Michael Gaughn Tag

The Children’s Hour

Hollywood morality

Why O why would anyone, under any imaginable set of circumstances, ever look to anyone in Hollywood for moral guidance? The disease of the cult of celebrity is now so pervasive and runs so deep that we’re coming to rely on show-biz types not only for governance but increasingly, it seems, for instruction on how to live our lives.

 

That, to repeat a refrain from my last piece, is madness. (Both this screed and the “Canary” are far more deeply intertwined than it might at first seem.)

 

We’re talking about entertainers here, for Chrissakespeople paid stupid sums of money to remain children, and just a generation or so removed from circus geeks.

 

And that goes right to heart of the matterand the problem: Only a culture desperate to stay in a state of arrested development would ever come to rely so heavily on people who know so little about what it means to have a meaningful individual and social existence.

Hollywood morality

Hasn’t anybody read Pinocchio? No, that’s rightwe only know the Disney version, and don’t know that in the original book the puppet, tired of being asked to try to separate right from wrong, quickly dispatches his cricket conscience by smashing him against the wall like a, well, bug. 

 

That character in that book, at this moment, is us.

 

We’re settling for sham forms of morality and government, andlet’s be really honestculture too. Everything seems safer and cleaner when you can hold the world at arm’s length, when you can indulge in a steady diet of atrocities without consequence, when you can damn others wantonly, without evidence or deliberation, from an unearned and simplistic sense of absolute certainty.

 

That kind of behavior can’t hold in any realistic version of reality. But, on the other hand, it’s the coin of the realmthe raison d’êtreof movies, TV, and just about any other form of entertainment. There are a few exceptions, of course (fewer every day), but mainly these diversions exist to make life seem simpler and easier than it is by using cartoon heroes to clean up all messes (like Mommy putting the toys back in the crib), which, through identification, gives us an unrealistic and dangerous sense of control.

 

But trying to point any of this out is increasingly like trying to yell into the wind. The camps in these various actions are so deeply entrenched in their positions, so unwilling to see anything except in their own versions of black and white, that they’re completely blind to the fact that they’re all being played like fiddles.

 

But this is what happens when you forget that Hollywood is just an illusion, created to amuse you, and start to take its grease-paint, pasteboard, digital world for real.

—Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

The Case of the Dead Canary

The Case of the Dead Canary

This started out as a stab at writing a “Best of ’17” list. But when I looked back on the year just past, I’ll be damned if I could pull anything from the wreckage that could really be considered exceptional. And the explanation wasn’t hard to find.

 

Culturally, socially, the land is barren. We’ve so abused the soil for so long that it can no longer sustain new growth.

 

To shift metaphors, the original title for this was going to be, “What Are the Coal Miners Going to Do When All the Canaries Are Gone?” Because, let’s be honest: Those hyper-alert little birds essential to our survival are pretty much extinct.

 

Forty years of relentless bludgeoning by pretty much every aspect of the culture has beaten a necessary sensitivity out of us, not only ensuring every new round of entertainment, political bread & circuses, and even simple social interaction will be more brutal than the last, but making us more and more addicted, and subservient, to the forces leading the assault. It’s not an exaggeration to say it’s become impossible to be subjected to American culture on a regular basis and still retain the ability to accurately judge its consequences and its worth.

 

And with the loss of sensitivity has come the loss of other essential qualities like subtlety, nuance, and restraint. Everyone can see the horrific divisions, the rending of the social fabric, that’s played out over the past couple of years, and they all have a vague sense of how bad things have become. But, trained—the phrase used to be “brain-washed”—to believe every situation is a form of conflict, of warfare, to think in terms of Us against Them, they seem incapable of acknowledging what their own actions have done to contribute to this unprecedented catastrophe—and that’s not just out of a convenient myopia. A lot of people—probably most—have just plain lost the ability to adequately assess the situation, let alone figure out a non-(self-)destructive way to address it.

