Saturday, October 31, 2009

Transparent Holiday Greetings

For those who may be spending Halloween night at home, like I am, I thought I’d provide a momentary distraction: Muppet ghosts covering “I’m Looking Through You,” from the Vincent Price-hosted October 1976 episode of The Muppet Show.



I’m not sure if child me would have loved this or been terrified or the first and then the second.

(Via The Retroist.)

Fleeing a Haunted House

I had a nightmare on Wednesday, after I’d spent a few hours Magic Erasering the walls of my old bedroom to the point that my fingertip started bleeding. This ended the cleaning session, as the blood negated much of the erasers’ magic. It also may have planted the seeds for the bad dream. The narrative is simple: Much as I had in real life, I was standing in an empty version of my old bedroom, staring at plain white walls and rubbing the eraser in circles until every muscle in my arm ached. Unlike the actual version of events, I soon noticed that my fingers had actually started to pass through the wall itself — then wrists and then elbows. Around the time my face would have entered the now permeable drywall, I woke up. I’m not sure if dream me’s panicked yelling translated to any noise in waking life.

It stuck with me, this awful little movie that my brain invented without my permission. The next day — my last ever at the old address — I kept thinking about it, especially when I was standing in front of some vast expanse of white, sponging and essentially setting myself up for a reenactment of “Wacky Wall Washing.” Dreams don’t necessarily mean anything, I say, but that doesn’t mean that random images flashing in the night can’t be considered in the context of what happens during the daylight. For example, the night before the dream I watched TCM’s showing of The Haunting — the good 1963 version with Julie Harris. I’d seen it before, but I think I enjoyed it more the second time through, possibly because part of me related to Eleanor’s simultaneous attraction and repulsion to Hill House. Eleanor feared it because it was populated with ghosts, and I had come to hate my house for its oppressive stench of nostalgia. (Not helping the haunted house movie comparisons: The fact that my last few days cleaning it involved dodging spiders of every conceivable variety as they literally came out of the woodwork, all while the usually windy weather caused a spectral slamming of all the doors inside. Cue string section’s jump scene score.) I never thought I’d come to hate the old house: I loved it for a long time, and I have a lot of nice memories there. However, most of those memories involve people who aren’t around anymore. Just existing inside those walls had become a little painful, especially walking from one room to the next and thinking “This is where this happened. That is where that happened.” And then there’s the fact that the house itself is falling apart. In addition to being impossible to keep clean, the wood and metal that make up the house itself are decaying, almost as if collective memories were condensing inside, dripping down the walls and rotting through the walls.


Although I’m happy at the new place, where I’ve been living for almost a week, I will still miss the old one. That house had character, as everyone who visited had noted. (I imagine now that these friends used character to mean “dust,” “an odd floorplan,” “mismatched paint,” “no apparent living room,” “hardwood floors that are rapidly softening.”) The house was more of a character than anyone who ever lived in it. The day before the move, I told Aly that I felt like it wouldn’t happen — somehow, it would end up that we had to stay, because the house itself wanted us there, because the house wasn’t done with us. Just the fact that I started imagining that the old place had agency is probably a sign that it was time to get out, but I think these thoughts are especially telling when considered alongside a dream in which the house itself absorbed me into the walls.

Too many movie characters who go traipsing about in haunted houses never get out in time. Instead of running out while the front door still opens, they go deeper, into gloomy basements or dusty attics where evil things live, as we all know. I suppose I should be happy that I’m out now, sitting in a new place where all the ghosts were presumably packed up by the previous tenant. It’s an inappropriately beautiful October 31, and as I write this my bedroom is lit by a late afternoon glow the likes of which I would have never seen from my desk in my old bedroom.

empty_bedroom2222

I don’t care if the sentient, villainous house shows up in dreams again, because at least I know now that I’ll be waking up surrounded by new, more trustworthy walls.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Exclamations From Fortunate Writers

“Hey! This movie script just writes itself!”

“Hey! This harlequin romance novel just writes itself!”

“Hey! This kiss-ass profile of the local minor celebrity that no one cares about just writes itself!”

“Hey! This grocery list just writes itself!”

“Hey! This epic poem about Golda Meir just writes itself!”

“Hey! These bawdy limericks about Mr. Cramlock just write themselves!

“Hey! This whodunit set among a robot community living near the docks of a steampunk version of turn-of-the-century San Francisco just writes itself!”

“Hey! This Sonic the Hedgehog slash fiction just writes itself!”

“Hey! This living will in which I’m stiffing that one awful daughter just writes itself!”

“Hey! This passive-aggressive letter to the owner of that one cat with the continence problems just writes itself!”

