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Why won't anyone teach actors to be funny?

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Former Sound of Young America co-host Jordan Morris, Boy Detective, works in television production. I was chatting with him once about a show he was working on, and there was something he couldn't get over... the show was a sitcom, but a fair number of the actors couldn't say their jokes right. They said them wrong, over and over, take after take.

There's a right way to say a joke, and a wrong way. Jokes have a rhythm, and you have to "punch" the punchline. Being able to master this is the bedrock of being funny on stage or screen. Some people joke a lot in their lives, and they already know how. Other people have to learn. Obviously, these actors had never bothered to learn this most basic of skills. Outrageous!

Except for this: what do we expect?

Most succesful actors, especially the ones who aren't really, really beautiful, are very well trained. People go the Yale School of Drama, or to the Neighborhood Playhouse, or Julliard. They get BFAs and MFAs and sometimes even PhDs. But it's entirely possible to go to theater school for four years, or even six, and never take a class which seriously covers comic acting. The closest they'll come to comedy in anything that isn't self-selected is David Mamet. Or maybe Twelfth Night. Possibly a production of The Music Man. Maaaaaybe an improv class in which they are warned again and again not to try to be funny. Other than that, they're on their own -- maybe they've got it, maybe they don't.

That's the system, and because of it, we have a nation of actors who can find the emotional truth of a cereal box, but can't do a spit take to save their lives.

When you're in acting school (and I did theater in college and went to a very well respect arts high school, where I studied theater three hours a day for four years), what you're learning is about finding and representing the truth of a character. What's often called "method" acting is very internally oriented -- you are finding some essential quality in yourself. Of course, comedy is almost completely externally oriented -- you're getting laughs from the audience. And because of this apparent philosophical contradiction -- acting for the audiences benefit is so 19th century -- it doesn't get taught.

And there are most certainly comic acting techniques that can be taught. I was lucky enough to work with Jeff Raz, a professional clown and Commedia Dell'arte teacher and performer, and as much as I hated clowning, I was shocked at how techniques I learned were directly applicable to the getting of laughs. It turns out that the funnyness that some people have naturally has been refined for hundreds of years by comic performers who weren't against training. Even the most unfunny folks in my class could learn ways to use their bodies and voices to get a laugh on stage. I don't say this to diminish clowning, either... just to illustrate that technique works.

Of course, the nation is covered in improv schools, many of which are great. These schools are where most of our great comic actors come from -- Bill Murray, for example. But they're teaching improv, not comic acting. They're two complimentary but ultimately seperate skills. I'd say that most of the comedic acting skills learned at improv schools come the hard way -- from trial and error in hundreds of performances in front of audiences. These skills often have holes, though. When I see even great sketch shows at the UCB or a similar theater, I'm often dissapointed by the acting on display.

And where else do our comic performers come from? Standup, were we often get the total non-acting of folks like George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock, who've also honed their comic chops in front of tough crowds -- though these guys have also each honed a single comic persona that compliments their material, a persona that's tough to break out of in other media. One day I'll learn to stop going to see Chris Rock movies.

It's all a function, I think, of the fact that our culture can't seem to take comedy seriously. More on this soon...

Found Magazine's Finds

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One of The Sound of Young America's top pals is Davey Rothbart, editor of Found Magazine. Davey is a really awesome guy, and Found is a really spectacular magazine. It's made up entirely of things people have found -- notes, grocery lists, signs, diaries, letters. It's funny, sad, wonderful, whatever adjective you want.

The note above was the inspiration for the magazine. Davey found it on his windshield one day.

Anyway, they've got an RSS feed now, so you can see them in the big blogroll to your right, or check out their website. Highly reccomended.

Jordan Morris, Boy Detective, got a find in their book, I'll post it when I'm at my home computer.

Remeberances of Things Past

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"Never Forgetting: My Personal Battle With Drug Addiction During the Holocaust" is H. Jon Benjamin's harrowing tale of a descent into addiction, and his eventual redemption, also it is during the Holocaust.

As a customer who enjoyed this post, you might also like:

H. Jon Benjamin on The Sound of Young America, Uncut

James Frey on The Sound of Young America

Thanks to Jason from The Human Giant

What if All Things Considered were on Satellite?

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There is great dissent in the public radio world about what to do about satellite radio, and it speaks to a bigger question about the future of media.

As it stands, Sirius Satellite has three stations of US public radio. One is programmed by Public Radio International (who distribute shows like This American Life), and two by NPR (who distribute All Things Considered, Fresh Air, Car Talk, and so on). XM has one station, which produces a show of it's own (the Bob Edwards Show), and carries various other public radio content (I haven't had XM since pre-Edwards, so I'm not sure exactly what).

When NPR decided to get with the satellite revolution, it made a compromise with its member stations: they would give Sirius their programming, but would hold back their two flagship news programs, All Things Considered and Morning Edition. Local stations were understandably threatened by satellite, which doesn't have to ask for contributions (though it takes them, in the form of a $12/month subscription fee). This is more or less the same bargain they've struck when it comes to podcasting, where you can get portions of some very popular shows, all of other, less popular shows, and some shows you can't get at all.

Now, public radio consultant John Sutton, who as I understand it is a sort of the Dick Morris or Karl Rove of public radio (respected by all, reviled by some), is proposing that NPR consider offering ATC and Morning Edition to XM and Sirius. His proposal, in a nutshell, is that if NPR could get half of what Stern got, NPR could offer it's programs to member stations for free, and everybody would win. The stations might lose a bit of their audience, but by his calculations only about 5%, and they could use the revenue for local programming, the money for which often comes from the fundraising success of the big NPR news shows.

