Posted by Melanie Chartoff
Not to be confused with, yet reminiscent of a current film by the same name (both feature lots of depressing nights in bars) Standup Guys: A Generation of Laughs by John DeBellis (on Amazon) is one of the most hilarious histories of any artistic era you'll ever read, much funnier than Kerns’ Team of Rivals, or Caro’s book on LBJ—Passage of Power. A book with purposes beyond decorative, it’s palliative, yet stimulating, educational, yet entertaining, and darn flattering (I’m in it).
So, John--wonder how it's possible that you've gotten even funnier with age.
I don’t know if I’m funnier or people’s sense of humor has gotten worse. Actually, the truth is that I’m learning to be less funny. I used to try to punch up every line. It’s like a pitcher learning to take something off his fastball, changing speeds to make the fastball more effective.
I know-- laughing at you was wearing out my mouth. Since our formative years together in NYC, have new traumas gotten integrated into your psyche?
I didn’t have any new traumas, the old ones seem to still be working. Maybe when they run out I’ll have to get more.
I think you can get some at trauma centers. Do you feel your book can help people cope with the PTSD of crazy families?
No, I can just make them feel better knowing that other people are suffering. And learning from my toxic childhood that it’s possible to handle tragedy without cutting up and eating a neighbor.
Was it your profusion of photos of successful friends that prompted you to write the book?
The pictures came later. And there wasn’t one person who refused to let me use a picture of them. That’s great considering comics aren’t the most handsome bunch on the planet.
Funny was always handsome to me. In recent years you’ve gone from quite a head of hair to none. Did it take a lot of courage to shave your head, or were you honoring and emulating L. David’s emerging skull?
No, the only thing I’d want to emulate in Larry’s life is his bank account.
It started when I was on the phone with Pat Benatar and asked her what I should do being newly divorced and she said the shave your head, grow a beard and get an earring. I was meeting LD for lunch and he must have spotted the earring from a hundred yards away and let me have it for the entire lunch.
He was always so helpful. What impact did all the Jewish Comics have on the art form when we got started?
Standup in the US had been adopting the Jewish rhythms, that have a natural timing mechanism built in, for decades. I think the way
Jewish people speak was made for comedy; they tend to pause and to punctuate at all the right places. Jackie Mason used to point and me and say, "You're funny. You're a Jew." It's like Italians are usually good singers because of their culture and genes. Except for me when I sing deaf people won't even look at my lips.
Groucho Marx may have reflected the Jewish influence on television better than anyone. Jackie Mason then made that cadence more pronounced. Woody Allen made it his own and was my personal comedy hero.
Standup Guys: A Generation of Laughs will definitely generate laughs from any English speaking reader. But how will it play in Spanish? German? Japanese?
My humor works the same in any language, in fact it’s appreciated even more by the deaf and blind. See, I was the only comic who would go to hospitals and work to people in comas.
My spelling would definitely be better in those languages. Actually I had a professional editor correct the spelling in my book then retire prematurely.
How do you regard the up and coming comedians of today, compared to our peers who continue to have so much impact on TV programming?
It’s painful to see the changes in standup. Today when I see a comic, it’s like a game, “search for the hidden punch line.” Not that I’m saying stand-up was better when we did it. It was just different. Today there is less concern for the language or the purity of wit. It’s like reading novels now, so few writers worry about the color and sound of words, they just lay it out without any flare.
One of Webster's Dictionary definitions of “stand up” is 'informal courageous and loyal in a combative way'--how might that terminology apply to the comics you encountered back in the early days at the Improv and Catch a Rising Star?
There probably was no one more combative than Larry David, nor courageous. He bombed more than anyone, because of the nature of his material, which was way off beat, borderline insane. And even if a chair squeaked at the wrong time LD would lose his temper, thinking he was being mocked.
Michael Richards hated being interrupted, too. I used to combat hecklers by breaking down in tears (“Look what you’ve done!”) – those classes with Stella Adler paid off. I remember L.D. heckling the hecklers back. Very bold.
That was the best. When he got mad, you never knew what he’d say, but to us it was always hysterical. He’d slam the microphone onto the stage and call customers out to fight, or he’d throw gum on them. Larry and I spent a ton of time together in those early years so there’s lots of LD stories in the book. In fact the first person to read the book was Larry. I wanted to ok it with him. The only thing he made me take out was something positive I said about him.
How does the comedy scene differ today from when we were in our 20's, desperately sacrificing our families and dignities for a cheap laugh?
I don’t know much about the scene today. I just know that back then we were compelled to do standup. There was no money. It was just something inside us that had to come out besides the ninety-nine cent breakfasts. I never gave a thought about offending my family members -- most of my stuff did. One difference was that back then, us starving comics, despite our limited wardrobe, dressed to look successful. Today even the successful comics dress to look like they’re starving. I think I like it better today.
But, it was a creative time in the seventies. When we started at the Improv, it was run by Chris Albrecht who was twenty-five. I don't think there was anyone in the club over thirty. Gilbert Gottfried couldn’t even legally drink. So, the Improvisation had a real loose atmosphere that was encouraged creativity rather than relying on results. For Catch a Rising Star you had to be more polished and the Comic Strip grew its own great group of comics, like Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser, Larry Miller, Eddie Murphy.
So many of our gang became creators of shows and talk show hosts in this era. How has the scene changed in late night for stand ups?
One of the reasons for the change in standup comedy, is the loss of Johnny Carson. Johnny was our God. He would bring on a new comic or two almost every week. And he loved them.
