Christopher Farnsworth

Author of Blood Oath, The Eternal World, and Killfile

Category: Mixed Reviews (page 2 of 3)

My Latest Favorite Things

1. The Feedback column in New Scientist. It is a rich vein of nerd humor with  wordplay like “Freddie Hg” and readers who send in the many illogical, incorrect and unscientific uses of scientific-sounding language in the media and the world. “Radioactive peanuts” is the punchline to one of these jokes. (I won’t spoil it for you.) For a few minutes every week, I get to imagine what it’s like inside the skull of a much, much smarter person.

2. T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents from DC. Back in the 60s, the THUNDER Agents were superhuman peacekeepers for the Higher United Nations — presumably the counties that actually make the decisions, rather than Lichtenstein — who got their powers from advanced technology that also had the unfortunate side effect of being lethal with repeated use. Several companies have tried to reboot the idea since then, but it’s never really worked by now. Written by Nick Spencer and illustrated by Cafu (as well as big names like Howard Chaykin and George Perez), this comic succeeds in creating an addictive look at a cold war fought with superhumans. It neatly incorporates the old characters from the previous series — who are more upright and generally heroic than their modern-day counterparts — and creates a new twist on the idea of a secret spy agency out to rule the world. Really fun, smart and kick-ass stuff. Every issue is too short, and the wait between them is getting too long for me already.

3. Community on NBC. I am growing embarrassed by my crush on this show. Really. It’s like a master class in comedy performed in the tightest confines of budget and time. What’s best about it, for me, is how the show has managed to maintain the emotional resonance of its characters despite increasingly absurd set-ups. In a just world, this would be getting American Idol‘s ratings.

4. Kohort. No idea what this thing is. Could be some offshore spam e-mailer. And yet, I reserved my username because I’ve been on every social network since sixdegrees and I’m not about to break my streak now.

5. Monkey Knife Fight Pale Ale. I was out at dinner the other night and saw this on the menu. I would have ordered it for the name alone, but it turned out to be the best pale ale I’ve had in a long time. Smooth, full-flavored and zero bitter aftertaste. Simply great beer, which is getting harder and harder to find these days.

6. Ten days and counting to the release of THE PRESIDENT’S VAMPIRE. The New York Post has kindly added it to its “Required Reading” list. And it’s jumped up to #55 on the Amazon bestseller list for horror.

Make Me Laugh

It’s hard to make people laugh.

Scratch that. It’s easy to make people laugh, especially in America. I read once how Europeans tend to think we’re brain-damaged because of our habit of adding a chuckle to every minor interaction, as if a cashier telling you, “Have a better one” is a hilarious bon mot worthy of Dorothy Parker or Oscar Wilde.

(I try to think this speaks well of us as a culture — we’re always looking for a reason to smile at other people. Yes, the Zoloft is working, thanks for asking.)

But it’s hard to make people laugh genuinely. Think of the last time you told a hilarious story at a family gathering, and just when you got to the punchline, your Uncle Bob turns and says, “Huh. How about that. Anyway…”

Or imagine the last time you tried to say something funny about politics and got blank stares. That sound? That was the sound of people not laughing. Not even to be polite.

So I have great respect for comedians. They stand unprotected in front of a crowd of drunks who paid money after a hard week and expect to laugh, goddammit.

The best comedians say stuff that challenges, unsettles, and provokes. They force you to face the truth, and only the fact that you’re laughing keeps you from throwing your beer bottle at their heads, because you sure didn’t pay your $20 cover at the Chuckle Hut to think.

Patton Oswalt does this, and he makes me laugh so hard I have trouble breathing. He’s one of the best comedians working. And now he’s written a book: Zombie Spaceship Wasteland.

This can be disastrous for a lot of comedians. Written down, most comedic routines are stripped of their timing and emphasis and gestures. They’re reduced to a steaming pile of not funny, in other words. (Don’t take my word for it. Take a look at a transcript of, say, one of Dane Cook’s monologues.) I’m somewhat ashamed to admit I didn’t realize this until I’d bought both of Dennis Miller’s books of rants from his old HBO show.

