hell out of that.
8) When did you start performing comedy?
In high school, I took a theater class on a whim and loved it, but the thing that really stuck out to me were the improv games—a way to kill time or as a reward for getting through a tough assignment. I loved the permission to be goofy, and I later continued the trend into my college improv group, where we did things like “Progressively Nude Theater,” a fake play where the characters enter with less clothing each time until a nude guy comes in with a box in front of his junk. I moved back home to Chicago after college and stayed a part of the improv scene for a few years, giving it up when I joined TOC because I felt it was a conflict of interest. But I’ve always enjoyed performing. Like my blog, it’s a way to have a voice, and hone that voice—and there’s nothing quite like having people gravitate to YOU, instead of “you.” Know what I mean? So I do reading series’ and my own karaoke-inspired comedy show The Jukebox. All the weirdo stuff that makes me push myself as a writer and performer simultaneously.
9) How do your experiences as a performer inform your writing?
Well, not to crib from the genius who answered question eight, but I see them as almost one and the same. People gravitate to honesty, whether it’s on the stage or on the page (YOU JUST ENTERED THE RHYMEZONE SON). Irony and sarcasm can only get you so far, and both writing and performing bring me closer to beautifully articulating the unarticulateable—that kernel of honesty.
10) Financials seem to be difficult for anyone working in a creative field. How do you come to agree on a going rate for your work?
In all seriousness, people tell me their rates and I can say yes or no. There’s little negotiation. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m comfortable letting things go if they don’t pay well, but still, I have very little control.
Oh, another thing is hAHAHAHAHAAHAHAAHAHAAHAHAAHAHA.
11) You’ve spoken openly with Marc Maron and Danny Masterson about your criticisms of their work, or for Maron specifically, the field he’s working in. People were surprised you did that. Would 22-year-old you be surprised you did that?
Yes. Specifically, 22-year-old me would be surprised at how not starstruck I am by anyone anymore, which is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, hooray, I am now secure enough in my opinions that I feel confident in expressing them to whoever, be them Mel Brooks or Mel Books (a made-up person who is probably a locksmith—bet you thought I was gonna say librarian, that’s called the ol’ jokesterino). I’ve found that no matter who they are, they value my openness because it speaks to my genuine interest in their work. I wouldn’t be as comfortable if I wasn’t well-versed in it and excited about the opportunity to do a job that speaks to my love of pop culture and comedy in particular. On the other hand, not being starstruck sucks some of the magic out of, say, speaking to Stephen Colbert or Stephen Coalminer (who is probably a coal miner). But it’s a trade-off. I think about work all the time because I love it, and thus when something is truly surprising, it sticks out as being all the more special.
12) I have this profound irrational fear of writing unoriginal things that tends to end up sounding like “you probably shouldn’t write at all. Go back to bed.” What about writing has scared you in the past and how did you deal with it?
Mostly exactly that. “Who cares?” is essentially the question that runs through my mind 24/7. I’m trying very hard to have an answer to that question, which is, “I care,” and to let that be enough. It’s an ongoing struggle, one I feel myself getting closer to winning every day. But it’s not easy. I guess that’s the devil’s bargain we make as a writer: We talk to others as a roundabout way of talking to ourselves.
13) What characteristics does a person in your field need to have?
The tenacity to keep going even after being told “no” about a hundred thousand times. The ability to occasionally leave your ego at the door, but also be willing to stand up for your words when you have to—striking that balance. A comfortable desk chair.
14) Do you have any advice on how people interested in this career should prepare?
Read a shit-ton of stuff from places you like. Think to yourself, “Why do I like this article so much?” Reverse-engineer the process of how they might have come to their conclusions, and notice how strong their words are. Write with that same reckless abandon. All the time.
15) What kinds of tasks do you do on a typical day or in a typical week?
Check my email, brainstorm some pitches, check my email, do research for an interview, check my email, do some writing, fail at writing, watch some TV, try to write again, procrastinate with some Twittering, check my email, read Deadline.com to see what’s happening in the world of pop culture, forget it because I’m playing a Facebook game called Marvel: Alliances, check my email, question my life choices, check my email. At this point five minutes have passed, so I repeat until the heat death of the universe.
I’ve recently become obsessed with this video series Modern Comedian, which follows a relatively unknown comic around for a day or two. Some are on the road; others are preparing for big gigs. But it took watching today’s entry, with hilarious misanthrope Mike Lawrence, to really cement the purpose of this series in my brain.
