Wednesday, March 28, 2012

[Onion-Wedges] Un-Acknowledged Sneeze Leads To Coworker Resentment

AUSTIN - Kyle Penbrook, an employee of Votech Systems, Inc. began to lose all respect for his fellow coworkers Tuesday when his loud sneeze at 3:55pm went completely un-acknowledged. "People heard it, I'm sure," Penbrook wrote in a released statement. "What gets my goat is that no matter what I'm doing - even if I'm on a conference call with one of the VP's - I'll always take a moment to say 'bless you,' if someone sneezes. Or 'geshundheit' if it's Charlie, the Atheist. But apparently I'm not in an office where that level of human decency is reciprocated." After the incident, Penbrook was reported to have turned down an offer to purchase girl scout cookies from a cubicle-mate. He also avoided a conversation about an episode Big Bang Theory that he'd seen, and his last words to everyone around him at the end of the day were a curt: "I'm leaving," instead of his usual: "T.G.I. 5:00 everyone!" Reports found not a single coworker noticed his change in behavior.

[I've had several ideas for Onion-style pieces before, but I've never gotten around to actually writing them. That's all going to change now! Probably. Look for some more of these in the future - Matt]

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Stand-up Versus Storytelling

I've been obsessed with comedy my entire life. I've performed improv for close to ten years, written hundreds of silly sketches and blog posts, and even my own one man show with four ridiculous characters. But funny enough (you know, funny "hmm-hmm"), I've never considered doing stand-up, the final piece of the "comedy trifecta." Instead I decided to go in the less comedic direction of live storytelling. And until recently, I've never really give it all that much thought as to why I jumped at the chance to do one and have perpetually avoided the other. But the more I think about, the more I realize it actually makes perfect sense. 

I've yet to attain the Triforce of Stand-Up.

For one thing, I'm terrible at telling jokes. I have two stock jokes that I tell when pressed (I know you're wondering: "when the hell is one pressed to tell a joke?" and the answer to that is: 1) when you're in an improv scene and your character is a stand-up comic or someone who say, likes telling jokes at the office and/or 2) when someone confuses improv and stand-up and asks you to tell them one of your jokes, and you're too lazy to correct them, so you just roll with it). One of them is a knock knock joke - "Orange you glad I didn't say banana?" - and the other is a racist one I won't tell here, but suffice it to say it involves an Asian man urinating in some poor fellow's soda. I can't even properly re-tell a joke I've recently heard a professional stand-up comic tell. It's like my brain isn't wired right for the typical "setup / punchline" style of speaking. It's quite unfortunate.

But on the flip side I really get into telling stories. Mostly funny stories, or else, stories that have at least some levity to them. So ghost stories, for example, are out (something I'm also terrible at), as are stories about human atrocities, which thankfully I've yet to experience first hand. But that's really the only limitation. I love getting wrapped up in a big narrative with tons of great details and stupid tangents.

I have a bit in a recent story I've been working on talking about my life right after college, where I talk about what was going on in my head the morning of 9/11. I was unemployed, living at home with my parents, and after the initial shock, one of the first thoughts that went through my head was: "Wow, this is really bad. Maybe it'll get it SO bad that I just won't ever have to get a job!" and I follow this up by saying how incredibly selfish this thought is, and describing the post-apocalyptic world I was envisioning where there are no jobs or economic structure, but naturally I'd still want there to be electricity, video game and late night Wendy's drive-thru. That tangent is a joke, right there. But I like it as a detail that informs the audience of who I am, rather than a standalone bit that gets a chuckle before I move on to observations about chicken tenders and which Star Wars character I'd most like to have as a wingman while picking up women.*

Actually, this blog is a pretty good example of the type of content I like to produce. I've written a lot of stuff that's straight up silly, like the Poker with Jokers post from a month ago. But I'm generally just as happy to write about my addiction to video games, things that make me cry, and my inspired moment of seeing my life as Rubik's Cube. While just about everything I write and perform has some kind of humorous slant (take that away from me, and I'm in serious trouble), I'd like to think I'm able to sometimes hit on a larger theme, and not just creating something funny enough to get a laugh.

