Your Days Are Numbered: The Maths of Death

Matt Parker and Timandra Harkness put on an extremely well constructed show. There are a few (very small) problems with that, but perhaps only for those sensitive to set-ups. When the audience participation gets a little to independent, there’s anxiety: will they manage to bring out the punch lines of the planned brick jokes at the right minute?

The nominal thesis of the show is the calculation of your personal chances of death at any given time, in any given way, using a unit of risk measurement called the micromort: a one-in-a-million chance of dying. Taking a tab of ecstasy and smoking a single cigarette, for instance, both carry a risk of one micromort. In the UK, dying by shark attack and as the result of a tea cozy incident carry the same risk: zero micromorts. A glass of wine or a breakfast fry-up, well…that’s more complicated. Chronic alcoholism certainly shortens one’s life, but moderate drinking (whatever that may be for any individual) is actually linked to a lower risk of heart attacks. And, all factors considered, it’s actually healthier for most people to be a little overweight (again, whatever that is person to person) than a little underweight (likewise).

At this point, an overweight man in front of us yelped, “Has that sample been controlled for people who’ve lost weight due to cancer treatment?”

“Yes!” Harkness replied immediately, and continued, “We have the best hecklers of any Fringe show: ‘So’s your control group!'”

A running gag is the treatment of the audience as a sample group, treating each minute of the show as a year with all of us born as it started, with Parker doing his math-genius thing of calculating the percentages for a 146-member audience on the fly. At 65 minutes, most of us were lucky: only one in ten UK resident will die before that age, so only the front row had stickers on their forehead declaring them “DEAD.” After that, though, there was the expected steep drop-off, which somehow culminated in a mock shark attack, then a song about the point of life being what goes on underneath all the calculations, ending on a cheery note.

My grandmother died a few days before the show. We’d bought our tickets earlier that week, so it wasn’t as if we chose to be morbid, but we did nearly have second thoughts about attending. It’s a testament to the show’s warm silliness that I left it feeling better about the mysteries of life, death, the universe, and everything.

reasons to be cheerful #3

Fallout: New Vegas coming out this fall.

Such august reviewers as the AV Club and Spoony faintly praise the previews as “pretty much Fallout 3 in a new location.” Which makes me anticipate it all the more. I’ve played the hell out of Fallout 3, including every expansion pack. Because I’m a massive dork, after beating it a couple of times as a super-powered saint, I went back and started again as an evil, mentally retarded character named “Ayn” (but still reverted to a previous save after killing GretaCarol was just so damn sad).

Even if it turned out to be a glorified stuff pack, I’d be a happy camper. In fact, it’s being developed not by Fallout 3’s Bethesda but by Obsidian,  who brought out 1 and 2. During old-school and particularly patient moods, I’ve been inching through Fallout 2, and it’s got a very different worldview and sense of humor than 3. If anything, it’s snarkier, meaner, and dirtier. Can’t wait to see what they bring to a modern FPS engine, if the go-go dancer Super Mutant is any indication.

Sanderson Jones: Taking Liberties

August is a painful month for Edinburgh locals. Not only do some bastards bugger off for the entire month, renting their homes out as “party flats,” but every nook of the city is hastily transformed into a dozen-seat venue for a variety of talent, all of whom spends 12 hours a day ambushing passers-by with advertisement postcards.

Getting into any of these shows is a trial, as the Fringe follows the typical UK festival tradition of nurturing a cramped, surly chaotic atmosphere all but devoid of accessible bathrooms. Sanderson Jones‘ show, tucked away in the Five Pound Fringe ghetto, initially was no exception. The venue was on the top floor of a hole in a wall, the door to which was completely blocked by amateurs with power tools bashing a groove in their stoop and pulling out the wall’s wiring. Customers who dared approach at the show’s start time were snapped at to go into a nearby bar to wait, then thirty seconds later were snapped at to form a queue up the stairs and go go go! Since this has happened at every Fringe show we’ve attended (aside from the power tools, a nice improvisation) in the past three years, I’ve come to assume there’s special courses in July, where staff have to act this scenario out again and again through intensive role-play until they’ve got it note-perfect. Bravo, GRV staff – your hard rehearsals were not wasted. Once in the small venue, piercing electropop was playing at roughly six billion decibels while a webcam projected the growing audience’s image on a small screen. Our hopes were no longer high.

