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Mad, and getting Realist about humor

The first issue of The Realist.

When I was a kid, like 10 or 11 years old, My Uncle Robbie was the youngest, and coolest, of my uncles. He had a motorcycle. He went to Woodstock. And he read Mad magazine.

I never had a motorcycle. The Woodstocks I attended were the paler, anniversary ones in 1994 and ’99. But I did read Mad.

After 67 years, the magazine has announced it will soon cease publication, although that “cease” is kind of vague, as it appears Mad will continue to re-issue old content. And some of its legendary contributors said a few days ago that new material may even be published on yet-to-be determined platforms. Platforms that likely contributed to the cause of death: The internet, where anyone with a keyboard has the potential to create brilliant satire in this target-rich era.

Internet humor: A primary suspect in the death of Mad magazine.

Following the announcement of Mad’s approaching death, the tributes poured in. From celebrities including Weird Al Yankovic, fondly recalling how Mad shaped their own humor.

So yes, of course, I read Mad as well. Did, as in past tense. Maybe if I had bought a few copies over the last four decades, it wouldn’t be going away now.

But other culture was creeping into my brain. Mad gave way to National Lampoon. I saw R. Crumb and Zippy the Pinhead as philosophers, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers were teachers. The comedy albums I listened to, the mainstream of Bill Cosby, gave way to the edgy non-sequitur humor of The Firesign Theater and Monty Python. I could find Monty Python on television as well – thank you, PBS – and in the movie theater.

The two things I remember laughing at the hardest in my late-teen years, laughing to the point that I couldn’t breathe, were National Lampoon’s “High School Yearbook Parody” and the scene in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” where King Arthur de-limbs The Black Knight. “Just a flesh wound.”

We move on with time, and it can be a dangerous passage. My Uncle Robbie is in his late 60s. Early-onset Alzheimer’s hit him a few years ago. Now he doesn’t even recognize his wife.

The brain evolves, devolves. I was reminded of how far my own pursuit of the darkest humor went when I read this week of the passing of Paul Krassner, the iconic, counter-culture writer. Krassner wrote freelance pieces for Mad in the late 1950s. But he recognized that Mad was humor for teenagers. And he was an adult. An adult consumed by the oncoming political unrest. So he channeled his taste in anarchy by creating an underground humor magazine, The Realist. This was a proper vehicle for Krassner and his ’60s Yippie cohorts, known for pranks such as nominating a pig for president. Even Norman Mailer, Richard Pryor and Joseph Heller wrote for The Realist.

Krassner and The Realist may have been humor, but they were dead serious about it.

The Realist was over-the-top outrageous. Pornographic. Obscene. Satire is a killer. Why would a humor magazine publish a cartoon depicting dozens of Disney characters such as Snow White and Donald Duck engaged in a massive orgy? I suppose the message might have been one that is the highest duty of humor: to expose hypocrisy and corruption. And to do so with a tenacity that goes beyond a flesh wound. Was the obscenity of the Seven Dwarves engaged in anal sex – a perversion of many people’s definition of All-American entertainment – any worse than the Vietnam War we were watching on our televisions?

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What I said

VickiKristinaBarcelona at the jazz fest.

The Rochester International Jazz Fest is over. I return to my regularly scheduled life.

Except for one last detail. While wandering the streets, I had a few people ask me about one of my morning appearances on “Open Tunings,” Scott Regan’s show on WRUR-FM (88.5), to discuss the festival. What were the comments I had made opening Wednesday morning’s show?

It was nothing extraordinary. It is what should be obvious. A reminder, for those of us with a public platform, or if we’re just chatting with friends, of the importance of the words we choose.

So here it is:

No one said anything to me yesterday about this. I received no emails or tweets or Facebook posts about this. But I said something yesterday that I regret. I joked about stalking one of the all-female bands that I’ve admired at the festival.

Stalking is a part of our society’s culture of sexual harassment. Unfortunately, it’s nothing new. But in the last two years we’ve see the Me Too movement bring more attention to the issue. I’ve been shocked by some of the stories shared by my women friends.

We have a president in the White House – our house – who faces serious allegations of sexual harassment and assault. A new accusation came up last week. The president’s response? “She’s not my type.”

She’s not my type. That’s an astounding level of entitlement.

Women musicians deserve to be appreciated for their music. If dressing in a charming or sexy way is a part of that performance, fine. But I’m not allowed to take it to the next level.

So I apologize to VickiKristinaBarcelona. And I apologize to your listeners.

And with that, Scott played VickiKristinaBarcelona’s version of Tom Waits’ “Hold on.”

