Sunday, September 29, 2013

Welcome to Welcome to Night Vale

Is this blog post real? Are blog posts even a thing?

I'm going to make you all listen to "Welcome to Night Vale."


"Night Vale", if you've never heard of it, is a comedy podcast. Not ONLY is it a comedy podcast, it is currently the MOST popular podcast in the United States. It's more popular than "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me." It's more popular than "Radiolab." And I assume you never heard of it. I hadn't.

So first, let's talk about why I like "Welcome to Night Vale" so much. The premise of the show (Created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor and voiced by Cecil Baldwin) is that there is a town in the Southwestern United States called "Night Vale." In Night Vale, every conspiracy theory, monster story, and science fiction you have ever heard of is true. The show itself is essentially Night Vale's local radio news broadcast. Cecil's task is to report on things like school board elections and sporting events with crosstown rivals Desert Bluffs (we all hate Desert Bluffs so much....). Except if Cecil is reporting on the school board elections, he's probably explaining to you that the only person elected to the school board is the mysterious glow cloud that's been floating around on the perimeter of the town. If Cecil tells you that it's street cleaning day, he's offering you a grim warning to get off the streets because...it's street cleaning day. 

And that's Night Vale in a nutshell. The show is really funny. Cecil's delivery is deadpan and recalls both NPR's milquetoast broadcast style, and old horror films. However, like good improv, the show is at it's best when it's grounded in something real, and deals with the relationships between the characters who live in the town. For instance, we know that Cecil is in love with Carlos- the scientist who moves to Night Vale on the first episode. The relationship between Cecil and Carlos is, in many ways, the bed rock of the show. The somewhat grounded relationship between the two characters gives the show the emotional heft it needs to make some of it's more ridiculous elements, like Hiram McDaniels, the seven-headed dragon who is running for mayor, not only plausible, but utterly enjoyable.

Also like a good long form improv show, Night Vale revels in taking a looong time with a good bit- allowing it to build piece-by-piece, episode-by-episode, before letting it explode into a crescendo of hilarity. For instance, early on, we learn that there is a subterranean city under the bowling alley. 20 something episodes later, we learn what the deal with that is.


Besides the fact that it's so great, the other thing that is fascinating to me about "Welcome to Night Vale" is the method by which it has become so popular. I heard about it through Wil Wheaton (Wesley Crusher) and Hank Green's (of vlogbrothers fame) tumblr accounts. The creators of the show aren't particularly famous. They don't have a ton of connections. The show wasn't featured on any popular TV shows, though there is now a PBS special about it. "Welcome to Night Vale" has taken America almost exclusively via good word of mouth. Basically, the creators made a really good, high quality product, nerds on the reddit, and tumblr shared it with their friends, who shared it with their friends, who shared it with their friends, communities were built, fan-art was drawn, fan-fiction was written, and now Night Vale is a thing.

If you like nerdy things, funny things, or nerdy funny things, you should listen to Night Vale. If you're a marketer, and you're trying to figure out how the hell things become popular on the internet (because I know for all of your bluster you digital marketers are still kind of flying blind) then you should study Night Vale's success. Regardless, I love it, and I hope you love it too.

Here is the internet place Night Vale calls home:

http://podbay.fm/show/536258179


Friday, September 20, 2013

A List of Nothing in Particular

The Internet is made of lists.

Here is a list to sate the eternal appetite of the internet for lists.

1. I hate the concept of swear words. I think that banning words from public use is a slippery slope. And think about the words that we consider "swears". They're mostly synonyms for bodily functions like pooping and sex. Why the hell aren't we supposed to talk about those things? We all do those things? Why are those swears? Why isn't the word "Murder" a swear? Why is "Murder" a fine word to use but "fuck" isn't? I think murdering is worse than fucking.

2. George Washington did not have wooden teeth. He also never chopped down a cherry tree. He probably did tell a lie at some point in his life.

3. A puppy in a grocery bag!

4. There are people who think the new Doctor should have been a woman. I am one of them. There are people who think a future Doctor should be a woman. I am also one of those people. There are people who think the Doctor should never be a woman. I think these people are huge sexist dipshits.

5. I can't stop listening to "Welcome to Nightvale". It's basically my favorite pop culture thing of the year. Listen to it here: http://podbay.fm/show/536258179. Also, ALL HAIL THE GLOW CLOUD!

6.  Remember the 90's? Here is a thing that is so totally 90's: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kosovo_War

7. This is my anthem for 2013:


8. I like sports but I think the fact that athletes are valued more by our society than scientists, doctors, educators, firefighters, and most other jobs is kind of silly.

9. #TeamOxfordComma

10. REMEMBER THIS 90'S KIDS?



Totally 90's.


