Miles Klee Prompt #1: What is the funniest unfunny thing.
The kind of spectacular, instantly public failure that’s experienced only by the very confident. There was a time when this type of comedy was accessible only by seeing street performers fall down or by watching the Hidenberg blow up, but since YouTube has come about these incidents have become a major touchstone of our collective sense of humor. Star Wars Kid is the first example I can think of, but it seems like every day there’s a new video going around of people trying to do something cool and messing up real bad. They are always short, and tend to be so universally entertaining that normally intolerable coworkers or family members become temporarily welcome over by your computer, sharing a seventy-five second laugh over coffee.
There’s something relatable about seeing someone who knows they’re on camera, losing themselves in whatever they’re broadcasting. I think the appeal to everyone’s inner ability to dork out that thoroughly is the initial appeal of this type of voyeurism, but the pivot point of these videos is the way their subjects are forced back to reality by the crushing blow of a shotgun’s recoil or a frozen-too-thick pool. When we laugh at stuff like that—which I do, all the time—we’re reinforcing the reliance we have on never letting our guard down or getting overly enthusiastic about anything. We’re also celebrating the subjects’ fearless ability to do just that.
It would be disheartening, that so much comedic energy is dedicated towards knocking down those of us unburdened by the weight of self-awareness, if there weren’t a limitless supply of seventeen year-olds who think they know everything and who insist on attempting to prove it at every possible turn.
Miles Klee is the one person in the first wave of this project who I’ve never met in person. In case proof is required: I thought about just calling him “Miles” at the beginning of that last sentence, but there’s no way we’re there yet. I really enjoyed his novel, Ivyland, and something about both it and his general online presence suggested to me that he’d understand I was aiming to accomplish with this project. I think I guessed correctly, given the fact that he answered quickly, with prompts more writerly and inward-leaning than those of my goony friends who wanted to read me write about cats and cartoons. (And the fact that he answered at all.)
Miles’ old Tumblr Hate the Future is an all-time great use of a platform whose endgame utility is stil kind of a black box to me. In a perfect world HTF will end up in some future Tumblr Hall of Fame, sitting on a laptop in a Flatiron storefront next to Tag’s iPhone and the plastinated corpse of the guy who invented the pornographic animated gif. He has since moved up, selling his words to upscale zones such as BlackBook and Lapham’s Quarterly, while the rest of us have spent our evenings drinking tallboy after tallboy of Modelo Especial, idly browsing Xbox Live Arcade for a game that isn’t anime-related but is still cheap enough that I won’t regret buying it.
Not to belabor the point, but there is a breathtaking amount of vaguely sex-related anime stuff on Xbox Live Arcade. I can only imagine how much money it generates. Art like Miles’ acts as a sort of cultural counterweight to things like that, even if his, my, and everyone I know’s writing combined will probably not be seen by one percent of the number of people who downloaded whatever that anime witch game my old roommate Aaron loved was called.
Tom Simmons Prompt #5: Top three animated/cartoon characters of all time
Dale Gribble from King Of the Hill. Dale’s fragile combination of total paranoia and bumbling-but-sincere affection is something to aspire to. He’s afraid of everything, but gleefully meets that terror head-on with intricate plans that everybody knows will not work. To Dale, the world seems totally chaotic, so he responds in kind. I can relate to that.
Snoopy’s Brother Spike. Spike takes his brother’s sedentary wisdom to its logical conclusion. He lives outside Needles, California, a tiny town in the Mojave, where he mostly contemplates nature and considers going into Needles proper to chase women and play video games. I live in New York City, the largest city in North America, and his is still a sentiment very close to my heart.
If there were an election for which cartoon character were most likely to be friends with Willie Nelson, he would get my vote. He is less charismatic than his famous brother, but far more wise: “When you live on a desert there’s nothing more exciting than watching the sun go down. Then what?”
Homer Simpson. Homer is a reluctant choice. The Simpsons was an astonishing television show, and now it is a television show. A large part of that, a large part of how The Simpsons became less astonishing, has to do with the transition from Homer’s simplicity being forced to bend to the world around him to the world being forced to bend around Homer’s simplicity.