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Squishy Fishy, Part Two

I have a friend, whose name I’m declining to mention, who works in Washington D.C. for a member of congress, whose name I’m also declining to mention. This friend occasionally reads my blog and happened to do so this morning, when she learned of the awful squishy fishy toilet seat. The following email describes the resulting action:
I was reading your blog this morning, the post about your new toilet seat, right as [NAME OF CONGRESS PERSON] walked in and said “Is that a toilet seat with fish on it?” Not really knowing what to say, I went with “Um, yeah, it is. Uh....” Because what really do you say when your boss, a member of congress, asks about a cushioned decorated toilet seat on your screen? At this point, the office had to come over and look at what I was reading. Could have been worse, I guess?
I’m just pleased to know that my blog has distracted an elected official, however briefly. Perhaps I can convince this congress member to pass anti-cushioned toilet seat legislation?

Squishy Fishy — A Short Rant About a Toilet Seat

Upon moving into our new place, Aly and I discovered that the toilet seat, which had always been up during walkthroughs, had fish embroidered into the top of the lid. This struck us as strange, as the lid and seat look fairly new while the guy who previously lived in this unit did so alone — no kids, no ichthyologist girlfriend, no halfwit brother who might see the design and clap his chubby hands saying “Fishies! Fishies!” Aly and I presume that the cleaning crew, after doing what they could with this toilet, closed the lid, like polite people do, finally allowing us new tenants to gaze upon the seat that should not be. However, the unwelcomed fish design, looking like something a six-year-old might have created with a handful of stickers and too little parental supervision, was the least of our objections, as we would soon learn.

awful toilet seat

Upon returning the lid to the up position so as to hide the stupid-looking fish, I found that the toilet seat itself was cushioned, by which I mean that component itself was not made of either porcelain or hard plastic but instead foam rubber. (I guess, then, the toilet seat itself is a cushion.) Short of a body embedded in the wall, this is one of the nastiest surprises I could imagine in a new house. The mere thought of a toilet seat with a squishy texture repulses me. Spongy textures have no place near wherever human waste is being expelled.

And although we’ve since removed the horrible thing, I can’t help thinking of a second reason to hate it: Specifically, who would be inclined to buy a cushioned toilet seat aside from somebody who spends such an inordinately long amount of time on the pot that the pressure of standard, firm seat against the rear end had apparently caused discomfort? Personally, I do what I have to do and then continue with my day, but whoever purchased Squishy Fishy clearly suffered from a digestive disorder, possibly from a parasite obtained while abroad or from some sort of voodoo curse. (I’m speculating here, but I’ll bet I’m not far off.) And now I have to wonder exactly how communicable that disease might be, for despite thee new, firm seat in place of the previous one, I am still using the same toilet, for the most part.

If you’re reading this now and I now you socially and you happen to have a seat like this one, please make every effort not to tell me.

In closing, enjoy two more pictures of the house, each fairly unrelated to this post’s topic. First, the pathetic contents of our fridge on the first night in the new place:

pathetic fridge

And, second, what Adam found in the backyard, buried in dead bamboo:

muddy baby doll

There is much to notice in this new place.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Symbolism?

The move is near complete. I eagerly await an exciting new life on the other side of town.

sojourns chapter four

When moving my bed this morning, I found a single page from a book. Despite being a lame title for any section of any book, Sojourns strikes me as a fitting word for what the next few months shall entail.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Steve Odor

Finally, now that I’m once again in the swing of posting regularly, I can offer this: a word of the week. I’ve chosen this one based on the fact that I’m currently watching The Wire, after years of hearing nothing but good things about it from everyone whose taste I trust. I’m now in the second season, which takes place largely in the Baltimore port and which makes use of a synonym for longshoreman that I’d never heard before.
stevedore (STEE-və-dohr) — noun: : one who works at or is responsible for loading and unloading ships in port
Something about this word amuses me, possibly because I imagine a lot of dock workers being named Steve. In fact, there’s probably more than a few stevedores named Steve out there, and every one of them is probably tired of people pointing out the similarity. I’d say it’s in everyone’s best interest not to point it out, because among the many things I have learned from The Wire is that you shouldn’t go around pissing off dock workers. They’ll fuck you up.


Similarities aside, the word stevedore doesn’t seem to have a direct relationship to the name Stephen, which comes from Greek and means “crown” or “garland.” Instead, stevedore comes to English from the Spanish for “one who loads cargo,” estibador — which, also happens to sounds like Estiban, the Spanish version of the name Stephen, and probably makes working life hard for a certain number of Spanish dockworkers. Estibador comes from the verb estibar, “to stow cargo,” which in turn comes from the Latin verb stipare, meaning “pack down” or “press” and related to the English word stiff.

