September 14, 2012

Bill Engvall

"I just hate stupid people. They should have to wear signs that say 'I'm Stupid'. That way you wouldn't rely on them, and you wouldn't ask them for nothing."
-Bill Engvall 

About a month ago, I heard a story on NPR about an anthropologist who studies comedy. Yes, I'm serious; it's not a joke. He was trying to study humor from a scientific perspective to see what makes something funny. Needless to say, when it comes to something as subjective as comedy, the results were inconclusive. And to that guy, all I have to say is "good luck, brother." I think it's safe to say that any attempt to quantify the funny is foolish, if not outright stupid itself.

Of course, when it comes to identifying stupid, perhaps I need to defer to the best stand-up comic judge out there. That's because no one out there will nail you for being stupid quite like comedian Bill Engvall.

A native-born Texan who has gone from stand-up act to big time comic as part of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, Engvall is more than a mere country-fried comedian. Originally from Galveston, Bill studied at Southwestern University in Central Texas and then resided in Dallas, where he was a disc jockey before trying his hand at stand-up. After making minor appearances on television, Engvall was named Best Male Standup at the 1992 American Comedy Awards. Things really took off when he began appearing on "The Jeff Foxworthy Show," which led to continued success with Blue Collar Comedy and now as a game show host. Oh, and along the way he's also a multi-platinum selling recording artist for his comedy albums. Yep, over the years he's made quite a living as a very busy entertainer.

So what's his secret? It's pretty simple. Bill is very good at all he does, and perhaps what he does best is describing identifiable situations that not only we can relate to, but can't help to laugh at.

Someone tell the anthropologist in the NPR report that it's no riddle that the key to making people laugh is forming a real connection with your audience. Just take a look back at nearly all successful comic acts. From the popular (Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen), to the controversial (George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks), to the unorthodox (Mitch Hedberg), all use audience connection as a gateway to laughter. Whether it's childhood experiences or something we take for granted on a day-to-day basis, comedy lies in whether the stand-up comic is relatable. And when the comedian connects with you, he/she isn't merely spouting one-liners... they're speaking the truth!

Now, if you're wondering why I referred to Engvall earlier as a judge of stupid, please don't think it's a derogatory term. I only say that because Bill is probably best known for placing his stamp on popular culture with a particular act. His signature bit is where he points out the inherent stupidity of others. As a warning to other people who may have to interact with such people, he mimes giving out a sign that reads, "I'm stupid!" That way, others in society can be warned and give a wide berth to avoid interaction with such maddening imbeciles.

Yes, it is a novel concept: to get the stupid to wear badges of shame (or honor if they are, in fact, that moronic). But it got me thinking... Maybe Engvall was on to something.

In a perfect world, wouldn't that be a great idea? And in that case, what individuals (whom have demonstrated questionable judgment) might have benefitted society by having their own "stupid" sign?
I wonder...

When one considers this small assembly of bone-headed decision makers, perhaps it has some merit.

I don't know if it's something to write our local congressman about, but it sure would be nice. I'm not saying we need to brand these simpletons with a scarlet letter (Hester Prynne style), but maybe a press conference while wearing a dunce cap would be in order. After all, let's admit it. We've all done some truly stupid things, and I don't think there would be enough signs to go around.

Speaking of dumb decisions, missing out on Bill's appearances at The Paramount Theatre would be a very foolish choice indeed. You don't have to be an anthropologist to come and laugh at Bill's antics and anecdotes. So get ready to welcome the return of a native Texan who has made it big. There's no reason to hesitate, but if per chance you're feeling reluctant and looking for a go ahead.... Well then, here's your sign.

Bill Engvall is sure to be handing out the laughs (and the signs) on Friday, September 21st at 7:00 and 9:30 p.m. at The Paramount Theatre.

September 7, 2012

In Conversation: Spike Lee

Another exciting kick off is on deck. And so this season starts in a new and unique way from years past. For those that may be unfamiliar, during the summer months between seasons The Paramount Theatre show numerous movies as part of its annual Summer Classic Film Series. It's a paradise for cinefiles in Austin, and an oasis amongst the Texas. Watching a classic film at Paramount is a great way to spend a few hours inside a historic theater on a balmy summer afternoon.