Friday, September 13, 2013

Advice Column #2

Sometimes I get emails asking for advice. Sometimes I respond to them.

Here are a few:

Dear Sean,

I am a pumpkin. I was planted in the middle of the spring, spent all summer growing, and now that fall has rolled into town, I am ripe. I am large, and full, and orange. The sugars in my body are as sweet as they will ever be! I feel like I have finally entered the prime of my life! I am ready to start living. What do you think I should do? Should I travel? Do you know of any good restaurants I should try? I've never been to a baseball game. Will you take me to one?

Signed,

A. Pumpkin

Oh, Pumpkin. Sweet, delicious Pumpkin. Hmm? Yes, I did just lock the door. It's for your own safety. You see, Pumpkin, I am what some might call...a pumpkin eater. When fall begins, and the leaves drift to the ground, and the air cools, I develop an insatiable hunger for....flesh....pumpkin flesh. Ah, I see you scrambling for the window. I think you'll find that it's also locked. Also, you may have forgotten this but you don't have any limbs, or hands to use in the opening of said window. Now, Pumpkin, get in this pie pan and let's put this whole messy incident behind us.


Love,

Sean

Dear Sean,

I am a young wizard and I have recently been accepted to Hogwarts. My understanding was that you got sorted into a house based on what type of person the Sorting Hat thinks you are. However, I have recently learned from my family house elf Malomar that the Hat will sort you into whatever House you want if you just ask it to. So, you know, awesome. My question is, what House should I pick? I'm leaning towards Gryffindor.

Sincerely

Young Wizard

Dear Young Wizard,

First off, congratulations on getting into Hogwarts. I still remember the look of relief in my parents' eyes when that owl showed up on my door with my acceptance letter, knowing that now I wouldn't have to attend magic vocation school. Onto Houses- you have four choices- Slytherin, Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, and Hufflepuff.

Let's look at the pros and cons of each:

Slytherin:

Pros: Lots of wealthy kids means you'll be networking like crazy. Tons of these kids are going to go into politics, and finacimancy. When you graduate, you'll probably be able to land a good job at a magical investment firm.

Cons: Lots of evil wizards.

Pros of the Cons: The world needs evil wizards. I mean, someone has to work in sales.

Gryffindor:

Pros: Gryffindor is like the Boston College of Hogwarts- great at sports, somewhat prestigious academic achievements, kids always seem to be having crazy adventures.

Cons: Gryffindor is basically the jock house of Hogwarts. They may be brave, but they can be huge jerks too (See James Potter, Sirius Black). Plus EVERYBODY wants to be in Gryffindor. Like, how many times do you think the Sorting Hat hears the phrase "Please put me in Gryffindor!" every year? A million? Two million? It's a very trendy house.

Pros of Cons: Eh, sports are fun.

Ravenclaw:

Pros: Ravenclaw is the nerdiest house. This is where your wizard tech billionaires all got their start. If you like books, math, and working hard, this is the place for you.

Cons: Maybe not the best place to be if you like to party.

Pros of Cons: I don't really like to party.

Hufflepuff:

Pros: This is where "all the rest" go which makes Hufflepuff a fairly diverse house. Loyalty is a huge Hufflepuff trait, so you're sure to make some lifelong friends who will stick with you through thick and thin here.

Cons: Hufflepuff is looked down on by snobs, just like non-wizard state colleges. Sure it may be a great house, with a great history, but it just isn't Slytherin or Gryffindor, right?

Pros of Cons: Screw those snobby assholes.

In conclusion? I'd say Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff all the way. Brains and loyalty beat deviousness and being too dumb to know you should be afraid any day of the week.

Love,

Sean

Dear Sean,

I am worried that Walt Disney will soon be unfrozen and will attack and eat me.

Signed,

Guy Who Believes Everything He Reads on the Internet

Dear Guy,

For the last time: Walt Disney was not cryogenically frozen. He was cremated, which is the opposite of cryogenic freezing. The internet, while it is a very useful tool, is chock-full of "unfacts". An "unfact" is a thing that lots of people believe to be true that is not true at all. Other unfacts include:

*Vaccinations cause autism
*KFC doesn't use real chickens to make its fried chicken
*Barack Obama was not born in the United States
*Evolution is not real
*Facebook comments can qualify as legal documents that prevent Facebook from sharing your pictures for commercial purposes

When you read something on the internet, assume it's not true. If you want find out if it IS true, there are these really useful places called libraries that are basically made of facts. Check one out.

Love,

Sean

Monday, September 9, 2013

Happy Cotton Anniversary, Chelsea

Chelsea and I got married two years ago on 9/10/11. Happy 2 years of marriage, and 12 years of being a unit. I love you, Bug.

