Thursday, February 21, 2008

Comedic niches

Will Ferrell is a wildly popular actor, able to turn a mediocre movie into comedic gold with his unique blend of physical comedy and deadpan delivery. Ferrell has mastered playing various takes on a particular stock character, the well-meaning, ill-informed oaf. He is rarely given a role that deviates much from this likeable buffoon; like any other human being, Ferrell has been penned into a comedic pigeonhole.

Everyday social interaction is a complex dance of morals, motives, and customs, with participating parties vying to be interesting but not offensive, intelligent but not pretentious, nice but not unctuous. Humor is an essential part of this strange dance. It is used to demonstrate social comfort, ease tensions, as well as engender goodwill in cultures across the world. The role that humor plays is as complicated as it is vital.

As one establishes an identity within a group, one establishes a humor niche at the same time. A humor niche is not necessary (meaning not everyone in a group will be a jokester), but individuals will prove themselves prone to certain types of humor as a social group develops. Once these niches are set, it is exceedingly hard to venture outside the boundaries that gradually delineate one’s comedic role.

Consider a small college class of 10-15 people. Early in the semester, by being brave enough to take a risk and crack jokes in front of an unfamiliar audience, one student will become the “alpha” class clown. As the semester continues, several other students will become comfortable enough with the group to show the comedic sides of their personalities. Often each student will have a particular brand of humor (sexual, cynical, confrontational, sarcastic, etc.) that becomes his or her trademark.

If a student who has not earned the confrontational humor badge tries to assert himself in this manner, the other students (the audience) will be caught off guard and likely will not react with laughter, the desired response. Thus this student will henceforth be much less likely to attempt a joke out of his/her domain. Someone who is not known for sexual (or race-based) jokes may be deemed offensive if he attempts a joke of that nature. Likewise, a student who is quiet most of the time, but pipes up with a funny, but unexpected, wisecrack, will see his audience squirm in uncertainty as they decide whether to laugh. Initial silence is often a comedic death sentence.

An audience must be primed for maximum comedic effect; if each individual comprising the audience assumes the others will laugh, he will laugh. If he is not sure, he will hesitate. Someone with a proven reputation for funny comments has the advantage of “preemptive laughter.” The audience is already gathered at the cliff; all he has to do is push them over.

My personal comedic niche is actually fairly nebulous. It is most evident in smaller groups, and fades to the background as the group grows. In my own circle of friends there are the following talents/niches: impressions, deadpan, wacky randomness, “that’s what she said” comments, puns, as well as people who pitch in occasional jokes, etc. Each person plays his or her role, and is duly accepted for it.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Are you a crumpler?

Imagine you have a sheet of paper to throw away. Do you crumple it up before tossing it out or just put it in as it is? (Ideally you would recycle it, but we’ll exclude that option from this particular thought experiment.) Does your answer change depending on your proximity to the wastebasket? What about the size of the piece of paper? Or the amount of trash already in the container? So many things to consider!

I understand crumpling a piece of paper in frustration, but it seems many people automatically crumple, despite the extra effort involved. Perhaps they do it to reinforce the “trash-ness” of the paper—their mental archetype of a discarded piece of paper is necessarily a crumpled ball. Or perhaps crunching the paper into a ball allows them to turn the act of throwing it away into a miniature game, but this reason loses validity if the person is sitting next to the trashcan.

Conversely, it seems when most people discard empty food containers, such as plastic bottles and cardboard boxes, they neglect to compact them. This means a trashcan accumulates trash much faster than it would if the containers were compressed. The effort required to flatten a cardboard box or compress a plastic bottle is minimal and saves a surprising amount of space. Admittedly, the satisfaction gleaned from squashing these objects is inferior to crumpling a sheet of paper, which turns into an aesthetically pleasing and aerodynamic ball.

Compress containers, and you’ll be amazed at how much less frequently you will have to take out the trash. Or do one better and just recycle. Paper. Plastic. Glass. Even cardboard. Pretty soon all your trash for the week will fit in one plastic grocery bag. Which you shouldn’t use, because they’re bad for the environment. So stop crumpling. Keep reading...

Thursday, February 14, 2008

An exercise in brevity

Legend has it that Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to write a story in only six words. His response? “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” SMITH magazine asked readers last year to create six-word memoirs, the best of which were recently published in the book "Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure." As all writers know, it's incredibly hard to distill a thought down to its essence, much less a life. Feel free to post your own mini-memoirs here (or on the original site, below).

SMITH Magazine

Similarly, economist Stephen Dubner, best known for co-authoring the wildly popular book Freakonomics, recently asked readers of his blog to submit six-word mottos for the United States (Example: Coming to a country near you!). Results after the link.

