Rewatching Slacker

SlackerAlthough I can’t imagine any of the characters in the film Slacker being terribly nostalgic about anything, it’s worth noting that this year marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Richard Linklater’s gem. Sanctified in The Onion A.V. Club’s “New Cult Canon” and topping numerous critics’ “best indie film of all-time” rankings, Slacker is an odd addition to any best-of list. After all, this is seemingly a film about not giving a shit.

At least, that’s the most immediate impression on first watching Slacker, that and its nontraditional film narrative. Slacker doesn’t follow a story arc of one or two characters, and it’s not a collection of marginally intertwined stories, like Altman’s Short Cuts or the animated Heavy Metal. In Slacker the camera lens floats from one set of people to another, lingering for a minute here or ten minutes there. The camera eavesdrops on a stream of unrelated interactions—in sum, a day in the life of Austin, Texas, circa 1991. Often these moments have no distinguishable beginning or ending, just slices of time in the company of cafe philosophers, conspiracy theorists, guys trying to get laid, and girls trying to be taken seriously.

Entirely linear, Slacker never flashes back or forward, always remaining in the moment, giving the film a kind of bald, unprotected sensation. The camera drops into discussions midstream, giving us the opportunity to watch and listen but leaving it entirely for us to surmise backstories and histories. Then, as one or two people in the group grow fidgety or distracted—or bored—they move on, as does the camera, floating to the next interaction. There’s no soundtrack to speak of, only the occasional background music from a radio or club band, but nothing more. The camera is the star of Slacker, although it took me years to realize it.

The film opens with a young man (director Linklater himself) arriving in Austin and launching into a chain of free-form ruminations while a disinterested taxi driver takes him into town. The film closes with a raucous group of friends driving a convertible up the mountains outside of town and, in a final pique, throwing the camera—the star of the movie—down a cliff. In between, the camera moves between perhaps fifty different vignettes, eavesdropping on everything from the inane and mundane to the fantastical and bizarre.

Director Richard Linklater. (Photo by K.E.B.)

Director Richard Linklater. (Photo by K.E.B.)

Impossibly, each of these moments is wonderful in its own right. Some of the episodes reach father than the others. Everyone who’s watched the film remembers its most famous scene, the overly-familiar young woman (Teresa Taylor, drummer for the Butthole Surfers!) fencing a stolen jar containing Madonna’s pap smear, pubic hair and all. My personal favorite remains the inept burglar caught in the act in an elderly anarchist’s house, only to receive a gentle education on the history of anarchism in America. It’s the most complete and well-rounded episode in the film. It comes near the film’s midpoint, giving the audience a kind of narrative breather before the tour of Austin’s alt-underground bestiary continues.

Considering its unconventional narrative style, Slacker is refreshingly not self-conscious (or self-congratulatory) of its rule-breaking. (The opening with Linklater in the cab may be the only “meta” moment in the film.) For all the ground this self-financed film breaks, it’s comfortable and comforting viewing, the absolute opposite of the avant garde. That’s another reason Slacker sustains after twenty-five years. It’s hard to mock a film-school film and its no-name cast when it’s so relaxed in its own skin.

Any review or retrospective of Slacker is bound to name-drop “Generation X” and I won’t disappoint on that count. (After all, I’ve got some skin in the game.) Slacker is often called the definitive film of my generation. But when I think of the “great” movies of a generation—Easy Rider and The Big Chill for the Baby Boomers, The Social Network for the Millennials—I see aging, curling Polaroids losing their currency with each passing minute—movies of like-aged, like-minded, similarly-groomed people bellyaching they’ve not gotten their due. Slacker is not that film.

One observation critics sometimes make is that this is not truly a Generation X film because not every character is of that age. It’s true, but it’s also true the older non-Gen-X characters are treated differently than the rest. In films like Easy Rider and The Social Network, the older generation is treated with disdain and suspicion. In Slacker, those suspicions are reversed. An age-worn hitchhiker and the anarchist mentioned before are voices afforded the opportunity to air their wisdom to a welcome audience, while the specious logics of the younger characters are treated more as clever amusements. In the film’s final moments, an elderly man strolls down a street narrating into a tape recorder the quiet poetic wisdom of a long, full life—only to be interrupted by a young man, 20 or 21, driving a car with mounted loudspeakers, blaring into the microphone empty rage about guns and knives solving all political problems. It’s obvious where this film’s sympathies lie.