Because I’ll probably never again discuss dockworkers on this blog, I’d also like to point out that looking into stevedore led me to the etymology of longshoreman as well. I’d always wondered exactly how that long fit into the term and why it seemed to imply that these people were long in some way. Not what it means. The word is simply a slight contraction of alongshore, as in “these guys work along the shore.”

One more thought on the second season of The Wire, though not word related: I can’t get over how rough Amy Ryan looks. Yes, she looks better than she did in Gone Baby Gone, but she’s not the ray of sunshine that is Holly Flax from The Office. Amy Ryan, stay cleaned up. We like you that way.

Previous words of the week:
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Friday, October 23, 2009

Demon Boyfriend: My Take on Paranormal Activity

A friend invited me to go see Paranormal Activity today, and I’m glad he did because had he not told me about the good reviews the film has been getting, I would have continued thinking it was just another one of the terrible, un-scary horror movies that have been passing through theaters lately. It’s not. It’s actually quite good and jarred me enough that I think it might stick with me through the night.

Walking out of the theater, I formulated a little theory about the film and have decided to share it here. However, if you have any inclination to see Paranormal Activity — and you should, if you appreciate a good scare and Blair Witch-style handheld camerawork doesn’t nauseate you — then I think you should skip this post for now, since I’ll give away much of the film’s plot.

a spooky nothing happening — and oh so effectively

Whether the writer-director intended to do so or not, he created interesting parallels between the film’s big bad — a nameless, shapeless, almost unseen demon — and Micah, one of the film’s two human characters. Essentially, the movie works like this: Katie, the heroine, has been plagued by paranormal activity most of her life, and though her boyfriend, Micah, knows this, he refuses to listen to her when the two discuss how they should remedy their situation. When Katie wants to call an exorcist, he tells her the idea is stupid. When Katie suggests that his decision to video document the strange phenomenon could be what’s angering the demon, he keeps the cameras rolling. And when a psychic explicitly forbids them to attempt to communicate with the demon through an ouija board — doing so could open up a door that can’t be closed, the psychic explains — Micah does so, even after promising Katie that he won’t. In short, Micah is a jerk who doesn’t really seem to have Katie’s best interest at heart.

Which kind of sounds like the demon itself. This entity focuses its attention on Katie — that is, it’s not attached to a particular house but to Katie herself — and like Micah it pretty much does whatever it wants to her, regardless of how she feels. If you view the film as a battle between Micah and the demon over Katie, then the demon has more of a claim to her, as it has been with her a lot longer. It’s not explicitly stated in the film, but it seems like the couple has moved in together fairly recently — and, really, that could be what prompted the recent flare-up in bumps in the night — but Katie and Micah’s relationship still feels fairly tentative; they’re only “engaged to be engaged,” as Micah tells the psychic, and Katie only seems to have recently mentioned to Micah of her invisible friend. Again, I don’t think it’s explicitly stated, but it may well be the case that Katie only told Micah about the demon because of the recent strangeness. Had they been closer or had Micah been less of a dick, Katie might have told him a lot sooner.

Perhaps because he still doesn’t believe Katie, Micah continues to taunt the demon, calling it “worthless” and daring it to show itself. This shitty attitude, in addition to the cameras, makes the demon bolder than it ever was before. It seems appropriate, then, that the film ends with an apparently possessed Katie waking up in the middle of the night and walking downstairs, beyond the view of the camera stationed in the couple’s bedroom. She screams bloody murder and then commits bloody murder when Micah races downstairs to rescue her. (How he plans to do this, given his lack of any demon removal system, is perhaps only known to Micah.) Finally, Katie trudges back up the stairs and tosses Micah’s corpse directly at the camera. We’re given only a close-up of possessed Katie’s contorted face before the screen goes black — blacker, really, since this scene takes place at night — and the non-credits roll. (There’s nothing at the end of the movie aside from copyright info and a note that the events are, despite appearances, fictional.)

It seems especially appropriate that dead Micah gets tossed directly into the thing that pissed the demon off in the first place. The fact that Katie does it — possessed Katie is still Katie, after all — is a nice touch: Even if she’s been completely consumed by this dark entity, she’s finally able to put Micah in his place and punish him for steamrolling her every effort at agency.