The Case of the Dead Canary

Our entertainment—which sometimes mirrors the cultural landscape, but more often than not helps mold it—shares a lot of the blame. No society has ever been so completely immersed in—and swamped by—its diversions. No entertainment has ever demanded such a complete level of absorption. And no entertainment has ever before become, on a mass level, a form of addiction.

 

There are so many ways to approach this, but let’s try this one on for size: Western entertainment (which has pretty much become all entertainment) is becoming indistinguishable from being hooked up to a pervasive all-day, every-day shock generator. As each new round of movies, shows, games, music, etc. etc. etc. further blunts our nerve endings, it becomes necessary to up the jolts the next time around for us to feel anything at all.

 

Administering jolts has become entertainment’s reason to be—and thus our addiction. Last year’s offerings can’t create the same high they used to, so we need a bigger fix to feel the same elation. But there’s little rational about the experience—edification is just a pretext. This goes right to the primal brain, which is quickly and massively becoming the thing that’s driving the society.

 

Every form of entertainment, whether experienced in a theater with an oversized screen, omnidirectional audio assault, and rolling, jolting seats or on a cellphone through earbuds, is becoming a theme-park ride. We’re drawn and held by the shocks—whether it’s subwoofer-friendly explosions, graphic imagery, relentless conflict, or fetishized portrayals of the unsavory and depraved.

The Case of the Dead Canary

You can’t indulge in dark and edgy and not expect it to keep getting darker and edgier until you’re completely immersed, and lost, in the void. But what does that say about the audience en masse, or the decisions of the individual?

 

Some part of us knows this whole way of twisting the world is inherently degrading, but we ignore that because we constantly need a new fix. And, like with a drug addiction, it’s a habit that’s instilled when we’re still in our formative years, before we’re capable of mature judgment—and will eventually ensure we can’t make any mature decisions at all.

 

And it has the same addictive effect as porn. But since we haven’t yet found a way to take porn completely mainstream, we cultivate and indulge in other forms of obscenity instead.

 

And that helps to explain our pervasive masochism, our obsession with experiencing pain, thinking it will make us stronger when it actually just makes us deader, our obsession with self mutilation and with being punished, which leads us to subconsciously do things that actually work against our own best interests, which then allow us to indulge in the ultimate masochistic battle cry of “Victim!”

 

To quote Howard Beale (sort of), this is madness.

The Case of the Dead Canary

But these aren’t just isolated incidents, or even a still-emerging threat—this is our world, a malady whose center is nowhere and circumference everywhere. And we really seem to like it that way.

 

So, what about the poor canaries? The current solution would be to tell them to toughen up—but that, of course, is absurd. A calloused canary is useless, would be just another desensitized and alienated planetary citizen.

 

Canaries are still essential to our survival, to helping us distinguish reality from illusion in the murk of the cave, and yet we’re gleefully stamping them out in a kind of mass crush video. As much as we might like to think so, we haven’t evolved beyond them—if anything, we seem to devolving in direct proportion to our so-called development. And no one can claim to be fully alive if they’ve lost the ability to feel a whole range of experience, if all they can feel anymore is whatever new forms of brutality the overlords, eager to mold raging but ultimately impotent consumers, deem necessary to feed them.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

Judd Apatow: The Return

Judd Apatow

Reviewing this is almost too easy. It’s like being lobbed the biggest, slowest softball ever. Apatow’s a genius. With so much comedy devoted to dragging you nose first through freshly plowed fields of shit, he always tries to bring at least a dollop of humanity to his work. He doesn’t always succeed, but that effort alone still makes him leagues better than all the schmucks who don’t even try.

 

But you have to allow for a lot before you can even start to be objective about his Netflix comedy special. Both the audience at the venue and the one at home are giving him a pretty generous free pass because they love his movies. And let’s be honest—while he’s pretty good here, he’s not polished. No other comedian could be given this big a platform and get away with so many missed beats, or lean on so much cutting to cover up that this was cobbled together from more than one show.