Sisyphus, and the point of video games

Aubrey Anable explains the most-important art form of the 21st century.

So, you’ve stopped the final zombie with a perfect kill shot to the head. Congratulations. You’ve won the battle. But your high score doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve won the war.

Aubrey Anable was at the University of Rochester’s Rush Rhees Library on Thursday to, as she puts it, “defend video games from cultural commentators.” In other words, those who dare to call “Angry Birds” a vapid waste of your time.

Video games, she insists, are the most-important new art form of the 21st century.

An assistant professor of film studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Anable’s contribution to what she calls “an emerging scholarship in the field of game studies” is her book, Playing With Feelings: Video Games and Affect.

Affect. In this case, the word means the experiences of feeling and emotion. For Anable, a guest speaker of UR’s Neilly Series Lectures, video games serve the same purpose as the poet Virgil in Dante’s The Divine Comedy: They lead us through today’s complex digital landscape.

Anable, who received her PhD in Visual and Cultural Studies from the University of Rochester, reaches back to the 1930s, and the impact the relative new art form, cinema, had on the public. How those on-screen images spoke to audiences about the radical, new social emotions being generated by their rapidly evolving world. Affects. And how today, video games are now in that same role, a “ubiquitous part of our digital environment.”

“Video games,” she says, “have inherited and significantly revised the role of cinema.”

Anable recalls the early computer scientist Alan Turing’s question: “Can machines think?” And the follow-up question from the father of affect theory, Silvan Tomkins: “Can machines feel?” Questions that cannot be answered, Anable says, from the perspective of “the simplistic idea that computers work like human brains.”

Human brains indulge in risk taking. They revel in achievement. Affects are biologically-based categories arranged by Tomkins, such as interest-excitement. And even shame-humiliation. Useful concepts. Shame, Anable says, helps to uphold social norms.

She traces the origin of video games to Cold War computer labs, where 1958’s “Tennis For Two” and 1962’s “Spacewar!” taught us how to feel about thermonuclear war. The mechanics of the computers of that day were beyond the reach of the average person – the hardware on these gadgets filled a room. So these games were intended to be ambassadors, created to make this intimidating technology “friendly and accessible,” Anable says.

The circuits we’ve traveled since “Tennis For Two” does have contemporary applications. For Anable, video games help make “techno-cultural conditions accessible.” They are “giving expression to how our lives are lived in the digital age.” They are extensions of email, social media and creating a word document, “ordinary activities imbued with the possibility of play.”

“Those interactions,” she says, “are necessary to how we live our lives already.”

Interactions that are less destructive than our often mean-spirited social media because, “The stakes are lower.”

Aubrey admits she’s less interested in big-budget, super-realistic, immersive games such as “Call of Duty.” She finds “casual mobile games” as a more-useful gateway into our digital era. Those include the various solitaire games, Suduko, Extreme Road Trip. Games played in short bursts.

“Video games are not an escape,” she argues, “but pull us into the world.”

Useful applications can be found at some level in even the most seemingly lightweight of escapist video entertainments. Anable cites “Plants vs. Zombies” as your gardening skills pitted against The Undead. And the zaniness of “Frogger” reflecting today’s age of “too many things coming at once.” More to her point, video games are also portals into pornography, art or learning skills such as math. “The video game,” Anable says, “is not just about one thing.”

But most importantly, Anable argues, just as cinema in the 1930s was a societal-teaching tool, video games are as well today. They are teaching us the rhythm of digital labor.

She talks of ergonomic shifts, people juggling multiple tasks simultaneously, creating an easy flow, a rhythm between work and play. With phone in hand, we are now constantly connected to work. We are now in an age where our minds are slipping from one activity to the next. In this digital age, it is putting to work our short attention spans.

At this point, cultural commentators will step in and ask: Is this an improvement over a sustained focus?

Going to her laptop computer, Anable summons a video game and projects it on a screen for her audience in the Hawkins-Carlson Room at Rush Rhees Library. The game is “Let’s Play Ancient Greek Punishment,” with amusingly primitive graphics by today’s standards. By manipulating a couple of keys, the player becomes Sisyphus of Greek legend pushing a boulder up a hill. Inevitably, the boulder rolls back downhill, and the player must start over. “There is no way to successfully complete the task,” Anable says. Your only choice is to give up and close the browser.

This is where the high score does not win the war. We have reached a key affect of video games, she says. An affect we must tolerate and dwell in. An affect that is a necessary step to success. An affect that even our system of capitalism can accommodate in tremendous amounts, she says, so long as the possibility of success exists.

That affect?

“All video games,” Anable says, “are about failure.”

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

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