It’s a jungle out there for comics. There are fewer milestones by which they can judge their success, or even merely progress. Is it being on television? Releasing an album? Opening for Gallagher? A solid RT from Gallagher? Being Gallagher? It’s hard to say, given the segmentation of audiences and the multiple ways comics can now earn a living, what signs to look for to know you’re on the right track. Lawrence captures this perfectly: He told himself that by the time he was 30, he’d either quit comedy, or be on TV (or make $5,000 performing). He did that, and now wonders what’s next.
"Making it" is as elusive a concept as it ever has been. Modern Comedian is a toast to trying anyways.
Patrick Stewart joins Improvised Shakespeare Company for a night, proves they're the best improv group on the planet
Last night’s Improvised Shakespeare Company show in New York had a special guest: Patrick Stewart. He’d never improvised with the group before for a full show—wherein a handful of guys creates a spontaneous play in the style of William Shakespeare—and I have a feeling he had absolutely no idea what he was getting into, nor did he really mind. He threw himself into the beautiful experiment with open arms, open-mouth kisses, and full-on crotch grabs. It was surreal to see him up there on stage, and not just because he’s got a good 30 years on everyone else and for most of the show played a variation of his brilliantly pervy “Patrick Stewart” from Extras.
Improvised Shakespeare Company has always been one of my favorites for their unabashed embrace of their admittedly esoteric concept. But moreso than ISC’s ability to snag the eye of someone as famous and gallant as Patrick Stewart (and their ability to work as many Spin Doctors lyrics as possible into a show titled, “Two Princes And The Doctor Of Spin”), I was impressed with the group’s mastery of taking on this outside force of nature. Because as novel as it was to see Patrick Stewart, there was a show to do, and it was touch-and-go for a while.
Adding a new atom can upset the delicate molecule of an improv group, so it’s understandable that Stewart took some time to find his footing. He occasionally mixed up which characters were on stage, since the cast regularly plays multiple people. He entered and exited scenes sometimes randomly, playing a variety of trumpeting messengers because what else was somebody who just showed up supposed to do? And just as things were about to wrap up, he introduced a deus ex machina that involved the fact that this whole time, one of Stewart’s characters had an evil face on the back of his head. He never hesitated, though. He was in this thing, and we rooted for him all the harder because we could tell.
The rest of the boys went with it. All of it. Stewart’s first entrance onto the stage was in a scene with Joey Bland, where within the first few seconds, Joey was kind enough to tell Stewart that he was the decidedly non-regal man Antonio, in love with a princess he could never have. The ultimate gift an improviser can give another is a collection of these simple details, and wherever Stewart’s fascinating mind wandered, members of ISC were there to fill in the gaps. Which, in turn, elevated Stewart to take more risks. He was game for it all, and came off looking like a rock star.
The luster of seeing a famous person on stage wore off pretty quickly. Soon, he was just one of the boys, supported indefinitely by a safety net of positivity and the overwhelming consensus that his insane deus ex machina was, in fact, exactly the kind of thing they’d been planning for this whole time. After all, no one had ever thought to look at the back of Antonio’s head.
In improv terms, this was high praise. Stewart lost his IMDB page on that stage. He was simply a guy trying to make magic happen for those who’d shown up for the performance, and for only those people. ISC’s director Blaine Swen made a plea at the beginning of the show that nobody take out their phones or tape this in any way. This was to be a special evening, and the group’s ability to embody that spirit speaks to their savvy as improvisers, and to their agility as live performers to ensure it remained so.
At one point, when it became clear Blaine was about to kiss Patrick Stewart, he turned to the audience and smiled. Blaine was aware that he was not just doing this for the sake of the show. Aware that this chance might not come again, and fully confident that his group had earned the right to be a little self-serving, he locked lips with Captain Picard.
The Chicago Tribune apparently thinks it’s okay to heckle comedians because…wait, what?
I don’t envy what Patton Oswalt had to do at one of the best comedy shows I’ve ever seen. It was in 2007 at the Lakeshore Theater in Chicago. The line-up began with a young John Mulaney, Janeane Garofalo, and closed with an unbelievable set by Patton Oswalt, paired with Janeane I assume to promote Ratatouille. Mulaney was great, Janeane kicked ass, but Patton had it rougher. He was dealing with a very vocal heckler in the front row, and her extremely polite friend. This boorish annoying person had a gravely voice and a sharp temper, like she was the female equivalent of Frank from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. She shouted things that made absolutely no sense, constantly. Patton dubbed her, “Gravelpuss.”