I've discovered that there is something of a blurred line between stand-up and storytelling that several comedians seem to easily step in between. Besides David Sedaris, whose writing I've been doing my best to imitate for years, there are two celebrities that come to mind that have inspired me, and I think have done stand-up in the guise of storytelling for years. Mike Birbiglia is one of them. I've seen him do five and ten minute sets that comes off essentially as a stand up routine with one long though-line. Audiences are laughing throughout, so it feels no less satisfying than a regular stand-up routine. But he's definitely not telling isolated jokes - it's more like a two minute story with eight minutes of tangential material, all of it very endearing, especially when he tells the audience during the more embarrassing moments: "I know, I'm in the future also." 

Michael Ian Black is the other stand-up slash storyteller. I've heard his stand-up routine in the past, and his older material is pretty straightforward setup - punchline routine. But in the past few years he's make several appearances on storytelling podcasts like RISK! and This American Life. When I saw him do a set a few weeks ago, all ten minutes were devoted to a story about being a father, with admittedly few true heartwarming moments (he openly admitted wanting to punt his baby and violently shake his child). But everything came from a truthful place, and ultimately it was an equally funny and endearing set.

So maybe comedic storytelling is just an alternative version of stand-up comedy. Also, I've noticed the word "endearing" keeps popping up in my descriptions, and now I'm thinking maybe what I really want (and what doing stand-up alone simply can't provide) is for everyone to both love me and think I'm the funniest person alive when I write or get up on stage.

That's not too much to ask, is it?*

IS IT?!?*


*Chewie, obviously.
*(Love here)
*(Laugh here)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Breaking Down Justice League: Doom

I just watched a movie called: Justice League: Doom. Maybe you've heard of it, or maybe you're like me and you discovered it randomly when you were at BestBuy one day to buy a copy of TurboTax, and you decided you needed something else to wash down such a bland, boring adult purchase.

Justice League: Doom is a decent little animated feature that has all your favorites DC Superheroes - Batman, Superman, and some other ones that may or may not have even made the box art. Oh, by the way, I'm about to spoil this movie heavily as I go on a rant about it, so if you decide you may ever want to watch it, go do that first.

The premise of the movie, which I thought was kind of awesome, is that a supervillain by the name of Vandal Savage decides he needs to kill the entire Justice League in order to prevent anyone from stopping his insane plan (which I'll tell you about later because it deserves its own paragraph). To do so, he has someone break into Batman's bat-computer and steal the top secret bat-data he has one everyone. Batman, it is apparently widely known, has information on how to stop any given member of the Justice League in case they ever go rogue. I'm going to reveal all those weaknesses now, because some of them are pretty funny, and I kind of love the idea of Batman writing these down in a Word (Bat-Word?) document during his off-hours:

His weakness is his inability to truly connect with anyone else on this planet.
Haha, no just kidding. It's Kryptonite, obviously.
Make a bullet out of it and shoot it at him. In the body. Or face.

You could attach a bomb to his wrist that forces him to maintain super speed indefinitely until he gets exhausted and blows up.
OR, even easier than that - I'm pretty sure if you set out a giant glue trap you could probably just get him stuck on that and then shoot him in the body. Or face.

Wonder Woman
This chick loves to fight, and apparently will not stop doing so as long as she is opposed.
Drug her, make her think everyone is after her, then just let her go at it someone kills her or she dies from exhaustion. Alternatively, you could send her back to the 1950's and have her surrounded by men who all insist she should "get back in the kitchen."

Green Lantern
His powers comes from his willpower. Also the color green. Do not attack him on St. Patty's Day. Make him doubt himself and then his powers will go away.
Also I think he's weak against the color yellow, so you could also just drop a crate of bananas on him, or something.

Martian Manhunter
After doing extensive research, my conclusion is: set him on fire.

