The past week has been a particularly sharp example of the connection between comedy and tragedy. Robin Williams’ suicide reminded us that there is often a dark side to funny people, and meanwhile the unrest in Ferguson, Iraq, and the Middle East have many of us exhausted by bad news and craving some comic relief.
Like many humorists, I often struggle with the seeming frivolity of what I do, wondering if my effort would be better spent trying to cure cancer or feed the homeless. But when I first moved to New York, I was fortunate enough to have a roommate who was getting her degree in oncological social work (counseling families of terminally ill patients). She brought a group of her colleagues to see me do a comic cabaret show, and they assured me that they couldn’t face the constant tragedy in their line of work without people like me helping them laugh and blow off steam.
Not that I’m equating my weekly songs with the genius of Robin Williams, but I do appreciate getting comments like, “Thanks for helping me laugh at a frustrating subject,” or “Keep the funny songs coming – it really helps!” (And those are a refreshing change from other comments like “Who told you you could sing, you clueless feminazi libtard?”)
I actually don’t even mind the negative comments, since they are amusingly deficient in grammar & spelling as well as logic. However, I have to admit, there is one frequent comment that irks me – “Hey, you should send your stuff to Jon Stewart!,” as if that had never occurred to me, and as if all I had to do was take the reader up on that fabulous suggestion and voila, I’d be appearing on The Daily Show. But since sending my weekly songs to the show’s email & Facebook page doesn’t seem to be working, I decided to try a more direct approach . . . .
As I approach the 2-year anniversary of my weekly song project, it’s fascinating to look back on how my writing process has developed, and to see what lessons I’ve learned. So here are a few tips to share with any readers who are either contemplating a creative venture (or who would enjoy a vicarious peek at something they’d rather not experience first-hand . . . .)
- Writing is frequently 1% inspiration and 99% putting-your-rear-in-a-chair. In other words, the best way to learn to write is to write. (My 8th-grade English class was fortunate enough to meet with Ray Bradbury once, and he shared his practice of forcing himself to write 10 pages every single day – sometimes those pages consisted of “I have nothing to say” over and over again, but with enough repetition, he would eventually come up with something usable.)
- Give yourself permission to write crap. It’s always easier to edit than to start from scratch, but it’s almost impossible to come up with anything if you are afraid it won’t be fabulous.
- Be open to inspiration from unexpected places. Sure, some weeks have a fabulous, everyone’s-talking-about-it story, which is how I came up with “Oh Won’t You Put Me In Your Binder Full Of Women.” (And the fact that you probably get that reference, nearly 2 years later, shows you how memorable that story was.) But there are definitely weeks I find myself thinking “oh, crap, what am I going to do this week?,” and then when I’m not looking for it, an idea will pop into my head. (For example, after Dick Cheney started popping up on news shows, plugging his ‘let’s-bomb-everyone’ website, I heard my husband & son in yet another volley of sophomoric, off-color jokes, and that inspired “I’m Sick Of Dick”.)
- And be open to suggestions – especially when you have a deadline. I am fortunate to have some wonderful subscribers & supporters, who occasionally send me ideas. I can’t always use every one, but my friend Lucien, who is the web designer for The Political Carnival, sent me the inspiration for this week’s song:
One of my favorite college classes examined children’s literature through the lens of cultural attitudes towards childhood. For example, the Brothers Grimm wrote all those dark, scary tales of witches & evil forests because in their day (early 19th century), childhood was just a smaller version of an awful adulthood. Poorer kids had to work on farms or in factories, even wealthier kids succumbed to disease, and stories had to prepare them for the general dangers of the world. In the Victorian era (later 19th century), children were viewed as pure and angelic, so their books were supposed to help enhance their innocence. And by the 20th century childhood really evolved into a separate phase of life, where books could enhance kids’ imagination or teach them valuable lessons. (And reading all these stories was a welcome change from typical academic fare – I loved sitting in the library, where my classmates were absorbed in Advanced Principles Of Molecular Biology or The Sociolinguistics of Anthropology, and they’d look over to see me enjoying “The Little Engine That Could.” But I digress . . . )
Sometimes, however, we would run into a classic piece of children’s literature that didn’t fit this historical trend – and in the case of some, like the Lewis Carroll ‘Alice’ books, as college students we naturally concluded his influence was pharmaceutical instead of cultural. Rabbits with pocket-watches? Disappearing grinning cats? Drinks & cakes that changed her perspective? (Okay, you can explain the Mad Hatter by the fact that the chemicals used in hatmaking were so toxic, they caused brain damage, hence the expression ‘mad as a hatter’, but Carroll’s Hatter was still pretty weird.) And for generations kids have enjoyed the strange, surreal world of Alice, thinking nothing in their lives would ever seem so crazy.
Until lately – the political scene has gone so out of whack, not even Lewis Carroll could have written it . . .
