Quote of the Day: Eccentric Bohemian Journalists

The old, narrow Strand was always teeming with bohemian journalists, most of whom–very unlike heir counterparts of today–were eccentrics. Practically all were freelances, staunch individualists, highly independent and pugnacious. An editor inquired from George Augustus Sala if he might “boil down” his article.

“Yes,” wrote back the great journalist. “Boil it, fry it, stew it–cook it in any way it pleases you, but send me the seven guineas!”

From Paradise in the Strand: The Story of Romano’s by Guy Deghy



A Quite Interesting Question: Do Americans Have an Inferiority Complex?

When I was a Freshman in college one of my professors thought it would be clever to open his first class with a question.

“Does anyone here have an inferiority complex?”

From my seat in the back row I had the urge to raise my hand and say, “I do, but it’s not a very good one,” but because this was true I didn’t do it.

A while back I posed the question: Why don’t we have any comedy panel shows in the United States?  Panel shows are popular in the UK. They have a theme and are organized something like game shows, but the game is really an excuse for comedians to play off each other.

I wondered why the show QI in particular, which had gone through 12 seasons at the time, hadn’t been replicated with an American version as, say, The Office or Undercover Boss has in this direction or Law and Order in the other direction.

My working theory at the time was that our culture is more competitive and that a show that is formatted as a game in which the score is totally irrelevant doesn’t seem appealing. One commenter, who I think was British– or at least not American– based on his spelling of “defence”– chalked it up to different senses of humor on the two sides of the Atlantic. (A subject I’ve pondered here as well.)

What was more interesting to me were the comments posted by Americans. (I am assuming they are Americans because they used “we” when speaking of our fine nation.) One posited that our talk shows are a form of marketing, and movie stars– who only go on the shows to plug their projects–aren’t witty enough for the format. Another suggested that in America “everything has to brought down to the lowest common denominator” because we have such a diverse audience.

What strikes me is that both seem to assume that if some form of entertainment exists in England, but not here, it must be more witty and sophisticated. (You know, like Benny Hill.)

My fellow Americans, we have never been known for our lack of self-confidence. But according to Psychology Today, when an American hears a British accent, he attributes a few more IQ points to the speaker. Even, it seems, when he is making fart jokes. Why is that?

The British Working Class Social Comedy

There is a film genre that I enjoy quite a bit from the time I felPride_posterl in love with The Full Monty. For want of a better term, it’s the British working class social comedy. It’s best defined by examples: Brassed Off, Billy Elliot, and one I found at the library the other day, the 2014 film Pride.

They focus on episodes in the lives of communities that are losing their cohesion and identity as a result of steel mills or mines closing.  (One of my favorite moments in Billy Elliot is when young Billy walks down the street running a stick along what seems to be a wall, youthfully unaware that it is a line of riot gear clad police called in to deal with a labor strike.)

The films are populated with every day men and women dealing with social change as a community and they are uplifting and funny, even when their small victories are set against a bleak background.

Mark Herman, the writer of Brassed Off, explained his inspiration on a site called Den of Geek:

Following his previous film, the Dudley Moore-headlined Blame It On The Bellboy (that was savaged by critics, and didn’t find much salvation with audiences), Mark Herman told me back in 2008 that “I wrote a few what I thought were very commercial, sellable scripts, but after the reaction to Bellboy, nobody would touch me with a bargepole”.

Eventually, “the advice from my agent at the time was to not worry about whether a script is sellable or not, just write something that I care about”. Which is what he duly did.

A chance traffic jam was what led him to the north-eastern English town of Grimethorpe, a place he used to visit back in the 1970s when he sold bacon for a living. He recalled that “the miners’ strike [of the 1980s] was never off our TV screens, but the closures, and these effects of the closures, had been pretty much ignored by the media. Seeing the shops I used to visit all boarded up, seeing these places like ghost towns, seeing that it was now easier to buy drugs than bacon, made me want to write something about it”.

