A Few Things I Have Written

Over the years, I’ve used this blog for several things: commenting on pop culture, dissecting sketch comedy, reviewing every Genesis album (which I swear I will get back to some day). I’ve only rarely used it for actual promotion, mainly because I haven’t had too much to promote. But I’ve had several things published within the past few months. Check out these articles, have a chuckle, share, and go ahead and clap at me on Medium if you’re feeling really sassy.

Greener Pastures
To Make Great Finger Puppets, You Must Purge Yourself of All Happiness

Oh, you thought creating whimsical children’s toys was about FUN? Time to leave your Gepetto dreams behind.

Broadway Beat
TKTS Introduces New Post-Vaccine “Bobbing for Mezzanine Seats” Bucket

As of August 2021 I am still worried this will actually become a real thing.

An Audubon Guide To The Weird Sounds Coming From The Hallway Outside My Apartment At 3:00 AM

Birding for anxious insomniacs who can’t stop thinking about the murderer coming up the steps.

I Am the Genie of the HR Lamp Here to Grant You Three Magical Sick Days

Behold! You have been granted three chances to do whatever you want…but use them wisely!

Points in Case (as Andy Hughes)

This Blacksmith’s Forge is the Perfect Family-Friendly Summer Activity

Let’sSmith: A fun, high-intensity opportunity for you and your loved ones to smack dangerously hot metal with hammers.

McSweeney’s Internet Tendency

I Am an Alien Ambassador and I Only Wish to Speak to Your Richest Human

Do you think SERIOUSLY we traveled this many light years to talk to non-billionaires?


The Other Windows Office Assistants, Ranked By How Preferable They Are to Clippy

We all know Clippy. We all fear Clippy. But what if I told you there was more than Clippy?

If you used Microsoft Word before 2008, then a) ahahahaha I’m sorry and b) you probably encountered Clippit aka Clippy (full name: Clipstopher), the mouthless paperclip with waggling eyebrows known for badgering you while you were trying to finish your book report. The moment he appeared on his little page, you knew you were in for a series of annoying questions in a beige talk balloon. As if that weren’t enough, we had to endure his shape-shifting prop comedy reactions to everything he did until he mercifully turned into a bicycle and rode away.

While he was supposed to help us, it’s safe to say Clippy is responsible for a massive amount of wasted potential. Think of all the countless important books, invitations, or prenup agreements that were abandoned because of that damn paperclip. However, if you were lucky enough to not lose the Windows 97 CD, you had something the rest of us didn’t: options!

Specifically, you had access to the other Microsoft Office Assistants, the ones us basic users could only see previews of. As a kid, I was intrigued. Who were these strange, mysterious helpers, and why weren’t any of them the default? Join me on a journey through the recycling bin of office software past, for a look at the lost souls from deep in the Windows roster. And while there were a whole bunch of cool-looking assistants available with other versions, we’re sticking with the original lineup. With that in mind, let’s take a look and see how each one stacked up compared to the most hated paper fastener of all time.

8. The Dot

I hate this. As much as I dump on Clippy, clearly not having a mouth is an asset because The Dot has one and it never. Stops. SMILING. Trying desperately to replicate that Genie from Aladdin vibe, this disowned hellspawn of the Kool-Aid Man changes into a whole bunch of shapes, all of which are in a shade I call Satan Shoes Red. Its starfish form will give you nightmares. I’d say “kill it”, but fortunately Windows 7 did that for us.

Ranking: Somehow way, way worse than Clippy.

7. Will

Wither hast thou gone, Will? Even among the hardcore nerds, creepy, clipart Shakespeare doesn’t seem to be remembered very fondly, or really at all: it’s hard to find a trace of him on the internet. It’s a cute idea, I guess, and as an English lit nerd I get the appeal, but I wouldn’t want that thing blinking at me while I was writing my Quantum Leap fanfiction. Someone should at least wipe the jam off of his lips. Out, damned Office Assistant!

Ranking: Only really preferable to The Dot.

6. F1

Microsoft’s character designers must have had a thing for eyebrows. Emerging from a sliding steel door like a torturer entering your cell, F1, the googly-eyed, crab-legged, weirdly suggestive robot with a purple brain head is easier on the eyes than The Dot but basically just Clippy in a clunkier form. I guess it’s cool to see him pop his head open to reveal a typewriter or connect to the internet via a phone, but he also makes these weird waggling motions that I’m going to have to work to unsee. One plus: if you do hate him, you at least get the chance to watch him explode.

Ranking: About as bad as Clippy, but more visually interesting

5. The Office Logo

What’s that? You’re an Important Business Person and can’t be bothered with any of these cartoon robots or animals? Fine. Here’s the Microsoft Office logo doing stupid 3D tricks and playing Simon with itself. Now you can adjust your Dilbert day calendar and show all your fellow cubicle drones that you took the time to change your assistant to the most boring possible option.

Ranking: True neutral (Clippy is of course chaotic evil)

4. Rocky/Rover/Any other cartoon dog character

Office had multiple dog assistants over the years, dating back to a cartoon named Rover for its short lived OS called (really) Microsoft Bob. Seriously. That’s somehow an even worse name than Lindows. Anyway, the subsequent version of the Obligatory Dog, Rocky, is cute enough and gets up to some fun little cartoon shenanigans, such as using a blowtorch to cut through his chain leash. Mostly he just kind of stared at you, though.

Ranking: Objectively better than Clippy

3. Links the Cat/Scribble

Whoever designed Links obviously had real-life cat experience. Like the actual cats in my non-virtual office, Links’ main activities seem to be sleeping, grooming, staring at you, and shredding pieces of paper. There’s a fun bit where he pulls up the background as if it were a piece of rug, which you know more cats would do if they could.