Gravelpuss’ friend was aware that the show was being ruined, so she apologized, and engaged Patton in very cordial dialogue. She was transgender, and Patton started asking her genuine questions about her life, wanting to know more about this saint of a person who was apparently the Gravelpuss whisperer. “Fuck you,” shouted Gravelpuss, to which Patton remained adroit and shut her down. This repeated until Gravelpuss stormed off. The crowd cheered. Patton was our hero. It was hilarious.
I see virtually no difference between those two stories. Sure, the former ended in humor and embarrassment for Gravelpuss, and the latter ended with people covered in puke and a quick zinger by Paul Rudd. And sure, it’s not like that guy could dictate the timing and velocity of his vomit, as much as the orchestra section would have liked it to be so.
But in no way whatsoever should either act be condoned; telling somebody there’s a benefit to heckling is essentially pumping them full of gin and tonics and Domino’s pizza. In both cases, people—professionals—were trying to do jobs they’ve been training their entire lives to do, for people who paid money to attend a show, and were interrupted by an audience member doing something irrational or uncontrollable.
Chris is quoted saying, “I have seen countless comedians and forgotten most of them. But I remember each and every time I have witnessed a performer get into it with an obnoxious audience.”
Wow. Nothing screams, “I am a jaded comedy critic!” more than those sentences. You know what’s memorable? Good comedy. Honest comedy. A really great comedian doing their job of making people laugh. Hecklers make comedy memorable in the same way vacations are made memorable when you get mugged on them. You’re forced to make lemonade out of lemons. But make no mistake: There are fucking lemons.
I think the real problem here is that two ostensibly knowledgable people have forgotten the difference between a correlation and a causation. It just so happened that Patton was heckled, and the show was a success. That is a correlation—one thing happened as the other thing happened, but there’s a third variable at play, which is Patton’s extensive skill-set honed after countless years on the road. This is not a causation, though. The heckler did not make the show better. Do not heckle. In any case, there’s so much more.
2. A comedian’s ability to deal with a heckler is somehow a true test of their skill.
Comedians have a job to do. They make people laugh. It’s so black-and-white, that it’s the very definition of black-and-white. To be a comedian, you must be a master at the infinite nuances by which you elicit a binary response from people—laughter or no laughter.
That is what they have worked their entire lives to do. And that is the thing by which they should be judged.
There are people who are great at coming up with off-the-cuff retorts. And there are other people, who are sometimes the same people, who have meticulously crafted a set that has an arc and a story, much like a play. Stand-up is the illusion of a conversation, but really it’s a one-man show.
To watch a comedian deal with a heckler is to watch someone wrestle with the embarrassment that the thing they’ve worked so hard to craft is coming apart in front of them. Some retreat into themselves and ignore the person. Some lash out with anger. Some maintain composure and become the source of stories comedians tell others as examples of how to deal with hecklers.
But make no mistake. Hecklers are something you DEAL with. They are speed bumps. They are road blocks. They are in no way a barometer of anything, other than how insensitive it must be to attend an event that might as well be in your honor, and metaphorically or literally vomit all over everyone.
3. Heckling keeps comedians “honest.”
Nina Metz recalls watching Chris D’Elia perform at last year’s Just For Laughs festival in Chicago. When D’Elia talked about how hard it was to get dates, an audience member called his bluff. He’s a mildly famous person, after all. This led to D’Elia explaining how, no matter what, it’s a battlefield out there.
Again, exception, not the norm. Who’s to say that D’Elia wouldn’t have touched on that later in his act? Personally, I’d rather wait and see, because D’Elia is a professional comedian who likely has figured out the exact right time to address that elephant in the room. I bet he would have done it even better than anyone could have anticipated.
It is not your job to keep a comedian “honest.” That is the comedian’s job. Your job, as an audience member, is to listen. If you don’t like what you hear, that’s fine. Leave and be dissatisfied. Would you jump up into the lighting booth of your least favorite black box theater and tell the actors they’re doing a shitty job of reimagining All’s Well That Ends Well? If so, you are probably a psychopath, and that’s what television is for.
And yes, I see you spoke to a few comedians who have learned how to deal with hecklers. Wonderful. I’m sure there are vomit-covered patrons who would love to hear poncho recommendations—just in case.