Apparently, the traditional second year wedding anniversary gift is cotton. Meaning, for your second anniversary, you are supposed to present your significant other with a gift made out of cotton.

Chelsea and I chose to broaden "cotton" to "textiles" and "textiles" to "sneakers".

I got her a pair of Reebok Crossfit Nanos. She got me a pair of Reebok Crossfit Lifters.

I think that getting each other workout shoes as a gift is fairly emblematic of our relationship. Chelsea and I are workers. Our...family mission statement...if we have one...is "Stronger than Yesterday". Everyday, we get up, and we grind out a day. We each work 9+ hours at our jobs, go to the gym, engage in an (often grueling) Crossfit workout, and go home- make dinner- and I mean "make dinner"- like, from scratch. At the end of the day, we usually have exactly one hour of "casual time" which we generally use to eat dinner and watch an episode of some TV show (Breaking Bad right now). Then we go to sleep and do it all over again. On Sunday, our "day of rest", we clean the house top to bottom, go grocery shopping, and prepare a week's worth of lunches and breakfasts.

So our anniversary gifts to each other are basically....things to facilitate the process by which we are helping each other get stronger on every level. We are a team with common goals, and a focus on making those goals happen.

Plus they kind of fit the theme.

Cotton.

That's us now. Here are some fun little stories about the early days of our relationship.


-The first time I can remember thinking that I was in love with Chelsea: There was a bomb scare in the Fine Arts Center at UMass Amherst where, as theater majors, we basically lived. Because of this, all of our classes for the day were cancelled. Chelsea, Mike Carr, and a few other people went to the Hampshire Mall to go to the movies. We saw "Hannibal". Chelsea and some other people went to Orange Julius to get some...Orange Julius. I remember watching her order and thinking "Holy shit, I think I'm in love with this girl." I kept it to myself. We had been dating for one month.

-The first time we said we loved each other: It was November- about a month after I had first had the thought that I was probably in love. We were in my dorm room on the fifth floor of Van Meter- I had the best view of any dorm on campus. Van Meter was at the top of "the hill" and you could see the Pioneer Valley stretch on forever from my window. We were watching the Appendices on "the Fellowship of the Rings" Extended Edition DVD set. The moon was full. I'm not sure how we got on the topic, but we both said we loved one another. It was at this time we decided that if (when) we got married we would honeymoon in New Zealand. 9 years later, we did. We even visited the Shire.

-The first time I told other people that I thought this was it for me- Mike Carr, Beth Cartier, Ryan Murphy and I were driving from Amherst, MA to Manchester, NH to pick Andy Hobgood up from the airport. Andy had moved to Chicago a few months before and was flying home for Christmas. None of us had seen him for a few months, so we had arranged to be the ones to pick him up at the airport. On the way there, I mentioned that I thought Chelsea was the one. Like, "the" one, and that I was positive that I would marry her. Ryan, Mike, and Beth all told me I was crazy. It turned out that I was not.

-When Chelsea told me she would follow me halfway across the country- I had decided to move to Chicago in 2003. I figured this would be the end of my relationship with Chelsea, even after all of that other stuff. What I mean by that is I figured she would break up with me because 1000 miles (the distance from Massachusetts to Chicago, roughly) is a long way to go. Instead of breaking up with me, Chelsea told me that she would spend the next year in Amherst finishing out her degrees (she got two of them) and then would move to Chicago to be with me. Despite a very tough year apart, this is exactly what happened.

-Last story- the first iPhone came out in 2007 and Chelsea really wanted one. She knew that we didn't really have enough money to afford one- they were going for about $500 at the time, and we were young and fairly broke (or younger and broker than we are now. But I scrimped and saved and bought nothing for myself for a few months, and when Christmas rolled around, Chelsea had an iPhone under the Christmas tree. She was shocked and delighted. It's still probably my favorite gifting experience of all time.



And that's that. A few little stories. Chelsea, we've come so far, and I can't wait to see where we go next.

I love you.

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Speed of Parody

Comedy is hard.

I know, I know, when you see a stand-up, or watch a sitcom, you're probably not thinking about all of the work that went into crafting the jokes- the hours and hours spent in comedy clubs to refine one punchline- making sure that you said three or four words in just the right way to get the maximum reaction from an audience- or all of the lines of dialogue that were written, and deleted, or crumpled up and thrown in the garbage because they "just weren't funny enough."

You're especially not thinking about the years that most comedians spend getting good at their craft, going to improv training centers, watching shows, performing shows for 6 people in a dive bar on Chicago's North Side so that maybe you might get a shot to audition for Saturday Night Live, or the Daily Show. Not to mention the sacrifices you make- working a shitty job at Starbucks or in a Call Center so you can have the flexibility to go on auditions during the day and perform at night.

