Chalk drawing courtesy of my daughter.

Writing comedy is difficult because it requires imposing structure on something that, by its nature, rejects the killjoy that is form. Although I’m an amateur in the field, I do know that caging the anarchic gag can crush the spontaneity and gambolling good humour that are the very essence of funniness. And before you know it, everyone hates you.

Shared laughter, or what I’ll call “organic humour”, develops its own tone and tempo as the hilarity mounts. It’s regulated by quips and cues that provide fodder for the next round of merriment. Cold glares and general discomfort also tell you when you’ve gone too far. Pre-meditated humour is deprived of any such social hand-holding, and often suffers for it. A lot of written comedy (especially the “fake news” piece; see below) simply tries too hard, straining the credulity of even the basest parody. Though I wouldn’t make it a general rule, it’s probably wisest to err on the side of subtlety. Meet the reader half-way. Let him believe that you’re sharing your joke. Which is what you’re doing. There’s nothing unethical about it.

I can offer no help when it comes to determining what is funny, but I do recommend that you attempt to write something that you yourself might find amusing. I say “might” because, really, who among us is fortunate enough to laugh at his own jokes?

I hope you enjoy the following, which you can also find posted at http://thewindsornaysayer.com/2012/05/14/reader-submission-scandal-erupts-at-university-of-windsor/.

As always, comments and criticism are welcome.

Thanks for reading!

Calvin

Image

Scandal Erupts at University of Windsor

Shame-faced officials at the University of Windsor are scrambling to provide plausible cover stories in the wake of yesterday’s discovery that the school’s writer in residence does not exist. At a hastily convened meeting last night, representatives of the English department provided a muddled if eloquent defence, effectively deflecting all questions put to them by answering in fluent Middle English.

Meanwhile, a spirited offensive by the Cultural Studies department placed the blame for what they called “unforgivable neglecticism” squarely at the feet of “a phallocratic system whose goal is to otherize the marginalized, even if that means driving someone into a state of non-existence.” Asked to “unpack” this statement, professor David Brett sighed and insisted that “you find your own damned axis of oppression.”

Out on the quad, students appeared largely oblivious to the scandal. Alice James, a third-year Linguistics student, said, “I always dismissed the writer in residence as a kind of joke, like maybe the fraternities were behind it. No one really believed there was an actual writer on campus. We all just played along, like you would with Santa Claus, or the Queen.”

The matter was brought to the attention of campus police yesterday morning, when sophomore Michelle Summers, following numerous failed attempts to reach the writer in residence by e-mail and telephone, decided to drop in unannounced. At this point, she made a shocking discovery. “The student handbook lists the office of the Writer in Residence as room 448 Dillon Hall, but Dillon Hall is only a three-storey building.” According to Summers, the news “went viral”, and has already been re-tweeted twice. “This is totally going on my resume,” she said.

When contacted by the Naysayer, Sergeant Charlotte Green of the Windsor Police said, “I can’t really say if this is a criminal matter. I’d much prefer to chalk the whole thing up to stupidity, but we can’t be so dismissive when academia is involved. That university has a Law school, and it’s a breeding ground for hungry lawyers just waiting to sink their pro bono teeth into something close to home.”

Ruth Taylor, Director of the Writer in Residence program, expressed mock dismay at the news that her pet scribe did not exist. “I’m shocked,” she said, “but not appalled. There’s no such thing as bad publicity. And at least we have a Writer in Residence program. There are many schools which, in fact, do not.”

Am I Romantic? Ha!

May 26, 2011

For years, I’ve been dutifully lugging the same boxes around from apartment to apartment and from house to house, with little real idea of what they actually contain. I knew that my old hockey cards were shuffling about in one of them, and that at least one box was stuffed with old correspondence and fledgling attempts at poetry. I recently decided to unpack my past; and there, amongst the wince-worthy poems and impassioned letters, I found my Swami—a curse gift from my brother some twenty years ago.

Swami

I know nothing of the provenance of this particular Swami (like street-corner Santas, all other Swamis are merely unconvincing replicas), and any hard facts about the “one-penny Ask Swami Fortune Teller Napkin Holder” are hard to come by. I do know that it was made in the 50s for use in diners of the time (the sides hold napkins, and there’s a menu holder on the back).

Swami’s suggested questions

Perhaps because Swami has the power to crush your spirits (“Am I romantic?” “No!” snorts Swami), it’s very easy to use. Simply ask your Yes or No question, put a penny in the slot, and pull down the lever. You will receive a paper reply: one side provides the answer to your question; the flipside is usually reserved for additional chiding and belittling. The following is fairly typical of Swami’s borderline abusive attitude:

Swami offers no shoulder to cry on

In summary, Swami makes a great conversation piece—as long as you don’t include him in the conversation.