Katie had managed to survive her demon-infused life so far on her own. It’s Micah who screwed everything up. Moving in with him made everything worse, but even if she didn’t have to contend with demonic forces pushing and pulling her — sometimes literally — she’d still be an oppressed, suppressed, repressed person if she continued to live with Micah. He’s no demon, but he is a shitty boyfriend, who didn’t hesitate to shove a camera in her face when she asked him not to or infuriated her demon to the point that it completely overwhelmed her. I guess the demon won the fight, in every way possible, but by taking Katie and making her and it one, it totally triumphed over his feeble promise of “engaged to be engaged.” Demon says, “Dude, now I’m in her all the time. Beat that.”

Some women just have bad taste in men.

Who Gives a Fig About Sydelle Pulaski?

Two points of verbal interest for your Friday.

First, a new term that, much in the manner of cranberry morpheme and kangaroo word, strikes me as funny and oddly informal even though it is the correct way to refer to a particular linguistic concept: false friend. It refers to words in different languages that don’t mean the same thing but resemble each other to the point that they look like they should mean the same thing. Wikipedia offers a few examples of these verbal frenemies, the one most familiar to me being the English embarrass and the Spanish embarazada. The latter sounds like it should mean what the former does, but, as anyone who’s taken introductory Spanish knows, it actually means “pregnant.” Hilarity ensues. There’s a whole list of them, but I’m far less interested in the examples than I am in the term itself, which calls to mind two words who act all nice in person but then send defamatory text messages about each other to their cognates and synonyms.

The other bit involves a thing that I assumed had been invented by my father and was unique to my family: the phrase a wigwam for a goose’s bridle. This nonsensical string of words was used often in my house as a response to any question centered around the word what. For example: What are you looking for? What are we having for dinner? What did you get me for my birthday? In retrospect, I don’t know why we weren’t more forthright in answering each other’s questions. It turns out it that the phrase has been used in all English-speaking countries, especially Australia and New Zealand. And my dad is from New Zealand, so the story checks out. According to Wikipedia, the second word in the phrase at one point was not wigwam but whim-wham, an obsolete bit of vocabulary meaning “whimsical object” or “trinket.” (Curious, then, that the word would have been made more whimsical by attaching it to a headgear for a goose.) As whim-wham fell out of use, the phrase replaced it with wigwam. This substitution strikes me as an odd one, given that the phrase was most popular in nations whose residents had little reason to know the name of a Native American dwelling unit. But that’s the story nonetheless. Over at World Wide Words, Michael Quinion has collected a few other nonsense responses used to deflect questions by nosy passersby and inquisitive children. Among them:
  • a whim-wham for ducks to perch on
  • a whim-wham for a treacle mill
  • a whim-wham to wind the sun up
  • layovers to catch meddlers
  • a silver new nothing to put on your shoe
  • airlos to catch medlos
  • a whipple for a dooses poke
  • a pair of kitty britches
  • a wigwam for a goose’s bridle and a crutch for a lame duck
  • a whim-whom for grinding smoke
Now please go enjoy your Friday.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Bubbles Go In, Bubbles Come Out

Found and photographed at a thrift store in Ventura: something that clearly comes from an era when people cared less about child abuse.

bubblingboy

My only reason to regret not purchasing this miniature model of a crime is that I can’t explain to you where the bubbles actually come out, though I feel like any of the potential bubble escape holes should make everyone uncomfortable. Also: Why two pumps? One for air and one for…? Perhaps we’re better off not wondering.

Previous documentation of thrift store merchandise I did not buy:

Friday, October 16, 2009

Sega’s Less-Than-Groovy Heart

Another from that “cloudbush” thread — and one that gets to reference “Groove Is in the Heart,” so it’s inherently extra special. You remember the song, of course.



Apparently sometime after this song by Deee-Lite hit it big, the singer, Lady Miss Kier got word of the existence of Space Channel 5, a music-based video game released by Sega in 1999. Kier concluded the game’s mascot, Ulala, bore more than a passing resemblance to her own stage persona — specifically by being a dancing girl sporting knee-high boots, a short skirt, a pink ponytail — and sued Sega. There is a similarity, I have to admit.


And according to Kier, Sega offered $16,000 to use her likeness in the game. When she declined, Sega used it anyway. Sega maintains that Ulala was different enough that they could legally use the character. Ultimately, a judge ruled in Sega’s favor and Kier was forced to pay the video game company $608,000 in legal fees, which surely took a big chunk out of any money Kier would have made with the success of “Grove Is in the Heart,” the band’s only real hit. (I mean, they had a cover of “You Sexy Thing” on the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack, but how many other songs by Deee-Lite have you ever heard?) And so ends the strange and acrimonious intersection of these two pop culture elements that I wouldn’t have imagined had a shared history.

That is, except for an even more curious epilogue: “Groove Is in the Heart” is featured in the 2008 Wii game Samba de Amigo — another Sega-produced music-based game — and notably the song appears in a stage that also features a cameo by Ulala. And that’s either an ironic little coincidence or a very purposeful fuck-you from the video game giant and to Kier.

