since I wrote that thing about comedy I felt like posting this here. it was an email I sent in direct response to this news story and the other peripheral cultural detritus surrounding CK’s surprise return set.
OK so I’m gonna avoid talking in detail about where this little rant is coming from, instead we’re gonna keep things a little broader but also more personal:
stand-up comedy was something I grew up loving. comedy central felt like an outpost of strange, wondrous things back in the very early oughts to a kid with very little exposure to anything that would be considered “hardship” or “actually strange things”. but there’s this explicit combination of crafted narrative and vulnerable intimacy with my favorite kind of stand-up that I found addictive.
like one of my favorite acts, one that pops back into my head from time to time, is Zach Galifianakis’s 2001 set on comedy central presents. it is weird, and a little jarring; he knows he comes off as a strange dude and leans into it, with long wordless piano sequences between shotgun-quick jokes constantly heightening the tension (and somehow therefore becoming their own joke that generates more laughter as the performance goes on).
but: the target of the jokes is always Zach, it’s always him wanting to do or having done strange things or feeling like he looks strange or reacting poorly to bad life choices. it is a bit weird to say that “he” is the joke, actually — it’s the character he’s constructed who’s inevitably the thing being laughed at. but the “laughing at” is soft, it’s empathetic. we laugh because we recognize something familiar in his strangeness; this is like how great fiction works, where specificity draws on universal emotion.
you can find lots of much smarter people than me talking eloquently about “punching up” versus “punching down”, the idea that targets of comedy (when it’s targeted, when it’s meant to have bite) should be power structures and not the vulnerable. to which I say yeah, sure, I agree with that well enough. but it’s also worth thinking about what that even means, the premise that comedy is punching at all — that it produces violence or can enact something.
I don’t really think it does, most of the time.
I think comedy is a conduit for the generation of an in-group. the universal thing any of those in-groups have in common is that they’re laughing at the same thing — if we can laugh together, we can live together, that sort of thing. tribal formation is weird this way in modern society: there’s many things far more niche and seemingly unrelated to identity that cause tribal identification these days, so comedy to me seems almost traditional by comparison in the way that it lets you see yourself as part of a larger group. (this is the power of the live studio audience, whether it’s a stand-up show or a sitcom or SNL or whatever)
from there we have to ask how the in-group is defining itself. is it exclusionary? what are the characteristics of inclusion and exclusion? “did you laugh”, sure, but more importantly, did you agree that the thing was funny?
comedy can be a resource for marginalized groups to find power in recognizing each other and identifying with the mishaps and stumbles of navigating modern intersectionality; it can provide an outlet for ventilation of frustrations and genuine fear, released like a pressure valve as a laugh that can make you feel safe and like you belong. it’s super valuable in this way, even if I don’t personally think it has much power to go beyond this. you can “speak truth to power” with comedy to some degree but ultimately the power probably isn’t listening, so if you want the thing to have sociopolitical power it had better speak truth to the audience, too.
so when a white straight dude starts talking about his comedy “pushes boundaries” and is “not afraid to offend people” you put it in this context and you think about what his tribe is, and who he’s really talking to, and what he’s trying to say
jokes that offend the marginalized are just bullying; they aren’t challenging power structures, they aren’t disrupting the status quo, as a matter of fact they’re a reinforcement of the traditional status quo. they let the CHWM in-group feel validated in a world of Twitter where it’s easy for their oversensitive egos to be frayed. comedy like this is exactly the opposite of pushing boundaries. it’s re-setting boundaries.