For the A.V. Club’s “New Cult Canon” review, Scott Tobias puts his finger on why Slacker is distinguished from other generation-defining movies:

It isn’t enough to think of Gen-Xers as merely jaded and sarcastic; indeed, there’s little of that attitude on display in Linklater’s film. But there is a sense of profound disconnection, a refusal by young people to participate in a system that will bring them no joy and wither their souls. As one character puts it, “Every single commodity you produce is a piece of your own death.”

My personal introduction to Slacker was in 1992, not long after its release, watching the movie on VHS at a Saturday night pasta feed. Eight or nine of us were crowded into a duplex’s living room in San Luis Obispo, me and my college-aged friends, some I knew well, some I didn’t. In particular, the singer and rhythm guitarist of our band was there. (We were going to be big, but no one could understand what our music was doing.) We were feasting on plates of red-sauce spaghetti and hot garlic bread. One of the women had made her easy-bake Apple Brown Betty. Others brought red wine and six-packs of the local beer. Dinner and a movie, on the cheap.

We were young and about to grow old. The singer was engaged to marry one of women there, the Brown Betty baker who was a housemate of mine. I was becoming involved with another woman in the room, a second housemate of mine that I would go on to live with for thirteen years. There were most likely other sub-plots in that room I was unaware of.

We knew, collectively and subconsciously, we were about to be dropped on a high-speed conveyor belt and told to run as fast as we could to keep up. Some of the people in that room thought they could step out of the way and stay clear of the inevitable. The rest of us knew, it’s called “inevitable” for a reason. For us, “getting ahead” sounded an awful lot like “falling behind.” We were all resigned to what was coming, and resigned to it in our own ways.

That’s why Linklater’s cafe au lait Dostoevskys and conspiracy savants sustains twenty-five years later. The game for the viewer is not teasing apart thought-provoking insights or brilliant dissections of American culture. Most of the musings in Slacker are, in fact, well-adorned horseshit. The game is piecing together how reasonably-educated people would arrive at such philosophies—and everyone in this film has their own philosophy, make no mistake. There’s a postmodern dignity that comes with assembling a personal credo from piece-parts and staying true to it, no matter how whacked-out it is. And that’s what’s going on in this film, with zero irony and zero sarcasm.

Pre-Internet and pre-Seinfeld, Slacker might come across as a grungy sun-drenched film of a drearier, less-snarky age. I say Linklater offers blueprints for an examined life—not the examined life, but examples of them. This is an earnest film. With few exceptions, the characters in Slacker withhold judgment about each other. They give each other the benefit of the doubt. Even when it’s obvious one of them is babbling nonsense from out in the weeds—”We’ve been on the moon since the ’50s!”—the other characters give them their space. There’s a moment in the film where a character takes a swipe at Texas Libertarians, but it seems to me that Slacker‘s code of live-and-let-live stands not far off.

Most critics pick up on a line uttered late in the film: “Withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy.” It’s often interpreted as the film announcing its own thesis statement (possibly the only other “meta” moment), but it’s worth taking a second look.

I don’t see a lot of disgust in Slacker. There’s a bit of it sprinkled around: the roustabout hitchhiker (“I may live badly, but at least I don’t have to work to do it”), a mouthy “anti-artist” berating a hipster at two in the morning, an enraged polemicist in an old-fashioned electioneering sound truck. That may be about it in the disgust department, though.

Slacker 2011, a "re-imagining" produced by the Austin Film Society for the 20th anniversary of the original film.

Slacker 2011, a “re-imagining” produced by the Austin Film Society for the 20th anniversary of the original film.

Listening to Linklater’s director’s commentary (recorded for Slacker‘s 20th anniversary), I gather he’s not terribly interested in elevating emotions like disgust, rage, vengeance, or hatred. So many of his anecdotes about Slacker are soft recollections of easier times: a buddy who came through with film equipment, good times working in a T-shirt shop, a girlfriend-actor he’s still friends with, that sort of thing. Slacker is a compendium of this manner of life. Sleeping on couches, trips to dusty used-books stores, the quest for the best burrito in town: It’s not a universal way of life, but it’s a way of life mimeographed and stapled to telephone poles all across America. Any smallish city or town with a college or arts school has this scene. Slacker is its Platonic ideal.