Less-than-groovy indeed.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Pretty Name No Matter How Your Pronounce It

What is it about using the letter “Z” to denote plurals that makes anything seem so much trashier? I honestly hope that if she doesn’t already give her last name as “LOOTZ” then she will soon start. This is why it’s helpful to allow email users to pick their own addresses rather than assigning them according to one single formula.


From Sanam, from the Colorado State University website. What’s not helping: the fact that Professor Lutz looks just a little like Padma Lakshmi on a bad day.

Also: previous entries in the “Ha Ha — This Person’s Name” series.

Nothing Nipped

Welcome back, Nip/Tuck. You never fail to disappoint.


Really, all my friends are here to help me welcome you back, save for A and DU and BH and I and DFS. But this is about as stern a warning as I’m used to getting via television.

Also, the fact that the episode is sponsored by Smirnoff is unremarkable. The fact that the ads airing during this show are encouraging me to “drink responsibly” seems mean-spirited.

The Effects Come Out of Where?

When I heard it on TV, I actually had to hit the eight-second rewind button to make sure that I had heard correctly. I did. Proof that not every product being marketed to a national audience pays a professional to offer the pluses and minuses of a given brand name.


Yes, this new heartburn medication has a name that is pronounced almost identically to “ass effects” — as in “This new heartburn medication has some rather unfortunate ass effects.” The odd part is that the way the name is written, AcipHex, might lead you to pronounce it “assip hex” — which isn’t much better but at least doesn’t immediately make someone think of oily discharge or other personal tragedies.

For what it’s worth, the medication’s website does note that AcipHex may cause diarrhea in adolescents and constipation in adults, so at least we can’t snag them on false advertising.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Charades Submissions From a Party Attended by Dicks

The first Thanksgiving

Kate and Allie

Elasmosaurus

A ghost pirate ship

Feigned reluctance

A flock of 23 horned sheep

That generic brand of vodka you can get at Vons

The first season Thanksgiving episode of Kate and Allie, but specifically the scene where Allie drinks an entire bottle of that generic brand vodka you can get at Vons

Deadly microbes

Linoleum

(Please note: Several of the items on the above list could also feasibly be Pictionary submissions from a party attended by dicks.)

Monday, October 12, 2009

Reading Peepee

Earlier this month, a blog I read, Pain in the English, wondered how we arrived at pp as an abbreviation for pages. A good question: Really, what the hell? And while I still don’t really understand why, I can at least give a little bit of info on the practice. Way back in freshman high school Latin, I saw a photo in the textbook of a Roman coin. On the coin was the face of some monarch or political official, and he or she was noted as being the rule of the British Isles. However, the coin referred to this area specifically as Brittania or something thereabouts, with a double “T.” The textbook noted that doubling the letter somehow made the word plural, in the same way as English-speakers today use pp to mean pages. Didn’t make sense, but that’s what the book said.

According to Wikipedia, this way of pluralizing abbreviations — by doubling the letter, without using periods — isn’t exactly common but nonetheless exists in English, Latin, and the languages that descended from Latin. It seems to be particularly prevalent in the world of writing and publishing — vv for volumes, ss for sections, MSS for manuscripts, dd for didots and opp for opera in the sense of that word being the plural of opus. The two that didn’t have anything to do with the written word were hh, for hands, as in the units used to measure the height of a horse, and PP for popes. I can’t imagine why only these seemed to have survived — or at least made it to Wikipedia — or why only pp seems to be widely understood, especially since I can imagine teachers would specifically avoid using it so as to prevent an opportunity for little kids to make the exact kind of joke I made in this blog post’s title.

I guess this style is an easy way to show plurality while still keeping the abbreviation as short as it possibly could be, but I can’t help myself from thinking that it’s a little strange. But then again, I may be spoiled by English, whose letter “S” makes pluralizing a lot easier than it is in, say, Latin. In fact, as far as letter abbreviations go, it’s very easy — CDs, DVDs, SATs, BMs, SOBs. The only problem our style of plural abbreviations poses is one that anyone having to write about report cards knows: “I got two Bs, two Cs, and two As,” with the last one being hard to distinguish from the word as, especially if you have a hatred of the grocer’s apostrophe ground in your head.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Long Way From “Try My Googi Googi”

Am I the only one to be a little impressed that NBC’s four major Thursday night sitcoms all feature Indian-American actors? Think about it: There’s Mindy Kaling on The Office, Maulik Pancholy on 30 Rock, Aziz Asnari on Parks & Recreation, and Danny Pudi on the brand-new Community. Should I be impressed? Should I have even noticed? Should I consider these actors’ newfound fame a sign that the racial make-up of the people on major network primetime television is ever so slightly beginning to mirror the diversity of TV audiences?