 

That said, it’s more than worth a viewing because, even though he fumbles his way toward most of what he wants to say, almost all of it is worth saying. It’s hard enough just being funny. Trying to add depth to it is almost impossible. Just witness all the comics—from Chaplin to Allen—who’ve been dashed against the rocks of meaning.

Apatow’s career almost foundered after Funny People, and This is 40 was a hard-won victory. This special steers well clear of the former while hugging the shores of the latter—which is both its virtue and its vice.

 

Apatow is, at the end of the day, a crowd-pleaser. But he’s not entirely comfortable in that role, so he sometimes veers toward edgy. But he’s too skittish to actually peer over the edge, so the best you’ll get is a convincing simulation. And, at a time when there are way too many people willing to tell us what we already know, and when “edgy” almost always boils down to the equivalent of somebody hitting themselves in the face with a hammer, it would be good to hear from somebody who’s got a pretty good bead on what we don’t know.

 

So, this is a pretty nice diversion, and probably a better use of your time than almost anything else recent that you could stream. But it would have been nice if it had a little more meat on its bones.

 

Big kudos, by the way, for closing with Randy Newman’s “I’m Different.” Falling on the heels of M. Ward’s close to Patton Oswalt’s Annihilation, it at least shows that comedians—or anonymous others at the production company or back at Netflix headquarters—have pretty good taste in music.

—Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

Glenn Gould on Bach

Almost everything that gains traction on YouTubeexcept for the seemingly endless parade of puppies and kittensis some form of tightrope walking, people doing outrageous, often obnoxious, and inevitably trivial things in an attempt to give their vast audience a cheap thrill before it moves on to the next act in the perpetual online freakshow. You get the sense of an entire culturean entire racejust looking for a way to kill some time. But, like Thoreau said, you can’t kill time without injuring eternity.

 

But in the midst of that vast, silly, and pointless circus, you can sometimes find acts of real dexterity, intelligence, creativity, and courage. This one might not seem to fit that bill, but, believe me, it doesand in spades.

Glenn Gould

Glenn Gould was undeniably a geniushe was also undeniably insane. This 1962 program was made before his madness began to get the upper hand. And if you’re willing to appreciate it not by the current standards of brutality, masochism, and degradation but on its own terms, it is, in its seemingly modest way, an astonishing piece of work.

 

This is a bad recording of pretty primitive TV. Grainy image, awkward camera work, maddeningly bad sound. But everything Gould tries to convey manages to break free of those constraints and take you to someplace beyond the limitations of any medium anywhere, anytime, no matter how advanced.

 

In a mere half hour, he delivers a blistering attack on the Western fetishization of reason, uses Bach to reaffirm the essentially conservative nature of art, and conducts and performs a sublime performance of the Cantata 54 that exists only on this beyond abysmal form of playback.

 

But here’s the tightrope part: Watch the monologue he delivers at the beginningan 8-minute, one camera, no cue cards, no edits soliloquy, both highly intellectual and deeply felt, a quirky but spot-on chiding and evisceration of the culture, delivered in the affected cadences of a preening, supercilious prep-school lad. I’m sure it feels like fingernails on a chalkboard to most of the people who watch it. But for the few who can look past the program’s and Gould’s limitations, it’s truly astonishing. And all too rare. And now all but extinct.

—Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

The Office: “Classy Christmas”

The Office Classy Christmas

I realize it might seem like I’ve got a major fixation on The Office (the same way it probably seemed like I had Woody Allen on the brain about a month ago), but making a blanket recommendation for a series isn’t really useful for people who’ve never waded into those waters before. So I wanted to recommend a specific episode to check out, and landed on the Season 7 two-parter “Classy Christmas.”