There was also a really neat cat/collage project named Scribble who desperately deserves her own animated short to this day. Scribble was rad. She could change the patterns on her body and become a postage stamp, but she also did a lot of normal cat stuff. The idea that I had to make do with Clippy when I could have had an adorable sleeping kitty or whimsical Neil Gaiman character in the corner of my screen makes me shudder with regret.

Ranking: Objectively better than Rocky

2. The Genius

Like Will but not shitty, this neat little guy looked like a claymation Einstein and has a bunch of cool moves. He can pull a light bulb out of the air, he’s addicted to coffee just like me, and his camera apparently produces floppy disks, which would have still been pretty cool even in 1997. He could also summon a pneumatic tube inside your computer, proving Ted Stevens’ claim about the internet years before he even made it. Whatever your difficulties in decision-making, I can assure you Microsoft’s are far greater, because they passed on the chance to make this guy their mascot.

Ranking: Light years better than Clippy

1. Mother Nature

How’s this for an assistant: the entire planet. That’s right. Weird sun face aside, this is beautiful, dynamic animation that represents all the majesty of earth, from erupting volcanoes to blooming flowers to doves flapping gently in the whispering breeze. It’s a breathtaking reminder to remember the world we live in, even as we sit at our desks.

Fuck you: you’re getting a paper clip.

Ranking: We were robbed.

Can Not Writing Be Good for Writing?

The writer: not writing? Or not not writing?

Sometime in 2017 (I think), I attended a reading at the Papercuts bookstore in Jamaica Plain to see Michelle Tea and Andrea Lawlor, the latter of whom was about to release their book, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl. I’ll admit I was mostly there to see Tea and get my copy of Rent Girl signed, but it was something Lawlor said that has stuck with me the most. In the question and answer session, they described their writing process as “writing fiction like a poet”, working when inspiration struck as opposed to sticking to a fixed schedule.


As an endlessly aspiring writer, I felt like a weight had been lifted, though it took me a few years (and a pandemic-induced lull) to figure out why.


Back in March of this year, I, like many hassled creatives with day jobs, had high hopes. Mandatory time at home? Perfect! I wrote a song for a collaborative project, I drafted articles and scripts. I created outlines for essays, a webseries, a musical, and a short story. It was a golden time, a chance to finally get to all the things I’d put off for years and make up for lost time. I would reinvent myself as a quarantined renaissance man and seize the zeigeist like nobody’s business. This would be my time!

As of this post, the most I have written over the past three weeks has been an 800-word essay draft about why Quantum Leap should be rebooted that I don’t feel comfortable sharing with anyone. Days have gone by without me making any progress and all that early-pandemic momentum has stalled. My output has slowed to barely a trickle, and my desire to be a writer has been such a part of my identity that I can’t help but feel crushed by that. It’s not even writer’s block: it just feels like a profound lack of energy. That terrifies me, because it taps into what I think is the primal fear of any artist: what if I stop? 

Over the years, in my endless quest for writer cred, I’ve tried to hold myself to the standards of the various successful authors I’ve idolized. Harlan Ellison referred to himself as a “blue collar worker” and would write entire stories in front of audiences on the fly. Octavia Butler said “write whether you feel like writing or not”.  Stephen King advocates for 1000 to 2000 words a day. Shonda Rimes advises creating a routine, associating writing with something positive you do as a habit, like listening to music or drinking coffee. Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor advertise their writing podcast, Start With This, by saying “the only bad writing is not writing”. Perhaps most relevantly to my Lawlor memory, Neil Gaiman said you can’t write fiction by waiting around for inspiration to strike, because that’s not how the process works.


This is all valid, and makes perfect sense given these writers and their pedigrees (it feels worth noting that almost all of them are from the USA, a country that fetishizes tireless work in all forms). They are all professionals, used to being attached to multiple projects at a time and the deadlines that come with them. But it feels contrary to the moment, or at least to my moment. And ironically, realizing this is finally getting me to write again. It’s led me to what seems like a pretty stupid question: can not writing actually make you a better writer?

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The 12 Burgers I Ate in 2019, Ranked from Worst to Best

I like to think I’m accepting of my limitations. I don’t think anyone would describe me as super health conscious. I cook, I try to eat my veggies and have regular meatless days, and I will always go for organic/local cuisine when I can, even when it threatens to make me “that guy”. But one of the few things I like to do as a kind of dietary safety measure is to only have a single beef burger per month. Veggie, turkey, and fish burgers don’t count. Also, I don’t eat pork, mostly to cut down on fat, and yes, both of these rules can be negotiable depending on the circumstances.

In general, though, the one burger a month thing has worked out pretty well, and it adds a rather hilarious level of significance whenever I do decide that “this is the one for January” (or whenever). Some people make fun of me for it, some people praise me for my self-control, and my doctor kind of did a mix of both.

2019 was an interesting year for me, and I got to try a few burgers from places I’ve either never been or don’t visit that often. Since the Boston Burger Blog seems to be defunct and I’m a compulsive listmaker, I’ve decided to make the burger count official, with pictures and writeups and everything, in the hope that maybe Thrillist decides to hire me or something. Here’s the much, MUCH anticipated list of the official burger count for last year. Assume these burgers are native to Boston, Massachusetts, unless otherwise noted.

12. The Cheeseburger, Honey Pot Hills Orchard, Stow, MA (September)


I have no one but myself to blame. This was purely a burger of necessity, purchased on a hot, hungry day of roaming around at the apple orchard, and the best thing I can say about it is that the kids working the grill were friendly and it didn’t take too long to order. You probably had something similar to this in your school cafeteria. No one’s going to expect delicately-prepared beef at a place like this and that’s fine. The cider donuts were certainly worth the line.

11. Burger, Globe Bar & Cafe (February)


The Globe is a decent hangout spot and I’ve been a fan of their nachos for years, so I was interested in giving this a try. It’s not terrible but not really memorable, especially compared to some of the knockouts further down this list (it’s kind of unfair of me to even compare them). I always love waffle fries and these were nice and crispy, so that helps it somewhat. Paired with a beer, this burger makes a good enough meal, but I’d be surprised if you’re raving about it months later. The atmosphere and location of the Globe itself are points in its favor: I can imagine enjoying this after a night wandering around Copley square. Or before, for that matter.