The article is a series of anecdotes that highlight what happens when a critic thinks that if they will themselves hard enough, they will somehow have control over the absolutely uncontrollable. Heckling will never be an acceptable form of behavior. It happens, yes. Should it? No. Can it be entertaining?
Let’s put it this way: In Chicago, and I assume other places, traffic is sometimes caused by gaper’s block, meaning an accident has occurred and even though the damaged cars are off to the side, everyone else slows down to see what happened. One time I got stuck in traffic for an hour, only to pass a bag of clothes. Then things cleared up. I was late to work because someone’s trunk opened on the way to the Salvation Army.
I mean, I was entertained…
4. Nina: “As journalists and critics, we’re trained to stand and back observe…”
(I think she meant, “stand back and observe…”)
If you have been trained that way, then my deepest sympathies, Nina. I’ve seen you at shows. I’ve enjoyed some of your writing. Hell, you once wrote that something I did on stage was, “one of funniest things I’ve seen all year.” Thank you.
But c’mon. This is a vibrant, growing art form that benefits from a deep understanding of what it takes to craft a set. What it takes to hone a joke. What it takes to devote your life to a career that is 99.99 percent rejection, and STILL keep going anyways.
Go ahead and have an opinion. But don’t pretend you’re not part of the comedy scene. If you love something, you have a responsibility to help it grow. Sure, you might not always like what you see, but there is never an excuse for remaining oblivious to how hard it is to be a comic. And heckling is one of the hardest things comedians have to deal with.
You never encourage the encourageable. As a fellow journalist, one who takes great pride in being a critic who is an active member of the comedy world, I have two words for you: Internet commenters. Isn’t it great when a writer goes into the comments and defends their opinion to a bunch of people who are jealous they don’t have that job? It sure shuts them up never!
Let’s let Patton’s treatment of Gravelpuss be the absolute last resort. For the good of comedy. For all those Gravelpussies who might think twice before willing themselves to throw up.
[Note: an earlier version of this article remembered the name of the heckler as “Snagglepuss.” All of us at steveheisler.com deeply regret the error, though that’s a pretty funny name, too. Puss.]
2012: The year of justifying childhood obsessions via writing about them
As a kid, hobbies were my escape. I was bullied and teased at school, coming home to a confusing family fueled by anxiety. So I watched tons of comedy, played copious amounts of video games, and generally poured myself into pursuits that did as much to ostracize myself from others as they offered respite from said ostracization (new word; you’re welcome). When something else was happening, I could fixate on that, and not everything else.
But the narrative of my 30 years on this planet is clouded by my murky hindsight, and 2012 was when the sun finally cracked through the stormy veneer. I realized my family was ultimately loving and compassionate beyond comprehension. I came to terms with the fact that my peers were acting out because they hated something in themselves, not me. And those hobbies? They began as a way to hide, but in the trenches I found myself enriched by curiosity and wonder, infused with a genuine enthusiasm to study, report, and share in the joy they brought me.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, first of all, you visited steveheisler.com, the Internet’s number two source for all things Steve Heisler-related after my mom’s Facebook wall. But also, this was the year I completed some pieces of writing that I’m the most proud of—all of which came from somewhere deep inside me. Everything we experience is internal, projected externally, and this was my attempt to get some of that pop culture wanderlust out.
Each of these assignments were things I knew I had to write, to somehow justify to myself that the product of my experiences, good and bad, was something to be celebrated. This terrified me every time. It was a wonderful feeling.
A few years ago, Mel Brooks and I struck up an unlikely friendship. I spoke to him for the release of the 2000 Year Old Man box set, and he insisted I call him once a month to check in. Which I did. For at least a year and a half. We mostly talked about his days in Brooklyn and me insisting I write a book about him, and it was pretty magical. I eventually stopped calling because I thought I might be bothering him and he’s Mel Brooks, but I regret it because apparently Mel remembered me. When a colleague at The AV Club asked to interview him, he said, “I’ll only do the interview if Steve Heisler does it.”
How fucking cool is that?!
I’m not exactly sure why he’s taken such a shining to me. Perhaps he can sense my genuine enthusiasm for his work and the fact that I’m legitimately interested in what he has to say—and that I’m actually listening when he talks and I’m not afraid to call him out on weird things he says.
But I’m not going to question it much more. This interview, pegged to a DVD collection of his more unknown work, is exactly the kind of conversation I wish every interview was: heartfelt and hysterical.