Returning to that immortal line—”Withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy”—I don’t even think there’s much apathy in the film, at least in its purest destructive form. Shrugging off others’ pet theories or forgoing a work ethic is not apathy. Questioning whether ex-convicts should be denied the right to vote or wondering if the media used Smurfs to inculcate America’s youth—both voiced in the film—doesn’t strike me as apathetic either.

Withdrawal is the common filament of Slacker, the third rail powering the camera’s dolly as it journeys through Austin. The closest Slacker gets to engagement is a gung-ho “cultural terrorist” selling T-shirts on the street. Slacker‘s characters don’t merely question, they question the act of questioning.

What did E. M. Forster write in Howard’s End? “Only connect”? Slacker is “only connect” put to film.

Twenty-five years on, I’ve lost touch with all the folks in that room in San Luis Obispo watching Slacker and drinking red wine. Over the years I intersected with a few of them, connecting briefly before moving on.

I’ll be bold and surmise that, back then, laughing and marveling over Linklater’s creation, none of us wanted to leave San Luis Obispo, or even that room. After leaving, we never wanted to return either. Perhaps we never truly left it behind.

I suppose that’s why I rewatch Slacker every few years, just as I reread certain books which have deeply affected me at points in my life. Rewatching Slacker is reconnecting with a past and making it present for a moment. It keeps alive within me a little bit of that necessary withdrawal.

Kung Pao Grantland

Bill Simmons

Bill Simmons

GrantlandFor the past few days there’s been an under-the-radar furor over the news that ESPN will shutter (and now has shuttered) Grantland, Bill Simmon’s unorthodox and motley digital magazine he started in 2011. A melange of sports writing and pop culture analysis, Grantland offered daily doses of baseball/football/basketball coverage (“The Triangle”), movie and television reviews, NBA trade predictions, Hollywood power-structure tell-alls, and straight-up unabashed fan writing of all manner of popular entertainment. The moment the Twittersphere kinda-sorta erupted with news of Grantland’s demise I immediately felt sullen. Some grown-up in ESPN’s accounting department had taken my lollipop away.

Excuse me while I make a poor but useful metaphor: Grantland was the digital equivalent of Chinese-American cuisine. Both offer a little of something for everyone, and the elements together on the plate taste like nothing else in the American palate. Starchy staples, tasty fried sports writing, as well as specialty items you can take or leave, the sweet-and-sour film review or the Kung Pao TV retrospective. Founder and editor-in-chief Bill Simmons’ columns? The fortune cookie.

Unsurprisingly, Grantland was heavy on sportswriting. Bill Simmons’ career as a Boston sportswriter and later with ESPN guaranteed any site he started would zero in on the hardcore day-in, day-out sports fan. But Simmons aimed higher than the lad-magazine sports coverage dominating the commercial Web today. He also avoided the purple athlete hagiographies Sports Illustrated‘s writers pen in the hopes of turning a feature article into a book. Instead, Simmons looked for thoughtful, side-angle takes on sports that avoided the breathless “you-are-there” prose and sports-radio head-bashing. Grantland offered college basketball coverage that would make any casual fan a maniac, unapologetic take-downs on the NFL concussion controversy, and a soulful piece on Don King at the end of a remarkable lifetime, a story that should’ve won a Pulitzer.

(Grantland’s sportswriting wasn’t pure platinum. Like the worst of the dailies’ sports columns, Grantland occasionally lapsed into poor satire, such as its fictional oral history of a real-life American League pennant game, or, worse, Roger Federer’s deviled eggs recipe, both of which told me that Grantland’s writers operated under deadlines like their print counterparts.)

If sports don’t float your boat, Grantland’s television and film writing was equally strong. These features weren’t “bolt-ons” designed to drive traffic to a sports-centric site, but an integral part of Grantland’s overall gestalt. (Now you see where I’m going with this Chinese food metaphor.) In fact, that might be the secret of Grantland’s success: it treated TV and film criticism with the same irreverent seriousness as great American sportswriting. Simmons recognized a sports-fan-like obsessiveness in the Mad Men bingeviewers and the art-house film fanatics. They take their pursuits solemnly and dive in deep to their pet loves, but not with the deadly sanctimoniousness of political junkies or finicky tastes of music fans. Grantland targeted today’s connoisseurs of popular narrative entertainment, people who watch the movie then watch it again with the director’s commentary.

