Cred

I was listening to the @Nerdist podcast recently when Hardwick and Wheaton began to discuss the concept of “earning” your nerd cred.  My first reaction was to cry foul and just fast-forward through the rest of the discussion, but I started thinking about my own ownership issues with certain icons of nerd culture and I have to agree that there are things you can’t come by easily, things you should have to discover on your own or obtain through terrible difficulty.

Understand that I’m not endorsing the current rapid fracturing of the nerdiverse.  My thoughts on that subject stop at reminding the adherents of various faiths that they are lucky to have a faith to adhere to at all and that in a not very long ago time, everything they loved was mocked and dismissed.  So, basically: Shut up and enjoy your victory.

But I will stake my claim to certain levels of authenticity that latecomers can never truly understand.  Because, what good is a painting if you can’t authenticate that it is, indeed, an original Rembrandt and then lord that fact over everyone who comes to see it?

Last House on the Left, The Town That Feared Sundown, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Cannibal Holocaust.

Latecomers simply can’t comprehend the experience of seeing these movies first run in the theater.  Streaming Cannibal Holocaust on your laptop while sipping chai lattes in bed doesn’t even touch on the rite of passage movies like this one provided for drive-in bound teenagers whose only connection to the world was blurted out in bursts of static from the AM radios embedded in the dashboards of their American made cars.

Every night, driving my Mustang from one pizza joint to another (I went to high school in a small town) I would be subjected to the terrorizing influence of the commercials for the midnight only showings of movies of this ilk.  I’ve written before that I was too scared by the very advertisements meant to entice me to ever see Chainsaw but I did go to the drive-in to see Left and Sundown and to a porn theater in Fairfax to see Cannibal Holocaust with a gay friend who found the violence to be vomit-inducing.

Before the internet, before the wide expanse of the cable landscape, there was a feeling of isolation to life outside the few really big cities and, even then, I’m pretty sure kids who lived in the suburbs of those cities were just as clueless as kids like me growing up in small towns.

If you think I’m doing a “kids these days” bit, you’re missing the point.  Think back to when the first rumors about The Blair Witch started trickling out across the trembling appendages of the Web 1.0 infrastructure.  You were convinced this was real found footage of an actual thing that happened.  These days “found footage” movies are so commonplace they’ve become tiresome, but back then, Blair Witch struck a resounding blow for all those who lived in a degree of isolation that allowed them to believe it might be real.

Well, hold onto your hats kids, because the producers of Cannibal Holocaust were dragged into court because of their “found footage” so they could prove the actors hadn’t been raped and murdered for real.

And even though they weren’t successfully prosecuted, we still believed it was real because instead of a thousand in-the-know, behind-the-scenes whisper-blogs by industry insiders, we had our older cousin who had seen the damn thing and could tell us for sure that the rapes and murders in that movie were real.  Cannibal Holocaust, for us, was a snuff film.

That’s an extreme case, I’ll grant you.  So let’s talk about the common experience of edge dwellers from those days: Rocky Horror Picture Show.  Just as with The Groove Tube and Holy Grail, Rocky Horror existed in the egg sack of its own nascent genre for a good ten years.

I was at a Mickey’s Big Mouth party when I first heard about it.  For the record, Mickey’s Big Mouth was a potent malt liquor concoction that came in short, barrel-shaped bottles with wide mouths that made it easy to get really drunk really fast.  Back in the late 70s and early 80s if you were looking to start trouble on a large scale, you’d have a Mickey’s party.  Forty minutes into the thing, everyone was drunk enough for fights to break out, affairs to be exposed, and sexual preferences to be tearfully confessed.  Also, the whole group could be easily convinced to up and decamp to a midnight showing of Rocky Horror.

That first virginal trip to the midnight show, I had no idea what everyone was talking about.  There were no blogs to inform me and Ain’t It Cool wasn’t even born yet much less palpitating over the latest spoilery information about new releases.  But I went, because that’s what we did.  We couldn’t Google it.  If we wanted to know, we had to go.

The first time I saw MST3K, I was surfing channels looking for something to watch and paused momentarily on a black & white film I had often enjoyed when I was a kid.  I can’t remember which movie it was, just that I was annoyed by the silhouettes down front talking over it.

I almost clicked off, but Joel or one of the bots got off a good one and I started laughing and took my thumb off the detonator.  The only reason I gave them a chance at all was that one joke and something called Short Attention Span Theater, which I vaguely remember as a late 1980s clip show with comedians overdubbing lines in clips from old movies.  SAST was hilarious… as I recall, so I gave MST3K a shot and became hooked.

When Star Wars debuted, there was no promotional campaign that I remember.  I was looking for something to do, decided to check out the movie times in the paper and came across a line drawing of the poster that would become famous in short order.  But to me, it looked like a Japanese science fiction movie.  Something along the lines of The Green Slime.  So I called up a friend of mine and invited him to join me at the Reb Yank (this name made perfect sense to kids in Manassas, Va) movie palace for a good chuckle at the latest badly dubbed, rubber suit monster movie.

I probably don’t have to tell you that when that destroyer passed overhead during the opening shot, I became vaguely aware that we were not, in fact, about to see Green Slime 2: The Enslimining.

This is unarguably the best way to see a movie that will go on to change the course of entertainment.  I saw it again in Grauman’s Chinese Theater later that year when I traveled west.  It was technically a better experience in that the theater was amazing, the sound system was amazing and the screen was enormous but it was not a superior viewing because I knew what I was there to see.

I’m no good at chess.  I suck at math.  A brain cramp in my three dimensional thinking makes it impossible for me to solve a Rubik’s cube.  And, to quote Sam Cooke, I don’t know what a slide rule is for.  I spent all of my time in high school and college chasing skirts instead of going to class or running for student council.

But I was raised on science fiction.  I love horror movies.  And I’m obsessive about the details of the things I crave.

I’m a brown coat wearing, Buffy-ologist of the first order who read the entire Dark Tower series front to back twice.

The fact that I was reading Stephen King when he was still tapping out his masterpieces on a portable typewriter in the HVAC closet of a single-wide trailer makes me a hipster.  Being able to talk at length about his growth as a novelist over the course of his first six novels makes me a nerd.

To quote Hardwick (or Wheaton, I can’t remember who said it): It’s not what we love that makes us nerds.  It’s how we love it.

Now go forth and discover new things to love with nerdly intensity so you can bring them back to the rest of us who hunger for the next Death Race 2000 or Blade Runner or Last Starfighter or Soldier or Moon or Space Station 76.

What are you doing hanging around here?  We’re waiting.

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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.