So Vandal Savage hires a bunch of second-rate, lower-tier supervillains that Batman and the others fight on their off-days when they're usually recovering from bigger battles, and he has them each enact a plan to kill their respective Justice League nemesis. And wouldn't you know it, they all do what it said in Batman's notes above and every supervillain's plan goes off without a hitch. Because Batman is always right about everything.

Soon, every member of the Justice League is incapacitated. Superman is mortally wounded with a kryptonite bullet. Batman is buried alive alongside his dead parents (Bane, Batman's enemy, apparently came up with that one on his own, since it's clarified later that Batman didn't have an entry on himself, though I really wish he had written that down as his own weakness while crying onto his bat-keyboard). Wonder Woman is fighting everyone, thinking they all look like Cheetah (again, second-rate villains). Flash gets the bomb from Speed attached to his wrist when he tries to save someone. Green Lantern is left crying in a coal mine where he thinks he's accidentally killed everyone. And Martian Manhunter drinks a drugged Coke and gets set on fire (I wasn't kidding about that before).

Then, every supervillain returns to Vandal Savage's not-at-all-secret or subtle giant skull lair and they all toast to their success. Notice what I said before: every single member of the Justice League was incapacitated. Not killed. Each and every incompetent excuse for a bad guy made the classic bad guy blunder and left their opponent down and just, you know, presumed dead. Star Sapphire, Green Lantern's spurned lover-turned-mortal enemy, literally walked past a weepy, ring-less Hal Jordan, and assumed he would curl into a ball and just lay there for the rest of his life. And the others - while victory may have seemed like it was all but inevitable, decided they really just couldn't wait around to, you know, confirm it. There was a toast happening soon, and they really did not want to be late to the celebration.

Needless to say, Batman gets his shit together and punches his way out of his surprisingly shallow grave, Kill Bill style. Then he sets about to undo this wrong and basically single-handedly saves (or, in Green Lantern's case, pep talks) everyone. While this is going on, Vandal Savage reveals his ultimate plan to the now slightly inebriated Legion of Doom - which by the by, is a group name I feel like gets tossed around a lot. Wasn't there already another Legion of Doom? You guys can't come up with another evil-sounding team name? How about the Sinister Society? That took about two seconds of thought. And it has alliteration and everything. You're welcome.

Anyways, Savage's plan is to send a missile into the sun that was cause a cosmic chain reaction that will effectively kill half the Earth's population and send the planet back to the Stone-Age. Savage, you see, is from that era, having been granted immortality by a meteorite that landed thousands of years ago. And now he wants to go back to that time, to give humanity a fresh start, or something. The other super-villains all quickly realize the millions of dollars they were just given will now be useless. There's some hesitation, but within a minute or two they're all on board with this RIDICULOUS, INSANE PLAN. There's not a single Miss Teschmacher among them (Miss Teschmacher, if you're unaware, was the girlfriend of Lex Luthor in Superman: The Movie who had a change of heart from her villainous ways when she found out her mother would be the victim in Lex's plan for pointless destruction).

So none of these villains had a single relative or loved one on the side of the planet that was about to be decimated, which is possibile. After all, one of them is mostly a robot, another is mostly a cat. But they also are all cool with losing everything they may enjoy about the modern world: cars, television, foxy boxing. There'll be no more banks to rob, jails to break out of, or frankly, worthwhile days for other superheros to rue. Honestly, I don't think those guys really thought it through. In any event, the Justice League shows up in the nick of time, stops the missile, kicks everyone's asses, and calls it a day.

The movie wraps up with everyone in the Justice League sitting down around a table and discussing what's to be done about the fact that Batman has secret data on all of them. My favorite line in the entire movie comes when Wonder Woman tells Batman that the rest of them would never do something like that to him, to which Batman responds: "Then you're all damn fools," and gets up to leave, no doubt ready to return to the batcave to update each member's file with: "Damn Fool!" written under each of their entries. This part I actually kind of loved, since that's 100% Batman. He doesn't apologize for what happened, even though it was his data that led to all of them almost getting killed. He rationalizes that he just needs to do a better job locking his shit up next time.