Freakonomics blog
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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Sorry, I don't know what that error message means

Sometimes I am confronted with a minor technological problem that I am unable to solve. It may be malfunctioning software, an unfamiliar tool in Excel or difficulty operating my iPod. Undoubtedly many people experience similar frustration; countless books, magazines, and websites exist solely to help the technologically-challenged. But for me, a middle-class American who has grown up in the internet age, a touch of shame is added to the emotional mix. As someone who is expected by society to have a certain skill, I feel doubly unfortunate for lacking it, much as a black male who can’t dunk or an Asian who can’t integrate a function to save his life suffer doubly by failing to live up to their respective stereotypes. Sidenote: “positive” stereotypes may be more damaging to the victim’s self-esteem, whereas more common “negative” stereotypes are more damaging to society at large.

Contrary to what some may expect, I don’t own a video-game system, I’m perfectly satisfied with a cell-phone that reliably makes and receives calls, and I avoid texting and instant messaging whenever possible.

Nonetheless, I feel solely as a function of my demographic identity I should be a tech whiz, able to give advice on an array of topics, the scope of which increases constantly. An example of the subjects I feel expected to be well-versed in: editing a film in iMovie, explaining in exacting detail the difference between 1080i and 1080p resolution; designing a blog or website; fixing a downed internet connection; understanding the ins and outs of the HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray debate, and providing a comparison of DLP, plasma and LCD television screens. While my knowledge of emerging technologies is certainly superior to that of most adults I know (some of whom have asked about the website “MyFace” and the difference between a browser and an internet service provider), I am a victim of the truism that the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. My web savvy just scratches the surface of the iceberg (excuse the mixed metaphors) that is the internet. New applications and memes develop on a daily basis, and it is impossible to keep up.

To all the digitally-handicapped adults out there who need help I have an suggestion, on behalf of me and my Facebooking, texting, iPod-toting peers: you teach us how to fix a leaky faucet and put up wallpaper, and we’ll show you how to make a sweet PowerPoint presentation. We’ll email you a link to a podcast of it. Just kidding.

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Thursday, February 7, 2008

Cool Typefaces

Ad for Playboy Germany
Translation: Who says men don't like to read?

Post-It Note font

Urban Type by Lisa Reinerman Keep reading...

How a candidate's logo design influences voters

Campaign 2008 is a study in voter psychology. With a field of trailblazing candidates (a woman, an African-American, a Mormon), the electorate is relying more than usual on "soft" factors such as likability and personal appearance to make their decision. Pentagram's Michael Bierut analyzes the design various candidates' bumper stickers, and the Boston Globe delves into the nuances of type choices in each candidate's logo.

Michael Bierut for Newsweek Online

Boston Globe, 1-27-08 Keep reading...

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Songs that give me goosebumps

Some music is perfect for getting pumped up, some is perfect for quiet introspection. The following songs fit in the latter category. Some you may have heard of, some are likely new. All make my spine tingle every time I hear them. They're musical melancholy, and I love them.

"Bibo no Aozora" (From Babel) - Ryuichi Sakamoto
"Mad World" (From Donnie Darko) - Gary Jules
"Claire de Lune" - Claude DeBussy
"Moonlight Sonata" - Ludwig van Beethoven
"The Opening" - Philip Glass
"Brick" - Ben Folds Five
"Against All Odds" - The Postal Service
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Friday, February 1, 2008

The genius of NY Times Magazine cover design

Most mainstream periodicals have a cover style they adhere to fairly strictly, from The New Yorker’s trademark cartoons to the headshots of celebrities featured on Cosmo, GQ, Esquire, and Elle. The New Yorker’s style is unique and instantly recognizable, while cover shots on the latter are largely interchangeable. Furthermore, magazines like Cosmo and GQ rely primarily on a change in the color of the logotype to differentiate issues month to month. These covers follow a general pattern of full-page graphic, usually a photograph, with a few lines about the articles within. This is a safe design, used also by all three main news magazines (Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report), as well as Sports Illustrated, National Geographic, and other widely circulated publications. The only major newsmagazine that breaks the mold is The Economist (based in the U.K.), which uses quirky cartoons and photo-illustrations to provoke thought or amusement in the reader. Economist covers range from the tacky to the profound, but they certainly all share the same sensibility.

It is the Sunday Magazine supplement in The New York Times that most fully explores the range of the front-page possibilities. While some covers are simple portraits (Giuliani, Romney, Obama, Huckabee, and Clinton have all been prominently featured in recent months), others are the result of time-consuming hand lettering and illustration. Above, four examples demonstrate the variety of techniques used by a layout designer to visually communicate the cover’s subject to the reader. From watercolor painting to collage, to nearly a full page of text, each is compelling in its own way. The type stays consistent throughout, with respect to both font and size. Thus the covers all share a distinctive feel, despite the difference in appearance.

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