Monday, July 10, 2017

Charlie Chaplin and Anti-Comedy

Colin Spacetwinks has been sharing some of his old comedy writing/theory on Twitter recently, and one of the pieces that came up was his post about Too Many Cooks. He relates it specifically to the Space Ghost: Coast to Coast episode "Fire Ant" to talk about the technique of "dragging the joke out," and specifically to position it in the sort of "anti-comedy" popularized by Adult Swim. It's a good post, and its resurfacing is weirdly timely for me.

The Castro Theater just had a double feature of Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times and Fritz Lang's Metropolis. I'd seen the latter a handful of times, though no more recently than a decade ago. The former I hadn't seen. It was, in fact, my first Chaplin movie period, I think. That's despite spending literal full weekends in college scheduling my sleep around what TCM was playing. I had a lot of fun in college.

The programming of that double feature was smart as hell in ways I did not anticipate. Even not having seen Modern Times, I knew the broad strokes made sense together. The short version is: they're both films about labor, featuring broad, iconic images of industrial machinery. The particulars were what I wasn't ready for. I didn't realize that, for instance, the opening shots are nearly identical.
 
Both films open on the face of the clock. They also both move from this into scenes of undifferentiated laborers moving to work. The main difference is a generic one: in Modern Times, the shift to the laborers is prefaced by a shot of sheep being driven forward. It sets up a parallel with the workers we are about to see. In Metropolis, the laborers move into the space of an elevator rather than directly into a factory. A title card then describes them as going 'deep below.' It's as concise a visual argument for the definition of genres -- comedy and science fiction -- as I've maybe ever seen. There's a whole essay there, but I want to talk a little more about Modern Times' comedy.

I bring up Spacetwinks' essay because one of the most striking aspects of Modern Times, to me, was how close it came to that kind of anti-humor. Plenty of it was the sort of humor I expected of Chaplin through cultural osmosis -- vaudevillian slapstick and mugging, underdog character work, &c. -- but the execution was surprising.

An early joke involves the boss testing out a machine that can feed laborers while they work. It's sold to him as a way to reduce the wasteful lunch break, and so he decides to have Chaplin give it a go. The scene is structured about how you would expect: everything goes well until it doesn't. Once it doesn't, it starts going worse and worse, quickly.

The thing, though, is that it isn't all that quickly. The scene itself lasts for, I'd guess, nearly ten full minutes. It's a funny scene, and it isn't structured like a Tim & Eric bit or anything; instead of languishing, it continuously escalates toward the conclusion. Even still, the scene itself struck me in a way much closer to that sort of anti-comedy than to a lot of the other jokes even within the film itself.

Another tangent that I'll note without diving into: I don't know that I've ever seen comedy theorized in a way that was anything but ahistorical. Comedians themselves are the worst about this, of course. But the rhythms of comedy change over time, and according to knowledge.

There is one other major scene that I read as anti-comedy in Modern Times. It comes near the end. Chaplin has been in and out of prison and work throughout the film. He is finally trying to make good by his ward, who has secured him an audition as a member of the waitstaff at a restaurant of Singing Waiters. Before the obvious joke, though, he has to actually wait on tables; in particular, on a gentleman who is furious that he has had to wait an hour for his roast duck.

About two thirds of the way through the bit, Chaplin is nearly at his table with the meal. The band strikes up, and he is immediately surrounded by dancers. He gets caught in their twirling and seething. The only part of him left visible his upstretched hand holding the plate of food. He does a full rotation of the floor, begins to walk forward, and gets caught up again. This is funny in its flouting of expectations. The scene seems to have played itself out, but it continues. It's when he gets caught again for the third time that it borders on the kind of comedy where "dragging out the joke" is itself the joke.

Unlike the automatic feeder, this sequence doesn't really structure itself by escalation. The thing that ultimately happens could have easily have happened the first time around with no great loss; the escalations are secondary to the act of languishing on the act of watching. At the time of the film's release, both scenes were, presumably, uproarious. They are not played like they are meant in some way as ironic commentary on comedy. But it's nearly a century on, and they feel that way now. To me at least.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Runday Seeding 8 (5/21/17)

This week has marketplaces that diverge and that challenge; a ramp-up in the continuing eSports capture saga; curating a thousand game makers; strikes, VR, and bunnies in Second Life.

Marketplace Movers



Political Economy

 Financial Statements:

Historical Materialism




Runday Seeding is for a materialist snapshot of games in the context of leftist movement building and other culture. 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Runday Seeding 7 (5/14/2017)


This week's more broad financial statements than fun theory or criticism or anything. Esports and VR do weasel their ways in, of course.

Political Economy


Historical Materialism


Runday Seeding is for a materialist snapshot of games in the context of leftist movement building and other culture.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Runday Seeding 6 (5/7/2017)

This week's all about ad spends and revenue run rates and VC; some old proposal documents and StarCraft source code and Bash Back!

