Monthly Archives: October 2012

Updated review of the “Jaybird JF3 Freedom” Bluetooth earbuds

In my previous review of the Jaybird JF3 Freedom earbuds I extolled their virtues.  I also said how tough they were.

Well, last week my beloved earbuds died.  They are indeed tough on the outside, but the inside, not so much.  The battery won’t take a charge anymore.

The little red button goes on when I plug it in, so it looks like it’s charging, but the little red button doesn’t do nuthin’ once it’s off the charger.

Sadly, I only got 10 months out of it.  But considering I used it every day, I’m willing to forgive.  It has a one year warranty so I’ll see if I can get a replacement.  That is, if my wife can find the original receipt, which is looking unlikely at this point.

I tried using a pair of wired earbuds for a day and managed to get them caught on my bike seat, my jacket collar, my car steering wheel, and my butt (I sat on the cord).

“Screw this,” I said.

So I went out to Best Buy and got a new pair.  Interestingly, at least to me, nothing has changed.  The package has changed (old one on the left, new one on the right):

But everything else is identical.  Same buds, same case, same accessories, same price, and to my disappointment, same performance.  I was hoping they would have improved transmission outdoors, but nope.

Ah well.  They are still damned good buds.

And so far I haven’t managed to sit on them while they are in my ears.

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The Funny Thing About Humor Part 5: Humor Under Stress

This is Part 5 of my series on humor.

Have you ever been in a stressful situation where someone says something not-so-funny, and everyone has fits of hysterics, but no one really knows why?  You try to relate it to someone later but you give up before you embarrass yourself.  “Guess you had to be there,” you mumble.

I’m not talking about nervous laughter, exactly.  That is when people try to laugh to reduce tension, but they are not happy.  It doesn’t do much for the tension, either.

I’m talking here about a real laugh for real stress relief.  People laugh for many reasons.  To put others at ease, to create a social bond, to soften a harsh comment, et cetera.

In fact, laughter is such a part of our normal speech that we stick it in conversations that replace normal speech, such as texting, and even emails.  omg ew! lol 🙂

Consider two young people on a first date.  They are both nervous, so he tries a self-deprecating joke, like: “Sorry I’m late, but I had to run this shirt by my mom.”  She replies with a shy smile.  They drive to a restaurant.  He tries a couple more jokes in the car.  She smiles at the first and laughs the second.  During the meal he keeps the gigglefest rolling.  Later that night he drops her off and is rewarded with a peck on the cheek and a squeeze of the hand.

The next morning her friends swarm her for a recap of the previous night.  She says he has a great sense of humor, although she can’t remember any of his jokes.  That’s okay, they weren’t that funny anyway.  But they did their job.

That kind of humor typically doesn’t work in fiction, unless the audience is truly caught up in the scene.  It’s more of a visual thing too.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put that kind of dialog in your scenes — you should, because that is how people speak — but don’t expect your audience to find it as funny as you do.  Or you would, if you were there.

It’s like the irritating “laugh here now” cue, otherwise known as the laugh track.  It works in TV shows but books are spared this form of coerced mirth.

Hmm… maybe we could put it in a footnote?**

FYI, the laugh track was born on radio in the forties and found its way into television a decade later, where it became more and more popular, because it was cheaper than having a real audience.  By the sixties it was a sitcom staple.  It was even used in cartoons; they figured kids were too dumb to realize there could be no real audience for a cartoon.  Or they didn’t care what kids thought.

Think the laugh track is gone?  Sitcoms that are “filmed before a live studio audience” are still recorded, so they are not really “live”.  This allows sound engineers to use “sweetening”, where they add artificial laughter to saccharine up the real laughter, or they wipe out the studio laughter altogether then dub in a laugh track using the real laughter as a cue.  You would think that would hurt their critical potential, but even the Emmy Awards uses sweetening.  It’s all about control, people.

There is a physiological reaction to note here too.  Ever had the problem where you can’t stop laughing?  Laughter stimulates emotional and endorphin release, which makes us feel good.  This releases more endorphins, which makes us feel better.  We get high on laughter.  Jokes should be illegal.**

Anyway, what I’m really talking about in the context of this essay is the need to vent the pressure cooker of a tense scene or sequence of scenes, to let out a little steam before the pot (plot?) explodes.

This technique occurs all the time in fiction.  It’s called comic relief.

The simplest form of comic relief is tossing in a joke now and then.  The ideal timing is while the tension is building but not too close to the climax.  You can use Humor in the Unexpected or draw on Instant Humor.

Let’s take two examples from The Avengers.  In this movie, the forces of Earth face annihilation, and they are “hopelessly and hilariously outgunned”.  So they call on a group of “lost creatures” to save them.  Enter our superheroes.  They are as different as superheroes can be, they don’t get along well together, and they didn’t ask for this.  Oh, the possibilities for conflict!

First, recall the scene in Stark and Banner’s laboratory on the aircraft carrier, where they confront Nick Fury about what is really going on.  The rotating rapid-fire arguing ratchets up the tension, released periodically by Stark’s witty insults and the beginning of a grudge match between Captain America and Iron Man.