Oswalt, God love him, jumps over that mineshaft. The essays inside the book offer memories and events that shaped the sensibility that Oswalt expresses on stage. From them, it’s clear that he’s a writer first. And this book is filled with incredibly good writing. Anyone who’s seen or heard his routines knows he’s got a gift for imagery and language, but here he puts it to work in prose that’s often painful, funny, and heartbreaking within the space of a few sentences. From “Take a bow, you coke-soaked ogre” to “The coffee tasted like pants” to “If the victories we create in our heads were let loose on reality, the world we know would drown in blazing happiness.”

Many reviews have talked about the moments in the book that are quite sad. There’s a sense of surprise in these comments, as if comedians aren’t people who are frighteningly tuned to the despair and pain of the world. There are only two options when you’re smart enough to see some of the mundane tragedies that most of us ignore like cemeteries on the way to work — like the checkout girl who’s teaching customers to use the self-serve grocery registers that will eliminate her job. Or the guy who puts his heart and soul into a fetish magazine that will only ever be taken out for a few furious and shameful moments, then crammed under a mattress or into a garbage can. Or the guy sitting alone on a Saturday night having dinner at the KFC.

You can either drown in the pain of that, or you can find a way to laugh.

With this book, Oswalt shows us how he learned to look for the funny parts — the joy — where there might be nothing but anger or contempt and sorrow. He has amazing sympathy for his subjects, if not always enough for himself. But he recognizes that everybody is trying to pry a little happiness from their lives, and he shows his respect for the effort, even when he cannot tolerate the methods.

And he throws in dick jokes, too. So you know. Something for everyone.

Where "The Simpsons" Went So Very, Very Wrong

I am a fan of “The Simpsons” in the way the severely mentally ill are fans of anti-psychotics. Which is to say, it’s less a TV show than the thing that keeps the bad voices at bay for me.

All this week they’re doing “Classic Simpsons Week” at Splitsider, and it’s a perfect excuse for me to indulge my neurosis.

Even though “The Simpsons” has gone downhill in the past decade or so, I still keep injecting the episodes through my eyeballs into my brain. And there are bright spots that cause me to actually Laugh Out Loud, as opposed to just typing the acronym.

But if there’s a moment the show jumped the sharkif I had to name just one — I’d go with “The Principal and The Pauper.” The second episode of Season Nine, it was the first Simpsons ep to crumple all the accumulated love and goodwill of the show and toss it in the trash for the sake of a not-very-funny joke.

Harry Shearer, who voices Seymour Skinner (and many other characters), has said he didn’t know what the hell the writers were thinking when they decided Skinner wasn’t actually Skinner, but someone named Armin Tamzerian. Many fans agree. Showrunners Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein defended the episode as “an experiment,” and have said that it’s not really meant to be taken as canon.

There’s an argument to be made about what constitutes the “real” continuity of the fictional lives of a bunch of cartoon characters, but frankly, it’s the effect on the franchise itself that’s more interesting to me.

Todd VanDerWerff of the Onion has a great essay on the two types of sitcoms: the anything-for-a-laugh sitcom, which uses the characters as joke delivery vehicles, with little or no concern for their long-term development; and the character-driven sitcom, which tries for laughs based on the people and the stories rising from their cramped little worlds. Think of it like this: Type 1 is “30 Rock.” Type 2 is “Community.” (That’s at the high end, of course.)

Up until “Principal, “The Simpsons” was a Type 2 sitcom. Even as surreal as it could get — the man falling off the bridge while in line for Itchy and Scratchy: The Movie who screams “I regret nothing!” on his way down  — I’d argue its core was always the interactions between the family members. This provided some of the best laughs, but also the genuinely touching moments.