Speaking of calling people out, I was given the unenviable task of interviewing Danny Masterson, from That ’70s Show fame, about his horrible new show Men At Work. Now look, I’m willing to talk to anyone, and from what I read about Masterson himself, he seemed like a nice, upfront guy. So I headed to his hotel to chat, knowing I kind of wanted to say to him, “Dude, what the fuck are you doing on this terrible multicamera TBS show?!” Then I figured it would be inappropriate.
But when I brought up the new show, Masterson asked me, point blank, what I thought of it. So I told him. I didn’t really like it. The jokes were bland and forgettable. I didn’t think it was for me. He does a good job in it, though, which is the truth. He sat there and listened, and became excited at the chance to speak to my concerns directly. It was a great chat, and later his publicist told me that Danny had gone out of his way to make sure I knew how much he appreciated my honesty. It meant a lot, he said, because most people wouldn’t do that.
Apparently, nobody does that. The interview made the rounds and people were floored by the fact that someone would ever tell a delicate celebrity that the thing they made wasn’t THE GREATEST THING TO EVER BE A THING. Some of my closest friends, also journalists, wanted to know how the hell this could have happened. I shrugged. I wasn’t sure. In the moment, it just felt right, and following that instinct clearly paid off. “Wait, you did this interview in person?!” my friend Margaret said. Gasp.
I guess it just goes to show that the grand illusion of an interview is that it’s a normal conversation, and the more you can, you know, actually have a normal conversation, the better the interview will be. Also, there is a way to ask anybody anything, and you shouldn’t shy away from taboos—that’s where really interesting stuff is hiding.
This was a divisive piece. On the one hand, some people agreed with my point that there are other avenues for expression other than podcasts, and that if everybody has one then they seem less special of a thing. On the other hand, pretty much the majority of people had a problem with this. Podcasts are the ultimate example of mix-and-match entertainment, they said, so there is no such thing as too many when you can customize your listening ad infinitum. Plus they create intimacy with favorite performers, thus heightening the experience of seeing them live.
The most outspoken of the “nay” camp was Marc Maron. He was upset that I was speaking ill of a burgeoning form of creativity before it really gained mainstream appeal, and that it was unfair to specifically mention shows he did that were free. My piece was also written from a place that many comedy fans do not find themselves in—living in a major metropolitan city where I have ample opportunities to see most of these people live. He spoke out about the piece on Twitter, on his own podcast, then again on Nerdist.
The fact that Maron picked up on the piece played right to one of my deepest insecurities: One of my heroes essentially told me I was a fraud. And…he had a lot of valid points. I worried my intention with the piece—to start a conversation and vent a few of my fears—was muddled.
No piece caused me more anxiety this year, yet no piece caused so much relief. The night it came out, Maron called me and we had a talk that lasted more than an hour, with both of us agreeing that the other has really interesting things to say. We then met up in Chicago and continued the conversation, building bridges between journalists and stand-ups that will hopefully carry into the new year along with the growth of comedy as a dynamic art form. I’m thankful I was finally able to articulate something that’d been bouncing around inside my head for so long, even if it meant a temporary pile-on of vitriol from random people on Twitter—the majority of whom, it should be noted, eventually followed me. Win-win?
Earlier this year, my friend and colleague John Teti launched The Gameological Society, a site to open up discussion about all things gaming-related. Jargon-y speak was not welcome; talk of “mechanics” and “gameplay” was ill-advised. This was a place to talk about the deeper level of what games do for people—and I mean everyone, from grandmas to grape-growers who play that grape-growing game on iPad that doesn’t exist yet but hey, free million dollar idea.
The site hit with me for multiple reasons: 1) I like games, obviously; 2) I like John; 3) it assumes games are an art form as a prerequisite for reading or writing any article on that site, and actively discourages discussion about things that DO NOT MATTER, like Metacritic scores, the length of a game, and using sweeping video game generalizations to somehow launch a chat that speaks to the deeper implications games have on those who love them. Teti’ll tell you himself that the phrase, “Most games do this, but THIS game does this!” is lazy sentence construction, and I now not only agree, but I see some permutation of this on every site in existence that talks about film, TV, music, every piece of culture.
Working for Gameological has made me a better writer, thinker, and do-er—and that’s saying a whole lot considering I typically play games to escape, not engage. It’s quite a feat.
I played Magic: The Gathering throughout junior high and most of high school, so clearly I got NONE OF THE LADIES!!! JK everyone, because that’s a terrible stereotype (that was true). At the time, it was all-consuming, all-being. Would the magic of Magic remain as an adult? I ventured to the friendly confines of a card store in Williamsburg and discovered, yes. Yes!