But then! Sanderson Jones leapt out, with his lovely red beard and skinny jeans that removed all threat of progeny from his future, and accused my husband of pedophilia. It was funnier than it sounds. His loose theme was how prurient hysteria and paranoia threaten freedom of speech for all, and he approached a genuinely uncomfortable audience threshold with his “I’m drawing a children’s book about prophets of monotheistic Middle Eastern religions, guess which one this is!” bit. He compared the concept of fatwās to cynical advertising campaigns (drawing on his experience as an advertising seller for the Economist magazine), which was a little Bill Hicks, and used Venn diagrams to illustrate the problems of being both a comedian trying to connect to audiences via funny and being a human being trying to connect to other human beings by any means necessary.

And, to make some point or other, the webcam turned out to be a chekov’s gun, ambushing unsuspecting wankers on chatroulette with the sight of a couple dozen strangers waving cheerfully, or wearing creepy masks. I sincerely believe he was making a real point, but was too amused by the half-dozen or so naked cocks that came on screen and rapidly nexted away from us. (For once, South Park didn’t lie to me.)

There were some weak points in the show. A long segment on the Brook Shields photograph removed from the Tate Modern didn’t entirely pan out, despite Jones’ offering of one of his own nude baby pictures as an alternative (awwwww…the cute little ginger toddler). Having that photo up on stillscreen was too creepy to laugh around – which may have been his point, so, good attempt there. And, while his material is generally innovative and personal (despite a few seemingly mandatory “women I want to fuck don’t want to fuck me” bits…which Hicks himself regrettably fell into too damn often for me to deify that talented man), he doesn’t seem quite confident enough. He encouraged audience involvement but was rattled several times afterward at then being talked back to, calling fairly quiet “I want to play too!” outbursts “heckling.” You try to break through the audience’s individual shyness…meh, that’s what you get. It’s just seeking approval from the man in the spotlight everyone’s paying attention to, not repeated drunken screams of “free bird!”

Overall, the guy’s got a lot of potential, and I hope to see more of him.

reasons to be cheerful #2

Tom Wait’s I Don’t Wanna Grow Up. Perfect Friday song, making the trudge to another day being ground in the gears a little lighter.

This isn’t a music video. This is a dreamscape id-dump via Jim Jarmusch. Waits stuffs himself onto a tiny set, defiantly attempting to remain in the cramped world of adolescent fantasy – the rock god on stage with a guitar and a frame of lights. Intercut with this image is a spacious envisioning of the same concept – Waits trundling around his backyard (…probably, given that there’s a thousand photos of him and that tree) on a kid’s bike in a devil-horn cape, a red fuck-me pump on one foot and his usual black boot on the other, showing off a rather tragic set of teeth. Other times, in the same outfit, he’s enjoying a martini and cigar in a Coffee and Cigarettes bar. If there’s any message in this beautiful mess, it’s to leave nostalgic sets adolescent freedom in the attic and start defying whatever rigid definitions of an adult man or woman piss you off most in the now.

Futurama, the return

Futurama: Rebirth

Futurama returned from a long hiatus and a series of gleefully canon-burning dvd-movies with the soothing burr of Hypno-toad, Bender’s voiceover assuring viewers there had been no gap:  “On the count of three, you will awaken feeling refreshed, as if Futurama  had never been canceled by idiots, then brought back by bigger idiots.”

I don’t usually review pure comedies (unless they’re offensively terrible), because I love them, and I can’t bear to dissect and thus kill what I love. Futurama has a special place in my pantheon of favorites, up there with The Simpsons, Wonderfalls, Firefly, and many other mandatory beloveds of rapidly aging pseudo-intellectual hispter douchebags. It beat them all, though, by intelligently lampooning hard scifi and actual science and philosophy amidst the sitcom buffoonery and many, many dick jokes. If I’m a sucker for anything, its geek in-jokes and any phrase that ends in “…shiny metal ass!”