Then, with “Principal,” the show shifted gears into a Type 1 show with such a lurch that its transmission was left in pieces all over the asphalt.

Whatever the intention behind the episode, it broke the show. After “Principal,” the series was a Type 1 sitcom — and that’s something that just does not have the same kind of vital, beating heart as character-based fiction to me. Any interplay between Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie is just another gimmick now. It’s nothing that arises from a sense of them as a family. It’s simply what needs to be done to wrap up the plots and jokes in time for the credits.

You can go from a Type 2 to a Type 1 sitcom; it happened after too many seasons on “Cheers.” But once you break the heart of the story like that, you cannot go back to being Type 2. It would be like Charlie Sheen’s character suddenly asking his mother why she never loved him on Two and a Half Men.

I watch Type 1 sitcoms the same way I read plot-driven novels or watch special-effects tentpole movies — to see what happens. I rarely ever watch them again, because once that question is answered, there’s no reason to go back for more.

But with shows like “Firefly,” “Sports Night” and “Venture Bros.,” I replay them again and again, and not just because I missed some of the jokes while I was laughing. I catch new stuff, see scenes in new ways and discover little hidden meanings in the margins.

Yeah. I need to get out more.

But look back to “The Simpsons” 100th episode and you’ll see what I mean. Another Skinner-centric story, “Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Baadasssss Song” — written by Oakley and Weinstein, by the way — shows the principal getting fired from his job due to Bart’s dog getting loose in the school’s ventilation system. He and Bart actually become friends in the outside world. Of course, everything has to go back to normal at the end of the ep, but it’s not done in the ham-fisted, meta-commentary way of “Principal.” Instead, Bart places a “kick me” sign on Skinner’s back when the two hug after Skinner resumes his job. And Skinner puts a sign on Bart that says “teach me.” It’s an undeniably sweet moment.

And it’s one that the show could never pull off today.

I still love “The Simpsons.” But it’s never going to feel like that again.



When I was back east for the holidays last year, we took the usual trip through Philly on our way to see the Doting Grammy. As we passed near the abandoned industrial zone, with the skyscrapers in the distance, I kept thinking I was traveling through the remains of a lost civilization — as if we are a tribe inhabiting the ruins of an older, more advanced culture. The strip clubs and strip malls, condos and wine bars, all living, like hermit crabs, in the shells of something bigger and long dead.

We were under the massive span of the Benjamin Franklin bridge when I felt this staggering sense of loss. I realized I couldn’t imagine anyone building anything like this in the United States today. The idea of public works — especially a huge investment like this one — has become a relic of a different time. (Think of the amount of time, money and effort it has taken for basic improvements to existing infrastructure, like the Big Dig.)

I thought about that scene a lot while reading Matt Taibbi’s Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squid, And The Long Con That is Breaking America. The fact is, we are simply not the country that built those bridges, or the interstate highways, or created a massive industrial complex to fight World War II, and the proof is on every page. If you have any interest in finding out just how badly and repeatedly we all got screwed in the financial meltdown, then you have to read this book.

In 2009, Taibbi took his first in-depth look at the collapse of the economy with an article about Goldman Sachs, famously calling it a “vampire squid” stuck to the face of humanity. It kicked up a lot of dust, and he began looking deeper into the causes of the crisis. The result is Griftopia.

Griftopia expands on that first article, with side trips into the enablers of the greed-is-good ethos (Alan Greenspan, whom Taibbi calls “the biggest asshole in the universe”) and commodities trading (the first time I’ve ever been moved to any kind of emotion by the idea of trading corn futures). In each chapter, he nails down the ways in which our economy has turned into a Ponzi scheme. We’ve been sold complete bullshit for years, and Taibbi, God love him, is not afraid to say so.

(Goldman Sachs, meanwhile, has plenty of money to soothe its hurt feelings. Despite requiring $5.5 billion of taxpayer money in 2008 (and $12.9 billion in bailouts from the collapse of AIG), the bank posted $1.9 billion in profits in the past three months alone.)