In the meantime, the real climax is building without anyone noticing.  This conversation is a distraction!  It ends with a bang (actually several, from without and within) and our heroes see how Loki has been manipulating them the whole time.

A second example is near the end of the final battle, when The Hulk confronts Loki in Stark’s tower / mancave.  Outside, the battle rages and Earth’s future is still in doubt, but the writers need the tension to last a little longer.  So they introduce a little comic relief.

I won’t spoil it in case you have not seen the movie yet (see it! it was an incredibly well written and directed film) but I will say I have never heard an audience laugh so hard in an action movie.  I couldn’t hear the rest of the scene.  For the writers, it was mission accomplished: this bit of comic relief allowed the director to keep the action going for much longer than an audience could normally stand.

Another popular reason for introducing comic relief is to liven up a story that would otherwise be bleak and uninteresting, either because of the setting, or because the main character is the strong silent type.  Many movies introduce a character specifically for this purpose.

A goofy sidekick is a popular but clumsy way to go.  If you are trying to create drama, a loveable moron can ruin all your hard work.  If you stick Harpo Marx into Unforgiven you get Blazing Saddles.**

Much better is to create comic relief from a “real” character based on his or her own traits.  It should be predictable in that it fits the character, such as Humor in the Expected, and/or unpredictable in that it doesn’t fit the situation, such as Unexpected Humor in the Expected.

For example, contrast the characters of Jar-Jar Binks and Han Solo.  Jar-Jar was a blatant comic relief character.  The story needed him because the other characters were so dour (they were Jedi, that was the point), but he was otherwise superfluous to the plot.  He was also dumbed-down for kids, and as a result most adult moviegoers hated him.  So let’s ignore him and move on.

Instead, look at Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back.  He had a cavalier attitude toward life and was flippant in stressful situations.  He was integral to the plot, likeable, and he could behave unpredictably sometimes because that was part of his character.  Thus he was perfect for providing comic relief when the story needed it.

Remember when Princess Leia tells Han she loves him just before he was about to be frozen into an uncertain future?  He only responds, “I know.”  That’s Unexpected Humor in the Expected.  It lets a little steam out of the pressure cooker, and then the lid slams back down as the carbonite seals him in.  The climax of the scene hits harder because of that tiny release a minute before.

So in fiction, a little comic relief is not just for introducing humor for its own sake, it is to intensify the drama.  It is the calm before the storm.  It’s standing in the eye of the hurricane.  It’s getting a brief respite from the battering winds, enough to take a breath and inspect the damage, and then bam! they blow you over.

From cooking metaphor to storm metaphor.  I could write for Hell’s Kitchen.

Stay tuned for Part 6: Un-Humor.


**LAUGH HERE NOW!

The Funny Thing About Humor Part 4: Instant Humor

This is Part 4 of my series on humor.

The previous three parts of this series looked at creating humor in a scene.  Now let’s look at instant humor, in other words, humor that you can create in an instantaneous.  (That was an inside joke, for people following my blog.)

First let’s look at gags.  Merriam Webster defines them as “a laugh-provoking remark or act”.  In other words, gags are the bits of slapstick, the pratfalls, the good natured pranks.  They could even be the one-liners, the clever puns, the side jokes.

They are quick to set up, they provoke a snort or a guffaw, and then they are gone.

On the upside, they are easy to write if you have any sense of humor at all.  On the downside, they tend to be forgettable and are generally short-lived.  Even the best gags are hard to sustain for more than a page or two.  If you have too many gags too fast you will ruin your story.

But wait! you cry.  What about The Three Stooges?   What about Airplane!?  What about Spaceballs?  What about Scary Movie?  What about…?

Yes, there are lots of movies that were non-stop gags, from the opening credits to the last few bars of the soundtrack.   The examples above were basically a series of gags with a skeleton of a plot to hang them on.  So what do you remember them for?  The plot, or that they were soooo funny?

See?  That’s my point.  Plus they spawned the inevitable mass of imitators, most of which fell flat.  (Did you know there were four, yes four, Scary Movies?  And there’s another one coming out??)

As another example, gags are the basis of live comedy.  Modern comics don’t tell you a story, they tell you jokes.  People go when they need a laugh, once in a while.  The rest of the time they want a story.

In fact, in yesteryear, comics like Newhart and Cosby did tell stories as part of their routines, but that style faded out decades ago.  However, everyone remembers Newhart’s rookie security guard and Cosby’s Noah and Fat Albert stories.  Who remembers all the jokes from Eddy Murphy’s Delirious? That’s my point, er, again.

Props can serve a similar function to gags.  Think of Steve Martin clowning around with an arrow through his head, or Gallagher with a mallet ready to obliterate a pile of watermelons, or Howie Mandel’s entire act.  With a funny prop, or a funny look for that matter, it takes no set up to get people laughing.

Props work especially well in a novel.  Recall the scene in The Stainless Steel Rat when Slippery Jim fakes his death, and some unthinking orderly ties a toe tag on him and nearly amputates his big toe.  Toe tags become the focus of the ensuing morgue scene, one of the funniest in the book for me (not just because of the prop, and not because I hate toes).