Most of all, Grantland recognized it was possible be a fan of all these cultural wellsprings—Major League Baseball, Breaking Bad, Christopher Nolan—and smart enough to want to read deeper and broader into them all. Bill Simmons laid it on the line: great writing will attract eyeballs, and it will keep them coming back for more.

My appreciation for Grantland came last July when I swore Grantland was committing a bizarre form of suicide. The noose they chose to hang themselves with was “Rom Com Week,” five days of retrospective on the best and worst of Hollywood’s romantic comedies. How could a site for sports fans who think the NBA draft is nail-biting drama possibly want to read about movies that made you laugh as you cried?

Well, it worked. It even made me rethink the romantic comedy as a—fine, I’ll say it—art form. I devoured each daily transmission of “Rom Com Week” at my office desk over a brown bag lunch, always eager for the next day’s installment. The cherry to top it off was Bill Simmons’ wrap-up analysis, “Sports Movie or Not a Sports Movie?” He attacked what may be the most pressing question in popular culture that was never asked and never answered: Were movies like Bull Durham, Tin Cup, and The Replacements sports movies or romantic comedies? In an awe-inspiring and sweeping investigation, Grantland uncovered a massive underground river in American culture, the overlap between “guy” sports films and “gal” rom-coms, with Kevin Costner as the center peg holding it all together. If Simmons’ essay doesn’t rearrange your head, you’ve been living under a rock for the past three-plus decades.

That’s the fortune cookie, Bill Simmons sliding in at the last moment with surprising observations and a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the subject at hand. Hell, he almost got me to forgive Saturday Night Live for forty years of repetitive and spineless comedy—almost. That said, Grantland’s SNL retrospective adds up to some of the best writing ever on an American institution that somehow manages to delude itself (and a lot of other people) into thinking it’s still an anti-establishment rabble-rouser, even while wearing a tuxedo and hobnobbing with A-list celebrities.

Romantic comedies, SNL at 40, the real origins of Moneyball, The Terminator reconsidered, the future of James Bond, the Golden State Warriors’ performance shot-by-shot. Maybe someday the hole left by Grantland will be filled, but I doubt it.

Gawker, meet Sid Hudgens: media mogul, slimeball, genius

Myron Fass' Hush-Hush News

Myron Fass’ Hush-Hush News

James Ellroy’s brilliant novel L.A. Confidential introduces readers to Sid Hudgens, one of Ellroy’s most colorful and enduring characters. Publisher of Hush-Hush magazine (“off the record, on the Q.T. and very hush-hush”), Hudgens gleefully reports on the secret lives of drag queens and lesbians, dishes the dirt on the famous (Robert Mitchum’s “Big Dope Bust of 1948”), and outs hunky actors whenever the whiff of non-heterosexual possibilities are sniffed out by him and his camera lens.

While Gawker Media weathered the storm this week over its outing of a Condé Nast executive embroiled in blackmail, I found myself revisiting Ellroy’s Sid Hudgens and all that Hudgens represents. I’m enjoying the Gawker circus immensely, delighted by each day’s revelations (Gawker “in a total meltdown”, “editors resign over flap”, Gawker to be “20% nicer”). Now this is my kind of tabloid journalism!

And I’m not the only one. I’ve noticed a preponderance of the word “schadenfreude” in accounts of Gawker’s self-induced implosion. (I even coined a neologism for the phenomena: gawkenfreude.)

I admit, I’m not entirely elated with Gawker Media’s and CEO Nick Denton’s funky little mess. I’m a fan of io9, a Gawker Media venture that avoids the lurid and sensational. In their place, io9 emphasizes reliable, thoughtful pieces for the science and science-fiction crowd. It’s also one of the few mainstream media sites to treat ebooks and self-publishing with the dignity they deserve. io9’s writing is remarkably free of the snark that Gawker churns out like dollar-mart peanut butter. (I should mention that I’ve socialized with io9 editor-in-chief Charlie Jane Anders in the distant past.) But io9’s good work isn’t enough to stop me from gawking at the Gawker pile-up.