Thanks for reading!

Calvin

 

SwamiTwinPeaks

Speech! Speech!

April 17, 2011

I have no shame about milking even minor accomplishments for all they’re worth, so here (again) is the well-received speech that I delivered to my class last week. (Note: Andy is my prof.)

 

On the Fear of Speaking In Public

I chose the topic, “Fear of Public Speaking” because, well, I have a fear of public speaking. So if I screw up, Andy cannot in good conscience dock me marks. Any lack of eye contact, for example, enhances the speech by graphically illustrating the problem.

And it is a very real problem. Statistics show that glossophobia (which is its fancy Latin name) ranks high among human fears. How high? I’ll give you a hint: It’s in the top 10. No. Fear of public speaking is number one. Fear of death is second.

I could spend my remaining time rhyming off the symptoms of glossophobia, but a few of the more frightening ones should suffice. They include:

  • intense anxiety
  • pounding heart
  • profuse sweating
  • avoidance
  • nausea
  • feelings of panic…

And under these conditions of psychological suffocation, you’re actually expected to talk.

The therapeutic community suggests some tried and true methods for those struggling with public speaking: practice, prepare, don’t memorize, breathe deeply, pick out two or three allies in the crowd. Many therapists refer their clients to Toastmasters, a non-profit organization whose goal is to improve its members’ public speaking skills. I’m sure it’s a wonderful organization, but each time I plan to attend a meeting, I exhibit symptom number 4 of those listed above: avoidance.

When I enrolled in the Corporate Communications course, I knew that I’d run out of places to hide. I  had avoided myself into a corner where fleeing is not an option. This is probably a good thing, for although my progress has been glacial, there have been signs of improvement.

While doing some research, I came across the following from an online psychologist: “Remember that your audience wants you to succeed. They are in attendance because they are interested in your material.” This is, for the most part, nonsense.

Audience apathy is a glossophobe’s dream.

So please, when you see me at the front of the room and I open my mouth to speak, update your status lines, tweet about Charlie Sheen, work on that overdue project, or take the opportunity to start that novel you’ve been meaning to write.

If I have something really important to say, I’ll send you an e-mail.

Serious About Serios

April 14, 2011

I made this DVD cover for a documentary film that my friend and I made back in 1997. The subject of the film is Ted Serios, a hard-drinking ex-bellhop who, along with his psychiatrist champion, claimed that he could imprint his thoughts onto photographic film using only the power of his mind. Ridiculous? We weren’t so sure, so we went to find out. The documentary turned out quite well (and I got an article published), but the expense involved in acquiring the rights for the use of archival footage has prevented it from being properly screened. The DVD cover, though far from professional, pretty much captures the mood and tone of the movie: INSANITY!

DVD Cover for “Reflections on a Thoughtographic Mind”


“Those who can’t do, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach gym.”

— Woody Allen

And those who can’t paint, Photoshop scans of their brother’s paintings, turning once-melancholy artistic meditations into scenes of extraterrestrial carnage…

Port Hope, Ontario

UFO Invasion of Port Hope, Ontario

(Thanks to Jerry for being a good sport.)

Japanese Vending Machines

March 30, 2011

[This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail with the headline, “Convenience, Japanese-style”. While I’m sure that vending machine technology has changed significantly since I wrote this a few years ago, this article still serves as a good introduction to the topic.]

New meets old. That’s Japan in a nutshell.

Stoic, generous and unquestioningly devoted to serving humanity and its myriad needs — such are Japan’s jidou hanbaiki, or simply jihanki. Is this an ancient Buddhist sect perhaps, or an exclusive geisha enclave? Not even close.

The jihanki, or “automatic selling machines,” are minions of Japan’s devotion to the god of convenience. More common than even the ubiquitous temple, and quite likely more revered than the Emperor himself, Japan’s vending machines dispense a variety of goods, ranging from the essential to the absurd to the downright baffling.

Been out on the town and require a discreet change of underwear? The jihanki shall provide, and without the accusatory glances one might receive from a nosy convenience store clerk. Simply insert coins or bills, press the appropriate button, and retrieve hot or cold beverages, cigarettes, golf balls, neckties, playing cards, adult videos, cellphone batteries, bags of rice, bouquets of fresh flowers or, for reasons that may forever remain a mystery, insects.

And rapid technological advances are ensuring that the march of convenience will continue apace. Already at jihanki across the land, customers can download music to minidiscs or record game software onto blank CDs.

Indeed, one could subsist entirely on vending-machine goods — and statistics suggest that some Japanese may do just that. In 2001, Japanese consumers spent an incredible $87.5-billion at the tiny island nation’s nearly six million jihanki — an average of about $730 a person. To put that into a more substantial kind of perspective, the machines did brisker business than the total sales of all of Japan’s konvini (convenience stores) combined. In a land where convenience stores often seem to outnumber the very people they serve, that’s saying something. It also says something about Japan’s attitude toward convenience.