 

This is really more of a best-of and less something for first-timers, but it showcases all the serie’s various strengths so well that it will still give you a good idea of why The Office is worth the commitment. You’ve got the company Christmas photo, Toby’s jury duty, trashing Woody (see below), the return of Michael’s true love, the outing of Angela’s boyfriend, The Adventures of Jimmy Halpert, a surprisingly nuanced portrayal of Darryl’s custody situation, and some of the best lines in the whole series.

The Office Classy Christmas

But most importantly, you’ve got Office-veteran writer Mindy Kaling and director Rainn Wilson (who plays Dwight) turning the whole Jim/Dwight relationshipwhich was central to the showon its head.

 

I don’t want to give too much away, but Jim’s charms were always lost on mehe struck me as exactly as smug and self-centered as he struck office-temp-turned-corporate-criminal Ryan, who once advised him to give “the whole Jim thing” a rest. So it’s interesting to see dorky Dwight get the upper hand for onceand that’s where most series, eager to hit audience hot buttons and reinforce their prejudices, would have left it.

 

But not Kaling, Wilson, or the other creative forces behind The Officeand while it’s initially funny to see Jim flinching at his comeuppance, by the time the show’s reached its resolution, you actually find yourself feeling sorry for the guy. And who would have thought that was possible? Plus they were able to push Dwight past his usual cartoon darkness to someplace truly scary.

 

A lot of the episode is implausible, but enough of it’s emotionally true that you’re willing to give all the cheats and shortcomings a pass. There’s no one best entry point to The Office, but “Classy Christmas” will definitely do.

—Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

The Avalanches on Vinyl–Why?!

Mention The Avalanches and you’ll usually get a blank stare in returnwhich always surprises the hell out of me because they had big hits in 2001 with “Since I Left You” and “Frontier Psychiatrist,” and their videos have millions of views. But more importantly, they reinvented pop.

 

I’m not saying they were the first to explore this territoryfar from it. Appropriation has been rampant in the avant-garde ever since reel-to-reel recorders, it entered the mainstream in the ‘80s, and bands like the Beastie Boysa key influence on The Avalanchesand Propellerheads made it part of the lingua franca.

 

But The Avalanches changed everything by not just sampling in a certain way at a certain timethey did it by sampling everything, all the time. And that might help explain why they, like Propellerheads, were kind of a one-album wonder. (They released a second album, Wildflower, last year, but their genius is really contained in their first album, Since I Left You.)

 

What makes their work sublime is that they’re both completely self-conscious and utterly unself-conscious at the same time. The “Since I Left You” track works so seamlessly as a seemingly fluffy retro pop song that most people probably don’t know it’s almost completely made up of samples. And that speaks to an extraordinary amount of effort and taste and talent.

But once you’re aware of the origins of the various sounds and songs, that almost everything on Since I Left You comes from somewhere else, that really the only thing original about it is the way the bandRobbie Chater and Darren Saltmann, reallybrought those existing pieces together, it becomes a completely different experience. And, yes, I’m being ironic when I say “really the only thing original” because an astounding amount of creativity went into crafting these tracks, and a lot of the samples are so heavily manipulated you’d probably never recognize them in their original form.

 

But that’s a big part of the album’s deadly serious playfulness, retaining the essence of what is, for the most part, some pretty trivial raw material while transmuting it into something that becomes an essential part of a radically different whole.

 

The greatest thing about Since I Left You is that it troubles notions of creativity and originality in very fundamental wayswhich both does and doesn’t lead to what I really wanted to talk about here: What does it mean to listen to Since I Left You on vinyl?

 

Unless I’m missing something (which is completely possible), the whole point behind the vinyl revivalor renaissance or backlash, or whatever you want to call itis to assert vinyl’s superiority over digital media. Simply put, that’s nothing but bullcrap because most people don’t have good enough equipmentor, if they do, it’s usually set up in a way that compromises the sound qualityto tell the difference.