With that in mind, I vote Homer because of two particular moments that are distinctly old-Simpsons by virtue of not being funny at all. First: Homer sits on the hood of his car and watches the stars after meeting his mother for the first time since childhood, only to lose her again almost immediately. Second: “Do it for her.” By giving Homer that internal life and suggesting, in broad strokes, that there are low-level things Homer wants beyond donuts or whatever, the entire show is recontexualized! It hurts Homer that his limitations have stopped him at the working-class ceiling. It hurts Homer that he never really had a mom. He keeps up the levity around his family to bring levity to what can be a downer of a lifestyle, but in moments like that, when Homer’s alone, it’s clear he is one of the best.
Tom Simmons Prompt #4: Art by friends vs. Art by strangers.
First: Art by friends skews crappy. Because they’re your friends, you end up noticing art made by your friends as soon as they put it online. For art by a stranger to cross your path, it’s usually got to cross some threshold of quality. This creates the illusion that your friends are uniquely bad at art, even if they’re actually just as terrible at it as everybody else. This effect is magnified by the fact that all good artists are friends with each other.
This is how the New York City music scene will get you down: The relatively low level of musical quality present in everybody and their friends’ local group of bands is normally offset by a sense of community. The fulfilling sense of working together on something (basement shows, bedroom records, getting touring bands a place to stay) displaces a lot of the anxiety surrounding the actual art that’s being made. Ironically, these conditions are perfect for the creation of high-quality art and music. By placing such a premium on space, New York City makes it extremely difficult for these sorts of communities to form, and as a result it tends to attract the entitled type of musicians who feel as if they don’t need them. Before I lived in New York, I lived in Boston, a city whose dedication to these sorts of scenes has made it a breeding ground for bands to cut their teeth and then, once their status permits them to sever ties, move elsewhere. Conversely, it’s no coincidence that a hugely disproportionate number of New York’s best bands began their lives in other, more communally-minded artistic circles. Even among my band and my friends who are in bands, it feels like we operate in a social vacuum, which makes the artistic atmosphere seem much more solipsistic and competitive, which is exactly the opposite of why anybody with half a brain picks up music in the first place.
Art by friends has the capability to make someone feel like they have a reason to be somewhere, which can be pretty difficult for the aforementioned person with half a brain to feel. For that it is to be commended. Art by strangers has the capability to be Public Enemy. For that it is to be commended.
Tom Simmons Prompt #3: If you could piece together Your Dream Band That You Would Also Be A Member Of, what kind of music would it be, members, &tc.
I wish I was the type of person who would feel welcome as a member of Crazy Horse. However, I have spent the better part of my twenties living in Brooklyn, New York. I wear glasses, and last week I learned what makes cashmere wool different from regular wool. I am rightfully blacklisted from Crazy Horse’s side of the rock and roll experience.
I don’t think I’m good enough at playing music to be in Cheap Trick. In many ways, there isn’t much of a reason to be in any currently-active rock band besides Crazy Horse or Cheap Trick, so the idea of joining an existing band as a newcomer (which would probably be pretty awkward and rock-and-roll-fantasy-camp anyway) is probably out the window. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that “specific era of a specific musician” is too specific, just so I don’t accidentally write an unintelligible book-length post about how badly I’d like to play music with 1960’s Van Morrison.
So, a group of musicians I admire, and alongside whom I don’t think I’d feel really uncomfortable playing some music, and with at least a sideways eye towards some kind of coherent finished product:
The end result would probably be a noisy, repetitive pop project featuring at least one song written by the others about how I’m an idiot for not picking any of the surviving members of the Velvet Underground. I try to avoid musical hero worship before my sixth drink, so this issue is extremely embarrassing to write about. I almost went the Bob Pollard route, but there’s something about the “look how good of a time we’re having” insistence of GBV that I think would wear on me as a performer after awhile. And there’s already one Tobin Sprout in the band.