Jihanki tend to fraternize with their own kind.

From the grounds of the nation’s most venerable temples and shrines, to the crowded streets of Tokyo, the vending machine is unavoidable, a fact that distresses my Japanese wife to no end. One person’s fascination is clearly another’s perpetual nuisance. At last count, there was one machine for about every 23 people in the country. And that number is growing annually. From 1998 to 1999, the number of machines doubled. In Tokyo, where the concentration of jihanki is greatest, I counted 29 machines on the five-minute walk from my wife’s old apartment to the nearest subway station. That’s a lot of temptation.

For foreigners such as myself who speak little Japanese, that temptation is enhanced by the fact that many items on display in the jihanki are labelled in English. Impenetrably baffling English, I should add. What, after all, is “Pocari Sweat?” Or “Calpis Water?” Or “Shiny?” Half the fun of doing business with a jihanki is the inevitable shocker — sometimes pleasant, sometimes not — of tasting something you weren’t quite expecting. (Hints for similarly courageous readers: Chances are high that if the can is green, you’re buying cold green tea; Pocari Sweat is a sports drink; Calpis Water is sweet condensed milk with water; and Shiny is plain old apple juice.)

I have long been inclined to believe that the jihanki are a result of Japan’s postwar economic miracle, but in fact their origins can be traced far back into the nation’s history. The first machine, developed in the Meiji era (1868-1912), sold cigarettes, and soon other machines were dispensing postcards, stamps and snacks.

But the Second World War-era prohibition on the manufacture of non-essential steel products delayed the rise of unbridled convenience for several years. Around 1975, the jihanki began to proliferate, thanks to the soft drink industry. The sales of Coca-Cola alone are widely acknowledged as the primary reason for the continuing success of the jihanki. It was around this time, the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Association proudly notes, that the world’s first hot and cold beverage dispenser was invented. There is no mention of the arrival of the first adult-video machine, but we can safely surmise that things really took off from there.

Functional art.

In November, more than 60 companies gathered in Tokyo for Vendex Japan 2002, a three-day conference that had as its theme, “People, Town, Vending Machines: Network New Era.”

Demonstrations of the jihanki as an “intelligent device” were well received. The gourmet vending machine, for example, will enable world-famous chefs to input recipes directly into the jihanki,giving convenience-seeking connoisseurs access to instant fine dining.

An increased awareness of the interactive potential of the jihanki was also front and centre: The ailing Japanese citizen may soon look no further than the nearest vending machine for relief. A doctor appears on the screen, listens to the patient’s complaint, and then, if the situation warrants, prescribes medication, which can then be obtained directly from the machine. But with the cost of such a virtual examination expected to be quite high, one can only assume that the prognosis for such a contrivance is bleak indeed. I’ve been wrong before, though. I thought Pokémon was just a flash in the pan.

With the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol on the horizon, the seemingly innocuous jihanki have come under close scrutiny from environmental groups. It is estimated that each machine consumes about 60 per cent of the electricity used by an average household. This fact was not lost on the organizers of Vendex Japan 2002. In a special segment called “Response to Social Demand,” participating companies addressed the increasingly vocal critics of their products. Already, the lights on the jihanki, which have so often lured unsuspecting customers in the dead of night with their soft glow, have been reduced by 50 per cent. An eco-friendly response from Toshiba is a machine that can be adjusted to save energy, heating or cooling the product only for peak times. A still more ambitious project proposes that the jihanki of the not-too-distant future will be able to save and then sell electrical energy, thus facilitating the rise of environmentally friendly electric cars.

Another frequent complaint — one that is made primarily by those with a keener sense of aesthetics — relates simply to the sight of so many of these clunky appliances dotting the landscape.

According to the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Association, attempts are being made to harmonize the jihanki with the local scenery. But judging by the “before and after” pictures meekly displayed on the association’s Web site (http://www.jvma.or.jp), such attempts at beautification have a long way to go. In one photograph (an “after” shot), we see a jihanki on the grounds of a temple, its gleaming metallic top scantily camouflaged with bamboo. The effect is not entirely convincing. One wonders just how serious the JVMA’s attempts to conceal their own product could be.

In the meantime, I continue to satisfy myself with the current state of convenience technology. Or, if my wife lets me, perhaps I’ll rent a used jihanki. “Be your own boss! Make money 24 hours a day! No risk!” cries one of many on-line advertisements. After an initial installation and stocking fee of $700, and a further monthly maintenance charge of $70, we can expect to pull in about $600 a month. I wonder what the market potential is for disposable paper underwear in Canada?