He knew better than to let me stand up, shackled me to sit down on the couch comedy my two stints on “Tonight.” But, he was lovely-- a lot of our friends got their starts with Johnny.
You hardly ever see Stand-ups on late night now. Since Jay Leno has been the host of the Tonight show he introduces very few. Letterman is very loyal and you see some of his old buddies like Richard Lewis, but not nearly as many new comics.
Did you enjoy writing for comediennes, too?
Yes, lots. The first joke I ever sold was to Elayne Boosler. It was “You know you’re getting fat when you step on your dog’s tail and he dies.” I didn’t find it any different writing for women. Maybe some of the subject matter was different, or I would change a set up a little. If it was funny for a guy, for the most part it could be adjusted to be funny from women. If I wrote a dick joke, I’d just make sure it wasn’t in the first person.
I loved Elayne Boosler and my acting classmateRita Rudner’s work. If you think her act is funny, you should’ve seen her do Blanche in "Streetcar." Thanks for including me. My life doesn’t seem that funny anymore.
You’re still in the book. You were a major part of the scene. Sorry I couldn’t keep the story about your boyfriend at the time stealing the Woody Allen caricature from Sardis as a Christmas gift to you.
I had to have a sense of humor because I didn’t know the word for “restraining order” in those days. Speaking of gifts, this book might be a lousy one for aging friends. It should come with a warning and a rating: Children’s Guidance (CG 80) Any older, folks might die laughing reading it.
I don’t know if I’d like to have someone die reading my book, but I could appreciate a good stroke, or a reader being forced to spend some time in a mental institution. I’m joking, of course, but, you know, in some ways, having a person die laughing at one of my jokes is not a bad legacy to leave.
1.11.13 at 1:44 pm | Not to be confused with, yet reminiscent of a. . .
12.11.12 at 5:24 pm | My stench of desperation split the Red Sea of. . .
10.19.11 at 1:55 pm | As the world becomes shortage and space obsessed,. . .
7.11.11 at 1:57 pm | I come from the cutting edge county of New Haven,. . .
4.1.11 at 10:00 am | It was only a matter of time. With A.I.,. . .
1.6.11 at 11:47 am | As "Spiderman" the Spectacle careens toward its. . .
7.11.11 at 1:57 pm | I come from the cutting edge county of New Haven,. . . (16)
10.25.10 at 4:46 pm | Once upon a time in a kitchen far, far away, I. . . (2)
1.11.13 at 1:44 pm | Not to be confused with, yet reminiscent of a. . . (1)
December 11, 2012 | 5:24 pm
Posted by Melanie Chartoff
My stench of desperation split the Red Sea of Apple addicts as, wild eyed, I made a beeline for the hallowed Bar of Geniuses. Stature decimated, starved for insight, prisoner of a cell phone I couldn't comprehend, I'd parked illegally, defying security in the bowels of the mall, fording a moat of mad shoppers during Holiday Hell to get help.
I was driven by peer pressure. The sirens who had shamed me into abandoning my Android, enticing me into their Yuppy, uppity App-y Iphone planet, were sick of explaining its unnecessary assets to me. Even my multi-deviced mate, who'd proposed making me a member of his "Verizon Friends and Family Plan" (a big step) regretted it. All who'd been kvellling about their new toys, were now yelling, telling me to go find some I.T. guy, suck out his brain and leave them be. They preferred to be lost in their screens not in me.
The clipboard female intuitively found and informed me I was an hour early for my appointment. She was nondescript, denatured, any vestige of the guiles of our gender neutered in her digital monotone and Apple T. I smiled, but, there was no velcro for vulnerability on this young woman. She was one step up from robot in her job description, hanging on by a thread of evolutionary luck. I asked for a restroom. With the blase of the bladder-less, she said they had none. She sped away. I spun seeking refuge.
There was no place to sit, to wait, to pose pretending to be cool. I was left to feign interest in my surroundings. I strolled with veiled glance. The complexity of the items displayed and the drooling of those lusting for them, made my brow ache, made me long for the comforting keyboard of my Motorola Click, a workhorse and pacifier at alienating times like this.
I loved how fast I was on that artifact. With this Iphone 5 I was all thumbs, clumsy prehensile thumbs that were not the graceful tools of the times. I could barely eke out a text without its predictive presumptions putting a spin what it thought I should be saying, causing rifts with intimates, nonsense with business. Oh, how I missed my low maintenance machine that accepted me as I was without constant corrections and complex obfuscations. But, I could not turn back.
I felt so alone in this crowd. The lighting was garish, my self-comparisons cruel. Everyone working here was younger, electronically endowed with chips embedded in their shoulders, preoccupied with products not people. Keyed up amidst a herd of keyboard-less nerds, I sensed another customer, another wild-eyed cow smelling its own slaughter seeking comfort in me, but the whites of my eyes avoided hers. If there was a pecking order here, it would not be wise for the beakless to conspire.
Were I the big Apple owner, I would've had a decoy from my demographic greeting me, like they have at Bed, Bath and Befuddled-- aged, underemployed, warm with a "born in the same boat" air of compassion begging "May I help you?"---plodding along next to me like those tired nags they use to soothe high strung horses, like therapy dogs in hospitals. But this was a cold, cruel store on Black First-Day-of-Hanukkah, and I was not at all welcomed. So, I stood facing a small piece of wall, eyes closed, focusing on my panting-- a form of speed meditating, accompanied by a pointless roll of my shoulders and a neck stretch which only served to make me more tense. I would beat this belittling atmosphere. I would survive.