The 1960s are retro cool these days, thanks to hit shows like Mad Men and Masters of Sex (not to mention all the Austin Powers movies). And while we admire the cool fashions (skinny ties! pillbox hats!), it’s all too convenient to dismiss the less-admirable aspects of the era (segregation, no effective birth control not to mention how women were treated in general, childhood diseases like polio & measles). But many of those phenomena are returning along with the fashions – setbacks in voting rights, civil rights, and reproductive rights, not to mention the anti-vaccine movement which is causing a return of diseases we thought were eradicated.
Well, now it’s time for another blast from the past – those of us are old enough to remember some of that era also remember the Cold War, when every spy movie used Russian villains and schools had ‘Duck & Cover’ drills (yes, we really did think hiding under our desks would protect us from the threat of Soviet nuclear weapons. Hey, I was only in 2nd grade, what did I know?, but I digress . . . )
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russians were our sort-of-friends, not quite allies but no longer cool to use as movie adversaries. (And yes, we also learned that Duck & Cover was not the best strategy for avoiding nuclear fallout.) But lately, thanks to Vladimir Putin’s aggression, Russia is now a sort-of bad guy – not quite an arch-enemy but probably likely to turn up in a James Bond movie one of these days. And in the meantime, here’s a musical take on his unpredictability.
People have often used ‘the melting pot’ as a metaphor for immigrants from all over the world, coming together to make America a great and diverse country. (Although when I was growing up, I had a creative teacher come up with ‘fruit salad’ as a better metaphor, implying that immigrants retained some elements of their native culture and blended together in a tasty mixture – unfortunately, California also became known as the ‘granola state’, full of flakes & nuts, but I digress . . . ) However, immigration has become so politicized lately, it’s hard to find any common ground. The Senate was able to put together a bipartisan reform bill, but apparently the House won’t take it up because they’re too busy repealing the ACA or deciding whether or not to sue the President. Still, one would think that all sides could at least come together over the plight of thousands of children fleeing violence in Central America who have crossed our border recently. (Oh, I know, I’m just an eternal optimist . . . stop laughing at me!)
The nasty, xenophobic reaction by so many politicians and pundits has been appalling, but also ripe for ridicule (starting with the “Go Home Illeagels” signs and protesters swarming a bus from the local YMCA). So in that spirit, we might as well update the iconic poem inscribed at the base of Lady Liberty . . .
Politics and pop culture have always been strange allies, from campaign songs (“Tippecanoe & Tyler Too,” William Henry Harrison’s 1840 theme) to actors-turned-politicians (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ronald Reagan, and I hope someone reading this knows who George Murphy is – I am NOT that old but I am a buff of old movie musicals and learned about him through a Tom Lehrer song . . . but I digress). Presidents have even joined in the fun, including Clinton’s famous sax solo on Arsenio Hall and Obama’s appearance on “Between The Ferns,” although nothing can top Richard Nixon uncomfortably saying “Sock it to me?” on Laugh-In. (And yes, I AM that old . . . )
However, this alliance can sometimes be not only awkward but cause friction when politicians use songs without permission – Jackson Browne successfully sued McCain for using his “Running On Empty” to attack Obama in ads, and Ann & Nancy Wilson formally complained when Sarah Palin used “Barracuda” as her theme song. Those objections are understandable, since repeated use of a song implies the artist endorses that candidate. On the other hand, I sympathize with conservatives who have a much harder time finding good anthems by rock stars who support them – not much to choose from besides Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless America,” which might explain Ted Nugent’s recent resurgence . . .
The other time rock & politics make uncomfortable bedfellows is when pundits jump into the fray, like Bill O’Reilly’s near-obsessive complaints about Beyoncé being a bad role model – although as Jon Stewart pointed out, the video he was most upset about involved sex with her husband in an expensive limousine, so O’Reilly should have been thrilled that she was glorifying both marital passion and conspicuous capitalism. Unfortunately, other Fox news hosts must have missed Stewart’s ridicule of what he termed O’Reilly’s ‘disapproval boners,’ because last week Jesse Watters claimed that Democrats like Hillary Clinton relied on “Beyonce voters,” single women who “depend on government because they’re not depending on their husbands. They need things like contraception, health care, and they love to talk about equal pay.” This foot-in-mouth moment inspired endless internet analysis, a wildly popular Tumblr account, and at least one suburban mom to squeeze into a leotard and take advantage of a rock/political moment too tempting to resist:
Lawyer jokes are low-hanging-fruit – everyone knows at least a few, and it’s far too easy to make fun of ambulance-chasing caricatures or frivolous lawsuits against fast food outlets when people spill things on themselves. (Although I do have one favorite: A priest, a rabbi, a nun and a lawyer walk into a bar, and the bartender says, “What is this, some kind of a joke?” But I digress . . . )
Some of my best friends really are lawyers, and they do everything from defending homeowners against wrongful evictions to the mind-numbingly-dull paperwork on which most small businesses depend. (Admission: My father was a small business contract lawyer, and when I was trying to decide whether to go into law or show business, he informed me that while law was a noble profession, “what separates humans from animals is our ability to appreciate art.” He then added “plus you don’t get applause in court.”)