10. Burger from Our Friend Steven’s Cookout (July)


Yes, I’m ranking a burger a friend of ours made at a party in his backyard. Hats off to him for ranking above actual restaurants. Ron Swanson would be proud of this no-nonsense meat in bread arrangement, which was of course partly down to me but also due to the juiciness of the burger. I’m sure we could have had higher quality beef but a skilled hand at the grill makes all the difference. Sometimes I simply decide to eat my burger of the month because I feel like it, and this one looked good enough for me to take a break from “professional” patties. Maybe I’ll make it a summer tradition.

9. West Burger, West on Centre (August)


My girlfriend and I moved in together this year, and we offset the stress by treating ourselves to a few nice meals (also, our kitchen was being remodeled). The main thing I remember from this one was the char, which, being a firm medium-rare man, I’m not the biggest fan of: if that’s your favorite part of the burger, you might rate this one higher. As you can see, though, there’s a generous amount of cheese and the middle of the meat was nice and flavorful, along with the pleasant crisp of the fried onions. And of course, a nice pile of forgive-me veggies on the side to help balance it out. Go when it’s not too busy if you’re interested.

8. Coda Burger, Coda (January)

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I’ll admit that this is the hardest burger for me to remember, dating back to the beginning of the year and all, but what I do remember was positive. That big honkin piece of lettuce was not the barrier you might imagine it to be. The fries were a bit bland and the bun was a bit thick, but the meat was tender, and there’s a nice selection of toppings to choose from. This was a pleasingly hearty delight in the middle of a snowstorm and I’ll always thank it for that. What, you don’t thank your burgers? You might as well. They’re doing you a favor.

7. King’s Burger, Queens Black, Seoul, South Korea (June)


A novelty burger to be sure, but why not? We were on vacation, after all. Queens Black’s gimmick is that the bread is made with squid ink and you get latex gloves to eat it with. This is one of the more modest options on the menu: I was too scared to order the one topped with a lobster tail or smothered by a “cheese injection”. Ultimately, I was surprised by how little the actual meat stood out: the sweet sauce and airiness of the bun were the main highlights, and the whole thing was more about taste than substance. But that’s not a bad thing! There is no shortage of amazing places to eat beef in Seoul, and if you’re someone who needs a burger that will argue with them later, I’m sure you can pick something off the menu. It’s not often that I’d describe a burger as being “refreshing”.

6. The Lemmy, Daddy’s Bonetown Burgers (October)


Technically I had this on the first day of November. Don’t tell on me. Anyway, this was a well-made, compact little number, full of flavor and very satisfying. It’s certainly one of the best food truck burgers I’ve ever had, despite the embarrassing name and logo. I’m not sure how serious the biker motif is, but I’m glad this burger wasn’t drowned in cheese or drowned with tongue-destroying spices. It was certainly beefy, don’t get me wrong, and is probably the most well-rounded burger on the list, which is why I feel comfortable placing it in the middle. The bun-meat-cheese ratio was damn near perfect.

5. The Wharf Burger, Mercy Tavern, Salem, MA (December)


Remember when a Big Mac genuinely sounded like a lot of food? Since I only rarely have single-patty burgers, I almost never get a double, so this seemed like a decent way to close out the year. As you can see, the onion rings took up a lot of real estate, requiring a little bit of squishing, but the meat still made a good case for itself. The wait staff didn’t ask me how I liked it, which made me nervous: I’m pleased to report that the texture was quite good, even if it was – gasp – MEDIUM. Lack of rareness did not hurt this one, given that there was plenty of other stuff going on to keep things from getting too dry. It’s encouraging to find a double-patty burger that doesn’t have to be obnoxious about it, you know?

4. Longfellow’s Burger, The Longfellow Bar, Cambridge, MA (May)


I have a…I really don’t want to call it a beef (too late), but I guess you’d just say an ISSUE…with Alden & Harlow. Their burger has received plenty of acclaim: I found it a little overrated, too small, and maddeningly inaccessible (you could make a reservation a week in advance and they STILL might not have it). Longfellow is right above, where the charming Cafe Algiers used to be, and while I still miss that place, this burger helped me get over the loss. Excellent grillwork, tasty toppings, a buttery bun, an acceptable amount of char, and plenty of juice. The pickle was nice and crisp, too, exactly the kind I like (don’t knock a good pickle). I recommend making a reservation, but if you do, the burger will almost certainly be available the day you show up. Wow!

3. French Onion Soup Burger, Le Rivage, New York City, NY (March)


As I said before, these burgers are all different, and it’s not fair to really talk about some of them in the same article. This one, available only as part of a three course Prix Fixe menu at an upscale French restaurant in New York, is as far away from the Honey Pot Hills burger tent as you could get. Yet rank this I must, and this is one heck of a ride. Just look at it: carmelized onions, melted cheese, succulent beef, and a grilled English muffin for a bun. That picture is damned near disgusting. It’s been justly praised and honored, and it’s going to be a burger I will tell anyone willing to listen for a long time. On top of all that, the staff was exceedingly friendly, even on a slow weekday night.

So why isn’t it #1? Well, as delicious as it is, it’s messy. There, I said it. Don’t get me wrong, it was hilarious being the only person under 50 sitting by myself covered in soup in an ostensibly respectable restaurant (especially since other diners asked me about it and were clearly jealous). I didn’t really mind, but not everyone will be cool with that.  What if you get grease stains on your monocle? Also, while $35 for a three course meal is a steal, it’s also a commitment. And I can understand some purists being annoyed by the combination of hamburgers and haute cuisine. Still, I won’t deny how enjoyable this was, and was absolutely worth the splurge.