I tried to think of other Indian-American actors who appeared in shows or movies that left an appreciable impact on American popular culture. Sendhil Ramamurthy (who plays Mohinder on Heroes), Ajay Naidu (Samir Not-Gonna-Work-Here Anymore from Office Space), M. Night Shyamalan (who just writes himself into bit parts in the movies he directs) and the actress who played the waitress at Café Nervosa on Fraiser. (That might sound like a joke, but it’s not. Luck Hari may be only credited with 11 appearances on IMDb, but I could swear she appeared in the background of nearly scene set in the coffeehouse. The credits might just be her speaking parts.) Now, the line-up formerly known as Must See TV is once again something that people seem to enjoy and actively watch, and it features these four actors of Indian descent — Asian-Americans, technically speaking, but something other than the Chinese-, Japanese-, or Korean-Americans that I think most people would think of when they hear the term.

It may not be surprising to some, I guess. Wikipedia says that as of 2007, 2,570,000 Indian-Americans — or Asian Indians, which some use to avoid confusion with American Indians — currently live in the U.S. That’s less than one percent of the total U.S. population, but that’s apparently still enough to get increased representation on at least one network, on one night. It’s also worth noting, perhaps, that only one of the four shows I’m talking about, 30 Rock, takes place in the kind of big city where a diverse cast would be more expected. (Is Scranton, Pennsylvania, considered a big city? Is The Office’s version of it a big city?) The fictional settings of Parks & Recreation and Community — Pawnee, Indiana, and Greendale, Colorado — both seem like nondescript, mid-sized, American towns.

Even better than just being on these shows, the characters aren’t tired stereotypes. They’re not immigrants. They don’t run mini-marts or drive taxis. They don’t forbid their daughters to play soccer. Within my lifetime the vast majority of Asian and Asian-American characters on sitcoms not only enforced one stereotype or another — and often seemed to exist for no other apparent reason. Remember Babu Bhatt on Seinfeld? His character can basically be summed up as “naïve immigrant” and then “angry immigrant. (Worse: He’s from Pakistan, but his name is Indian. And the guy who played him is neither Indian or Pakistani. And Seinfeld was a good show.) It would appear that this is less often the case now. On 30 Rock, for example, Jonathan’s ethnicity has never been mentioned, aside from the fact that Jack Donaghy mistook him for M. Night Shyamalan when they first met. Jonathan’s role on the show — that of Jack’s Smithers — could have been played just as easily by an actor by any other race.

This is mostly true for Kelly Kapoor as well, save for the one Diwali-centric episode of The Office and the fact that occasionally finds herself on the receiving end of remarks that are either insulting to or ignorant of Indian people and their culture. Really, that’s how the character debuts — on the “Diversity Day” episode, with Michael Scott speaking to her in what he thinks an Indian accent might sound like and asking her to “try my googi googi.” But these jokes aren’t really at the heart of the character. What makes Kelly so entertaining is the fact that she’s a total idiot. In fact, she herself doesn’t really understand Indian culture and doesn’t seem to care to. In light of the fact that the stereotypical Indian-American employee character would be smart, accented and possibly dressed in traditional Indian style, Kelly being airheaded, hyper-Americanized and more obsessed with celebrity gossip and boys than anything else is actually kind of cool. She’s a stereotype-breaker.

Aziz Asnari’s character on Parks & Recreation might be just as interesting, as far as bucking stereotypes. A self-proclaimed redneck, the character was in a recent episode asked why his name is Tom Haverford instead of anything that sounds remotely Indian. He explained that his birth name is Darwish Zabir Ishmael Ghani, but he “changed it to Tom Haverford because, you know, brown guys with funny-sounding Muslim names don’t make it really far in politics.” (He then notes that if he had known someone named Barack Obama would be elected president, then he maybe wouldn’t have changed it.) Aside from reminding other characters that he was, in fact, born in the U.S., this little bit of background marked the only discussion of Tom being Indian so far on the show, or at least that I can remember. And I think it’s interesting that Tom seems to have consciously made himself the opposite about what people might assume he would be, a lot like how a writer for one of these sitcoms might have sat down and said “Okay, let’s do an Indian character, but let’s maybe not make him be an I.T. guy or a molecular scientist or an Apu.”