and it makes me sad and angry to see people misconstrue this. I think the in-group should be defined broadly and be inclusive. the thing that defines whether you laugh shouldn’t be “am I the right ethnic/gender identity to not be upset by this” but just “is this my style of joke-telling”. there’s so many ways to tell very good, very strange, very interesting jokes that let people into your worldview and invite people to understand you, and each other, just a little bit more. there are many ways for this to happen along intersectional lines where the jokes reveal inches of truth about how people who aren’t you have to encounter and react to their world a little differently, and that can be almost enlightening even as it’s also not necessarily too much more substantial than the joke itself
or I guess comedy can also be a very appropriate-for-2018 shithead vacuum where you reinforce that it’s cool to hurt people as long as you can’t see them
you do you, comedians, I guess
I’m not really interested in just dunking on some stranger on the internet so I’m gonna keep this vague
okay so there’s this new Apple Homepod ad directed by spike jonze and it is very cool and good and you should watch it and basically just have your eyes cross and unfocus whenever the apple branding shows up:
watched it? ok cool
so on a website I frequent, one of the commenters said something to the effect of this (paraphrased but then quoted so you can parse this rambling a little easier):
so who comes out of the mirror at the end? I think it’s the reflected version of her at the end, gazing at her new place and thinking that she’s not gonna waste her time in the real world like the original
this is such a weird reading to me of an intentionally surreal piece of abstract storytelling (which is what an ad like this is when it transcends to art — it’s almost like a piece of wealthy-patron-supported flash fiction)
do people really watch a thing like this and think of the reflection as a separate entity from the woman, as if it’s not a reflection in the sense of an angle into her inner (not necessarily “actual”) self? what kind of weird-ass horror movie is this where mirrorwoman trapped her original self in a dark no-longer-existent antechamber? how is that at all congruent with the vibe or the emotional storytelling or the pretty not-subtle metaphors (the dancing as unfurling of societal cocoon, the expansion of the mirror and duet as self-acceptance and self-love)?
I feel like people do this a lot with art — they take the most literal superficial interpretation of plot character and events and speculate off of or latch onto that — and I find it utterly strange.
I mean whatever like things however you want and all, sure. but it reminds me of how people watched hannibal and laser-focused on how cute hannibal fucking lecter was and how they wanted hannibal and will to hook up. who watches a show like that — a show that among other things portrays that specific relationship as the most fundamental kind of horrific abuse — and takes that away from it?
the west wing has a subplot I really hate, from the episode “Arctic Radar”, where josh gently-but-patronizingly berates a star trek fan for being public about liking a thing:
the “that’s a fetish” line really bugs the shit out of me because it’s a crazy dismissal of the kind of fandom that allowed the west wing to thrive and allows it to have such a following now. it’s more about aaron sorkin’s hangups about the Internet than it is about any real thing. BUT I think it also bugs me because it accidentally scratches close to a kind of truth that I don’t think aaron sorkin really understands, which is that while fandom is healthy and normal and basically just a modern extension of the human social contract, some/many fans do attach to properties in really weird ways, imposing very personal and odd things in ways that don’t really exist in the original work, edging closer to what could accurately be described as fetishism.
that’s how you get erotic fanfiction of children’s stories and rule 34 I guess but it’s also how you get a style of fandom that’s not quite that obviously askew but falls maybe closer to “recap of show as though all these things are real”. treating fictional situations not as prisms through which we view ourselves but things to be emotionally engaged in of themselves. this is I suppose especially problematic in a time of Marvel™ Cinematic Universe Franchise™s where we get so many damn stories that aren’t about anything except the perpetuation of their own goofy whatevers.