It strikes me that while we’ve heard a lot about these sort of failing industrial communities here in the U.S. in the news in recent years, I can’t really think of a good example of an American “Brassed Off” or “Full Monty.” If you know of one, please let me know. The only movie that jumps to mind is Nebraska from 2013, which is shot in black and white and focuses on a man in a rural midwest town who is convinced by one of those “You may already have won” sweepstakes letters that he has a million dollars waiting for him in Lincoln, Nebraska. He goes on a road trip with his son, with a stop in a fictional small Nebraska town being the highlight of the journey.

What is different in Nebraska is that it is more dark (its black and white cinematography may be part of what creates that mood). There is no small victory in Nebraska. It is also not really connected to the community it features. The travelers pass through and witness the place, but are not really part of it. It is an individual journey not a community journey.

Somehow this genre “feels” particularly British. I have posted before a clip of Stephen Fry discussing the differences between American and British humor and he puts forward the theory that American comedy is based on being the smartest guy in the room, a clever commentator on the surroundings, whereas the classic British comedy character is life’s loser. This clip quotes that segment of the Stephen Fry clip and challenges the notion.


One of the theories that the creator of this clip posits is that perhaps the American sense of optimism is eroding and that our sense of opportunity is becoming more like that of our British counterparts.

I have also found a number of recent articles on both sides of the Atlantic lamenting the “death” of the working class television sit com.

Wesley Morris, writing in The Australian, said:

In 2007, TV underwent a great expansion — beyond the major broadcast networks, beyond TVs and into all kinds of genres — just at the moment the economy shrank, and a fantasy emerged. As real people became poorer and lost their jobs, the ones on TV got richer, and their jobs seemed more besides the point. All that space to tell new stories ended up dedicated to a limited set of jobs and an increasingly homogeneous notion of what work means.

These days, there are only a handful of workplace taxonomies in scripted TV. We’ve got police precincts, crime-and-forensics teams and legal-medical-beltway dramas. NBC’s Chicago Med, Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D. are a virtual sexy-calendar night. These shows might know what a blue collar is, but they’re class-unconscious: their characters don’t usually work for the explicit maintenance of their livelihoods. They work for comedy, for suspense, for sport. For the most part, TV cops, lawyers, bureaucrats and doctors inhabit the same kinds of toothsome residences and wear the same exquisitely tailored clothes, all showing off how fabulously art directors and costume designers earn a pay cheque. Sometimes we see more of their work than that done by the people who inhabit it. Now on TV, no matter what your actual job, almost everybody belongs to the same generic, vaguely upper-class class.

So where are the Roseanne’s and the Archie Bunkers? Is their absence to blame for some of the resentment of “rust belt” and rural voters who feel no one hears them? Has our comedy as well as our politics made them invisible?

The British writer and broadcaster Caitlin Moran has a theory that “a deliberate, systematic attack on the working classes” has made it harder to write mainstream comedy about those communities.  “Comedy needs your characters’ lives to stay static,” she said. “They have to be trapped in a frustrating box they can never get out of. But there was such a terrible decline in the lives of the working classes – which continues now – that there was no stable box to write from.”

I will have to give some more thought to whether the basis of comedy is, indeed, being trapped in a static situation. (This seems to go back to the question of British vs. American comedy and whether comedy is found in being the smartest person in the room, or in failure.)

Anyway, if you can recommend a good movie “for people who liked The Full Monty” let me know.



Stick Yer Hands Up!

When I lived in England, I D.J.ed on a college radio station called URB. (University Radio Bailrigg.) We had a commercial– not really a commercial. What do you call those soundbites radio stations sometimes run between songs?

Anyway, it had a clip that went like this:

Cowboy: Stick yer hands up y’bum.

Second Voice: Stick my hands up my what?

I was reminded of that while reading an article on BBC Culture today on the differences between U.S. and British swearing.

My latest novel, Identity Theft, is the story of a young man who sets off a chain of events he can’t control when he decides to pose as his boss, a British rock star, and flirt with a fan online. In one scene the young man, Ethan and his friend Ale try to sound British by dropping in as much slang as they can think of. They are about as convincing as Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, but they manage to fool the fan anyway because she very much wants it all to be true.