So in any form of fiction, throwing in a few gags can work.  In humorous fiction they will abound, but you will see them in dramatic fiction as well, as stress relief (that’s foreshadowing for the next article in this series).

Now let’s look at situational humor.  Like gags, the humor can be instant, but in contrast with gags, the humor can last for entire scene, or even an entire story.  It can also build a while without the audience noticing.  Have you ever been reading a story or watching a film and suddenly found yourself laughing hysterically for no apparent reason?  Or maybe you started shaking your head and grinning, then said to yourself, “This is just… so… ridiculous!”  That’s what I’m talking about.

To create situational humor, you take interesting or bizarre characters and put them in interesting or bizarre situations, and then let them do their thing.

The most obvious example is, well, situational comedies, otherwise known as sit-coms.  They portray hopefully interesting characters in hopefully interesting situations.  Ironically though, they aren’t the best examples because most of them end up relying on gags for humor.  This is because it’s hard to keep the same situation funny after the first season.  Plus most of them aren’t that funny.

A better example is the sketch comedy.  These are like sit-coms in miniature, which means the characters and situations have to be even more bizarre to stand on their own.  Look at the classics that people still watch in reruns like Monty Python’s Flying Circus, SCTV, The Kids in the Hall, In Living Color, and one of the longest running TV shows of all time: Saturday Night Live.

One of my all-time favorite SNL skits is when Eddy Murphy teaches Stevie Wonder how to sing like Stevie Wonder.  Just hearing the premise makes me giggle.  Actually seeing it still puts me in hysterics.

Now that I think of it, I remember that skit better than any (or almost any) of the gags from Airplane! and it was probably easier, in the end, to write that scene than coming up with 50 gags back-to-back.

Situational humor is the basis for most comedic films.  It is generally built into the premise.

Quick:

  • What movie had three handsome bachelors forced to adopt an adorable baby girl?
  • What movie followed the biggest case in the life of the world’s best (in fact the world’s only) pet detective?
  • What movie followed the life of a baby through the eyes of said wise-cracking baby?
  • What movie(s) had a bumbling detective with an outrageous French accent solving crimes by accident, and being decorated as a national hero?
  • What movie had a teacher obsessed with punctuality suddenly forced by circumstance to be late for everything?  (That is for John Cleese fans, like me.)

We can find endless examples in novels as well.  Harry Potter is a boy yanked from the muggle world to learn how to be a wizard.  While not technically a comedic novel, this fish-out-of-water situation provides endless opportunities for Rowling to slip in humor when she needs it.  Chocolate frogs and bogey-flavored jellybeans, anyone?

In one of my all-time favorite books, the knight-errant Don Quixote spends his entire eponymous novel firmly believing he is doing good deeds for everyone, but he is really a deluded and dangerous menace.

No one tells the reader this, of course, since we are seeing events through the hero’s eyes.  That is the funniest part of all.  We aren’t the only ones confused — no one stops Quixote because they quickly perceive he is mad, and they either try to help him or get out of his way, but he has periods of brilliant lucidity that make people stop and wonder if he is really mad after all.

Then there are the gags, like the windmill scene, and the regular beatings.  The regular beatings only strengthen his resolve, and he has a devoted squire who shares in the mishaps that befall his master.  The squire complains all the while of his lot yet he cannot leave because… well, I won’t spoil the book any further.

Suffice it to say, Cervantes put enough layers on the story to make the characters and adventures believable and interesting, while making the reader chuckle and shake his or her head all the while.  The characters and their situations are remembered four centuries later.  As proof: his name (as the adjective quixotic) and the phrase “tilting at windmills” are part of the modern English lexicon.

To conclude, if you want the ultimate giggle + belly laugh combination, go for the double whammy: set up your humorous situation, then let it simmer while you pepper it with gags.  This is essentially the recipe of all the successful comedies mentioned above.

You can keep it simmering for as long you like, then let it boil over, then dial back the heat so your story can simmer a while longer.

Finally, to stretch this metaphor to its breaking point: if your base is good, you are more likely to over-season than to over-cook.

Stay tuned for Part 5: Humor Under Stress.

Published: Three Strange Tales

I just published my second e-book on Amazon!  Three Strange Tales is on the shelf.  Please check it out!

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0098TH5CU

The book is three short stories for less than a buck.  Wouldn’t you rather feed your imagination than punish your gut with another bovine feces and pink slime laden burger from Mickey D’s?

FYI the stories in my first book were a little dark.  These are easier on the eyes.

Don’t have a Kindle?  No problem.  Amazon has created free reading apps for PC, Mac, smartphones, and tablets.  You can also read your e-books in your web browser using Kindle Cloud Reader.

You do need an Amazon account though.  If you don’t already have one, you can create one for free.  All you need is an email address.

Just go to the Amazon home page and hover your cursor over the “Your Account” menu in the top right, then click “Sign In” or “New customer? Start here”.  Enter your email address, click “No, I am a new customer”, then click “Sign in” and follow the instructions.

Any e-books you buy will be available on any device that logs in using that account.

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