Tom Simmons Prompt #2: “Did you have any irrational fears as a kid (i.e. Chucky Finster’s fear of the man on the oatmeal box, my fear of Alfred E. Neuman) that you no longer have now? Conversely, are there things you’re afraid of today that you weren’t afraid of as a kid?”
There’s a scene in the movie Fire In the Sky where the main character, having just been abducted by space aliens, gets strapped down and has a foot-long hypodermic needle crammed into his eyeball. The first time I saw Fire In the Sky, I was terrified of this scene. Thoughts of alien abduction kept me awake. I would insist on trying to fall asleep in the living room, watching Nick at Nite. To this day, theme songs to Taxi and Dragnet take me back to an innocent, white-hot fear that aliens were coming to abduct, prod, inject, and so forth.
These days, I’m not exactly thrilled at the idea of a needle in the eye, but I’m now old enough to realize that the Fire In the Sky guy didn’t die, presumably made a good amount of money from the resultant book and movie, and occasionally takes a victory lap around popular culture as a legendary kook. This is what happens between childhood and adulthood: I think that’s a pretty fair deal. A child can be purely afraid of an experience, however unlikely, that is sure to be traumatizing, isolating, and painful. Now that I am grown, with a bummer job and an increasingly alarming scratch ticket problem, the prospect of essentially getting paid six figures to be abducted and abused by extraterrestrial beings merits a bit more scrutiny.
As someone who has often considered getting Alfred E. Neuman tattooed on my chest, I would like to know more about Tom’s childhood fear.
Tom Simmons Prompt #1: “Describe your dream house.”
Every couple of months I find myself reading that statistic about how, once a person passes a certain income threshold, more money won’t make them appreciably happier. I don’t know how true that is, but it’s something like how I used to feel about my location.
I left a town small enough that two local choirs performed when a Wal-Mart opened, but big enough to support multiple local choirs.
The final summer I spent there, after my freshman year of college, a Quizno’s opened. The woman who owned the bagel place where I ate lunch every day got choked up when I asked her how she thought it would affect business. (I was eighteen years old and completely insensitive. To my credit, an internet search reveals both that the bagel place is still open and that its more-or-less-accurate slogan is “The Best Place In Town!!!”)
It is a place where men felt justified using its atmosphere as an excuse for doing cocaine off bathroom floors and having affairs with young female subordinates. It is a place where a young man farted at a party, got predictably laughed out of the house, came back with a gun, and murdered somebody.
I don’t live there anymore, so I feel like I’ve already done all right. So long as I’m in a place where I can make fun of someone’s farts at a party without fear of being shot, I feel like I’m already a significant portion of the way to a “dream house.”
I don’t believe in copping out, though, so if you’re talking housing-gravy here are some things I wouldn’t mind being mixed in there: I want to live on the beach someday. I want a personalized candy machine like Derrick Rose has. I have an unexplainable attachment—one that even I find annoying—to those tiny ultra-efficient apartments you read about architects living in.
When I came up with the idea for this project, Tom Simmons was the first person it occurred to me to ask.
Our meeting had something to do with a show house in Allston, Massachusetts called Castle Pikachu. It was called “Castle Pikachu” because it was yellow, and because the only other show house in Boston at that time was Castle Greyskull, a house I lived in for about a year. (Castle Greyskull, in turn, was uncreatively named after the street I lived on. (The street had the word “Grey” in its name.))
Did Tom live there, at Castle Pikachu? Regardless. His friends, who also might have lived there, were in a band that played with my band on a regular basis. Guided By Voices songs were sung. Empty six-packs of beer were used as pillows. Successful collegiate male bonding took place, not least between Tom and I, with his Achewood tattoo and our shared and dickheaded literary aspirations.
We moved from Boston to New York City at around the same time. We sang karaoke, which is either one of those pastimes enjoyed mostly by the new-to-New-York or is simply not as popular as it was in early 2009. I can’t tell. We drank a huge amount of his roommate’s expensive beer and watched No Country For Old Men with the sound off and the Phil Spector box set on the stereo. We drank a huge amount. He moved to Chicago.