 

The so-called revival is really just a vaguely elitist fadand a preference for coloration (a supposedly warmer sound) over authenticity. And boy does that open up a huge can of worms.

the avalanches since I left you vinyl

Since I Left You was reissued earlier this year as a two-LP gatefold, including a limited-release colored-vinyl version. So what are you actually hearing on those LPs? What nuances can vinyl reveal that digital media can’t?

 

I mean, we’re talking about an album made up of samples from all kinds of sourcesincluding, inevitably, old recordsall tossed into a vast bouillabaisse that made it virtually impossible to maintain an optimal level of sound quality. Since I Left You is filled with distortionthe kind of stuff that makes hardcore audiophiles want to rally for an old-fashioned album burning. But that distortionwhich sometimes borders on outright muddiness, and is very much deliberateis one of the most beautiful things about this very beautiful record.

 

So, again, when you listen to Since I Left You on vinyl, what are you really hearing? It could be argued that it’s still an audiophile experience because the vinyl could have greater fidelity than the CDbut faithful to what? It can’t possibly be to any kind of absolute sound, because that wasn’t relevant to the album’s creation, so I guess it’s to all that distortionand the pops, hiss, and sometimes questionable engineering in the sampled tracks, and to everything else that represents the antithesis of audiophile dogma.

 

Which might be why I love it so muchboth the original CD and the recent LPbecause it makes a mockery of all these sacred cows, not viciously, but by doing something really transgressive with wit and a deft touch, and a genuine love for the source material.

 

So if you cue up Since I Left You on your turntable, you can’t be listening to it for any kind of traditional notion of fidelityunless you’re deeply deluded. If you do prefer it to digital, it has to be because of a coloration, because of something that goes completely against the grain of the “vinyl’s better” battle cry.

 

You’re preferring it just because it sounds warmerin other words, because it creates the illusion of comfort in a very cold world. Which means you’re just trying to crawl back into the womb.

—Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

Breeding “The Office”

making The Office

Contemplating The Office while writing it up for a Netflix Series of the Week, I was struck by its phenomenal bloodlines. While a bad or mediocre show can be the result of random accident (or a series of meetings with studio executives, which is pretty much the same thing), the best shows tend to come from lengthy breeding. And even a cursory look at the convergence of forces that resulted in The Office pretty neatly makes that case.

 

I’m not claiming my evidence is exhaustive. These were just some facts I stumbled upon while digging into the show’s history. There could be major gaps in my argument—I might be missing some major connections. But it doesn’t matter, because what little I’ve been able to put together, mostly out of sheer luck, is impressive on its own.

In the beginning was Spinal Tap—and in particular a DP named Peter Smokler, the former documentarian who pretty much singlehandedly created the mockumentary style that began with Tap, spread into TV with The Larry Sanders Show, and went solidly mainstream with The Office.

 

(The photo in my organizational chart/family tree shows Smokler holding up his legendary poor man’s Steadicam—otherwise known as rollerblades. Seems like money was always tight on the Sanders show.)

 

Garry Shandling’s Larry Sanders broke so much new ground it would take a whole series of posts just to list its achievements. But one of its greatest contributions was giving comedy-nerd Judd Apatowwho would rewrite the American-comedy rule bookhis first big break.

 

Sanders was also a training ground for a whole series of directors who would spread the faux-documentary style. One of the most accomplished was Ken Kwapis, who later did episodes of both Freaks and Geeks and The Office.

 

Joel Hodgson’s The TV Wheel always gets treated as a footnote (and is rarely seen) but when you consider its influence, it’s a hell of a big footnote. His somewhat clumsy attempt to regain his reputation after being ousted from MST3K, it’s a pretty funny stab at reinventing sketch comedy.

Two of its writers were Apatow and Paul Feig. Feig also performed on the show (which only lasted one episode), nailing it as the sleazy magic-catalog pitchman in the almost perfect “Pumpernickel.”

 

Feig and Apatow were the guiding forces behind yet another groundbreakingand at the time unappreciatedseries, Freaks and Geeks, which launched the careers of Apatow stock-company members Jason Segel, James Franco, and Seth Rogen. It also featured a series of cameos by Hodgson as the uncoolest hipster ever.