Confidential magazine, November 1955

Confidential magazine, November 1955

With all the schadenfreude over the train wreck that is Gawker Media, maybe it’s time to acknowledge the immense debt Nick Denton & Co. owe to the Sid Hudgenses of the bygone tabloid era, 1940s and onward.

James Ellroy’s creation is most likely an amalgamation of two historical figures, Myron Fass and Robert Harrison. Media impresario Myron Fass revived the Eisenhower era Hush-Hush News in the late 1960s. In addition, he published “up to fifty titles a month, many of them one-offs, covering any subject matter he thought would sell, from soft-core pornography to professional wrestling, UFOs to punk rock, horror films to firearm magazines.”

Robert Harrison published Confidential magazine in the 1950s, whose editorial style was “laden with elaborate, pun-inflected alliteration and allowed stories to suggest, rather than state, the existence of scandal.” Those pun-laden alliterations became Sid Hudgen’s calling card in both L.A. Confidential and later stories featuring him. (You can hear Hudgens’ pleased hiss as he says “sinnnn-sational.”) When Hudgens narrates a story in this alliterative fashion, Ellroy’s prose becomes a thick, near-unreadable Finnegan’s Wake of double entendres, word mangling, linguistic winks and nudges, and postwar film references.

Myron Fass represents the more lurid of the two—his love of the grotesque, bizarre, and outlandish comes through in his wild covers. Harrison’s Confidential was more conservative in both subject matter and politics, taking the pose of a moral crusader exposing those in power and delivering the truth to a deserving public.

Danny DeVito as Sid Hudgens, L.A. Confidential

Danny DeVito as Sid Hudgens, L.A. Confidential

Curtis Hanson’s film adaptation of L.A. Confidential did a damn fine job boiling Ellroy’s tangled ride and entwined characters down to a focused, seasoned narrative. Screenwriter Brian Hegeland developed brilliant scenes that establish complicated characters onscreen in moments. Here’s Sid Hudgens (impeccably played by Danny DeVito) explaining his vision of…the future:

Jack Vincennes: It’s felony possession of marijuana.
Sid Hudgens: Actually, it’s circulation 36,000 and climbing. There’s no telling where this will go. Radio, television. Once you whet the public’s appetite for the truth, the sky’s the limit.

Compare Sid’s ambitions to Nick Denton’s pseudo-manifesto of Gawker’s values:

“We put truths on the internet.” That has been the longstanding position of Gawker journalists. … It is not enough for [stories] simply to be true. They have to reveal something meaningful. They have to be true and interesting.

I won’t quibble with “interesting” except to point out that this is the word choice of a one-time journalist and editor.

“True,” however, is worth pondering. Nick Denton is not invoking the philosophical notion of truth as handed down to us from Aristotle, Sartre, Kant, and so forth. This is a schoolyard notion of truth, or rather, The Truth. A bottled, constrained substance, the prim and scolding schoolchild feels entitled and duty-bound to uncork The Truth and dump it out into the sandbox and onto the heads of their peers, damn the consequences—to others, of course, never him or herself. “True and interesting,” as airtight and ironclad a journalistic ethic as any, Sid Hudgens might say.

While Gawker‘s writers talk up the First Amendment, firewalls between business and journalism staff, and the purity of The Truth they seek to release, it remains that the core of Gawker‘s pulled story lies an attempt to out a man as gay. In Gawker‘s 1950s worldview, homosexuality remains an accusation to deny or confess to. Even when Gawker’s writers insist staying in the closet is a form homophobia, their devotion to exposing “true and interesting” homosexuality rings as hollow as Sid Hudgens’. Gawker and Hudgens see it as their personal duty to pull back the curtain on private lives whose personal choices—right or wrong—have zero impact on the public.

And Gawker has been relentless in their crusade of outing public figures (never mind the question of whether the Condé Nast executive is a public figure). Look no further than their perverse, sordid, multi-year quest not only to out James Franco as gay, but as a gay rapist—a charge they determined by counting the yea and nay votes in their readers’ comment section. Outing gay men (accurately or inaccurately) is the staple crop of tabloid journalism’s output and the raison d’être for its existence. In other words, Gawker is not the innovator it presents itself as. Gawker has an unsavory, weathered provenance that goes all the way back to the days of Myron Fass and Robert Harrison.