Someone casually watching Parks & Recreation’s first season might think that the role of Tom had been written and then given to Asnari in an act of colorblind casting. But I don’t think that’s the case, since Ansari was the first person attached to what was called Untitled Amy Poehler Project or Amy Poehler: Beyond Thunderdome aside from Poehler herself. If anything, Ansari probably had some say in who’d he be playing and what he’d be like. If it was planned from the beginning that Tom was going to be this guy that purposefully tries to distance himself from Indian culture, that makes it all a lot more interesting.

Again, maybe this isn’t as significant and I’m treating it, but I feel like it’s worth noting, if for no other reason than that five years ago I wouldn’t have imagined as many Indian-American actors on so major shows. It just doesn’t seme like it could have happened. I don’t know what changed, but I’m glad it did.

SIDENOTE: Not technically on the same subject, but related enough. I also wouldn’t have guessed that Saturday Night Live — which, up until last week, had an extra half-hour edition on Thursdays — would feature an Iranian-born performer, if only because there are relatively few Persian actors in Hollywood much less many in the sketch comedy circuit. My guess about Nasim Pedrad: She’ll be the new Maya Rudolph — the female utility castmember who can play women of just about any ethnicity. She’s already been Charlene Yi, Kathy Griffin and Genevieve Waite. Just the fact that SNL could make use of such a person could easily be another indicator of slowly changing American culture, as there are now enough non-white women of note that sketch comedy needs to make fun of them.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Hand That Rocks the Sitcom

So Seinfeld did meta. This is not debatable. The best example would be the show eating itself in the fourth season story arc involving Jerry’s production of Jerry, a sitcom that parodied Seinfeld. You could and should even argue that this blurring of real-life and TV show fiction continued with last Sunday’s episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, “The Reunion,” which brought the four leads from Seinfeld back together. The tendency for Seinfeld to draw from real life resulted in some more subtle bits, too — some that weren’t apparently intended as “ha ha” jokes as much as in-jokes existing only to tie the Seinfeldverse to something more concrete. Today, I remembered a good example: the other Rebecca Demornay. I’ve been unable to explain her existence since the character first appeared in the episode “The Muffin Tops” back in 1997.

In the episode, Elaine and Mr. Lippman, her old boss at Pendant Publishing, open a bakery called Top of the Muffin To You!, which serves only the tops of muffins. In order to make the products taste good, however, the whole muffin must be cooked and the stump discarded. Elaine decides to drop off the stumps at a homeless shelter, which prompts a visit from an angry volunteer, played by character actress Sonya Eddy.

YouTube, of course, has the specific clip at the ready:


Even as a kid, having seen only Risky Business and Backdraft, I knew about the actress Rebecca De Mornay and thought it was weird that this character would identify herself with the same name. (Or close to it, anyway. IMDb spells the character’s name Rebecca DeMorne, while most other sources list it as Rebecca Demornay, like the actress but without the space.) The clip above features the extent of the character’s appearance in the episode, and she could have easily just not been named and not introduced herself. But she does — and elicits the faintest of chuckles from the audience, even though there’s nothing really funny about her having the name aside from the fact that the real Rebecca De Mornay is blonde and pretty and relatively young and this soundalike is African-American, heavyset and middle-aged. Is that supposed to be the joke?

The matter gets weirder when you consider that Rebecca Demornay — the character, not the actress — appears again in the following season’s episode “The Bookstore,” as a clerk at thrift shop. (IMDb lists the character’s name as Rebecca Demornay and not Rebecca Demorne.) This time she interacts with George and makes a point of clarifying her name. From the episode script, per this website:
REBECCA: What’s the value of the book?

GEORGE: Uh, about two hundred dollars, Miss Demooney.

REBECCA: It’s Demornay. Rebecca Demornay.

GEORGE: Oh.

REBECCA: (Opens the cover of the book) Oh, wait a second. This book has been in the bathroom.

GEORGE: Wh-what are you talking about? That’s ridiculous.

REBECCA: It’s been flagged. I know. I used to work in a Brentano’s. Mister, we’re trying to help the homeless here — it’s bad enough that we have some nut out there trying to strap ‘em to a rickshaw!

GEORGE: Alright, I’ll just take fifty. Do we have a deal?

REBECCA: Yeah, and here it is: You get your toilet book out of here, and I won’t jump over this counter and punch you in the brain!
No clue on this one, folks. Why take the name of a known person and attach it to an angry bit character with a propensity for helping the homeless? A Google search turned up fairly little, aside from the fact that at least one other person thinks this is strange and bothered to say so online. Most websites just note — often in bios of Rebecca De Mornay the actress — that an almost identically named character appeared on Seinfeld without pressing the matter any further. Admittedly, when the episodes aired, the real De Mornay wasn’t exactly at the height of her career, but she still would have been familiar enough to anyone with an awareness of films from the previous ten years. I mean, this is like if I wrote a TV show today and decided to name an incidental but recurring character Neve Campbell — or, ten years from now, Evangeline Lilly. And it’s not like De Mornay is a common last name, by any stretch.