Political Economy



Historical Materialism



Runday Seeding is for a materialist snapshot of games in the context of leftist movement building and other culture.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Fight From Inside the Fandom

Back in December, I wrote that a leftist trolling would involve "litter[ing] the user-generated-content hell with strategic propaganda." It's a phrase that's stuck with me.

In the months since I wrote it, I've been digging through the My Brother, My Brother and Me archives. It's a comedy advice podcast. It's been rapidly growing in the last couple years, in large part because of how "good" the three brothers are; how willing they are to admit to mistakes of ignorance, to talk openly about their own growth, and to do their best to build their comedy with a foundation of inclusivity and understanding. Take this response from a TV Insider interview with the brothers, in response to the question "How do you build a brand that revolves around positivity and compassion in comedy?":

Griffin: You f--k up a whole lot when you start doing a podcast, and you hear from people who really, really, really like you, who let you know very politely that you hurt their feelings and ostracized them, and then you stop doing it. And then after enough of those, you kind of stop doing it to everybody, or you try your f--king best to. Literally, that’s it. I think it’s easy to get defensive, but I just always felt so miserable when I heard, “I’m a big fan of yours and you hurt my feelings."
Travis: When someone tells you, “Hey, what you just did hurt me,” you have two options. One is to say like, “You’re wrong, and I didn’t do anything wrong.” Or your other option is to say, “Okay, well if you feel that way, let me take a step back and really look at what I did.” Do that second one every time.
Griffin: I think doing anything that has a big enough audience these days becomes a lesson in empathy. The show and me, Griffin, a person, have gotten so much better since those lessons have come pouring in. I like having that relationship with our audience, and I genuinely think it’s funnier to not say no to s--t, or not slam people instead of getting on board with them. I think that’s the funnier thing 100% of the time.
Justin: It’s harder, but it’s always funnier.


It's a good sentiment, especially in the retrograde world of comedy. Honestly, I think that a lot of what is appealing about their work is shaped by the fact that they aren't Comedians. But that's a subject for another day.

Part of what compelled me to keep listening to back episodes of their show was the promise of the origin story of this development in their work. Because there's definitely an origin story that they reference for, like, a hundred episodes after it happened. I think it's explained fairly well in this piece for Brooklyn Magazine:

Justin told me, “I think we’ve always tried to be [inclusive], it’s just early on we didn’t necessarily have the tools or the understanding of how to be that way. I think mainly that’s because we grew up around people like us. So that was our default. But that expanded. ‘People like us’ has gotten a lot broader since we’ve had a much broader audience.”
The turning point was furries. It was around episode 30, not even in response to a listener’s letter, but to a Yahoo Answers question from a thirteen-year-old furry wondering about coming out to his family. The brothers’ comedy comes from escalation, each taking the previous joke farther and to sillier lengths. In this case, the joke—the “joke”—was about how freaked out and disturbed they were by furries.
The next episode, in the middle of answering another question—from a listener afraid of being made fun of for being in their school play—Justin segued into an apology. “Like, if you look at us. Last week we talked a lot of yay about furries, but to cover up the fact that we are all right now, as we record the show, wearing furry costumes.” Griffin said, “I’m a lynx.” Travis: “I’m a sexy cow.” And Justin? “I’m an apologetic tiger, because I feel bad to our furry friends.” Griffin chimed in, “I feel wicked bad!” He continued, “Let’s put this question on pause, cause we need to address this. I think that hatred comes from fear, and fear comes from misunderstanding.” And the brothers owned up to misunderstanding furries, and thanked the listeners who’d written in to set them straight.
As Justin told me, “Afterwards, we got these tweets from people who were like, ‘Hey, I’m a furry, and I like your show, and that sucked.’ I don’t know who we thought was listening, but we certainly didn’t think furries were, ‘cause we didn’t know any growing up. Once we realized that we hurt these people, we felt like garbage about it. So we were like, let’s make the decision to learn, and talk to these people, and celebrate them and become wildly pro-furry. What we realized is, isn’t it also a lot funnier to be wildly pro-furry. I think it’s funnier to be really into everything, permissive of everything.”
It’s not that they’re pretending to be pro-furry because being pro-furry is silly. The McElroys decided—and the success of MBMBaM proves—that actually being enthusiastic about everything opens the door to better comedy.
To recap: something like half a year after they started the podcast, the brothers went in on furries in a typical "this is funny because we are having an outsized reaction to a thing we don't understand (or want to)" style bit. The difference between them and 99% of other comedy is that, when pressed on the shittiness of that bit, they apologized sincerely and did their best to stop doing that.