and really honestly I mean this part the most: none of this is really a “problem”, get what you want out of art and do you, fetish or not, thumbs up to all that and anything else. but it sometimes puts me in an awkward position personally, when I want to just interpret the thing from a passionate but also academic vantage point and end up falling into groups that mostly want to pin the thing onto their particular corkboard of personal interests or talk about which characters should bang
ok just needed to say all that somewhere where it wouldn’t spark a fight, back to my regularly scheduled positivity
over the past few days I completed a full playthrough of metal gear solid 1 for the psone. this game is 20 damn years old. and in 1998, I fell for it completely
finished MGS1. suddenly itching to write an academic essay comparing it to 1954's GOJIRA: two goofy but earnest meditations on the post-nuclear age and dissociative Japanese identity that tend to be remembered and loved for the least interesting reasons
— Kybard (@KybardCSL) February 24, 2018
I mean that both in the “fall in love” and in the “fell for the trap” sense. mgs is an earnest, goofy, clunky, artful mess of a game, but in my memory it was essentially perfect, full of thought-provoking philosophy and science, fourth-wall-breaking mind-blowing shit, and cool-ass action movie moments
(aside #1: I remember people complaining about how much the gamecube remake twin snakes amped up the matrix-y action scenes, but it’s pretty clear watching the original cutscenes that if kojima et al could have pulled off those sequences on PSX hardware, they totally would have. people jump to dodge bullets and do flips off very tall things basically constantly)
it certainly has those things but it’s also, like I said, extremely goofy. the voice acting is incredible for a ’98 Japanese import, but the script translation suffers occasionally from the standards of that time; characters have weird responses to each other and repeat things a lot. the music is still tremendous, but the cinematic cutscenes feel a little chintzy these days
(aside #2: man the PSX’s fixed-point math has aged so terribly. a game like final fantasy 7 has held up a little better because almost every sweeping camera movement in it was captured via pre-recorded FMV; here with every camera movement your eye just gets trapped looking for every surface that’s jittering or warping around like a coked-up squirrel)
it honestly reminds me of the original godzilla movie — gojira, the 1954 Japanese original. in graduate school I wrote a paper about that movie, how despite its low-grade effects and silly plot logistics, it’s fundamentally a very sad and complicated movie about Japan’s post-war dissociative identity. the monster is the nuclear future and also Japan’s warlike past; the movie’s ultimate hero is similarly both scientist and war hero, ushering in a catastrophic age and tied up inexorably with the horrors of war; hero and monster are reflections of each other, identical but opposite, and (spoiler for a 1954 movie) they’re both killed in a single action of recognition by the hero that the past must die to avert a horrible future
the first metal gear solid, a game that isn’t yet having to deal with the crazy silly storyline baggage of future games, is too all about legacy and war. all the characters are obsessed with vengeance and genetic fate; they’re all complicit in atrocities that have happened or that might happen, and they’re all struggling to find noble purpose in lives bent to the whims of the war machine. liquid’s all messed up; he wants to continue his father’s legacy but also hates his father and sees himself as an inferior double; the future he’s seeking is just the perpetuation of the war state he knows.
the game’s ultimately about how the past is a trap and an anchor, full of horror and trauma, and that the only way to live is to live beyond it, to accept that though there may be some fate written into our genes, we can’t know it, and letting it go is the only way to live for other humans instead of being obsessed with one’s own purpose and failings.
OK so basically metal gear solid 1 is a game about how trauma (including but not just war) creates families, and vice versa. it's a cast of broken people scrambling to assert coherent identities in chaotic systems. also, butt jokes
— Kybard (@KybardCSL) February 23, 2018
it’s a very Japanese game in this way, despite being so influenced by the long history of Western action movies. most killing is optional; the killing that isn’t (the bosses mostly) tends to come with long, tragic post-scripts emphasizing how the people you’ve killed, like you, are trapped in a cycle of bloodshed that can only end in death. (twin snakes added a tranq and the ability to not kill the bosses, right? I never played that game to be clear, but think this is not a good addition; the deaths of the FOX-HOUND members are important to the game’s emphasis on war as a cycle from which death is the only escape)
post-war Japan was literally blinded to its own recent past. during the USA occupation, Japanese newspapers were barred from running photographs or stories about the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. the country was basically in one night transformed from an imperial state to a pacifist Western ally, with no reckoning about the clash between those identities. gojira is wrestling with this really actively as a movie made in the early 50s, and at the end no one is happy, no one is cheering victory over the monster, everyone is simply brought low by the horror of widescale death and the inevitability of its recurrence
mgs ends more positive but is similarly a movie about how killing is awful and does awful things to those who kill. which is not a new angle for video games, not even really in 1998, but the resonance is so much more powerful here when things like nuclear deterrence and PTSD are so heavily frontloaded. it’s also not really that action-heavy a game, so the bursts of violence are more impactful and can be used to say more interesting things. other people have said more intelligent things about that aspect of the series but it’s definitely striking, even today, how ambivalent and ugly the game’s presentation of violence really is.
honestly it’s crazy this game was so successful in the USA in 1998. this is a game that is deeply bitter about the effects of the war economy on individuals, and it’s incredibly anti-authoritarian, especially and specifically as regards the American government. to wit, this frankly shocking passage at the game’s end:
Campbell: Washington isn’t stupid enough to use nukes to cover up a few secrets.