The inner critical snob wonders if it isn’t better to leave the original seasons of Futurama as a perfectly imperfect whole, the AV nerd bullied out of the picture as often as possible by the big jock network but infinitely rewarding when taken on its own, socially malformed, D&D-loving, terms. Mainstream culture has moved on since the show premiered in 1999 (aie…has it ever…), and the ticklish postmodern combination of rarified booklearning with joyfully stupid pop-culture has been declared passé. By stupid people, I say, who want nothing more than laughs there’s no chance they’ll need explained to them. Snark is still on the menu, jah, and subculture elitism, in spades, but giddy intellectualism motivated purely by free-ranging interest? That’s just suspect. I re-watched Waking Life a couple of weeks ago for the first time since seeing it in Baltimore’s Charles Theatre as a recent grad, and was struck by terrorist gestures being referenced in positive liberal terms. I remember being dead bored in art classes, some paunchy 40ish professor exhorting us to get out there and be “cultural bombs,” that anti-consumerist revolutionary thought and art was nothing without the sincere efforts of Shiva-style destruction.

Now, when the cultural dialogue has been dominated by a nearly decade-old act of actual terrorism – can you imagine? While studying for a later degree, professors advised young artists to keep our heads down, politically, and focus on inoffensive commercial impact.

But I digress, per usual. The question in mind – can Futurama be Futurama in a era that doesn’t tolerate the tipping of genuine sacred cows?

Who am I kidding? I’m elated we’re getting more. I watched the hell out of the movies, despite their variable quality, and the nagging feeling I was seeing creator-produced fanfic. They were fun because they grabbed the chance to rip apart the world built up over four years, deconstructing deconstructions – with dick jokes. And I’ll love each new episode that comes out like minutes in a stay of execution.

The new episodes are promising, and chock full of memorable quotes. And, particularly in the pilot, they do their best without resorting to Patrick Duffy dreaming away an entire season. Futurama has had two definitive endings. Both identically tied up the Sam-and-Diane relationship of Leela and Fry, and the latter left the entire crew as hotly pursued fugitives diving into a mysterious wormhole. There’s no possibility of returning from that burned bridge to anything like the previous status quo without a ridiculous asspull.

And they did, but at least they hung a lampshade on it. It’s hard to hate an episode that morphs from Philip K Dick to Terminator in less than a minute. And the status, it’s somewhat quo. Fry and Leela seemed poised to venture into a relationship, potentially mining a new ore of scifi parody (how hard is it to maintain a LTR in a genre dominated by green alien babes?), but Leela’s shotgun fornication with her first-season one-night-stand appears to have derailed that. Maybe.

The lower budget shows at times, mostly in the background quality. There’s a lot of generic color swoops representing greenery on exotic planets. It’s not as visually fancy as the later seasons and movies.

The biggest change is the tonal dominance of good old-fashioned raunchy humor, from the repeated Leela and Amy partial nudity (…not that I’m complaining, mind you), to a two-headed goat vomiting from both ends, to a singing boil referencing an already stale pop-cultural phenomenon. Part of this is the move to cable, requiring less deft censor-dodging, and part is a mass cultural shift epitomised by the success of Sacha Baron Cohen, pure adolescent envelope-pushing. I’m a big fan of dick jokes and mind-bending sexual entendres (seriously, how did Bender and Amy even…nevermind), but they’re funnier when set off by humor that doesn’t depend solely on infantile shock. If I wanted a half hour of nothing but half-rate dada-esque offense, I’d watch Family Guy.

Which I do, actually. But Family Guy is never going to have a Heidegger joke, or reference Stephen Hawking, unless it’s to make fun of the man’s super-sweet wheelchair and speaking software.

So, to sum up: yay, more Futurama!  …please don’t let it suck, because I will love it regardless, and would like to have some respect for my critical faculties.