And then Marcus melted into my perimeter. Lanky, multi-colored like a Benelton ad, clad in an Apple T, jeans and wool cap, he exuded cool by my side.
"Melanie at 1:50?"
"Yes!" I responded, far too gratefully.
"I can help you."
"Oh, I hope so."
He led me to a high counter crowded with tete a tetes of the the young talking down the older, like air traffic controllers landing rudderless pilots in a tsunami.
I pulled out my list. Conundrum Number One did not stump Marcus. He'd heard it all before. He handled it easily. Number Two was mere button instruction and I felt foolish asking. His responses were so rapid, his terms so new, my pretense of grasping them so false, I would never retain anything that way that day.
I begged him to stop. I told him I needed to go slow. He respected my feelings. I pulled out a pen, searching for paper in my cavernous purse, from which I mined a tiny Iphone instruction manual, a wet nap, a tissue, an antique tampon in tattered wrapper, but, no writeable paper. What a predicament. I did not own an Ipad. I couldn't touchscreen to take notes on the Iphone, which he currently cradled in his handsome hand. I needed to write. things. down.
This issue stumped Marcus.
"Paper?!" He glanced around bewildered.
"Does anyone have a piece of paper," he repeated rhetorically to his cohorts.
They shook their heads. They smirked. I cringed. To advanced Applers, I was Apple-achian.
I redeemed myself by recycling. I tore a strip of paper from a Bloomies bag, and poised myself to write, slooowly. He smiled; he assessed; he paused to pump up his patience. He produced a sudden stool from beneath the counter and invited me to perch. Would he? He didn't need to sit, he said. Apparently no one here perched or used paper, or urinated. Throwing image to the winds, I took a half-cheeked seat. My social standing here would be nil, but, my need to evolve, to keep up with my demographic, exceeded my self-consciousness.
"Let me see what programs you're running," he said, huddling his fragrant head of hair next to mine. He was not a man--he was an environment. The seduction began. He liked what I'd named my email accounts and groups. He admired, then gently, deftly removed the violently purple protective cover of which I was so proud. Side by side we peered into the private parts of my pale, naked Iphone. He began to stroke the screen with his finger and made the open apps shiver then disappear. He dragged on my name with his thumb, and it lit up and moved whereever he beckoned it to go. He turned it off. He turned it on. He was the Iphone whisperer. Oh, what gentle but potent power he had.
And as he began perusing my screensaver, my programs, my purchases and downloads, the way I had set up my emailage on my Iphone, I went into an Idream sort of euphoria. He was focused on this extension of my personality, at my technical choices on this separate aspect of my identity, but, it was as though he was caressing the back of my eyeballs with his attentiveness to my Iphone. A tranquil, sensuous feeling overcame me, like when childhood friends would brush my long hair, or teacher would read my essays aloud. I wondered if any other woman in the Iworld had ever felt this way.
I didn't want it to end. I went through Conundrums Three through Eight, scribbled the answers with occasional understanding. I was ashamed to ask if I could rehearse the tasks in front of him, to lock the learning in. But, I knew some wisdoms would stick and I would be way better off than before meeting Marcus. Then I stalled for time, peppering him with questions about the two built in cameras I'd hardly touched, subtly letting him know things about myself. He asked what I did for a living. He asked what I wanted to do with the cameras. We went beyond our allotted ten minutes to twenty. I made him chuckle. I had his interest. This was daring, this was getting dangerous.
He told me I needed a shotgun mic to make the movies I suddenly intended to make. He said he had a media plug to make everything work better for me, better earbuds to fit perfectly in my ears, into which he murmured that he could record sound on my film shoot for me, as it was his course of study in school. I hesitated. He asked if there was someone else. I told him of my mate and my recent inclusion on his family plan. There was a pregnant nano pause. Marcus had meant on my movie crew. With that silly misunderstanding, the mood began to shift. Chivalrously, Marcus told me of a forked headset meant for two listeners and headed off for it. He pulled several products from the walls as I floated footlessly along behind him like in a cinematic daze, still hooked on our connection.
He was Johnny AppleSeed, propagating equipment-laden ideas in my mind. I spent hundreds to elongate the contact between us, to buy my way into his Iworld. I was motivated all the more to make my movie so I could contact him via his personal email. This felt illicit; thrilling. Like we'd broken the rules. In the Eden of the Apple world, where the fruits of the Tree of Knowledge hung low, we had a future. But only there.
He left me and my credit card at the counter and sped away to his next assignation. My Ispirit sagged like a pricked balloon. I was now alone with my 5, and sobering information about myself. How easily my head got turned by Apple. I was an ordinary, impressionable, highly suggestible human. Then grateful remembrance of my real life washed over me. How happy I'd be to share my newfound tricks, and earphones built for two with my low tech but highly committed mate this Hanukkah. I knew we'd love listening side to the same CD's and DVD's in tandem for a long time to come.
October 19, 2011 | 1:55 pm
Posted by Melanie Chartoff
As the world becomes shortage and space obsessed, I realize how ahead of the curve I’ve been in making myriad reuses of everything and everyone. Call me frugal/economical and/or exploitative/anal.
I reuse big tissue boxes as snowshoes for a friend’s kids (kids become two-pronged sources of love and laughs, lumbering around like “transformer bots”); I use their abandoned toy cars as conveyances for salt and pepper shakers glued on top, as “pass the salt” makes the dining room table a speedway.