So just trust me when I say that comedy is hard.

One of the interesting developments in the last few years, something that has, seemingly, made comedy easier, is the internet (specifically video sharing web sites like Youtube), and digital video editing tools.

It can be very, very hard to establish yourself as a comedian. Normally, you have to get noticed (in a positive way) by a "gatekeeper". A Gatekeeper, traditionally, was a TV casting agent, a comedy club owner, or someone like that- someone who owned the means of comedy distribution. Again- this was, traditionally, not an easy task. Usually you had to move to LA, or New York- where the entertainment gatekeepers live- to get their attention.

The internet has made "getting noticed" somewhat (and I really stress the word "somewhat") easier. Now, you can produce a pretty decent comedy video with relatively little money from anywhere in the world. And you can produce a comedy video very, very quickly. It is no exaggeration to say that you can produce a professional looking comedy video in an afternoon if you really put your nose to the grindestone, and know what you are doing. This process used to take days, or weeks in some cases. And then you had to find someone in the TV or Movie industry who actually wanted to distribute your content. Now, you can upload your video to youtube and distribute it yourself. Oh sure, you still need to get the attention of a web site like Buzzfeed, or Funny-or-Die to get your video to go viral, but believe me- this is way easier than getting a video on TV. Way, way easier. Seriously- college kids with 0 industry knowledge have done it.

This has led to a kind of interesting phenomenon. Now, if a non-comedy video becomes very popular- I'll use Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" as an example- it will get parodied a billion times by people on the internet. Not only will it get parodied a billion times, but it will get parodied a billion times within days of achieving popularity itself.

So, on Day 1 you'll have the actual video. You'll see the song itself in your Facebook, twitter, tumblr feeds, etc.:

 

On Day 2 you'll get some amateurish parodies- videos made by people with iphone cameras and editing software that came built into their laptops. You'll see these in your feed as well. You may even see comments like "Here's a video I made with my friends LOL":

 


The on Day 3 all hell breaks loose as professionals with production budgets get in on the action:


It's about when the corporate people get in on the action that you'll see comments like "Ugh, I'm SO SICK of "Call Me Maybe" parodies, why won't people do anything ORIGINAL?"

Here's why:

Like I said, it's easy to make a comedy video. It's easy to distribute a comedy video. We're at this point where EVERYBODY thinks they can do youtube comedy videos. Parody songs are also really easy to make. There's very little creativity that goes into them- most of the time. I say "Most of the time" because there are people out there who make AWESOME comedy videos- like Weird Al. But most people aren't Weird Al.

Watch that second video again. It's terrible. Like, really bad. The guys in the video just took the tune from the original song and subbed a bunch of nonsense words in that make no sense in context with each other. Then, they filmed a video with basic recording and editing equipment.

That video has over 3 million views. OVER 3 MILLION!

This is why there a billion song parody videos online. They're easy to make, easy to write, and because people are familiar with the properties, they already have a hook.

"It's Call Me Maybe, but with Cookie Monster!"

"It's Jay-Z's Empire State of Mind, but they're singing about New Hampshire!"

"It's Macklemore's "Thrift Shop", but they're singing about smoking pot!"

These are all descriptions of real parody videos that really went viral. It's not like all parody videos go viral, but people make them by the boatload because they're a low effort, high reward comedy endeavor. To use some business terminology, the return-on-investment from making a parody video is relatively high.

This can kind of suck for professional comedians for a couple of reasons. For one, it's very frustrating to watch a really crappy, not particularly funny, poorly made video go viral. Second, most comedians want their original, non-derivative material to take off, to get noticed, but it gets flooded out by people making "easy comedy" song parodies. So many comedians make parody videos just to get noticed- using those as a hook to get you to notice their original material. I don't begrudge anyone this, at all. You do what you have to do to succeed.

But the third frustration comes when, as a semi-professional, or professional comedian, you get your own idea for a parody of a song (or anything really), like say, I want to do a parody of "the Fox" (which is a song that went viral this week) called "The Lox" about food at a Jewish Deli (Comedy gold!) and you do a google search for parodies of that video the day after a song went viral- and you see someone already made that parody, with the same concept you had, and it's already gone viral.

What does all of this mean? Well it means that as someone involved in comedy, you might want to make a song parody at some point, even if song parodies kind of make you feel gross. They make me feel gross, and I have made some in my many years doing comedy. It also means that if you do want to make one, you have to be fast. Generally speaking, once a video goes viral, you probably only have a few days before the internet is flooded with parodies, and only a few weeks before everyone in the world gets sick of those parodies.


Oh, and then there's the weird thing where people make parodies of parody videos, which is basically the point at which the internet snake starts eating it's own tail. But that's a blog for another time.