2. Burger I Can’t Remember the Name of, Brassica Kitchen + Cafe (April)


I’ve only recently started keeping track of the actual name of these burgers, so I don’t remember if this one was called anything specific (my guess would be “burger”). You might be a little disappointed that a small plate is ranking this high. You won’t be saying that after you try it (assuming they offer it again: the current burger on BRassica’s menu seems to be different, but still sounds good!). This was everything I want from a burger: juicy, cheesy, served in a soft, warm bun and paired with fries I couldn’t stop eating, along with an absolutely addictive sauce (I think it may have been aioli). Honestly, the small size may have been a good thing, since it definitely left me wanting another one. You might be able to call it the best slider ever made. I’m normally the sort of person who always wants to try new places, but considering how good this one, I’m down to try whatever burgers Brassica adds to its menu.

1. BPH Burger, Bostonia Public House (November)


For less than half the price of the Le Rivage menu, you could have this magnificent creation, a burger that gets everything right and then some. It’s in a great location, it’s jam-packed with…uh…jam (carmelized onion tomato jam, to be exact), and it’s got enough going on to feel decadent without making you hate yourself. I certainly like it when burgers are complicated (my favorite pizza topping for years was “everything”) and this is the good kind of overstuffed, with so much detail and taste packed into everything. And to paraphrase Patrick Stewart, their BUNS are the best. It’s just really, really good, you guys. Give it a shot if you’re in the mood.

Great Sketches #17: “The Bookshop Sketch” by Monty Python

Monty Python’s output represents a massive corpus of sketch, one that has sustained its entire cottage industry of analysis and critique. There is a profusion of brilliant, groundbreaking, and iconic bits to choose from, but for this blog I’m going to focus on a lesser-known sketch that exemplifies the best qualities of the group: specifically, its ability to stick to conventions while staying dynamic, surprising, and vital, not to mention uproarious.

A great deal of Python sketches fall into the category I call “customer service sketches”, in which a man (almost always a man) walks into a shop and has to deal with a proprietor. Python produced a great deal of these scenarios, including some involving butchers, bankers, barbers (who are closeted lumberjacks), career advisorsundertakers, cheesemongers, pet stores, hearing aid vendors, tobacconistsmarriage counselors, and businesses that don’t actually exist (but perhaps should). Sometimes the person behind the counter is the silly one, sometimes it’s the customer, often both have a screw loose. No matter the specifics, the basic structure of the transaction makes it easy to twist and subvert expectations, since you always start with two characters with presumed wants (the seller wants to make money, the buyer wants whatever’s being sold). These kinds of sketches existed before and after, but it’s impossible to talk about them without bringing up Python, who took things into a new direction by packing multiple jokes and diversions into a single scene instead of heightening one simple premise.

“The Bookshop Sketch” has always remained one of my Python faves for several reasons. Although it’s been done live in multiple venues, I first heard it on CD and think it’s a perfect audio sketch, when you can focus on the voices and sound effects alone. It’s a master class in the slow burn, featuring John Cleese as a bookseller who gets increasingly annoyed with a customer (Graham Chapman, although for a long time I thought this was Terry Jones) until he’s willing to upend the very idea of capitalism itself, just to try and give himself peace of mind. It’s essentially the reversal of the Cheese Shop sketch: both revolve around unusual lists, but this time, the customer is the silly one and the proprietor is the one getting frustrated.

That’s the basic outline of the sketch, but there’s no real coherency to a lot of what Chapman asks for. It’s true that the books he inquires about are all silly or non-existent (A Hundred and One Ways to Start a Fight, Biggles Combs His Hair, Rarnaby Budge by Charles Dikkens, the well-known Dutch author), but even the Dickens-related ones are all askew in slightly different ways. Compare this to a Fry and Laurie bookshop sketch, in which the joke is centered around one (real) book. The game in the Python sketch quickly becomes less about finding the right book and more about Cleese’s character trying to end the interaction as quickly as possible. At one point he recommends that his visitor try the chain bookstore W.H. Smiths, but Chapman replies that he’s already been there and they sent him to Cleese (I love the wonderfully bitter way Cleese mutters “did they?”, implying a whole wealth of resentment and rivalry).

Special mention must be made to the voice Chapman uses in this. It’s so outrageously nasal and exaggerated that it threatens to derail things from the beginning, but because he plays it with a straight face, his character never seems deliberately mean or malicious. Each time he’s rejected he has another request ready to go, without lingering on his disappointment (aside from innocently remarking that “you’ve got a lot of books here”, which only irritates Cleese further). You can imagine him earnestly preparing an absurdly specific list of books each morning to make his rounds. As the conversation gets heated, Cleese almost manages to shoo him out but stops when Chapman at last spies a books he wants: Olsen’s Standard Book of British Birds. 

The game changes here, as Cleese verifies that the title is indeed spelled correctly (yes, that’s “B-I-R-D-S”). So that’s one problem sorted. Unfortunately, Chapman only wants the “expurgated” [censored] version, a.k.a a guide with all the birds he doesn’t like removed. The reaction to this news is a classic bit of fall and rise, as Cleese is at first quiet before loudly objecting, not unlike another master of the slow burn, Sam the Eagle. To oblige his customer Cleese, rips certain pages of particularly filthy avian beasts out, but once he’s done Chapman can no longer buy it, because it’s damaged. The pivot from “I can’t buy that, it’s torn,” to the next section of the sketch is brilliantly underplayed. About this time we realize that we’re really listening to several sketches bundled into one, but instead of feeling scattershot, it creates a feeling of freedom, like things could really go almost anywhere.

At this point, Cleese is beautifully agitated, but still determined to sell something, anything, simply to complete a transaction. Chapman, of course, has a seemingly endless supply of nonsensical titles to ask about but finally spits out one that happens to be in stock (Ethel the Aardvark Goes Quantity Surveying). As before, there’s no consistent theme to any of the books Chapman asks about, and that makes it funnier. He’s just your standard bloke interested in birdwatching, smut, fistfights, children’s books, adventure novels, and obscure Dickens knockoffs. What’s so weird about that?