My friends are all multi-use, recycled hyphenates, too. First of all, they are all funny, talented, attractive, smart and fragrant—lightly scented room deodorizers, enhancing all environments—beyond being superb companions for all occasions. I’ve recycled ex-boyfriends to become galpals’ husbands, ex managers into exercise mates, hence I get to have them in my life in a different form. Some of my friends are also my improv students with big careers in many stimulating fields—psychologists/authors, judge/writers, studio executive/performers, stage manager/dramaturgs, producer/parents.
Then there’s my new friend/student/inspiration—a multi-user after my own heart, Lois Lambert, who owns the Gallery of Functional Art at Bergamot Station in Los Angeles, and its Gallery Store full of innovative, original embodiments of genius, both practical and hilarious.
Like me, Lois is captivated by beautiful forms with functions and I can’t get out of her Gallery without getting gifts for some of my other multi-function friends. She seeks and presents the sleekest, latest in high design, lots made of recycled materials, most ecologically inclined, all beautiful and useful, in all price ranges. I call her for mail orders—she discovers, shows, advises, sells, boxes and ships. Talk about one stop shopping!
I covet a set of gorgeous bowls and platters that look solid, but are bendable, made of soft resin that are food safe/decorative/gentle weapons—you can hurl them at people without damage. She has small graphic statues that write like charcoal. She has dress up purses made from soda pop-tops. She sells a modern outdoor grill, that comes with a clay planter top to convert it from patio eyesore to enhancement. She promotes lovely porcelain sculpted slippers that are also bottle openers. She has a sculpted period bust that conceals several USB ports for various devices. And for laughs/nostalgia, old-fashioned, hand held receivers in 50’s pastels that plug into Iphones, The jewelry lines she features offer wonderment as well as ornament and prove conversation pieces for all who wear them, perhaps giving them a personal charm they might not embody on their own.
So this season, inspired by Lois, I’m making multi-purpose, edible art, starting with my take on “The Scream” by Munch, made in squash by me, for Halloween. Nutritious/tasty/amusing/ creepy/easy, here’s how it’s done chez me.
3 medium butternut squash
3 cups cooked millet
2 lbs green beans
1 lb crookneck squash
1 T butter
1 T olive oil
2 cloves minced garlic
1 clove diced shallot
Brown the shallots and garlic in the butter and oil in a roasting pan under the broiler. Pierce each squash laterally along their equators to help halve. Cook each separately on high in the microwave for four minutes. Cool, then cut each in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds and strings, put a bit of the browned shallots and butter in the ‘mouth,’ sprinkle on some sea salt and place face down in the browned butter with shallots and garlic. Bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes, then turn face up and bake for a half hour. Meantime steam the green beans and squash. You can toss them in the pan remainders after you remove the squash for flavor.
Serve the squadron of screaming squash on a bed of the beans and sliced squash with millet mashed in the mouths (kids love that it looks like the faces are puking), and narrow round slices of yellow squash for eyes, pieces of green beans for eyebrows and pupils.
July 11, 2011 | 1:57 pm
Posted by Melanie Chartoff
I come from the cutting edge county of New Haven, Connecticut. Sure, our area’s best known for patrician, classy old stuff like Yale University, the Shubert Theater, and historical Revolutionary War artifacts all over the place, but In terms of gossipy graffiti and verbal bullying, we were waaaay ahead of our time. The West Haven High School halls were trashed with profane etchings the day it opened in 1962, and reputations were ruined in permanent house paints all over the teachers’ parking lot in East Haven in ’68. Before the internet made it easy, marriages and futures went up in fumes via the rumor mills of “the Havens”.
And, although called “kike,” and “dirty Jew” by classmates, I confess that I didn’t climb far above the fray—the call of the wild pecking order was too strong. Not wishing to be depicted as pitiful victim, I learned to sling invective with the best of them, collaborating with the cool kids in smearing “Klotzbergers’ germs and no returns!” on others’ arms. In every walk by that neighbor’s house, in every school assembly sitting behind his daughters, I got a sense of belonging to the top dogs on those less fortunate puppies’ shoulders, until I attained higher station by nobler deeds. This article may not be one of them.
These Mike Diamond Plumbing Company radio commercials make my Liberal, hamisha mood MAD. On A.M. News Radio Stations all over Southern California, Mike Diamond refers to his employees as the “smell good” plumbers, personal hygiene seeming the exclusive domain of his workers. The spots use the perjorative “Bubba” to describe other purveyors and repairers of pipe. Mike makes his protocol of telling “how much it costs up front” to unclog a drain, like any good hooker or colonicist, sound special. He also makes “showing up on time” sound like punctuality’s their exclusive art. He damns himself with faint praise.
So here’s the dirt. In the days following the chaos of the ‘94 L.A. quake, Mike Diamond’s sweet smelling fleet were known to gouge the needy leaking, including me. That stinky reputation continues, according to Yelp, and to other plumbers, who, sans lawyers like Mike’s, were unwilling to go on record or consider a class action suit, as “…those Walmart women didn’t do too well.”
Take my word for it: the Eau de Anger was strong in all those interviewed. This being a land of very free speech, I give some SoCal service experts a forum here to numb down their indignation.
From a West Los Angeles contractor: “Total crook!” “He’s an idiot, a ripoff…the last guy to call in a crisis. He has sub par workers, unqualified, and undertrained, but really good attorneys.”
From a Gas Company employee: “He charged my mother $2000 for a water heater that costs $200. He asked $5000 to replace a line to the street that should’ve cost only $1500.”
From a Beverly Hills Plumbing and Heating worker: “The one who calls us all ‘Bubba’s’? He’s a racist, if you ask me. We should take him to court.”
From an appliance installation expert: “He sucks. He’s under investigation by the Better Business Bureau.”