Of course, this presumes that NPR is interested in acting in the interests of the stations, and won't eventually just stick it to the satellite networks and the affiliates. It also presumes that Sirius or XM are interested enough in NPR programs to get up off big money without exclusivity.

What it means for local stations, though, is that they have to realize that the radio station business model, public or commercial, is gone. It's been replaced by the content provider and content aggregator/filter models. When you can get audio content from satellite, from the internet, or even on your Tivo, being the local NPR station means much less. Whereas they used to find shelter in NPR's overall brand ("You're listening to your NPR News station for Central Ohio..."), they now realize that if their own brand doesn't mean something, and they're not producing their own content, they're toast.

This is one of the big reasons I've tried to keep The Sound of Young America independent (though it's not like they're beating down the doors). One of the big lessons of the internet is that much more power goes to the content owner, rather than the content distributor.

Fare thee well, Woody.

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One of my favorite ballplayers, former Giants starter Kirk Rueter (known to teammates as "Woody"), retired today. He'd been trying to catch hold with his hometown St. Louis Cardinals, but it didn't happen.

I'm a sucker for a crafty lefthander, and I always loved how much success Rueter had with almost no "stuff." You usually get that with a guy who throws a "heavy ball," that is, a sinkerballer. Those guys get a lot of ground outs, double plays, and so forth. But Woody was a flyball pitcher, so it was doubly impressive. He always seemed on the brink of disaster, and until the last year or two, he always found his way out. To me, there're few greater pleasures than watching a perfectly pitched game by a guy without any great pitches, and Woody afforded me that many times.

Once, I was at a game at Candlestick, and this kid with big ears and a big low ballcap was leaning over the railing, yelling at Rueter. "Hey! Monkey boy! Look! I'm a monkey boy, too!" Rueter stopped his outfield long-toss, and ran, laughing, over to the kid. He ended up giving him a hat. Warmed my heart. He'll be missed.

Broin' Out

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Sound of Young America pals Tony Camin and Leo Allen (of Slovin & Allen) have a very cool talk show at the UCB Theater in New York called Broin' Out with Leo & Tony (there's also a Left Coast version in LA, hosted by Seth Morris). I've never had the chance to see it in person, but Tony and Leo are so funny, I can't imagine that it's not awesome.

This month's show features David Cross, the hilarious John Glaser, and more. It's Monday, March 20th at the UCBT... click on that link for reservations and more info. You can also make pals with the show on MySpace. Then again, have you even bothered to make pals with us?

(Above, Tony Camin, far right, performing "The Marijuanalogues" with Doug Benson and Arj Barker)
(via Aspecialthing.com, thanks Billy)

The best white rapper is Bubba Sparxxx

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And that's not a joke.

His first record, "Dark Days, Bright Nights" was quite good -- it featured some great Timbaland production, and Bubba's charming flow.

He really kicked it up a notch with his second record, "Deliverance." It was one of the best produced albums of the past few years, with some wonderful contributions from Organized Noise (in-house producers of the Dungeon Family), and some stunning work by Timbo. While on the first record, Bubba's "country boy" image felt like a gimmick, on this one, it felt like a manifesto. His flow on this record is still smooth and easy, but it's got a new passion, borne of commitment to his "New South" identity.

There's a portion of the South in the spirit of the song
Keep followin the fiddle, it'll never steer you wrong
I've lived a lot of life, so my innocence is blown
I'm headin to La Grange, to replenish it at home

Here was a white rapper who was rapping soulfully about *his* identity. One influenced by close ties with black culture, but nonetheless distinctively his own. Sadly, folks weren't really buying it.

Jimmy Mathis was the album's single, and it demonstrates Timbaland's remarkable combination of country signifiers and hip-hop aesthetics. A bluesy-country harmonica sample eloquently suggests the ties between poor rural blacks and poor rural whites. They pull of a similar trick on Deliverance (realaudio link). The LP was a great album, one of the best hip-hop records of the 21st century, but Bubba's image was so locked into the cartoonish stereotype Depicted in the video of his first hit record, Ugly, that folks just didn't buy in.

Bubba's got a new record coming out April 4th, The Charm, and I'm hoping it'll be as good as the last one. He's signed up with Big Boi's Purple Ribbon label, and he's had a few great tracks on their two compilations. If this work with the new Dungeon Family can match past collabs like Back in the Mud from Deliverance, it could be something special.

Here are two tracks from the new record that suggest my optimism could be well-founded:

The Other Side of the Room

Claremont Lounge f. Cool Breeze and Killer Mike

Pitchfork Music Festival

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One-time Sound of Young America guest Ted Leo is among the artists performing in Chicago at the upcoming Pitchfork Music Festival. There'll also be a clothes-n-crafts fair and a record sale. We have mixed feelings about Pitchfork, but for $30, you can't really complain.

Tickets just went on sale.

Ladies and gentlemen of the Academy... Crunchy Black!

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The Oscar-Award-Winning Triple Six Mafia.

If only it had been for "Whoop That Trick"

Let's talk celebs...

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I hereby nominate Bill Macy and Felicity Huffman for awesomest Hollywood couple since Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis.

Listen to them on Fresh Air.

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