The final leg of the sketch goes in another direction, building the tension but adding a new element, as Cleese desperately tries to close the sale (“There’s you book! Now….BUY IT!”). In a wonderful back and forth, Chapman reveals that he doesn’t have any money, checks, or even a bank account, to the point where Cleese buys the book for him and gives him money to take a cab home. Cleese no longer cares about losing money or even fulfilling his role as a shopkeeper. He just desperately wants this to be over, cackling dementedly as he rings the book up. But as he’s almost finished, Chapman gives the final reveal: he can’t even read. We expect Cleese to explode in fury, or question Chapman and perhaps prompt a final punchline. Instead, the ending subverts expectations as Cleese sits his customer down and reads him the book. The customer wins, in a way, but Cleese is at least able to reach some sort of endpoint, even though his role has now completely changed.

It’s become cliched to compare comedy to music, especially jazz, but it’s hard not to focus on the rise and fall of the voices, especially in the audio version above. Cleese’s final burst of exasperation comes in the form of five rapid, squawked “whats” that are almost like a series of trumpet blasts, and the change in “games” throughout also comes with a change in cadences and tones. While I don’t know the story behind this one, it’s easy to imagine the dialogue coming about through casual riffing, as some of the best sketches have.

A lot of these “customer service” sketches, including Python’s can get tedious quickly. There are so many ways for such a basic premise to go wrong, either by emphasizing the wrong joke, or being too mean-spirited, or functioning more as lightly humorous “branded content” or commercial sketches. The American versions of this in particular tend to focus on stores itself rather than the exchange between characters: SNL has produced roughly a zillion sketches set in inherently zany businesses. Here, the shop is just a skeleton for some great escalation. This is a fresh, evergreen sketch, one that could theoretically work with any actors yet thrives in this particular version. Although there are some satirical elements here, if you dig (and I think I have), it’s more about the thrilling joy of two talented friends bouncing off of each other, and makes me miss Chapman all the more.

Check Out My Podcast: You’re Gonna Be Fine!


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It’s weird to use one blog to promote another, but I just can’t contain myself. My podcast is finally up! This is the results of nearly a year of work and I’m just getting started. Each episode explores different aspects of anxiety. First I chat with someone about what it’s like to live with this experience, and then I speak to an expert in whatever it is. Bear attacks, public speaking, plane travel, getting sued: I have a lifetime of my own worries to talk about, and it’s been eye-opening to get others’ perspectives.

Visit the show blog here, or stream it on Spotify, with more options coming soon.

Great Sketches #16: “Sort Yourself Out” from That Mitchell and Webb Look

I’ve been planning to cover this one for some time, but current events have forced my hand. Gillette’s surprisingly moving recent ad decrying toxic masculinity and calling for men to be better has raised discussions about the role of major corporations in messages of social justice. It’s also caused a bunch of immature trolls to go off on how DARE they be asked to care about other people and don’t take my guns or my trucks and wah wah wah etc. An obvious counterpoint to any men offended by the idea of an ad telling them what their gender should do is that, um, women kinda have to put up with that all the time. And while the Gillette ad is trying to tie itself to a notion off masculinity, its tone is much less condemning than the litany of ads specifically designed to make women feel like shit and force them to buy stuff they don’t need.

That Mitchell and Webb Look, centered around the British comedy duo and UK Mac and PC David Mitchell and Robert Webb. Along with their success in Peep Show, the Look was a pretty sizable hit and you may have run into several of their sketches on YouTube, some of which may show up on this blog later. The bit I want to talk about dates from Series 3, Episode 2, originally aired in 2009, and while it’s been called several incorrect names, it’s so short that you can get the gist of it very quickly. It’s hard to think of a better way to demonstrate the double standards in modern advertising in a hurry.

The sketch begins with frequent Look star Sarah Hadland playing an unnamed woman in a blank commercial void complaining about pains in her stomach, which David Mitchell’s perfectly snide narrator describes as “gut agony”. She’s also apparently got several other physical problems, including “tension head” and “the beginnings of lady mustache” (it’s interesting to note how quickly the voice goes from responding to her statements to flat-out telling her the problems she has to have, much to her shock). Just when you’re starting to wonder what this could be a commercial for, Mitchell sums up the litany of things wrong with not just this woman but women in general: “You’re leaking, aging, hairy, overweight, and everything hurts…and your children’s clothes are filthy.”

That’s already a pretty big laugh, and the sketch pays it off by revealing that this isn’t an ad for one product but a ludicrously huge assortment of items (advertised as “The Lot”) including sanitary pads, bleach, and a bunch that don’t make any sense, my favorite being “Apricot Deforestation Strips”. With mounting contempt in his voice, the narrator chides all women for being so atrocious, ending by saying “for God’s sake, sort yourself out.” In case you were wondering what the price to be for being female is, it’s exactly £279.99, or $362.67 modern USD. And of course, buying all that nonsense brings no relief, as poor Hadland collapses under the weight of her shopping bag, claiming that she’s finally “free to live her life” while being more encumbered than ever before.

Immediately after that we see the counterpoint, and it’s the segment that makes clear what writers Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris were really getting at. Instead of the antiseptic white space we were just in, we’re now in a super cool blue-tinged bathroom. As rock music wails on the soundtrack, Robert Webb’s happy go lucky dude opens the mirror to find a pint of beer in the cabinet. Mitchell’s tone of voice is now completely different, imploring all men to “shave and get drunk, because you’re already brilliant”, followed by Webb getting groped by a sexy disembodied hand. I can’t find the specific ad this last part is parodying but it’s not hard to find shaving commercials that use this or similar tropes about aftershave or cologne making you prime sexual real estate, whether it’s Afta, Brut, or dear god Hai Karate.