Boy, did I have fun. I used my Serra Angel to attack-without-tapping my way to victory. I chatted with people far more excited about the game than I’ll ever be, who had infectious enthusiasm that I could basically apply anywhere. I also dusted off the ol’ Magic thinking cap, and delved right into new rules I had no idea what to make of, because they were confusing, and watching them unfold during a game was awesome.
Magic was the hobby I cared the most about. For years, my cards were an extension of myself; having a good deck defined my worth as a person. That sounds harsh, but it was liberating in a way, to rid myself of anxiety and place value on the alchemy of a well-played game. Revisiting the game showed me that, on occasion, there’s value in stepping outside yourself, and in this case into the plains of wherever.
As we “speak”, my old cards are en route from Chicago so I can have them appraised by a Story Pirate friend who discovered I played and was eager to step in and help. I’ll probably sell most of them off, as they no longer have much tournament value. But I’ll probably keep a few around. Just in case. [Cue emergency siren calling for Magic: The Gathering to be played.]
I wrote a few things to read live, and I want to do plenty more of that
In Chicago, there are literally five hundred million reading series-type shows that force you to write something new as a prerequisite for performing—The Paper Machete and Write Club are a few favorites. Here, in New York, there aren’t that many. My friends and I have taken a step in launching the comedy/karaoke hybrid show The Jukebox (once a month at Union Hall in Brooklyn come see it promotion over), but sometimes that’s not enough. So, I sought out a few other avenues and revisited old haunts. Reading live is like performing a sketch you wrote just for you, and this year I tackled:
HERE’S THE THING: Louis CK couldn't escape Saturday Night Live's wig-ly clutches
Welcome to HERE’S THE THING, where I talk about comedy-related things in a very HERE’S THE THING-type way.
Louis CK hosted Saturday Night Live last week, which is a loaded thing to do. That person is usually forced to wear wigs and look silly, with the caveat that they can plug their upcoming movie or TV show as much as they want. It’s become a way to court mainstream approval, a tale as old as time.
This blatancy was not lost on Louie himself. He appeared on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon the night before the show, and made it VERY clear that “this” (being on SNL, or sketches in general) is not something he normally does. In fact, he said, there was one sketch in particular he loathed because he was forced to wear a weird costume. And that was the one sketch he insisted they keep in the show. “Because that’s what you do,” he said.
So basically, as much as the concept of doing Saturday Night Live was weird for his fans, Louie wanted them to know that it was weirder for him. The guy who ostensibly makes his critically acclaimed television show for himself and other like-minded folks was going to do the thing that immaculately groomed LA people do when they are VERY visibly and VERY shamelessly peddling something painfully commercial. This guy! And despite his awareness of that irony—accentuated by a note to fans typed on his phone from backstage—he was going to try to embrace the entire concept unironically. There were going to be two Louies: Louie Louie, and SNL Louie.
The episode itself was just as dichotomous. His opening monologue was just a Louie stand-up set, and there was a brilliant parody of Louie, reimagined as Lincoln. There were also sketches that were painful to watch, including the now-infamous ram’s horn sketch wherein Louie dressed up like Boromir and blew into a shofar.
One does not simply walk into Studio 8H. For every moment Louie was allowed to basically play himself, there was a moment where he had to give into the whims of the SNL writers and adopt an affected voice, don a wig, or act as a living prop in some idea he had nothing to do with.
That’s how it works every week. I know a few writers and actors on SNL who are all insanely talented, but the show is rarely ever greater than the sum of its parts. And no matter how good a sketch is, the host is the king or queen. They get all the punchlines and are allowed to have final say in which sketches air and which are sent to purgatory. It’s easy to forget, but Saturday Night Live is very overtly a publicity machine. Daniel Craig wears a few wigs, and a few more butts make their way into seats for Skyfall.
Louie knows this, and his strategy was to head it off at the pass. He made his apprehensions very public, but also made it known that he was going to press on. If he looked like an idiot, well, that was just the way it was going to be. And yes, he did look ridiculous at times, but no amount of forewarning could shake the uncomfortable feeling of watching a countercultural icon roll the dice on the People magazine-level of recognition that comes from hosting Saturday Night Live. There will always be a fascinating schism between SNL's genuine plea for laughs and its unabashed embrace of its shilling potential. And not even Louie CK could escape.