Tabloid journalism does not engage. It shames, it derides, it scorns, it scolds. It’s the clucked tongue put to print. It’s the transcription of knuckles rapped in delight. By refusing to engage in the substance of a story, Gawker‘s revered snarkiness is revealed as nothing more than Sid Hudgens’ pit-bull taste for lasciviousness, but more hipster and less hepcat.

Still, I can’t help but feel Sid Hudgens won. He foresaw the future with more clarity than Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov. From four-color tattler rags to Walter Winchell’s radio gossip to checkout line National Enquirer to prime time’s A Current Affair to the O.J. Simpson trial circus to Gawker Media’s empire—Sid Hudgens, Myron Fass, and Robert Harrison built the future one rumor at a time. Whet the public’s appetite for The Truth, boy-o, and the sky’s the limit.

From three acts to trilogies: The fall of “tight, gapless” writing

John August. (Mai Le)

John August. (Mai Le)

Over at Grantland, Kevin Lincoln makes a deft observation about the current (sorry) state of Hollywood’s output, which has gone from “tight, gapless screenwriting” to scripts focused on world-building, sequels, expansion, rebooting—in other words, franchising.

Lincoln quotes screenwriter John August:

Most screenwriters are essentially world-builders, and the nature of screenwriting is to create a universe in which these characters live, so that’s really exciting for screenwriters … it’s this weird blend of wanting to create the best two-hour movie you possibly can and having to sort of function as a TV showrunner, charting out the whole series, even though as a screenwriter, you’re only going to get paid for that one movie.

I have some interest in how Hollywood screenplays are crafted. (Truth be told, I’m more interested in how three-act scripts are structured, Hollywood or otherwise.) What concerns me with Lincoln’s article—beyond the ouroboros death-spiral that is the quality of Hollywood filmmaking today—is how this world-building dynamic is present in fiction too, particularly ebooks, a universe I’ve been wading into over the past twelve months.

If you search Amazon for independently-published novels labeled “contemporary” or “literary fiction,” you’ll discover your options are limited. (Or, if you’re like me, you might say “the field is wide open.”) Genre fiction is a another story. Science fiction, mystery, fantasy, dystopian YA, romance (and so on) are well-represented in the world of independently-published ebooks. Over-represented, maybe.

Some see that as a knock on the quality of independent electronic-only publishing, but the same situation is found across the publishing spectrum. Hardbound, paperback, big name New York publishers, small press publishers, even vanity presses—genre outnumbers the contemporary/literary world by an order of magnitude. (At least in the realm of books. By my reckoning, literary magazines outnumber genre magazines by two orders of magnitude.)

Someday I’ll write up my thoughts on genre fiction, but for now I’ll say that I don’t see the above situation as a problem in particular. I would like to see contemporary and literary fiction better-represented in the world of independent publishing, but I’m just one voice in a sea of many.

Three acts? Or three (or more) books?

My problem is where August’s observation about screenwriting intersects with independent publishing. Having spent a bit of time searching blogs and so forth for tips on breaking into the world of ebooks, I’ve again and again seen two connected strategies emphasized: world-building and sequels.

Group photo.

Group photo.

What’s that mean? Build a world, a big world, and explore it over the course of several books. This strategy has been the cornerstone of comic books (“the Marvel Universe“) and genre fiction (“A Lt. Detective Malone Mystery”) for decades now. Hollywood is finally waking up to the possibilities. And so are ebooks.

The ebook marketing wonkthink goes something like this: Write a catchy, addictive first novel that introduces your main character, builds the world, and stocks it with complementary secondary characters to be developed later. Give the first ebook away for free. Then write sequels that continue the story and develop your pantheon. Progressively increase the price of your ebooks as the series grows. When you’ve published the last ebook in the series—or reached a natural breathing point—package them together as a “boxed set” (there’s no box, just bits) and price it higher still.

Done right, the individual ebooks may be priced from free to, say, $4.99. The boxed sets can be sold as high as $19.99—the cover price of a physical book in a physical bookstore. With Amazon’s KDP Select, the author pockets 70% of that $20 purchase price. Not bad.