 

Of all the directors who did episodes of The Office—and there were some pretty big names, including Harold Ramis, Joss Whedon, and J.J. AbramsFeig probably had the biggest impact.

 

Geeks’ inspired casting was largely the work of Allison Jones, who did a similarly brilliant job on Arrested Development and on Apatow’s breakout film, The 40 Year Old Virgin. Her deft touch gathering ensembles got her The Office gig.

 

And Virgin was Steve Carell’s breakout film too, of course, which happened pretty much simultaneously with the debut of The Office.

 

Ricky Gervais’ original British Office series was obviously the basis of the American off-shoot, and Greg Daniels, who would produce, write, and direct episodes of the series, was mainly responsible for developing it for American TV. But if you want an explanation for why The Office is so distinct from Gervais’ series, and why it blew almost everything on TV out of the water, I don’t think you have to look any farther than the pedigree outlined here.

 

To study The Office is to cross paths with pretty much everything that’s been great in American comedy over the past 30 years. And that was no random accident.

—Michael Gaughn

making The Office

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

The Office

It could be argued that nobody needs to sing the praises of The Office. But it depends on what you’re praising it for.

 

Mass perception says that more than a decade of “quality” series has led to a TV renaissance, with a lot of the shows being more sophisticated and satisfying than movies. There’s nothing to that.

 

Almost every “quality” series is a fetid gumbo of convoluted, smartass plots, affected stylistic ticks, and a giggly fascination with perversity and nastiness amplified by a masochistic eagerness to wallow in the muck, handled with all the tact and subtlety of Gilligan’s Island. The only reason these shows seem cinematic is because movie cliches have become so deeply embedded in our DNA that any film-school nerd can ape them, and the culture has become so fundamentally adolescent that the bar for sophistication is so low it barely exists.

 

The Office tends to get lumped in with that renaissance. But as its reputation continues to grow, it becomes even clearer it has practically nothing in common with its “quality” brethren.

 

I’m not saying it was perfect—the Dwight stuff sometimes got so cartoony it threatened to rend the fabric of the series, there was way too much fawning product placement in the early seasons, the attempts to “flesh out” Pam ultimately just made her seem like a bitch, there was an unfortunate predilection for “message” episodes (remember “Gay Witch Hunt” and “Secret Santa”?), the camerawork got so mannered over time it started to telegraph the jokes, and the writers sometimes succumbed to obvious sitcom “wackiness.”

Netflix The Office

And it was obvious to everyone on the planet that the series should have ended with Steve Carell’s departure, and yet they decided to slog on through two and a half more pointless and embarrassing seasons.

 

But when it worked—which it did almost all the time—it was better than just about anything that’s ever been on TV. There was a fundamental generosity to the show it’s virtually impossible to find elsewhere—in its characterizations, ensemble play, vast bounty of jokes and gags, adventurousness, and general tone, which rarely talked down but instead pulled you up to a level where TV’s hardly ever bothered to go.

 

Given how much of this drained away after Carell left, it would be easy to attribute most of the show’s virtues to him. And it would be hard to adequately assess and praise everything he brought to The Office. But it’s more like they’d created an organism that needed every one of its major parts to thrive, and taking Carell out of the equation threw it so far out of whack it eventually wound down and succumbed to entropy.

 

So, to “see” The Office, you need to consider it separate from any so-called renaissance, or even what’s supposed to work on TV, and judge it on its own terms, which were so bold yet, somehow, modest, that it really was exceptionalas in, one of a kind.

—Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

The Astral Factor

The funniest MST3K ever isn’t even an episode from the series. It’s not even an official video but bootleg audio from a live show MST veterans Hodgson, Beaulieu, Conniff, Pehl, and Weinstein-understudy Allen did in San Francisco during their final tour under the Cinematic Titanic banner, synced by a fan to a copy—a workprint, no less—of an unspeakably bad TV pilot some misguided soul pumped up into a feature film (mainly by showing off Stefanie Powers’ butt crack).