Snake: I wonder about that.
Colonel Campbell lies to Snake constantly but is just a pawn in the same game, and the chessplayer is always a higher authority, always mysterious but malevolent. do your job if it’ll save lives, but trust no one, especially not the people who claim to be your boss’s boss, especially not when those people control the weapons. that’s a crazy, wondrously progressive thought to have so well infiltrated a children’s video game in the Bill Clinton era.
assorted other thoughts:
- perhaps accentuating the impact of violence is how holy-shit awful the combat controls are in this game. I died a bunch fighting Metal Gear Rex not really because I didn’t know what to do but because trying to perform the right sequence of events (throw chaff grenade, run, switch to stinger, aim, fire, switch away, throw chaff grenade, etc) was so frustrating to do with Snake’s tank-like movement and the fidgetiness of the menus. the game also throws a bunch of outright unfair or stupid scenarios at you; it’s kind of shocking how fondly the game’s remembered given how bad the really game-y bits are.
- the sneaking aspects, meanwhile, are more mechanically stolid than I remembered (the cones of sight for the guards are ridiculously short and their movement patterns are incredibly basic) but still feel good, especially early on when your health bar is so low that avoiding detection is vital. the game also luxuriates in a few long silences which add to the sensation that you’re quietly working your way through this enemy base
- character dynamics feel underbaked across the board, but the game sells them still on the strength of the voice acting and the simple clarity of the scenario, i.e. it’s a war zone so emotions are heightened. I never really buy the love story with Meryl, but that’s OK. the love/affection stories that work best imply that a lot of the affection was built off screen, e.g. Otacon and Sniper Wolf or Naomi and Frank.
- snake is a dummy, but this is obviously on purpose; he’s basically a direct precursor to the guy you’re playing as in bioshock. but he’s also a lot funnier and more flirtacious than I remembered; his backstory and existence are pretty much top-to-bottom tragic horror, but his actual personality remains more John McClane than Man With No Name
- many of the game’s jokes land awkwardly now but are played so straight that they’re kind of funny anyway. see anything regarding Meryl’s butt, Otacon’s use of the phrase “Japanese animes”, the adventures of Stomach-Problems Johnny, and so on
so I bought Bayonetta 1+2 for the switch and started playing 1 this weekend. most (ok maybe not most but a lot) of what you hear about this game, if you’re checking typical places for game-thoughts, relates to the extremely good gameplay mechanics, which, you know, yeah, sure, obviously.
and playing the game only a little bit so far, I’m definitely down for that. I haven’t really played games like this since the original devil may cry and its first sequel (I played a hot minute of dmc3 when it came out and was atrociously bad at it, and thus my time with skill-heavy stylistic action went dormant) but this feels tremendously like a refinement and continuation of that legacy.
(or my loose forty seconds punctuated with a lot of flop sweat and laughing at the as-yet-unsaid punchline to my own jokes)
being a ridiculously self-critical and anxious introvert is weird sometimes. one of the ways it’s gotten less weird as I’ve gotten older and started a career and shit is that I’m way more comfortable talking in public, to relative strangers, than I used to be.
one of the reasons I decided to make a blog is because I’m hip to trends and know better than you do that personal individual un-monetized blogs are coming back big, like ABBA or rickrolling
but one of the real reasons is that the only place I feel comfortable expounding at length about, well, anything is uh like personal emails? not twitter because character limits cramp my writing aesthetic of “too many adverbs and speech disfluency”. not instagram because I only use that for sharing blurry photos and looking at the feeds of famous dogs. and not facebook, because facebook is a place where my extended family and friends-of-friends live.
oh also because facebook’s a pile of shit.