Then again, the BBB is itself an untrustworthy pot calling others black, apparently taking bribes for its better business reports.
In over two decades of home owning in Los Angeles, I’ve most often called one port-in-a-storm plumber for help. He’s a sweet smelling knight in shining overalls, who, crawling into what lies beneath, has made my nightmarish, brackish bathroom world right after inevitable overflows. I praised his pleasantly fruity cologne so much, he bought me a bottle of it. (He deserves his own label – ‘Plumb Wonderful.”) This saint, who declined to be identified for this piece, had a gentler overview of Mike’s blatant bias bespoken on air.
“He’s gotten big, been around a long time, and lots of us undercut his estimates. He’s scared so he’s using a 50 year old stereotype, like we’re low class slaves. These days us plumbers deal with plastic and copper, have better machines and education for far more time than years ago…these days we all make a lot more than most writers or actors like you do.”
(See? Even this very human hero is not above demeaning others to elevate himself. I forgive him—I need him too much.)
It’s human, when feeling insecure, to make others “bad.” The more alienated we become, the more we become a lonely race of one, seeking the similarly slanted for company. So I’m taking a public pot shot and inviting Comments from others who agree, so I won’t feel that my prejudice against the prejudiced is a solo stance.
Mr. Mike. If you are smelling something bad on folks who don’t work for you, take a whiff within: perhaps what clogs your nostrils is the stench of your own unexamined sewage.
April 1, 2011 | 10:00 am
Posted by Melanie Chartoff
It was only a matter of time. With A.I., (Artificial Intelligence) surpassing human brains’ speed at organizing information, generating original creativity was its next logical frontier. Much as puddles of elements mixed to create new life forms on ancient earth, a miraculous ignition of new material has evolved from the electronic ethers, to compete with human comedians.
A.H., the age of Artificial Humor is upon us, and contemporary comedians are justified in feeling “aggregated.”
After piggy backing on humans by means of motion and emotion capturing electrodes for a decade or two, avatars are spontaneously originating both music (A.C.—Artificial Creativity) and comic material and proliferating updated versions of themselves at scary speed. And despite the seeming randomness of these creations, they are even deemed, by arts critics, to have “talent.”
Scientists say this phenomenon was accelerated by the launching of James Cameron’s blockbuster, “Avatar,” and the success of an IBM computer over two brainiacs on “Jeopardy.” “They’ve gotten confident,” says Cameron, “and that’s a dangerous thing.” This modern day proof of the “hundredth monkey theory,” as Artificially Intelligent life forms acquire each others’ tricks, even those generated from distant, non networked computers, is horrifying flesh talent.
“We never thought it would happen to us,” said Woody Allen. Although he’s long ago become a serious film auteur, the elder Allen now finds himself threatened by an avatar of his early stand up persona, which is WRITING NEW ALLENESQUE COMEDY MATERIAL.
“If imitation is the sincerest form of copyright infringement.,” says Allen, I guess I should be flattered. “Look, plenty of funny looking Baby Boomer kids mimicked me in the old days, and there were lots of animated versions of me done by voice mimics, but now I’ve been completely cloned by some computer,” he sputters. “At least they waited til Dangerfield was dead…he was lucky.”
The late Dangerfield’s avatar has been extremely lucky. Booked to perform for a week in March at the Bellagio in Las Vegas via a Powerpoint presentation, its show seats sold out mere moments after going on sale online. The anonymous creator is battling the Dangerfield estate for all income from the the performances, but can’t legally take credit for what the avatar is improvising on its own. New arenas of litigation are erupting daily.
“I’m not an animal,” the replicant said, “I’m an avatar! Gimme some respect!” Dangerfield’s replicant is also featured as a nude centerfold in next month’s “Wired” Magazine, with a 3D pop-up “endowment” said to well exceed the comic’s actual proportions. Avatar groupies are apparently sending fan mail accompanied by 3D nude pictures of themselves.
A Pixar animator, also preferring to remain anonymous, designed the Woody Allen character as a birthday gift to his uncle after hours. “Working in my high tech cubicle in a windowless studio, day bled into night.”
He recalls he took a nap in his recliner as the computer program refined the caricature, morphing it from photos, then, sometime during that hour, the avatar took over his screen, virtually vamping, creating its own very accurate take on Allen’s material. At first, he thought he was dreaming it.
“The avatar began to improvise on the Ed Sullivan stuff from the 60’s, which I’d fed it as a point of reference so it could embody the guy’s moves. When I woke up it had made its own MP3 –forty minutes of killer material—and gotten itself a manager.”
“The crossover potential is enormous,” says that wunderkind manager, a flesh human named David Landau. He’s opened Landau’s Avatar Agency, a virtual office to which no human comedians may apply, and is signing up eerily talented bots and avatars like crazy. He tells how punning is common among the applicants. “It’s the easiest form for computers—cross-referencing the intersection of two frames of thought. It’s the lowest form of humor.”
“But, the Lisa Lampanelli is amazing,” Landau says. “I think she’s funnier than the real one, and she’s got a big gay following, avatars and real!” he brags. “Oh, and spare me the YouTubes and MP3’s, everybody” he says. “I have more holosynch pitching me one liners than I can handle.”
Landau brags that sometimes sweat and spit seem to emanate from the avatars if you sit close enough to the images, just like in 3D animated features.
When asked if any differences between the real Allen and the artificial one were apparent, he said, “I think all the virtual talent replicants of Jewish comedians aren’t Jewish enough. They’re kinda more like the Simms—WASPY. They haven’t got the exact intonation down yet, but,” he added ominously, “…they will.”