 

So the video really sucks, and the audio really sucks. But it doesn’t matter because the quips and jabs from these nonpareil virtuosos of movie riffing are really f***ing funny.

 

The film Hodgson & Co. mercilessly bludgeon like a recalcitrant piñata really is about as bad as it gets—bad script, bad production design, bad editing, bad makeup, bad clothes, bad music, lame stunts, bad fonts, and criminally bad acting and directing. To paraphrase a line from MST3K‘s legendary Manos, there’s a buffet of loathsomeness here.

But The Astral Factor achieves a level most MST episodes could only dream of because there’s a whole bevy of has-been stars on the premises, including Elke Sommer, the aforementioned Powers (“with Stefanie Powers come Stefanie responsibility”), and, in a stomach-churning cameo, Sue (Lolita) Lyon, whose production company was apparently responsible for this flaming sack of dog poopie.

 

The pacing of the jokes is relentless, with the crew landing solid blows at least every 20 seconds, and sometimes releasing whole barrages that left the audience in San Francisco’s Castro Theatre breathless.

 

Don’t come here looking for 4K HDR or the perfect aspect ratio or perfectly calibrated sound or even surround sound, let alone Atmos. (Atmos?! On a policeman’s salary!?) This is about laughing your ass off—pure, and simple, and all too rare.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

Patton Oswalt: Annihilation

Patton Oswalt Annihilation

Patton Oswalt is obviously a really smart guy. He has a jaw-dropping ability to react to, dissect, build on, and recontextualize situations on the fly. And anything that brings together him, Bob Goldthwait, and M. Ward can’t be all bad.

 

But . . .

 

You always get the feeling he could do better but he’s decided to take the easier path. (Witness his decision to play second banana on the MST3K reboot.)

 

He’s obviously trying to push his personal envelope with the Netflix Annihilation special, and the result is a comedy routine that’s frequently funny even when it ventures into what, even by the current, low standards, is uncomfortable territory. But it all ultimately feels safe—nerd safe.

 

There’s vast creative potential in exploring what happens when nerds are confronted by brutal reality in ways they can’t shrug off by retreating into a womb-like fantasy world. And Oswalt comes really close to going there—but he never crosses the line into the truly risky, and that’s where the special falls short. And that failure underlines an even greater flaw.

 

Oswalt has always been a guy in a bubble talking to other people inside the same bubble. He talks a lot in Annihilation about empathizing, but it’s not really empathizing if you’re just telling people who believe exactly what you do exactly what they want to hear.

 

He spends about the first third of the special venting, with good cause, over the current sad state of things. But he ultimately just reinforces his audience’s prejudices—the same smug, judgmental, knee-jerk behavior that helped create the crisis in the first place.

 

Simply put, if he can’t acknowledge the weaknesses in his positions, and by extension the positions of his audience, he’s not really empathizing. This epidemic of people within every imaginable political and cultural subgroup preaching only to the converted, and by doing so only reinforcing the oppressive divide & conquer worldview they claim to abhor, might be the single most malignant cultural disease.

 

That doesn’t mean every comedian should stop what they’re doing and submit their philosophies and dogma to merciless scrutiny—most of them aren’t up to the task so it would only lead to another empty exercise in narcissism. But the ones who claim to be deeply disturbed by the broken social landscape should, and they should do it publicly. Otherwise, nothing’s going to change.

 

Put another way, people have gotten so desperate for constant, unqualified praise that they’re scared crapless to challenge anybody or anything directly, and instead blame all their woes on some bogeyman Other.

 

But let me make the point again: Oswalt is really funny here. And he’s obviously really smart. So Annihilation is a good use of your time. I’m just not comfortable with anyone who decries the state of the world while turning a blind eye to what they’re doing to contribute to the fiasco.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.