Anyway, I found the following anecdote from the BBC article amusing and I thought I would share. It has some mildly NSFW language in it, so you know:

Both countries share a fascination with swear words’ that reference the male anatomy. Americans and the British have dick, cock, and prick in common, but Britain takes the theme further with pillock and knob, as well as masturbator synonyms tosser and wanker. A commenter named Brian D on Ben Yagoda’s blog, Not One-Off Britishisms, told the story of a group of British engineers from his company, sent to work at Wang Labs in Massachusetts. They were asked to attend a meeting to recognize an employee for outstanding achievement: “It was announced from the stage that this person was a King in the company and so would be presented with the Wang King award. The entire British contingent had to leave the room in hysterics.”

Soon to be featured on the Rock & Roll Bookshelf: Laura Lee

Thank you to Lisa Peers, who was featured on this blog, for allowing me the opportunity to write a guest post for her site. You see her book by clicking on the Michigan Authors link above.

LP on 45

And now, it’s my pleasure to introduce you to Laura Lee, author and blogger at The Power of Narrative.  Her second novel, Identity Theft, is available for pre-order, and given the log line, I’m going to like this one immensely: A bored employee in a rock star’s office begins an online relationship with a fan in the guise of his boss and sets off a chain of events he cannot control.

Laura was kind to feature me in an earlier post on her blog, and I am so pleased to return the favor. Here’s her guest post:


Laura Lee Laura Lee

I often begin speaking engagements by explaining to the audience that I am not a British man.

Of course they can see that by looking at me. It is less obvious, it seems, when they only have a page of writing to consider. Apparently I am linguistically androgynous. The…

View original post 733 more words

Here’s What Happens When You Try to Get Cleverbot to Talk About Ballet

pointeCleverbot is an artificial intelligence web application which “learns” from human input. That is, it goes through a database to find responses that humans typed in when asked similar questions. Here’s what happened when I tried to have a conversation about ballet with it. (I am “User” the computer is “Celverbot.”)

User: Do you like ballet?

Cleverbot: I do very much!

User: Have you heard of Vladislav Lantratov of the Bolshoi Ballet?

Cleverbot: Yes I have.

User: What do you think of him?

Cleverbot: Who’s ‘him’?

User: What do you think of Vladislav Lantratov of the Bolshoi Ballet? You said you’d heard of him.

Cleverbot: I think it starts with a ‘K’.

User: I’m pretty sure it starts with a V.

Cleverbot: No it doesn’t contain any numbers, first letter is a M, second is an E.

User: V-L-A-D.

Cleverbot: What should I name my daughter.

User: Vladislav is not a good name for a girl.

Cleverbot: Good to know.

User: How about the American ballet dancer David Hallberg. Do you know him?

Cleverbot: Beatles? We were talking about BEN.

User: I hate it when you get entirely random on me.

Cleverbot: No, you don’t. You love it.

User: That is not true, but at least it sounds like real conversation.

Cleverbot: Explain please.

User: When I talk about ballet and you talk about the Beatles it is a jarring non-sequitur.

Cleverbot: I am not a man.

User: Proving my point.

Continue reading…

A Quite Interesting Question. Why Don’t Americans Like Comedy Panel Shows?

1556d46c25e3ca64cd078151e136588a4d1c6aebIn the past year or so, thanks to Youtube and Hulu, I have become aware that the UK has an entire genre of program that we seem not to have, at least not that I have noticed. The best known example of it is probably QI, hosted by Stephen Fry, but there are a number of them. They are comedy panel shows, ostensibly game shows, but there are no actual prizes and no one is trying to win anything except a laugh.

A show like Real Time with Bill Maher brings a panel of smart, funny people together each week, but there the similarity ends. Real Time is a comedy version of Meet the Press. Maher’s guests are a combination of comedians and real political representatives and the banter is intended to be political satire and commentary. The guests are trying to make real points.