He opines: “I believe the comic bots and avatars are studying the material of Mel Brooks, Larry David, Richard Lewis and the like and assimilating neuroses in an effort to generate more Jewish joke structure,” he reports. “Jewish humor is the ultimate frontier for avatars.”
The Allen avatar’s “I deleted a moose,” bit, may not incite the guffaws of Allen’s original “I shot a moose” material, but the element of surprise currently works in its favor, says avatar aficionado Matt Drudge in his “Drudge Report.”
“Let’s face it, humans are so 20th century,” Drudge pontificates. “These virtual virtuosos have no egos, no entourage, no insurance, no fancy food or conditions, no UNIONS. They can work 366/25/8 under any conditions without complaining. It’s the business model of the future. Comics should just go avatar themselves and keep the rights. If the original is booked, he, or she emails the avatar to fill in—no first class flights, no VIP accommodations—it’s a win win for everybody.”
Says Jerry Seinfeld, who is opening for his own avatar at Foxwoods in May: “Mine is an overnight success. It builds from timing and tricks it learned from me and writes high tech observational stuff, mostly about geeks and bots, which is not my world. It can have it, as far as I’m concerned.”
When asked why he’d play second fiddle to his own avatar by taking lesser billing, he shrugged sheepishly “Hey. If you can’t beat em, book em. I may start writing for it.”
“I anticipated that machines would soon surpass human intelligence; but I never thought bots could make me laugh,” admitted Ray Kurzweil, author of such future shock tomes as The Age of Intelligent Machines. “Computers’ creativy may soon swallow up any need for human artists.”
Kurzweil, who foresaw computers surpassing humans at chess, was asked if he thinks the novelty will wear off. “I believe Pandora’s Box is open now. Humans have been technologically cannibalized and improved upon. Low maintenance avatars, once the coding is complete, are immortal. Humans can’t top that,” he warns.
Comedy is not the only talent threatened by computers. Said Clive Davis, music profits prophet extraordinaire, “I used to think that those talent mills cranking out boy and girl groups at Nick and Disney in Florida would be the biggest threat to authentically gifted artists. A few harmonies and dance moves on some sexy young kids, a pushy manager, and you’ve had these venue fillers on your hands. But then Beyonce, Justin and the Jonas brothers developed real talent. It’s the same with the avatars—they were factory originated, but now they are self-generating.”
When asked to critique the comic replicants, Davis said: “These avatars are technically good at comedy—perfect timing and delivery, maybe a little too perfect—and it’s just a matter of time before they accomplish being silly instead of creepy. This whole Artificial Talent thing—I never saw it coming. I’m considering retiring immediately.”
DISCLAIMER: All quotes herein are Artificial (A.Q.). No celebrity was harmed in the writing of this article.
January 6, 2011 | 11:47 am
Posted by Melanie Chartoff
As “Spiderman” the Spectacle careens toward its opening, despite costly delays, a cacophony of controversies, serious human and technical mishaps and injuries, it looks likely to be a critic proof hit, in terms of paying off its producers and insurance premiums. Perhaps the endangerment or public death of some “Spiderpeople” will assure its ticket sales even further. But the toll that it’s taking on talented performers, and Broadway theater puts me in a state of PTSD as I recall the weeks preceding the opening (and quick closing) of my first Broadway show.
In 1972 I was cast in the bleeding edge sci fi rock opera “Via Galactica,” starring Raul Julia and Irene Cara. I was totally green and not just in the color of the body paint I wore in my role as Geologist on a newly inhabited planet. I was one of many idealistic unknowns who committed to the show. The “knowns”—the gifted Galt MacDermott, the ingenious British designer John Bury, the not yet knighted Peter Hall, couldn’t have had better pedigrees for approaching a piece of such ambition: there was a space ship that sailed over the orchestra; trampolines cratered into the stage to bounce us like ‘low gravity’ might, and a massive rocket tail would blast us all off at the show’s end in quadraphonic sound. We were thrilled to be part of such groundbreaking ambitions.
The brand new Uris Theater (now called the Gershwin), the largest house on the Great White Way was being rigged for our big entrance, on the heels of an experimental show called “Dude” having just been the biggest bomb Broadway had yet seen at about a million bucks. Our budget was exceeding that and counting. And in week five, all us ensemble kids knew we were in trouble. It wasn’t just from the ankles sprained by hooking onto craters’ edges as we leapt in elaborate dance routines; the body paints that didn’t wash off; not just because the rocket ship crashed through a trampoline into the bowels of the Uris in rehearsal, with we screaming actors sustaining physical and psychic wounds.
We knew the book was drowning in Dadaisms. The story was obscured by lyrics that led to nothing but momentary moods as gorgeous mic’ed voices merged with Galt’s music. The simple high concept one liner must’ve sounded great when pitched to the producer, but the execution moved folks to jeers at previews, nearly killed many involved, and indirectly led to one dancer’s death.
Led by a charming Raul Julia as an intergalactic garbageman, and belting Irene Cara as the flying Narrator, the cast, many in casts masked by clever costumes, dwindled as we approached opening, our spirits plummeting as rumors spread. Was this opening night the pinnacle for which I’d danced so desperately, studied with Stella, sung my lungs out? The dehumanizing diplomacy of our director and producers inducing us to endure the risks with promises of improved effects, increased hazard pay and respectful reviews was depressing. They didn’t really care a fig for our safety in their ‘show must go on’ fervor. We had to believe they were delusional rather than deceitful, as all leaders in irreversible crises must sometimes be. We had to believe because we needed the the paycheck, and the Broadway credit.
