Silver Screen Fiend and the Night Cafe

I think Patton Oswalt is the funniest, most entertaining comic working today.  And not fart joke funny like Adam Sandler or frat joke funny like Dane Cook, or pratfall funny like — Okay, so I’m trying to think of someone from the “fatty falls down” school of comedy but all I can come up with is the guy who coined the term and he’s been dead for almost twenty years so just pretend I came up with something clever.

And now that I’m thinking about it, I’m struck by how the group of comics who replaced the airline food is bad and women are different from men hacks of the eighties and nineties — think Maria Bamford, Patton Oswalt, Louis CK, Brian Posehn, Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, Blaine Capatch, wow there are a bunch of people from that wave of alternate comedy that are super popular now — kind of changed the world.

If you concede the theory that Jack the Ripper opened the door to the 20th century, you could also say that the alternative comedy scene opened the door to the self aware, multi referential popgasm that is the 21st.

Damn, I lost the thread of what I was going to say so I’m going to tell my Maria Bamford story real quick while I get my train of thought back: I saw her at a Wednesday night show at some forgettable Comedy Store pretender in Dallas back in the mid-nineties and… wait for it… she wasn’t the headliner.  She was third out of six, if I remember correctly, and the closer was some local DJ who “did characters” and “told jokes.”  I mean, I never went to comedy clubs — I had only been dragged to this one because a friend had a coupon for free drinks — and even I knew the punchlines before he sprung them on us.

This just came back to me like a piece of tuna caught in the gag reflex of my sense of humor for twenty years, but I even remember the bit he closed out with.  It was the old, “I think my wife is a robot because every time I press a button on the remote she rolls her eyes.”  I may have even punched that up a bit for him because I’m pretty sure he didn’t even mention the part about being a robot.  He just came on stage with his Morning Zoo fart noise personality and said, “My wife rolls her eyes every time I use the remote.”  Then he looked impatient while waiting for us to laugh.

What was amazing about this was the response from the crowd.  Out there in the sticks of suburban Dallas on a Wednesday night in a half-assed comedy “club” a spontaneous groan went up from every last member of the audience.  He was so surprised, he looked like he had been slapped.  He was shocked, that’s right shocked, that we had heard it before.  Was he unfamiliar with television?  Did he think we were?  Who knows what poor logical skills convinced him he should be on a stage in front of somewhat live humanbeings.

And that brings me to Dane Cook.  No, you know what, I can already tell this post is going crazy long so I’ll push that thought to another day.  This is what happens when I stop writing.  All that creative energy has to go somewhere so my normally brief blog posts start gushing like a broken sewer main.

Uh… where was I?  Oh, yeah, Maria Bamford.

After a couple of brand newbies gasped and dry swallowed their way through seven minutes of material in three minutes, Maria Bamford came on and killed only to have the mood crushed by another wet fart of a hack who wanted to tell us about the differences between men and women (spoiler alert: it’s the genitals) and then the evening was closed out with the emotional force of a single, unheard snivel by a DJ whose sidekick probably thought he was hilarious.

But right in the middle of this miasma of nervous wannabes and hackneyed old timers made generally weary by the road, up to the mike strides the ditzy magician who tells a story about hitting a train with her car that was truly funny.  And you know how I knew it was funny?  I laughed.  The openers had put me in a surly mood by the time she came up but she made me laugh.

So just as I was giving up on the whole night, her act gave me hope that good things might be coming and I relaxed and enjoyed my free watered down drink and waited for the show to get even better — Remember, she wasn’t even closing it out that night — but as soon as she left the stage, my hopes were dashed by another clumsy oaf who had no business being up there.

Patton Oswalt.

That’s right, Patton Oswalt was that oaf.  No, I’m totally kidding. It was all clueless locals and eternal denizens of the angry road for the rest of the show.  I’ll get back to Patton in a minute but right now I’m busy running off at the mouth.

Oh, I remember where I was going when I lost my train of thought:  So, when I picked up the audio version of Patton Oswalt’s book Silver Screen Fiend, I was just looking for something to make me laugh on my way to an unforgivably stupid job at a company that I’m sure was founded just to suck the life and creativity out of people unlucky enough to drift into range its sick radiation field.

His book did do that, after a fashion.  It’s very funny, but it’s also illuminating and emblematic of the pure smarts of this generation of comics.  I certainly wasn’t expecting a book that would cause me to reconsider my approach to writing, one that would make me question whether the lack of pain I have been feeling about writing was maybe a sign that I was no longer getting better.

There is a theory that creativity should hurt.  I subscribed to it when I was young because writing was actually very hard at that time.  I dropped out of college and drove around in an old Toyota Corolla for a year just to get the first draft on paper and I still had two more years of rewriting before I had anything worth sending out.  But in the last ten years since I started writing again, I’ve found it quite easy to think of ideas and put them down on (digital) paper.

I thought that meant I had matured as a writer until I read about Oswalt’s series of Night Cafes — Night Cafes being the rooms you cannot leave without being changed — and then I started wondering if Harlan Ellison or Philip K. Dick or Kurt Vonnegut would be satisfied with how weakly I’ve pressed against the edge of the envelope of late.