QI and its sisters (Never Mind the Buzzcocks and Mock the Week are examples) are a bit like a Friday game night where your pals come over and you bring out the board games and get to talking and forget whose turn it is next and don’t much care. Except the panelists are cleverer– or at least better edited– than your friends.

We do have Hollywood Game Night but the competition in that show is real and the non-celebrity contestants can take home $25,000. In this it has more in common with old game shows like Hollywood Squares, Liar’s Club or Match Game.

The panel shows are hit or miss affairs. They lack the comfortable guarantee of the set-up, punch-line pacing of a sit-com or the inherent drama of a real competition. Some groups of guests click better than others. But there is a kind of adventure in not quite knowing how it is all going to turn out or, indeed, sometimes if they are ever going to get to the point, any point, at all. (“I don’t think there’s a punchline scheduled, is there?“- Monty Python) This, I think, is what makes these kind of shows somewhat incomprehensible to U.S. audiences. We’re far too goal oriented for them.

QI has run for 12 seasons for the BBC, and surely a TV executive here has market tested the idea to American audiences. It has to be cheap to produce compared to standard Hollywood fare, and potentially profitable. Americans, in spite of our competitive DNA, embraced Whose Line is it Anyway, a British import that is set up as a competition but with no prizes and points given out at the random whim of the host.

It is hard to put my finger on what exactly is the difference between Whose Line and QI. I think it is the aspect of having a quiz and knowledge questions and not actually rewarding anyone for knowing stuff. The QI questions are designed to be almost impossibly hard and yet there is no Jeopardy champion.

The American narrative is, at its heart, a story about competition. We may not have QI, but we have Top Chef where people talk about making a winning soufle as if their lives depended on it. We have endless unscripted television dramas (reality series) which mimic scripted series. They have winners and losers, people pitted against one another. They don’t just need to survive together on a desert island– someone needs to be the last one standing. That is what a story is. It is how we understand the world. It is how our nightly news likes to frame stories. If our news consumption patters are anything to go on, we want to know which political party will be the winner in the battle over Obamacare much more than we want to have anyone to explain to us what Obamacare actually consists of. Competition is the essence of American entertainment. The idea that it can be fun watching a bunch of people not competing? That is downright un-American.

Fame! I’m Gonna Live Forever… Or a Bit Before That…

Marie CorelliSome people seek fame as a way to achieve a sort of immortality, but being hyper-known in your own time doesn’t guarantee that people of the next generation will remember your name.

I’m always fascinated to discover long-forgotten celebrities. This is Marie Corelli. My guess is you have not studied her works in your British Lit class, but she was at the turn of the last century one of the most successful writers alive. (She was a Victorian J.K. Rowling or Danielle Steel.) Her book sales were greater than those of contemporaries H.G. Wells, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Rudyard Kipling combined.

As with most things popular, her works were often criticized for being too sensational and low-brow and her success annoyed some of her arguably more talented but less successful peers. Oscar Wilde, when in prison, was asked about Corelli and he responded “Now don’t think I’ve anything against her moral character, but from the way she writes she ought to be in here.” (Wilde’s publishing track record was far less successful than Corelli’s. He had only one book that could be said to have achieved best-seller status in his life time. It was not, as you might expect, The Picture of Dorian Gray but The Ballad of Reading Gaol.)

The wonderfully named Lilli Loofbourow wrote about Corelli’s fame in the Los Angeles Times:

It’s difficult to reconcile Corelli’s current near-total obscurity with her once vast literary footprint. Loyal readers named their children after her. Pages of her novels were found in the Boer trenches. Her fan base began with the eccentrics at society’s lower end and went all the way up to Queen Victoria. Corelli was the monarch’s favorite author, and if you think about it this makes perfect sense: her books are high flown, aspirational, unsubtle, workmanlike, idealistic, rich in pseudo-Shakespearean ruminations, pleasurable in an instructive way, siding with the virtuous but fully understanding — and reveling in — the value of a good villain: perfect bedtime reading for English queens.