That’s the theory, but are sequels and world-building producing great reads? I’m not a connoisseur of modern genre fiction so I can’t say. I’m curious what hardcore genre fans think. Personally, I recall in my teenage years picking up Book One of various science fiction series only to discover its entire purpose was to introduce characters and describe the world’s physics and technology—in other words, sell me on buying the rest of the series. No thanks.

I know this: I haven’t gone to a movie theater in years simply because I can’t stomach what Hollywood is shoveling out the door these days. (This comes from a guy who grew up collecting Avengers comics and praying for a movie version.) They’ve rebooted Spiderman three times. “With great power comes great responsibility.” Yeah, got it.

Does it work?

Looking over Amazon’s Kindle Top 100 (paid ebooks, not free) and mentally discarding editions released by major publishers (and therefore available in paper form), I do see a number of independent ebooks that are part of a series. However, they’re all the first volume in the series (save for one boxed set selling for $0.99). I estimate two possibilities, and they’re not exclusive:

  1. The authors are selling the first book but failing to maintain readership throughout the series.
  2. The authors are big enough names they can sell the first volume rather than give it away for free.

In other words, I can’t tell from this limited data set what to make of this situation. I will say it’s tough as hell to crack the Kindle Top 100, so kudos to the authors. Also, this exercise of mine is rife with problems, so don’t let it stand as the final word on anything.

Note that I’m not terribly interested in the profitability of this world-building strategy. I’m more curious how other writers attract—and keep—the attention of readers. Do you really have to write a multi-volume genre series to succeed? I hope not.

I love the idea of tight, gapless screenwriting. I love even more the idea of tight, gapless fiction. For whatever it’s worth, that’s what I’m trying to do here.

The craft of funny

Ask me my favorite movie moment and I’ll tell you a scene from It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Before this morning I would have told it like this:

Phil Silvers and Jonathan Winters are in a private prop plane and the pilot has conked out. Silvers convinces Winters to take the wheel and fly the thing: “How hard could it be? Just put your hands there and there and your feet there. Now keep it steady while I go in the back and fix up an Old Fashioned like granddad used to make.”

Winters fumbles with the wheel and says, “What if something goes wrong?”

Silvers grins and shrugs, mugging a little for the camera. “What could go wrong with an Old Fashioned?”

Phil Silvers

It’s pure early-60s Tinseltown comedy: the oddball situation, the over-the-top response, the now-passe drinking humor, Phil “King of Chutzpah” Silvers playing a shtick nowhere to be seen in today’s Hollywood, and on top of that, breaking the fourth wall in a manner as old-fashioned as the cocktail he goes to prepare. All that’s missing is a Don Knotts double-take and someone getting trapped in a Murphy bed—both to be found elsewhere in the flick, of course.

One problem: the scene I just described is completely wrong. I’ve had it wrong for years.

I rewatched Mad, Mad World last night (finishing the second half this morning—it’s a long movie). Here’s how the scene really goes down:

Buddy Hackett and Mickey Rooney are in a private prop plane that Jim Backus is piloting. Backus finishes his Old Fashioned and tells Rooney to make him another, this time not so sweet. Rooney suggests that maybe two drinks are enough. Backus dismisses this and orders Hackett to fly the plane while he goes to the galley to make an Old Fashioned “the way dear old Dad used to.”

Hackett fumbles with the wheel and says, “What if something happens?”

Backus replies in his upper-crust voice, chin jutting out, “What could happen to an Old Fashioned?”

As the cockpit scene started, I said to myself, “Wait, this isn’t it. When do Phil Silvers and Jonathan Winters charter a plane?” When Jim Backus is drinking Old Fashioneds, I thought, “This must foreshadow a scene to follow”—as though Mad, Mad World is some French New Wave masterpiece and not a Vaudeville crazy quilt of gags, farce, and one-liners.

It’s a pretty serious lapse on my part. I confused all the actors and the details of the situation. (Backus conks out after the exchange, when Hackett starts whipsawing the plane to and fro.) I’ve only caught bits and pieces of the movie on cable over the years. I doubt I’ve seen it in its entirety since the early 90s. I think I invented elements because those elements made so much sense. Phil Silvers is the best-cast actor of the whole film (yes, even over Spencer Tracy) because his shtick is so attuned to the movie’s cold worldview. It’s his con-man personality, his P. T. Barnum patter that verbally corners his victims into submission. (See some of it on display here.) He’s a natural fit for Mad, Mad World‘s winner-take-all tale of All-American greed. Silvers and Winters are at each others throats throughout the movie, so I paired them in the cockpit. Not that Backus wasn’t suited for the scene, or that Hackett and his Play-Doh face was a poor substitution for Winter’s thick-as-a-brick truck driver, but the pair I imagined in my head seemed so much better.