Am I innovating or regurgitating?  That’s the question you have to ask yourself every time you commit something artistic to physical reality.  Be it story or statue or song or standup routine, you have to wonder if you brought it into this world for any reason other than remuneration.

Unfortunately, you can’t use rejection as a guide.  Rejection is a double edged sword.  It rushes to greet all innovators — PKD once received two dozen rejections in a single mail delivery — with the same enthusiasm it does hacks, wannabes and dullards.  The rejection letters read the same in most cases.

But rejection also pushes back on nascent genius, forcing the creator to rethink, rearm and attack from a new angle.  Well, “force” is a poorly chosen word.  Better to say that rejection offers the chance to reassess your work and to understand that everyone takes something different away from it and what they take away may not be the thing you intended.

As an example, I’ll just mention a review I read of Silver Screen Fiend online.  The reviewer wrote off the book I found so spiritually and creatively illuminating as little more than a “look at the dark side comedy.”  There is some of that in the book.  Oswalt did come up through the comedy scene and it is a memoir but — you can’t see me but I’m shaking my head like a wet dog — did the reviewer miss the other 70% of the book’s content?  Did he just skim it, vomit up a one line review and then go back to playing Advanced Warfare?

No one will ever know why (the reviewer was eaten by a dinosaur shortly after posting that reedy bowel movement of a review) but for some reason that’s what this guy took away from that book.  And just as my friends who are fans of the novel V are unable to “fix” my searing hatred for Thomas Pynchon novels, you just have to be okay with that.

Okay, so where was I?

Not to point out the obvious, but I have not come around here for a while, what with being taken by the fever dream of finishing the big fantasy novel.  I imagine this is a thing unique to writing a novel.  You get to the point where you can see the finish line and suddenly you just pick up the pace and start working on it to the exclusion of all else.

And then one day, covered in sweat and gore and your mind reeling with the terrible thing you’ve done, you stand back and realize it’s alive.  ALIVE!

I had ideas for other blog posts during the time I was lost in the darkness.  I would sometimes write them out completely in my head but I never actually typed them up.  All writing for the last 90 days has been jealously dedicated to finishing the novel.

And now I’m done!  God, it’s such an… awful, awkward feeling.  Is this what it’s like for marathon runners?  When they cross the finish line, heaving and vomiting, is their first thought, “But what am I going to do now?”  Somehow, I doubt it.

I had the idea for this book as a kind of side thought on a long road trip.  It wasn’t anything special, just the notion that I had always been a fan of Lovecraft but had never written anything in that universe.  I tossed the idea around in my head for a while but nothing really came of it until that tornado nearly destroyed Moore, Oklahoma in 2010.  And then an image for the opening scene of the novel popped into my forebrain and I’ve been obsessed with the idea ever since.

This book has been with me through seven drafts over the course of five years.  During that time, I wrote a complete other novel that I couldn’t get anyone at any agency to read much less consider (just because it could be misread to be rabidly anti-Christian even though it’s not), and wrote a dozen short stories, some of which I really like, and published my four crime novels.

Both of my daughters moved away from home in that time, one to LA and one to OKC, and my beloved shorthaired pointer Charlie passed away, something that made me realize Louis CK is absolutely correct when he says the countdown to tragedy begins the moment you bring a pet home.  And even though I resolved not bring home any more ticking timebombs of tragedy, three months later, Libby the Border Collie came to live with us.

This is why we need a border fence, sheeple.

I also got into an OCD loop with the audio books for 11-22-63 and Ready Player One, basically listening to them over and over until the arrival of the Southern Reach series helped me break out of the loop.  The news isn’t all good on the OCD front.  I’m now stuck in a loop listening to Patton Oswalt books and albums.  This tendency to get stuck used to worry me but I’ve come to understand my OCD well enough over the years that I know to simply look for that next thing that will break me out of it.

And after all of that, I’m not truly, not actually, not completely done.  Typing “The End” on that last page just started the four week countdown until I can start the polish draft.  What can you do in four weeks?  Write some short stories, I guess, but I’m so creatively drained it’s not like ideas are leaping out of my head.

The need to work on something every day remains with me and if I don’t obey that need, I feel the stinging, unhappy presence of incompleteness that all true obsessives know well.  But now that the novel is finished, that feeling of disappointment is laced with the thinnest threads of relief.  It’s not like the damned thing will un-write itself.  Even if I get hit by a bus tomorrow (yeah, like I would be anywhere near a bus) the book has been written.  I can check that one off the imaginary list.

Oh, speaking of damned things: If you’ve never read The Damned Thing by Ambrose Bierce, you should do that right now.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.

And… while I’m at it.  If you haven’t binge watched Mick Garris’s Showtime series The Masters of Horror you should do that, as well.  Like any anthology series, the quality is hit and miss but when they strike gold — as in The Fair Haired Child, Cigarette Burns, Incident On and Off a Mountain Road and Jenifer (Also, Steven Weber’s commentary track for Jenifer is pure comedy gold) among others — they mine that sucker for all it’s worth.

I want to try to read Heart of Darkness again during the break even though I find Conrad’s ESL writing style to be truly repellent, but I’ll probably spend the time watching old noir films and hanging out at Trailers From Hell — mostly to get ideas for new films to watch — because, more than anything, the fallow time after completing a novel is meant to be a period of rest for your imagination.

Wish me bon appetit!