Those expecting a left-wing polemic are going to be disappointed, however. Taibbi has scathing invective for everyone involved in this mess, and has an especially sharp analysis of the massive failure that is ObamaCare.

But politics, Taibbi says, is merely a sideshow, meant to distract the rubes from the real business of government — which is to hoover money from the many and deliver it to a select group of campaign contributors. Those who believe the elections a couple weeks ago will make any difference are living in a dreamland, and the people who actually run things in this country are happy to let them stay there. (Taibbi also reminds us that the name of the Tea Party actually came from Rick Santelli — a financial trader who lost his shit live on CNBC, not because of the billion-dollar bailouts for firms like Goldman, but by the idea that some people might get a break on their mortgage payments.)

There are those who challenge Taibbi, but none of them have landed a solid punch so far. I don’t pretend to be an expert on collateralized debt obligations, tranches, or interest rate swaps. Neither does Taibbi. But having worked with some truly great reporters, I recognize when someone has the goods, and Taibbi definitely owns this story. Most of his critics concentrate on the small things while leaving his main points untouched; many of them simply disagree philosophically with him — any alternatives to our current system are unimaginable.

Besides, it’s hard to argue with Taibbi when politicians are so short-sighted they are literally selling America off piece-by-piece. The great public works of the past are now up for sale. If I were to put that metaphor into a novel, I know it would never make it into the final draft — it’s just too perfectly sad and ironic to seem real. Unfortunately, this is where we live now. And it’s going to take more than Tea Parties or Sanity Rallies (or blogging, for that matter) to get us out of here.

"Kick-Ass" and the Death of My Inner 13-Year-Old Sociopath

I have a confession to make: I have no desire to see Kick-Ass. None.

If I’d gone to junior high in the aftermath of Columbine, I would have been locked up. No joke. I buzz-cut my hair, wore a black trenchcoat every day, and wrote violent short stories in bad imitation of Hunter S. Thompson where I used a bazooka to blow up the school.

So I think I get where Kick-Ass is coming from. And it’s safe to say that if I were still that same 13-year-old misfit, I would be camping out in front of a theater right now, waiting for the movie to open.

But somewhere along the line, I stopped wanting to see a little girl disembowel people with a samurai sword. I think Roger Ebert says it best in his review of the movie: “Shall I have feelings, or should I pretend to be cool?” (This is the same Roger Ebert who raved about xXx, by the way.)

I love Matthew Vaughn’s direction, loved his previous films Layer Cake and Stardust, and have little to no problem seeing grown-ups onscreen tortured, shot, beaten and blown up. I loved Mark Millar’s runs on The Authority and The Ultimates, and was even with him on Wanted, until probably issue four.

But Kick-Ass? Maybe it’s because I’m a father now, and I’ve grown just as compromised and old and hypocritical as a dad in a bad sitcom. But I don’t think so. Sad to say, I just don’t respect the effort very much. It’s a cop-out to claim you’re just following the rules of the real world — by showing mind-blowing violence — and then jump back when people protest and say, “Whoa. Just a joke, folks.” As if to say, “We think it’s realistic and gritty to show a dad shooting his daughter in the chest at point-blank range — unless, of course, you’re offended. In that case, we were only kidding.”

In other words, the whole point of the movie is to deny the very reason the filmmakers claim they made it in the first place. I have more respect for Romero and the Troma team, who at least admit they’re going for the gross-out.

My inner 13-year-old is kicking and screaming as I type this, fighting me every step of the way. He’s calling me a traitor and a hypocrite and many other things that I try not to say out loud any more.

I can see his point. Maybe he’s right, and Kick-Ass would be a great, fun movie. The one thing I’ve learned since being 13 is that I’m wrong. A lot. It’s how I go on learning.

But the little bastard is still going to have to wait to catch it on HBO, and then, only if nothing else is on the TiVo.

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