Suffice to say, while I didn’t end up going to law school, I firmly believe in the power of law to protect people, and I understand the vital role played by lawsuits. However, John Boehner’s threat to sue President Obama for some yet-to-be-specified-disregard-of-something-he-hasn’t-figured-out-yet bears no resemblance to a valid lawsuit – instead, it sounds like when a 10-year-old threatens to run away from home because his parents are so mean, they won’t let him do, uh, whatever it was he wanted to do but forgot.
So this week’s song combines my general understanding of law with the show business career toward which my lawyer father pointed me . . .
Note: Show Lauren we need more entertainers and fewer lawyers by supporting her new CD, a compilation of greatest hits from these videos. You can hear clips and learn more here.
here are a variety of theories attempting to explain the relative minority status of women in comedy, ranging from socialization (women are raised to laugh at others, not to tell the jokes) to courtship (men want to be the ones to make others laugh) to good old-fashioned sexism (club owners tend to be men and think men are funnier). At any rate, women tend to be less comfortable with, or at least less proficient at, off-color humor – which is why it’s so startling when they do get down & dirty (part of Sarah Silverman’s huge appeal is that she looks like a fresh-faced girl-next-door and talks like Lenny Bruce).
I don’t know if it’s my gender (female, duh), my age (not telling, duh, which tells you I’m old enough not to want to tell), my upbringing (raised by a feminist mother who forbade Barbie dolls because they fostered an unrealistic body image, and an intellectual father whose idea of a joke was offering to do his Millard Fillmore impression . . . . but I digress), or my Ivy League education, but I’d always believed cerebral wordplay was infinitely superior to potty humor. My one near-break as a comedy performer was an invitation to audition night at The Comic Strip in LA, after I’d won some cabaret awards in San Francisco. I did a couple of my witty, Noel Coward-esque songs about current events, to polite applause, but then the man after me impersonated the male sex organ having its first orgasm, complete with sound effects. Needless to say, he totally killed and got invited back. (To be fair, this was almost 30 years ago. Don’t bother doing the math, let’s just say I was old enough to rent a car – but barely!)
I never had to wrestle with whether or not to adjust my highbrow ideals, because shortly after that I started a family. Turns out, the biggest influence on my sense of humor has been having two sons, particularly once they hit puberty (and especially once Husband 2.0 came on the scene, whose brilliant plan to cure the boys of using foul language was to have ‘swearing night’ at dinner so they’d ‘get it out of their system.’ Instead, they both just enlarged their vocabularies!) Between language, rating each other’s burps, and Family Guy, I’ve pretty much surrendered to a frat house environment.
I still try to keep my weekly songs witty and informative – which means usually my sons ignore my videos (apart from my 17-year-old reassuring me that ‘over 100 views is viral for old people’ – cue rimshot). But this week, I’ve succumbed to a sophomoric tone, at least in part – which means my sons think this week’s song is actually cool.
Over-reaction is becoming so common on the political scene these days, things have to go pretty far before they qualify as genuinely surprising over-reaction. But the furor over last week’s primary defeat of Eric Cantor definitely qualifies.
To put it in perspective, Cantor lost by 36,000 votes, which is about 5% of his voting-eligible constituents, which is about .002% of the 150 million eligible voters in the country. But that didn’t stop pundits from gasping in shock and declaring that this was a political game-changer, with miscalculation like “Dewey Defeats Truman” combined with “Real Housewives”-style national fascination. (Not to mention the fun of seeing Cantor’s opponent, an economics professor who advocates something called “Christian Capitalism,” unable to answer basic questions about the minimum wage . . . but I digress.)
This one low-turnout race has apparently led to everything from a resurgence of the Tea Party to the end of any hope for immigration reform to the realization that Democrats should just give up on 2014 unless turnout is boosted by major hurricanes in November that have female names (which apparently are viewed as less scary, so people don’t evacuate as quickly). Hello, people – it’s only one tiny district!
On the other hand, there is a Through-The-Looking-Glass surreal quality about one of the most obstructionist right-wing Majority Leaders in history losing a primary for being too liberal. So who knows, maybe the over-reactors are on to something . . .
I’ve used my teenage son’s line before here, about how ‘over 100 views is viral for old people.’ (Yes, I am shameless about using my kids’ comments for comedic purposes. And actually, they really like it – I do a whole routine about their reactions to learning the facts of life, which you’d think would be humiliating, but for a generation raised on Family Guy and The Daily Show, any kind of reference is apparently a good thing! But I digress . . . )
I do what I can to increase my views – I am now on Twitter (where I have tens of followers), and I send out email links, contribute content to Facebook groups, etc. I’ve even considered adding footage of our very adorable dog (who looks like the live action model for Tramp, from Lady And The Tramp), but it turns out, all I have to do is mention gun control. Suddenly, I’m a youTube sensation!
Of course, fame has its drawbacks – in my case, it’s dozens of really mean comments, disparaging my intelligence, my politics, my attractiveness and my singing. But it’s hard to take these kinds of insults seriously when they’re often so badly spelled, it makes my teenagers’ texts look positively erudite. And in any case, these anti-fans are still making my video go old-people-viral, and in the words one could imagine being tweeted by Kim Kardashian, “like, the only bad publicity is like not having any, like right?”