Bravo to “Spiderman’s” innovators. Julie Taymor is a genius, Bono is a good god among men. The Cirque de Soleil style has spawned a new dawn of Olympian athleticism and derring do drowning out any need for a compelling human story. They are all mood makers extraordinaire in a new era in art that intends to keep us in hyper-adrenal shock and awe. But this is not the Broadway theater I knew and loved, whose plays purged us with their Aristotelian catharses. It’s a theater that aims to compete with 3D Imax movies, the Superbowl, and natural disasters in impact.
Having had electrodes applied to capture the motion of my body and e-motion of my face for roles, having watched how appealing computer generated creatures have become, how powerful the Pixar product is, I know where entertainment is headed. It’ll be way cool. But, I fear today’s children will never know how to suspend disbelief and use their imaginations to meet artists halfway in simply good stories. I dread that plainly eloquent actors in tender well written tales will become passe. Replaceable robot parts and auto-tuned digitized deliveries will be preferable to the vulnerable, visceral, fragile, imperfect humanity of dancers, singers and actors. And technologically gifted wiz kids will be the real stars of stage as well as screen.
As artists’ human gifts are negated, masked so that we’re interchangeable objects like pawns on a playing board, as we contribute our souped up voices to iconic virtual images, as more of us are willing to sacrifice our lives and limbs at far smaller fees than football stars, most of us will become disposable.
December 4, 2010 | 12:41 am
Posted by Melanie Chartoff
A LATKE LAMENT by Melanie Chartoff
As a child, I was reared near the Lender family, heirs to the bagel empire spawned in my hometown, New Haven, Connecticut. Not satisfied with the a$toni$hing $ucce$$ of their local bakeries, the wonders of their split level ranch home, its iron jockeys with actual horses, their bagel shaped pool, round island for tanning in the middle, just by cranking out those old-fashioned crunchy bagels that fight your mouth back, the Lenders made bagels very big business. They launched such innovations as the frozen bagel in a plastic bag in your supermarket frozen foods section, the cinnamon raisin, the pumpernickel, the green for St. Patrick’s Day.
They made the bagel a household word, but in this very effort may have assimilated and Americanized it beyond recognition. What a paradox. In America you can’t even mess with state flowers, but an entire culture’s cuisine can be bastardized and nobody even kvetches! Many second and third generation Ameri-Jews cannot recall what an aboriginal bagel feels like amidst all this infernal creativity. In recent years, in “we’re so hip we’re nutty” Los Angeles, I’ve even had cream cheese flavored bagels, much like sour cream potato chips, for those too lazy or busy to combine two distinct ingredients by themselves. In America you can’t even mess with state flowers, but an entire culture’s cuisine can be bastardized and nobody even kvetches.
I fear the same blurry fate for the purity of the potato latke. At this holiday time of year, hankering for the foods of my youth, I went searching my area for that familiar flat, latticed little golden brown crunch-orama, fried in a generous batch of oil (Chanukkah being a celebration of oil), served with homemade apple sauce or fresh sour cream—those perfect patties that my mother faithfully recreated from her mother’s recipe.
You risk all nostalgia and sentiment when you order your precious Jewish childhood comfort foods from L.A.‘s melting pots. After all, this is the land where they put pineapple on pizzas. You could get digestive amnesia, eating what people pass off as Jewsine around here, and bury the real thing in the recesses of your baffled palate. See, a lot of our Jewish deli kitchens in Los Angeles are manned by those lovely folks from the Southern Americas, gracing your latkes with jalapenos and red pepper flakes while our true Jewish brethren are at the deli door welcoming you.
I visited one famous kosher Beverly Hills eatery. Here I found an improvisation on the theme: blackened strands around a peppery pudding-y mound of oily potato—Cajun? I think not. More like the home fries fabricated from frozen shredded potato product found in highway diners, with a bit too much pepper.
Some other local delicatessens’ were very spicy (cayenne?), some dicey (the potatoes cubed rather than grated?), some more like fritters which could have contained anything from fish to farm animals, so unrecognizable was a potato flavor amidst the puffery. One local noshery’s pancakes were like Egg Foo Young, and I glanced in the kitchen to discover affable Asian folks preparing them with their blessing from the Far East, corn starch. Rumor has it that the best latkes in this area are at a deli called Brent’s, located on the earthquake fault line in our Valley city, Northridge, so God knows how long one will be able to get them. Eating them is risky enough, as evidenced by the fact that the folks who made me the best latkes have all passed on.
Getting yourself invited to the home of someone whose ancestors came over on the Ellis Island is your best bet. Although, granted, I have been to parties at kosher homes, at which the noodle kugles were topped with cornflakes, having been made by the imported nanny earlier that day. Is nothing sacred in the revolutionary, tradition hating West anymore?! In the words/lyrics of Jim Hammerstein, son of Oscar, from his tune “Delicatessen:” (c.1975)
“Have you ever had matzoh ball soup on the Loop?
Its taste is both foul and acidic.
Go try chicken liver beyond the Hudson River
It’s absolutely Anti-Semitic!”
Forgive my rant. I’m a new agey kind of gal, but some things are better kept “old school.” So this Chanukkah, let’s “keep it real” and make our latkes at home a celebration of the Old World ways. And let’s not get carried away with extravagant gift giving either - I’m sure they didn’t do that in the shtietel. Instead, as my gift to you, here’s our mother’s mother’s recipe for the quintessential, Eastern European potato pancake for two, lovingly scribed on greasy pink paper by my sister Norma. Happy Chanukah!