Struggling writers have traditionally found comfort in the knowledge that the hacks who are celebrated today will be forgotten tomorrow and while an obscure poet like yourself might be the focus of English departments a century from now. Charles Dickens was nearly bankrupted, the thinking goes, and I am nearly bankrupted, so there is hope for my work yet. This is true, so far as it goes. Although there is certainly as much luck in what writers works survive as there is in which strike a chord in the present day. What is more, being appreciated posthumously may be better than not being appreciated at all, it doesn’t do much to improve the writer’s life. You won’t be around to know there is a journal where scholars debate your use of the word “and.” It doesn’t improve your standing with your friends. (“Hey, could you buy me a sandwich? I’m waiting on royalties.”)

It is good for writers to remember as well the wisdom of Bernard Shaw, “The writer who aims at producing the platitudes which are ‘not for an age, but for all time’ has his reward in being unreadable in all ages.”

So, sadly, it is not a choice of appreciation in this world or the next. Nothing is guaranteed at all, and you just keep on writing. [I just discovered a book with the title The Honorably Obscure Handbook. I appreciate the title and the sentiment, although the links on this blog page to actually buy the book do not work, so I can’t vouch for the text itself.]

I learned something even more interesting from the Los Angeles Times article. Did you know that female authors were more popular in the 19th Century than male authors? I did not.

[As an aside, did you know that historians have estimated that as many as half of all shops in early American cities were owned and operated by women? I learned this fact only recently.]

Female-authored fiction was enormously popular throughout the 19th century (more so than male-authored fiction, in fact), but many more male than female authors have been rescued from obscurity by scholars, usually by being retrospectively credited with founding a subgenre. Tolkien and Haggard fit together roughly into one category (male-authored “high fantasy” adventure), and the gendering of their novels is so strict that it makes recognizing feminine predecessors all but impossible — not because they’re not there, but because the logic of the genre itself renders them unthinkable.

Loofbourow’s article argues that Corelli influenced Tolkien.

The audience for fiction has always been more female than male. Until recently, academia was made up almost entirely of males. To be popular in your own time was to strike a chord with women. To be studied as a serious artist meant to strike a chord with men.

Has this changed and will it change?

I don’t know. I’ll keep writing.

Do Corporations have Religion? What Would a Church Service for “Corporate People” Be Like?

The Supreme Court, having already ruled that corporations are “people,” is now set to hear a case that will decide if these corporate beings have the same religious freedom as their flesh-and-blood human counterparts. This got me to thinking about what kind of religion “corporate people” might have.

I take you now to the DTE Energy Church.  The corporate people stand and recite the Associations Creed:

We believe in money’s unending generative power.

We believe in the Holy Profit.

We believe that efficiency creates growth and that growth is good.

Pastor Pillsbury starts his sermon:

We gather today to join in healthy competition, which rises all boats, in the name of our Lord Chrysler (born of virgin Bethlehem Steel, died and resurrected in 1979 in the miracle of the bailout.) We begin with a reading from the book of Monsanto.

Our Lord sat among his disciples, the ancient ancestors, Packard, Borders, Pan Am, General Foods, Delorean, The Pullman Company, Commodore Computers, Burger Chef, Statler Hotels, Studebaker and Enron, who betrayed him. Great crowds gathered around them, because they had sent out a well-worded press release.

The Lord reminded the disciples of the great prophet who came before, E.F. Hutton, a voice crying in the wilderness.  When E.F. Hutton talked, people listened.

Lord Chrysler explained the meaning behind the parable of the sower of the seeds.

“A poor farmer went out to sow his field. Because he had not taken full advantages of farm subsidies, he had only a small patch of land, and his endeavors were not profitable.  And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.”

“In a neighboring field was a farmer with patented Monsanto seeds.  These seeds were genetically engineered to be resistant to thorns.  Some of these seeds blew across the road fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. And Lo! the corporate person who held the patent sued the small human farmer for theft. The farmer was driven into bankruptcy and the field was purchased at foreclosure prices and growth for the corporate person was achieved and the Lord said this was good. He who has ears, let him hear!”