Interestingly, real-world shaving ads that trade on male fragility seem to come in two flavors: either “this will make you sexy” or “this will make you more manly”. The two or not always the same. Consider this hilarious 80’s Chaz commercial starring Tom Selleck, in which the right scent turns you into a freewheeling gentleman cowboy with a sweet car and a sweeter mustache. Or this even crazier one with Charles Bronson, in which the very act of grooming involves a Western gunfight for some reason. Even the much beloved Old Spice ads of recent years, which were parodies of this kind of thing, still traded on the idea of making the presumed female viewer’s male partner smell like not a lady (to be fair, Old Spice would also later devolve into bizarre hallucinations involving Terry Crews, launching off into their own weird, arguably less sexist dimension).

The entire bit makes it clear who the real target is, and yet I feel like many of the YouTube denizens simply see it as an “all sides” ribbing. Both of these segments are aimed at how different the stakes are for the traditional gender binary: they are part of one single sketch, not two sketches that make up an “everyone is terrible” South Park-ish message. Although I might not be the best person to judge, I do think this is an (albeit mild) example of punching up. If it doesn’t punish the male participants, that’s because the medium it’s referencing doesn’t either, and it’s meant as a function of the parody at work.

When I finally watched the recent Gillette ad, after I’d already seen all the commentary about it, I was struck by how media literate it is. It references so many different ways men use their privilege to harass and excuse bad behavior. In a much more modest way, this sketch is doing the same thing, using the animations and visual cues we’re all familiar with to try and point out things it would be more comfortable for men to leave hidden.

I’m going to leave us with this excellent quote from Ryan Knight. Let’s hope that he’s right and that the future shows a more inclusive and compassionate way for men to be “the best they an get”.

Great Sketches #15: “Apple Raisin Walnut Cookies” by Sesame Street

Years ago, NPR had a series called In Character, in which the august network examined various fictional American creations who have shaped the great fabric blah blah blah they interviewed Cookie Monster go watch it. And it’s worth hunting down the episode in full, because it encapsulates a lot of the great points of one of the most enduring of all Muppet creations: to paraphrase, Cookie Monster is single-minded and obsessive but also inherently kind and even a bit ashamed of his outbursts. It’s what separates him from Animal, who really couldn’t give a shit about the carnage he creates, even when he says “Soh-reeeeeeee”.

A lot of Sesame Street’s legacy centers around its educational content and focus on helping children understand complex concepts like death, dviorce, racism, and, more recently, homelessness and autism. Yet, it’s also always been focused on entertainment, and many of its vignettes are essentially comedy sketches for kids (and not always kids, as the recent resurgence of topical parodies has proven). It’s fascinating to go back to the sometimes literally woolly days of the show’s early years and see the focus on character-based interactions, the classic stuff of comedy. Broad personalities can lend themselves to lots of jokes, as we’ll see in one of many classic bits involving the big blue beast of the bakery himself.

Part of Cookie Monster’s appeal is in his simplicity: he has very few distinguishing features aside from his trademark blue fur and googly eyes. He speaks in caveman English and he likes cookies, and pretty much any interaction with him is a futile exercise in trying to keep him to sit still long enough to not devour everything in sight (while he prefers cookies, he’s not picky). Cookie Monster is flexible enough that he’s done pretty much everything over the years from auditioning for SNL to moonlighting under his stage name “Tom Waits” to breaking the Internet with PIKOTARO.

But today’s bit is an old-school look at Cookie, in a classic bit of back and forth that doesn’t really teach you anything aside from possibly the insidious nature of food addiction. We start with Cookie Monster, looking adorable in a chef’s apron and hat, getting ready to bake apple walnut raisin cookies having assembled the “in-gree-dee-ents”. Onhand to act as the straight man is, surprisingly, Ernie. Ernie is an interesting choice since he’s usually the Cookie Monster-esque slob in his own double act with Bert, but Bert would have a total meltdown dealing with Cookie (and plus, even Frank Oz would have trouble performing those two characters at the same time, at least back in the day).

So instead Ernie gently offers to help C.M. with his project, and things quickly start to go downhill. Sophisticated sugar addicts like myself can play the long game, refraining from gorging on little morsels until the final dessert is done. Cookie Monster, of course, knows no such restraint: one sniff of the apples and he devours them immediately (moments after Ernie asks “you gonna peel those or something?”). Because this is OG husky-voiced Frank Oz Cookie Monster, “eating” the apples means shoving them into his mouth and covering them while they disappear offscreen, thanks to a little help from the camera.

Cookie Monster is normally not too ashamed of his ravenousness, but he apologizes immediately and insists that just walnut raisin cookies will be fine (“They not bad either!”). We all know where this is going, and yet there’s still something hilariously brazen abut seeing him upend an entire bowl of walnuts into his mouth and NOM NOM NOM them until they roll to the floor, very obviously uncrushed.  You begin to feel a little bad for the guy. The raisins don’t stand a chance: he doesn’t even finish his sentence before they’re gone as well.

The punchline comes after Ernie points out that they can’t make the cookies anymore, and Cookie replies that he “save meself a whole bunch of work” before slicking down the side of his face in a motion that’s really weird for a creature without a visible tongue to do.

Once again, Ernie’s version of being a foil feels less judgy than some of the other options, like the frustrated librarian in this equally classic bit. When Ernie asks Cookie Monster what they’re going to do now that the ingredients are gone, it comes from a place of concern for the two of them, not disgust at his furry blue friend. The whole thing would be a painfully close to depicting food addiction were it not for the vaudevillian ending (speaking for myself, there have indeed abandoned more complicated recipes in favor of simply eating the individual parts instead). Considering the amount of work it surely takes to operate the Muppets, it’s also impressive how loose and improvisational these early bits feel, as if all the residents of Sesame Street were taking Second City classes in their free time.