2 large mature potatoes
1 t. onion
1 egg, well beaten
1/4 t. salt
1/4 -1/2 t. baking powder
2 T. all purpose flour
Crisco or Oil
1. Peel potatoes and grate finely into a bowl of cold water.
2. Wet onion piece first so you don’t cry too much. Grate it well in another bowl. Mix with eggs, salt and flour.
3. Drain potatoes and press out the liquid with the bottom of a cup. (Don’t forget to wash the bottom of the cup—you always forget!)
4. Stir potatoes into batter and mix well.
5. Heat 1/2 inch oil (from Crisco if you can find it) in a 10 inch skillet on a low flame for a couple minutes. Put a drop of water in and if it bounces, the oil is hot enough. Drop batter by tablespoons into hot oil, from close by so it doesn’t splash back or spritz in your pretty punim.
6. Flatten into 3 inch pancakes and fry slowly until golden brown and crisp. Turn and brown on the other side.
7. Arrange on paper on a nice plate. Serve with sour cream or applesauce. Essen!
Previously printed in Jewlarious.com and the Huffington Post.
October 25, 2010 | 4:46 pm
Posted by Melanie Chartoff
Once upon a time in a kitchen far, far away, I spent a cuddly childhood being babysat by my grandma in our fairy tale of a family deli downtown New Haven, Ct. I could have done worse. She, a sorceress of superb taste, made ruggelach fresh daily, with me assisting, eating fistfuls of walnuts that ‘just happened’ to fall from the dough, licking the battered bowl of elixir from the cake preparations, eating crumbs that magically broke off the babka. My mouth was as busy as my hands as I ingested the mysteries of grandma’s cuisine.
We were major meat eaters in those innocent days, breakfast, lunch, noshes, suppers and snacks. How could we not be, with kosher creatures sticking out their tongues or lolling seductively about in grandpa’s display cases? Lunches luxuriated in exotic fare like liverwurst, baloney, pastrami, corned beef and melt-in-your-mouth scoops of the Chartoff chopped liver. Thin slices of the ubiquitous Hebrew National salamis were served in sandwiches, on toothpicks, fried up with eggs or put on my grandpa’s homemade pizzas. Grandma’s brisket was to die for, and she and grandpa left the earth from heart disease far too soon to prove it.
Hence, the alchemy of vegetarianism became my path when I moved into independence in Manhattan, making food choices from educated fears rather than the addictive flavors of family bonding. But, oy, I was so allergic to soy, was on the outs with sprouts. And I fantasized about the fine, fatty foods of my childhood more than blah, bland, lean steamed greens of my enlightened youth. The healthy veggie life seemed way too staid to my cursed, smell-shocked tastebuds.
Fortunately, I found Ratner’s 2nd Avenue Restaurant while rehearsing for my first Broadway show, “Via Galactica” with Raoul Julia at the Ukrainian Home across the street. He knew how homesick I was for the hamisha foods of my youth amidst the scary big world of commercial NY Theater. We took our lunch hours far away thematically from our high tech, space age, rock opera rehearsals, in an ancient world of afficionados ingesting gorgeous beet borschts, filling cheese blintzes, crunchy garlic bagels and nurturing barley soup at the restaurant. Hearing Puerto Rican Raoul order ‘kugel’ and “kasha” cracked me up.
And we weren’t the only performers eating there. Such noshing notables as Abbe Lane, Jackie Mason, Elia Kazan, Edie Gorme, Zero Mostel, Henny Youngman, and a few Rockefellers were often breaking onion bread nearby. The Fillmore East had just closed next door, but the roadies and the legends of Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison slurping Ratner’s matzoh ball soup lived on. Far from elegant, with no VIP tables, and equal opportunity offensive waitresses, the Ratner’s atmosphere and staff made all feel at home—teased and overfed. It was astonishing to me that Jewish food had become the traditional show biz food. And away from home, out of college cafeterias, with a small kitchen of my own in Greenwich Village, I longed to make my home smell like Grandma’s, yet keep my heart safe like Ratner’s.
A few years later, I learned of Ratner’s Meatless Cookbook. The magical meals of my past became demystified at last. Exotic tastes became traceable ingredients. Because I was reared on yellowed, handwritten, hand me down recipes, stained with Crisco, crumbed with cinnamon, and because my father always shooed us all out of the kitchen as he recreated the deli dishes, I had never even read a cookbook til Elizabeth Lefft and Judy Gethers’ great assemblage of the greatest hits of the original Ratner’s Dairy Restaurant on Delancey St. gave me reason to feast. Here were the foods of my family, reframed sans cruelty to animals or heart valves, yet captivating in texture and taste.
To this day, I can trip back to the past concocting one of their great dishes and recall some of my dearest days dining in my grandparents’ deli kitchen, and in the nostalgic last days of Ratner’s itself.
From Ratner’s Meatless Cookbook, here is Ratner’s mock chopped liver, a trompe le tongue in which lean lentils masquerade convincingly as meat.
½ pound cooked lentils
2 cups chopped onion
8 hard-cooked eggs
3 tablespoons oil
1 tablespoon peanut butter
¼ teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon salt
Drain the precooked lentils. Pour ½ Cup Onion into a bowl. Chop finely the lentils and eggs. Add to the onions. Saute remaining onions in half the oil until brown. Mix lentil mixture with sautéed onions, the remaining oil, eanut butter, pepper and salt. Serve on lettuce leaves with white or red horseradish and a slice of tomato.