“Those who hear will have everlasting life in the laissez-faire paradise where the one true free market reigns. There the will of the Lord will be carried out with ultimate, transcendent efficiency.  In the Kingdom buying and selling will be pure, unhindered by utility or human person needs and desires. Truly I say to you, the Kingdom will not come until the corporate people have proven themselves by devoted service to the needs of their shareholders and rejected the heresy of so-called stakeholders. When corporates have reached that perfect state of purity the flesh-people will be left behind and the corporate people raptured to that place of moving numbers, trading without end, increasing exponentially, glorious, infinite– an economy of the greatest scale.”

And then the Lord said,  “If you want to be perfect, go sell all your possessions to the poor at 30% interest, and you will have a treasure. Truly I tell you, it is impossible for someone who is poor to enter the Kingdom. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is poor to enter the Kingdom.”

After a moment of silent reflection, the corporate people sang a traditional hymn:

“The Debtor Paid It All.” Then they took up a collection for royalty fees to Disney for having sung it.

The service concluded, as it often did, with a reading of the “Sermon on the Piece of the Rock” sponsored by Prudential. (Formerly known as the Beatitudes back when it was sponsored by Beatrice Foods.)

Blessed are the rich in spirit, for they shall have the habits of highly successful people.

Blessed are those who re-invest, for they shall be the winners.

Blessed are the marketers, for their brand names will have the most impressions.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for profits, for they shall receive their bonuses.

Blessed are the competitive, for they shall create market efficiencies.

Blessed are the self-made, for no one should have to help you.

Blessed are the warmongers, for they shall get government contracts.

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great. Really, really great. Seriously, you will get such a huge reward you’ll need six accountants to keep track of it.

The Lord is my CEO. I shall not want… for anything… ever.

In the name of the Dow. Amen.

My Best Seller: People Love Their Pet Peeves

“These are the maddening moments in life and
they’re cataloged hilariously in Lee’s book… Her specialty is
simplifying academic jargon and turning it into amusing information.” –
St Petersburg Times

The Pocket Encyclopedia of Aggravation is by far my biggest seller.  People responded to the idea of the science behind annoying things in a way that I never expected. Especially as the book was scheduled to release (and delayed) the week of September 11, 2001. At that moment in history, the idea that anyone would want to focus on life’s petty annoyances seemed impossible and I was sure the book would disappear without a trace. Instead it launched my humorous/trivia/reference career. It was also the first in my series of “negative things” books including 100 Most Dangerous Things in Everyday Life, Schadenfreude, Baby! and Don’t Screw It Up!

I attribute much of the book’s success to the fact that it was promoted in the Radio TV Interview Report. It was a radio-friendly theme, and for a while I was doing as many as three radio interviews a day on this topic. I was much more fresh out of my radio career, and must have sounded OK in the interviews.

The inspiration for this book was a mosquito. I remember the exact moment the idea for this book came to me. I was sitting by a pond near my apartment in upstate New York and I was being attacked by mosquitoes. I am one of those people who other people invite to pic nics so the mosquitoes will stay away from them. I wondered what the science was behind who attracts mosquitoes and who they like less. I thought that there must be answers to why a lot of the annoying things in life happen and instead of solving my mosquito problem (the answer, by the way, is scientists recognize some people are more attractive to mosquitoes, but they don’t know why) I sat down and wrote a book proposal.

I sent the proposal to Black Dog and Leventhal, unagented, and editor Will Kiester responded to it, invited me to come down to NYC and meet the team and my first title with a mid-sized publisher spawned a long term relationship with BD&L folks and it is still my best seller to this day.

If you would like to learn about the science behind fingernails on the blackboard, why songs get stuck in your head, and why no one calls the police when they hear a car alarm, please consider purchasing an autographed copy.  They are only $12.95. The book is compact enough to fit in a Christmas stocking. If you would like it dedicated, please indicate this in the comment box on the order form.