Sesame Street and The Muppet Show drew a lot of their charm from using traditional routines, even though the latter relied a lot more on then cutting-edge animation and fast-paced editing. While the very basic structure of this bit doesn’t really require any knowledge of the two characters, it’s all about their personalities and tells us so much about both of them, all while telling a simple, funny joke. At the end, Cookie Monster might have ruined his original plan but it’s all the same to him. He’s too easily pleased to be disappointed for long., and there’s some truth to what he says at the end. Why torture yourself to actually make something when you can get the same result faster by going the obvious route?

There are plenty of things wrong with that philosophy in the real world, but not for Cookie. He will always survive to his next meal, and even though he’s never satisfied, he ends this sketch content about what he did.  So here’s to Cookie Monster: he may be an unstoppable force of chaos, but he also has pretty good body image. And it’s hard to get mad at anyone with big puppet eyes. Unless they’re being an outright dick to you, I suppose…

Every Episode from Doctor Who Series 11, Ranked from Worst to Best

*LOTS of spoilers follow, don’t even think about reading this if you’re at all worried about them*

The latest season (or “series”) of Doctor Who has been defined by two high profile changes: in front of the cameras, the Doctor regenerated into a thirteenth (canonical) form, played by Jodie Whittaker, the first woman to ever officially take on the role in a non-expanded universe or spoof production. Behind the scenes, Steven Moffat regenerated into Chris Chibnall, creator of Broadchurch and a semi-regular contributor to both Who and Torchwood. If you were someone who, like me, was deeply sick of Moffat and overjoyed to see the first female Doctor take the spotlight, then the months between Peter Capaldi’s farewell special and the Series 11 premiere must have felt long indeed.

Both of these changes were much heralded in the press and marketing, yet you could argue that, if anything, the BBC actually undersold the shift in its latest batch of episodes. The show that returned to screens in October was filled with newness, including new companions (Mandip Gill as Yaz, Tosin Cole as Ryan, and Bradley Walsh as Graham), more of which traveled regularly with the Doctor than ever before, and a new score courtesy of Segun Akinola, who I instantly liked 1,000 times more than Murray Gold (sorry, Murray). And it has also been a season defined by its lack of things as well: no Daleks, no Cybermen, no returning characters of any kind from previous series, no season-spanning mystery word, nary a mention of Gallifrey (unless I’m mistaken, the Doctor never even calls herself a Time Lord, though thankfully they appear to have dropped the outdated, arguably sexist 70’s term “Time Lady”).  This wasn’t just the biggest revamp since the 2005 revival. It might vary well be the most radical reimagining since Jon Pertwee’s first season in 1970 (which, if you go back and watch it, shares some weird similarities with the most recent season).

Before we get to the ranking, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take time to praise Whittaker’s performance. It’s exactly what the show needed, a revitalized take on the character that makes thematic sense. She may still have the intellect and quirk that always defines the Doctor, but she’s also a bit of a cosmic holy fool, as suggested by her instantly iconic outfit, which is more than a little reminiscent of Mork from Ork or the goofy hippie/clown Jesus from Godspell. This Doctor is relishing the chance to reinvent herself and reaches for new experiences like a curious child. I appreciated Peter Capaldi’s “wandering aged rock star” vibe (despite the material he was saddled with), but to me this new take has been a consistent joy to watch.

I’ll go ahead and bait the trolls even more by saying I personally enjoyed this season as a whole more than any of Peter Capaldi’s individual seasons (yes, even Series 10). Moffat’s tendency for overcomplicated zaniness and big setpieces is gone, replaced by a steadier, more meat-and-potatoes approach to storytelling. There’s less frenetic action, less levity, more of a sense that the show is taking itself seriously.

The eleventh season as a whole had plenty of problems, to be sure, not the least of which were some rushed moments of exposition and a tendency towards anticlimax. But it also undid a lot of the issues with the Moffat era and took several steps in the right direction. And no matter what the eldritch manbabies of YouTube tell you, the show has not paid some sort of price in ratings or cultural standing for being socially conscious: on the contrary, it’s more relevant and popular than it’s been in years.

Enough blabbering (or as the Brits say “faffing about”). Here is my ranking of Jodie’s first ten outings as The Doctor. May there be many more to come.

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Every Story from “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”, Ranked

If you visited a Dad or dad-like person in your life over Thanksgiving, you probably watched The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. I certainly did. And for the most part, I liked it. Anthology films and shows usually seem to do it for me, and there was something inherently fun about the movie’s concept: six darkly comic (or sometimes just dark) Western tales from the Coen Brothers, all springing to life from the pages of an illustrated storybook, spanning every subgenre from musical to survivalist fiction to ghost story.

Of course the results were hit and miss. That’s the nature of these things: I doubt there’s a single anthology film out there that’s all hits (there are certainly many that are all misses). The mixed bag nature of an anthology is the whole point. In fact, I would argue that Buster Scruggs is actually less scattershot than some of the Coens’ other films, particularly Hail Caesar!, the most recent of theirs I saw in theaters and a mixed bag if ever there was one.

Although I’m not the only one to rank all of these segments, for some reason I just couldn’t get the idea of doing so out of my head. So, unless I grievously misremember, here’s the way each of these stories stacks up. And also there are spoilers in these here parts, so don’t say you ain’t been warned. Or something. *spits*

6) “The Gal Who Got Rattled”

For all the things it does well, Buster Scruggs is lousy at representation. There are precious few significant parts for women, and more than half of the stories have zero important speaking roles for women at all. That’s a shame, even moreso because the one story with a female protagonist is also the worst.

Zoe Kazan is certainly good as Alice Longabaugh, a kind of Oregon Trail version of Daenerys Targaryen, except instead of dragons she has a dog named after the president and instead of everything else that makes Daenerys interesting she just has the dead brother. And her brother isn’t even covered in gold!