The last scene is Superman, the most powerful being on the planet, accepting Batman's non-apology and handing over the kryptonite bullet (in a lead case, which is clearly what he needs to fashion his own suit out of) to Batman, letting him know that they were all fine with whatever Batman wanted to do, but please don't quit the team because then we'll be soooo much less cool. And then Batman takes a piss on the floor and teleports away. Ok fine, he just teleports away, but metaphorically he just pissed on the floating space tower base, because those damn fools, all of them super-powered except for him, are all basically his bitch.

Final thoughts: Supervillains, learn how to finish the job, and Superheroes, just listen to Batman.


Monday, March 12, 2012

The Shafeek (comma Matthew) Effect

The other day, while playing one of many games of Hero Academy together (think Words With Friends with tiny little soldiers instead of letters), my friend Tyler remarked that the game "suffered from the Matthew effect." Initially I assumed it meant that all games he or anyone else played with me would eventually lead to an embarrassing, crushing defeat. But later I looked online and discovered that "The Matthew Effect" is an actual thing that has nothing to do with my particular prowess at games. Rather, it's a phenomenon that revolves around the idea of 'accumulated advantage' - like how the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the crazy cat lady just keeps gettin' crazier (along with more and more cats).

The term, at least on Wikipedia, carries something of a negative connotation. It implies that, like Ray Charles once sang"them that got are them that get and I ain't got nothing yet." As tragic as it is catchy, for sure. But I think there's a silver lining here, and it's something that I desperately wish I could go back in time and inform Mr. Charles about, and perhaps save him from an embarrassing life of obscurity and mediocrity.

Such a sad, sad man.
While 'accumulated advantage' means that those of us who start at zero with anything in life are going to be at a disadvantage early on, it can also mean that every day you continue to work on something is a day that, if nothing else, gives you momentum and brings you step closer to "get" from the "nothin' yet."

Apparently Jerry Seinfeld had a productivity secret he foolishly revealed recently, where he would try to keep a calendar chain going. Every day early in his career, he would set out to write a certain amount, and if he did, he would mark an "X" over the day on the calendar. He would do it for every day he did his writing, and the goal was to never break the chain. It was a clever trick that likely got him to work on days he would probably rather have been, I dunno, playing Pac-Man, or solving a Rubik's Cube or something (these are things I imagine people wasted a lot of time doing in the 1980's).

This has been written about extensively at great self-help sites like Zen Habits and Lifehacker, but I really do think the biggest problem with achieving some of our long term goals is getting over that initial inertia. The very idea of losing 20 pounds, starting a new career, or inventing/building a time machine to travel back in time to help a helpless, untalented black man find his way seems so daunting it's always just easier to put it off for another day, or stop and start after you've just drawn a few sketches of showing up to visit Ray Charles in the DeLorean from Back to the Future.

So I'm going to re-coin the Matthew Effect right now. Or actually, no, I'm going to go ahead and call this new definition the "Shafeek (comma Matthew) Effect," so this time it's clear that it's actually named after me:

The Shafeek (comma Matthew) Effect: Kicking ass at something just a little better than you kicked ass at it the day before.

A lot of the things we desperately want to change are things we've gone "too far in the wrong direction" with. I didn't start writing with any kind of regularity until I was 29. How terrible is that? To say I want to be a writer, when for the past ten years my free time resume implies that I'd actually rather be a marathon video game player. But I made a decision that started with putting down the controller, and I started writing with no pressure other than "do it regularly," and my writing has improved tremendously over the past 4 years. I still have plenty of days where I lose my momentum, and I don't write, or don't put in the effort that I should. Clearly, I still have a ways to go. But I'd like to think that I'm getting better, little by little, every day.

So go ahead - start something from nothing today. And know that tomorrow you'll have accumulated a small, yet extremely significant advantage over where you were the day before.

And on that note, it's time to stop messing around on this silly blog, and get back to business with my time machine.

I'm comin' for ya Ray!