Or, at least, that's how it's turned out in the long run. Part of the reason I was so compelled to get back to that incident is because, frankly, there are at least another couple dozen episodes of the show where they clearly haven't actually learned from that error, despite constantly professing to. They're repeatedly shitty to people during that time, except now in a way where they preface it by saying how much they learned from being shitty about furries.

As an origin, it's a pretty fascinating one. Partially because telling the story lead to its enactment; but also, for me, because it seems very much like an example of that kind of strategic propaganda I advocated for.

Even more, it suggests a possible addendum to my essay, another tactical opportunity. I more or less completely ignored fandom in it, despite my hovering on the periphery of a million of them forever. What that origin suggests, to me at least, is the possibility of a sort of dedicated left entryism; a program for people who are fans of things to guide them into pressing advantages on new or developing creators.

This could take a number of possible forms. One option would be something like a generally-accessible resource sheet, pointing out certain methods of approaching sympathetic creators. It could be completely straightforward, like "if you want to see responsive, growing creators do better, try this," or even in the style of those viral Tumblr/Twitter posts that treat everyone who doesn't act exactly how you just learned to as an incomprehensible asshole.

Another would be a centralized group who actively searched out burgeoning successes and deployed members to their fandom. An IRC would work for this, but something like a facebook meme page might actually be even more ideal and difficult to detect/subvert. Admins could point to creators who seemed sympathetic through an understood language within the memes themselves, allowing followers to integrate within the fandom and deploy targeted criticism/propaganda.

The goal, to be clear, would be to create a sustainable method by which we could repeat something like what happened with the McElroys. One thing that gets left out in their origin is any question of what happened to those furries; this is the sort of thing that requires some investment (to understand the norms of the space) but not an indefinite amount. Listening to a pre-Pitchfork-level band's album and patiently explaining its exclusivity in normal channels might take a couple hours over a week, and they're certainly going to remember it.

The possibilities here are, admittedly, a little harder to imagine with an economic leftist argument (rather than a cultural one), so I'm not breaching them now. Maybe if I have some ideas later, or if you do. I'd certainly be interested.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Runday Seeding 5 (4/30/17)

This week: Financials prompt a study of the consolidation of the industry. Esports and digital returns. The new right wing, the closing of Tropes vs Women, and some more on prison abolition.

Political Economy


Historical Materialism




Runday Seeding is for a materialist snapshot of games in the context of leftist movement building and other culture.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Runday Seeding 4 (4/23/17)

This week: Marvel's bullshit, ESA Reports (and their bullshit), and college esports; college resistance, server shutdowns, and facebook futurism; Minecraft set design, bad feelings for flow, and prison abolition against games systems. 

Political Economy

Shut the Fuck Up, Marvel
Berkeley: After Workers Fired, Undergrads Shutdown Major Campus Event
The Extremely Convenient Indian
Don't Worry, Driverless Cars Are Learning From Grand Theft Auto
Twitch confirms that $10 and $25 channel subscription tiers are on the way
Chinese gaming giant Tencent is rebranding its digital store as 'WeGame'
Essential Facts about the Computer and Video Game Industry
Don't take the ESA's games industry numbers at face value
Unity devs can now sell actual hats (and other merch) in-game via new Shopify SDK
Netmarble Games raises $2.3 billion in South Korea's second-biggest IPO
Rising Stars: All-women's Stephens College breaks ground with varsity esports program
Google settles with Russian regulators to allow competing third-party app preinstallations on Android
Gambling website finds Evil Geniuses is the top-earning team in esports
Gaming video to generate $4.6 billion this year - SuperData
Who Is This "Shitposting" Tech Bro That Gave Trump $100,000 for His Inauguration?

Historical Materialism


Duke Nukem's Dystopian Fantasies
Level With Me: Half-Life 1, complete!
Doom: To Hell and Back
University of Texas, Austin: Frat Vandals Issue Statement 
Mailbag: Teaching Spatial Storytelling
OpenCritic’s Look Into Brash Games (PDF)
INTRODUCING HAYMAKER, CHICAGO’S NEW ANTI-FASCIST GYM
Esports will be an official medal event at the 2022 Asian Games
When the developers of Dwarf Fortress die, a museum inherits the game
Sony Closing Servers For Kill Strain And 5 Other Games
Exhibitors will be able to sell merchandise on the E3 show floor this year
Why the Alt-Right Are So Weak And Why They’re Becoming So Dangerous
Facebook is launching augmented reality game platform later this year 

Feeling Critical


Bad Affect as Game Design, Or It Feels Good For Overwatch To Feel Bad
Crime and Punishment in Prison Architect and Democracy 3
Elastic Energy: What makes a parry so satisfying?
Free Fire director used Minecraft to map out set design
Why Video Games Have So Many Endings and So Few Conclusions



Runday Seeding is for a materialist snapshot of games in the context of leftist movement building and other culture.