Anyone? Friends? Pop culture sponges? Helpful people Googling their way here?

EDIT: Years later, I finally asked the writer and got the answer.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Today: “My Sexy Teen Is Too Sexy!”

Because I watched a lot of TV in the years after single digits and before college, I often find myself explaining or even justifying the strange programming that aired in the mid- to late 90s — often to people that missed it by virtue of not being the in U.S. at the time or simply by virtue of having had something better to do. While driving today, I remembered a staple of the daytime talk shows of era: those episodes where parents would complain that their underage daughters dressed too sexy. (Even though they presumably would have had to be the ones supplying the thongs and assorted other thong-like clothing items. To paraphrase The Simpsons, “I’ve tried everything but talking to her. Help me, TV show!”) The daughters would gyrate. Eventually, a black man wearing camouflage would come out yell at the girls until they cried. And that was the end of the show. I can distinctly recall variations on this premise airing on both Maury Povich and Sally Jesse Raphael, and I can’t imagine that every other Jenny and Ricki and So and So wouldn’t have run with the idea as well. It was at least pervasive enough to inspire that South Park episode. I just want to know who thought up the idea in the first place. “Do you people would be into it if we had this fake military guy treating scantily clad 13-year-olds like prison inmates? And maybe he could rough them up a little? Oh? Not that last part? Okay, how about just make them cry and then the audience can yell things too? Yeah? Good?”

It also occurs to me that a lot of the too-sexy teens could have kids of their own by now. (I mean, if their brief moments of fame are any indication of the years that followed, how could they not?) And they could at this very moment be telling the second-generation strumpetettes that thought it is, in fact, their body, they cannot actually do whatever they want. Then again, I suppose there’s always the chance that the spawn of too-sexy would rebel by going frumpy. And unless I’m mistaken, there were a good share of “Help Me Sex Up My Dowdy Daughter” and thereabouts.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

She Wears Her Pixels Well

So a video game I played when I was a kid has a transsexual in it. And for once I’m not talking about Birdo. I’m instead talking about someone in Final Fight, the game that taught me that when the mayor’s daughter gets kidnapped, the natural response for the mayor is to remove his shirt and take to the street, savagely beating local toughs until he finds her. The fact that the game features a transsexual should not be news to anyone who made it through my post on the origins of video game characters’ names — which, depending on your perspective, was either epic or recklessly indulgent. But yesterday, some aimless Wikipedia wandering brought me across the page for this particular Final Fight villain. (Yes, she gets her own Wikipedia page.)


Here’s what I learned about Poison:
Poisons first appearance in Final Fight featured her and a palette swap character named Roxy as recurring minor enemies for the player to fight… According to the book All About Capcom Head to Head Fighting Games, the characters were originally planned to be female, but were changed to male transvestites (or more specifically newhalfs) due to the suggestion that “hitting women was considered rude” in America and the concern that feminist groups would sue.
Let’s take a moment to digest this fact — which, given that it came from Wikipedia, could potentially be an untrue fact. Some employee at a Japanese video game company thought that an effective way to skirt — ha! — the issue of the American reluctance to wale on women would be to simply say that the things that look like women are actually effeminate men who had surgery to become women. This is an example of cross-cultural communication breaks down.

Assumptions and presumptions — some made by me, some made by them:
  • Americans have a problem hitting women, but people in Japan apparently don’t. (My assumption.)
  • The problem lies not in the fact that hitting women is immoral but simply rude. (Their assumption.)
  • Hitting transsexuals, however, is fine. (Theirs.)
  • Americans — as of 1989, when Final Fight hit arcades — either are fine with transsexuals or are fine with them in a context where hitting them is appropriate. (Theirs.)
  • There is nothing strange or wrong about taking a given work — in this case, a video game — and making the only prominent female character a transsexual. (Theirs.)
  • American feminist groups would bother to sue over a game in which a male character was allowed to strike a female character, even if that female character was villainous and part of a street gang. (Theirs.)
  • Perceived American hang-ups about hitting women were apparently ignored by Capcom staff by 1991, when the company released Street Fighter II, which featured female fighter Chun-Li. (Mine.)
  • Japanese people have radically different attitudes towards women and transsexuals. (Mine.)
I suppose it’s also worth noting that Word’s spellcheck function wanted to change newhalfs to narwhals. And that’s about the only thing that would make all this more interesting.

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