Buddy Hackett and Mickey Rooney

My most serious lapse was to goof the set-up and the punchline. “What if something happens?” turned into “What if something goes wrong?” “What could happen to an Old Fashioned?” became “What could go wrong with an Old Fashioned?” If you’re telling a joke and you botch the set-up and the punchline, you’ve failed. The joke can’t be salvaged. It’s not dead-on-arrival, it’s a miscarriage.

And yet whenever I told my version, people laughed. After watching Mad, Mad World my girlfriend said that my version was actually better. She’s not an unbiased judge, but you know what? I think she’s right. My version is better.

Mark Evanier’s retrospective of Mad, Mad World mentions a quote attributed to Ed Wynn: “A comedian is not someone who says funny things…a comedian is someone who says things funny.” That distinction is vital. So vital, in fact, I think that distinction should be taught in every creative writing class out there. The twist is, it is being taught, even if instructors don’t know it. Some might even deny it.

I think Wynn’s observation is that a comedian takes great care in selecting his words because the right language can make a joke great, just as they can a story or a poem. Poor decisions not only rob the joke of its humor, they can even make the joke not a joke. “Take my wife—please!” may not carry as much water as it once did, but “Will someone please get my wife the hell out of here” is simply Neanderthal crudity.

The beautiful sentence movement has grown so mainstream, it has its own movie. I say let’s start the beautiful joke movement—an appreciation of their structure, grammar, flow, and word choice.

A fiction writer with any interest in humor should study the craft of funny. (A fiction writer with no interest in humor should consider another pursuit.) Jokes are the original microfiction, the first short-shorts. At their best, they’re Western imitations of Zen koans, but when told right, both hands are clapping. Great jokes have a sturdiness to them, a similar sturdiness I find in great literature. Great jokes leak humor. It pours out from them in all directions. Often the blunt force of a joke’s initial contact—the impact that yields the first laugh, the rest of the laughs only arriving when the full implication of the punch line descends—often lay in a single phrase, or even a word. “Wrecked him? Damn near killed him!” is demolished when a novice repeats it as “Wrecked him? He almost died!”

Here’s my latest favorite joke:

How many Freudians does it take to change a light bulb?

Two: One to screw in the bulb and the other to hold my penis—my mother—the ladder!

Freud may be a genius, but his work forever linked his family name to screwing, dicks, and moms. Mrs. Freud must be so proud.

I know it’s odd to admit I’ve thought a lot about the words penis and mother in this joke. I hope you believe me when I say I’ve also considered what’s left out of this joke. With writing, addition can be subtractive:

How many Freudians does it take to change a light bulb?

Two: One to change the bulb and the other to hold my penis. I mean my mom! No, the ladder!

The funny is still there, but the unnecessary I mean and No stilt the delivery and ruin the impression of beating back the subconscious. The formal mother delivers a sense of matriarchal authority that mom lacks. Think how completely derailed this joke would be if dick was used in place of penis. And don’t overlook the loaded meaning of the missing screw.

Seventeen ways to split a joke

And that’s why I prefer my cocktail debate over Mad, Mad World‘s. “What could happen to an Old Fashioned?” fits Backus’ old-money alcoholic because it places his primary concern with the well-being of the cocktail—but it doesn’t align with Hackett’s question, “What if something happens?” Backus should think Hackett is referring to the preparation of the drink, not the drink itself. The gag gets laughs because drunk pilots are always played for laughs. Its humor lies outside language and the characters’ subjective reality.

My version isn’t colossally superior, but it succeeds because Phil Silvers’ answer does align with Winters’ “What if something goes wrong?”—an Old Fashioned solves problems, ergo nothing can go wrong. His answer invites the audience in and makes them complicit in the joke—that is, the imaginary audience that never saw the joke that only existed in my head.

Now that I’ve amputated the funny bone from these gags (if you agree they had one) I head toward my liquor shelf asking myself the $350,000 question: What could go wrong with an Old Fashioned?