Despite the beautiful cinematography and sweeping prairie scenery, the story slogs along, with too many courtly wagon train scenes between Alice and her suitor, Billy Knapp (Bill Heck). A lot of their conversations have to do with financial matters involving a barely seen wagon boy. Because that’s why you decided to watch this movie, right? To watch the Western version of the senate scenes from the Star Wars prequels?

And while Alice’s tragic self-inflected death can be seen as a commentary on the fearmongering of white cowboys like Mr. Arthur (Grainger Hines), nothing about the way natives are presented in this movie does anything to challenge ugly racist “Hollywood Indian” tropes, this segment especially (sadly, we are still watching movies where characters we are supposed to care about call native Americans savages without rebuke in 2018, and yes, I know it’s meant to be “of the times”. Not an excuse.). IMHO, it would have been better if Mr. Arthur had turned out to be completely wrong and the “war party” had actually been peaceful all along (it’s depressing how many people see him as a “heroic badass” in this scenario). This was the biggest disappointment of the film and the actors involved deserved better.

5) “Near Algodones”

It’s got a neat ending, some clever dialogue and a few memorable setpieces, but compared to the other segments this is a surprisingly forgettable outlaw story about why you can’t beat death forever, as a bank robber (James Franco) suffers a bizarre streak of bad luck that does not end well for him. The trailer gives the best line away, and in a weird way, although it’s not as disappointing as #6 on this list it’s more eminently skippable. Also, James Franco has a history of predatory behavior and should not still be making movies.

4) “Meal Ticket”

This one has a solid premise but peters out towards the end. Maybe it’s just me. I feel like we don’t really get enough information about “Professor Harrison” (Harry Melling), a young man with no arms or legs who recites famous speeches as a sideshow act, to really understand his relationship with his “impresario” (Liam Neeson).

Yes, Melling is a marvelously expressive actor, and Neeson disappears into his part, but we need more to really care about what happens here. Melling’s character never speaks offstage and while we get the sense that he knows his partner will betray him, he ultimately feels like a passive character waiting to die, which leaves us counting time until the inevitable happens. Too bad, since there’s a significant amount of tension built up before then. That must be one hell of a chicken, though.

3) “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”

Probably the most crowd-pleasing of all the segments, not in the least because it’s an overtly comedic, blood-soaked cowboy musical featuring Tim Blake Nelson as the titular Buster Scruggs, a sort of cross between Gene Autry and The Punisher. Nelson’s character, a chipper warbling gunslinger with a nasty violent streak, claims he’s not a misanthrope but seems awfully eager to almost literally dance on the grave of a guy he just killed.

That guy, by the way, is Çurly Joe (Clancy Fucking Brown), pronounced “Surly Joe”, as the above number will inform you. I love the way Scruggs engineers his own crowd by throwing peoples’ hats in the air for them while gloating about Joe’s death (“He was mean in days of yore/Now they’re moppin’ up the floor”). This scene is, I don’t mind disclosing, my Dad’s favorite part, and he’s still sending us emails about it today.

Nelson often plays exaggerated goofballs but here there’s something sinister playing around his eyes. I almost wish the Coens had gone with the more obvious version of this joke and made Scruggs overtly malicious: he does only kill in self defense, after all, and the final song takes a weird turn as if the entire story had really been about how “you can’t be on top forever”. Still, there’s a lot of great gags and lines here, and the songs will be stuck in your head for days. Willie Watson also has a handsome cameo as the dapper newcomer and leads a memorable duet. If you love O Brother, Where Art Thou? and don’t mind a bit of over-the-top gore, this will suit you just fine.

2) “All Gold Canyon”

Would you watch a full feature film about Tom Waits panning for gold in the wilderness while ranting at nobody? I would! Until that film gets made, we have this richly evocative fable, in which Waits, looking more than a little like famous G.I. Gus Chiggins, seeks out a seam of gold he’s dubbed “Mister Pocket” in a beautiful green valley. No matter how accurate the portrayal of prospecting is here, you’ll have a new appreciation for the amount of work it takes to trace gold from flakes to nuggets to the source.

The photography here is top-notch, and the conceit of Waits talking out loud to himself avoids being cheesy because, as my brother put it, this is probably what Waits is like on an average weekend anyway. His reaction to surviving a bullet to the back is priceless. It’s also the one story in this collection to have the closest thing to a happy ending, depending on how sarcastic you think the Coens are being here. It’s a highlight either way, for sure.

1) “The Mortal Remains”

There’s something about bottle episodes that seems to up creators’ games, across the board, whatever the medium. Strip down the narrative, cram a bunch of characters into a locked room and watch the scenario play itself out. In this case, the room is inside of a coach, and the characters are: René, a cynical Frenchman (Saul Rubinek), Mrs. Betjeman (Tyne Daly) a supercilious zealot, the Trapper (Chelcie Ross), who turns out to be surprisingly chatty, and a pair of suspicious gentlemen in natty suits (Jonjo O’Neill and Brendan Gleeson) who might be conmen, or murderers, or something even worse…

What’s genius about this bit is the way it seems to be plot-based but ultimately is all about character and mood. The quasi-supernatural elements creep in as slowly as the sinking sun, so that when O’Neill delivers his gorgeously theatrical monologue about the power of storytelling (which shows up in the trailer and might as well be the thesis of this whole movie) it feels like we’ve already entered the underworld. The Gothic performances and ghostly blue lighting of the moments of the film’s last few scenes are almost like something out of Guy Maddin if he ever did a Western horror story (and why can’t he, already?).

As others have surely noted, the most prominent theme throughout these stories is the presence of death in the West. This is the only story where we, perhaps, come face to face with capital “D” Death, depending on what O’Neill and Gleeson’s roles as “reapers” really entails. The Coens probably could have gone straight up horror movie on us but they wisely keep things ominous and ambiguous, allowing the creepy ending images to tease us and let that be that. This segment may not be as rousing as what’s come before but it’s an achievement all the same and helps to close the anthology out on a suitably spooky note.