Typically, the summer series ends and then the season launches a few weeks later. But this year, there will be a brief overlap. You see, during the last week of this year's cinematic session, the first guest for the 2012-2013 season will grace the stage. And wouldn't you know it? He himself is a modern icon in modern cinema, so this hybrid event is apropos.

The 2012-2013 season begins with the iconic filmmaker Spike Lee. Come for an intimate interview with one of America's unique cinematic voices, and then stay for a screening of his 1999 film SUMMER OF SAM.

Spike is a dynamic filmmaker whose movies have established him as one of America's seminal cinematic artists. His debut film, SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT, was set in Brooklyn, and since then Lee's filmography has helped establish his art with a uniquely New York attitude. Over the years, Spike has come to personify New York City itself, and his work embodies the diversity that this melting pot metropolis represents.

Although occasionally courting controversy, it is probably more apt to describe Spike Lee's work as provocative. With each film he makes, Lee reminds the audience that he is fearless when confronting that which we otherwise try to suppress. With films like DO THE RIGHT THING, JUNGLE FEVER,  MALCOM X, CLOCKERS, 4 LITTLE GIRLS, 25TH HOUR, INSIDE MAN, and this summer's RED HOOK SUMMER, Lee lets his characters breathe and live while resisting conventional attitudes. The films themselves have a tendency to scream aloud the things we dare not even whisper in our own minds.

More impressively, he's chosen to explore stories and characters that he wants to tell us about. Compromise has never been a signature of a "Spike Lee joint," and I can safely say that we never have to worry about Lee signing on to do an Avengers or Transformers sequel.

In fact, the closest he has ever come to becoming mainstream is in a series of Nike commercials he directed and co-starred in with basketball star Michael Jordan. Reprising his role as "Mars Blackmon" from SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT, Lee was often the funny man to Jordan's straight man routine. These ads were influential in the 1980s and helped establish Air Jordan as a cultural phenomenon.

But make no mistake. Despite some of his films have light-hearted moments, Lee's films help define a clear vision of America that is an alternative (if not downright contrary) to the ideals of American life we are spoon fed everyday. Although it would be unfair to call his movies agents of activism, they definitely have a political slant in a way that shines a beacon through the prism of real people. Call it the "miseducation of contemporary American history," if you will... but to me Spike's films have but one agenda: to champion those who otherwise have no voice and open our eyes to new perspectives.

Take, for instance, SUMMER OF SAM. Set 25 years ago when the serial killer Son of Sam turned a desperate New York City into a district of fear, it aims to look beyond a chronological or forensic retelling of events. Instead, it tells a story of a group of friends in an Italian-American neighborhood terrorized by events and a changing world that some just cannot reconcile. Together, these friends and neighbors run the gauntlet out of necessity, and will emerge forever changed. SUMMER OF SAM is very much like a horror movie, but here the real danger lies not with the serial killer but within the tendencies of those living under his oppression. The 1977 depicting in the movie is a time of self-indulgence and of a society struggling with identity: What will happen to us next? Where are we going? Has the world gone out of control? It's a summer not unlike that found in 1989's DO THE RIGHT THING, where tensions, attitudes and heat combine to transform the city into a keg ready to explode.

What wrath has the SUMMER OF SAM wroth upon New York City? Is it righteous judgment for a city and society in the throes of hedonism? Is it divine retribution? Or... is it merely an excuse for some of us to find a reason? Is Sam an instrument for the judgmental among us to find scapegoats and embrace the darker side of human nature?

I, for one, am eagerly awaiting the coming evening where Spike shares what elements go into the forging of these stories.

Needless to say, this is a unique opportunity to meld the two kinds of events that the Paramount is known for. It's not the end of the world that the season starts earlier this year. In fact, it's a cause for celebration. It's not every day (or year) that the theatre presents an evening like this. Personally, I think of the crossover as a Venn diagram of awesome.
You see?

So what are you waiting for? I implore you to do the right thing, make the effort, and come hear the man. Spike Lee has a cinematic vision and a artistic voice like no other. As a director whose films have opened up audience's eyes again and again, one never knows what insight an evening with him might bring. Do you know what I'm saying? Do you know? Do you know? Do you know?

Spike Lee graces the stage for a conversation on Saturday, September 8th at 7:00 p.m.