Lately he has just been cascading through the internet with such excellent projects as Dogs with Bees In Their Mouths, which dares to ask a question that’s been on everybody’s mind for what seems like years: What if there was a Simpsons screenshot blog that was actually good? More recently, he’s been focusing on Deep Bones, which is too new for me to make any assumptions about. So far it’s a bunch of short jokes, old Livejournal posts, and a photoshopped photo of Jay Cutler smoking a cigarette.
This, I realize, is supposed to be a blog written by me, in hopes that with practice I will eventually become funny and find discipline and then carry the discipline into other areas of my life, ultimately becoming less of a chronic underachiever and ending all of my problems. I am reluctant to pass the mic. But: Last time I saw Tom, we drank beer at a strange bar near the BQE and ate barbecue served by a man in a tiny room. That was about as manly an activity as I’m known to participate in, so let’s say Tom is man enough to assess himself and end on one of the autobiographies he wrote for Deep Bones:
One time, on a first date, Tom S. intentionally hit and ran over a possum with his car. When his date asked if he had just hit a possum, he said, “No.”
Katy Goodman Prompt #5: “funniest experience ‘hitting on’ someone?”
When I was eleven or twelve, I gave a neighborhood girl a rubber salamander that I’d purchased at the Bronx Zoo. She threw it behind her dresser and said she never wanted to see it again. In what would become a recurring theme of finding dating success through well-intentioned stupidity, the two of us ended up sitting around her mom’s house pretty frequently that summer while our parents were at work. Those afternoons are the only times in my life where I can recall sitting through entire episodes of Baywatch.
A bummer: Having to go back that far in order to find a wooing experience that might be considered objectively funny. It’s too often that dating stories end up justifying themselves with grownup endings like “turns out they’re already dating somebody who wears cargo shorts” or “both parties were a little too drunk and by the next time you ran into each other it was clear the moment had passed.”
Maybe as an adult, it’s the relationships themselves that are allowed to be funny, what with the sex and the in-jokes and the unstoppable force of our expectation meeting the immovable object of reality. Hard to argue with a romantic notion like that. Those things are unimpeachably funny on paper, sure.
There’s something quaint and seventies about finding that stuff entertaining, though, reminiscent of the days when premarital cohabitation became a widespread practice and Annie Hall caused riots when it was first shown in public. I think I prefer the ruins of that first generation of cohabitators and Woody Allen rioters, their children trying to think of something to say while watching David Hasselhoff boogie board, sitting on the couch their parents got off the curb when watching Hasselhoff on TV still meant being up late instead of early.
Katy Goodman Prompt #4: “what are things that you do EVERY day? routines you have that you might not even think about too much? addictions? ocd rituals?”
This prompt is a rough one. I’ve lived a life free of crippling addiction or over-the-top compulsion of any kind. What’s less interesting than the low-level habits of other people?
I prefer to eat the same things almost every day.
Unless it’s pouring or a coworker asks me if I want Calexico, I can be found at Rainbow Falafel near Union Square between 1:15 and 1:30PM every workday, where I order a falafel sandwich and a small tabbouleh salad. (Rainbow has the best tabbouleh I’ve ever had.) I eat my lunch and read while sitting on one of the benches on the west side of Union Square park, and am usually back to work by two.
This is all sufficiently uninteresting that I have no concept of how unique it makes me. I never talk lunch behavior with anyone, and why should I? Union Square’s lunch options are dreary and workplace-oriented. Prepackaged sandwiches. Customized on-the-fly salads. McDonald’s. There’s not much there conversationally that doesn’t remind you of your and everyone else’s slog, unless you’re my coworker whose wife sometimes makes exquisite-looking meals that turn into those rare leftovers that can be eaten at work without making you look like a loser. Talk lunch with that guy and you’re reminded of the promise of domesticity, the versatility of curry powder, and next-day homemade pizza’s consistent ability to astonish.
Unless something comes up, I cook the same spicy tofu and lime stir fry for dinner every night. Previous compulsive workplace lunch destinations have included Saigon Sandwich on Broome Street and New Saigon Sandwich in Boston’s Chinatown.