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July 21, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--How YouTube Will Change Comedy Forever

Epic-rap-battles--source

A curse, and a blessing.

A plague, and a lifeblood.

A death knell, and a resurrection.

Given that I’m currently in the throes of all things comedic during the 32nd annual Just For Laughs Festival, I was challenged with the question: “What’s the role of YouTube for the next generation of comedians?

The three lines atop this post comprise the wildly divergent answer I will now try to justify without too much vilification.  So…

At its best, YouTube is

the Garden of Eden;

not only for the next generation

of comedians, but actually

forming the next generation

of comedians.  

 

At its worst, YouTube is

the ruthless Angel of Death,

and perhaps for an entire

comedic genre…

namely, stand-up. Gulp.

We’ll start with the bad news.

A couple of years ago, in an interview for Wired Magazine, I defined comedy as “a function of two parts familiarity and one part surprise; F2S, if you will.”  A great joke takes you on what seems to be an expected journey, then jerks you around just when you think you know where you’re going. Without the unknown, without the surprise, a joke doesn’t exist.

Regrettably, YouTube eliminates a joke’s surprise.  Well, not specifically YouTube itself, but let’s face it, that’s where much of the material surreptitiously captured on smartphone cameras eventually ends up being seen.  And seen.  And seen again. 

Smartphones are recording everyone, in tiny basement clubs to major concert halls, and in the process, puncturing comedy balloons before they’re fully inflated, weakening the punch in every oft-viewed punchline. 

Naturally, this outrages stand-up comedians (see articles here documenting the hardships of Chris Rock and Patton Oswalt, to name just two), and many in the field’s upper echelons have resorted to hiring squadrons of in-room spotters, looking to extinguish a smartphone’s telltale glow…and/or those causing them.

This situation is far from ideal,

and is only going to get worse

The paranoid in me envisions future stand-up shows resembling the fascist rally scene in the Pink Floyd film “The Wall,” but ultimately, any further attempts at stronger policing are merely closing the proverbial barn door after the horses have fled the stable. If it’s not the smartphone, it’ll be  Google Glass, or the something else about-to-be-invented that will be way less conspicuous and exponentially more powerful at capturing, and circulating, the live performance. It may not be seen as “progress,” but you sure can’t stop it.

Which means that stand-up has got to adapt…or face oblivion. (I have many theories on how, but that’s for another post.)  So, envision the worst case scenario: say pirate video kills the stand-up star.  Does that mean comedy dies with it? 

Far from it. 

Despite its seemingly frivolous

forward face, comedy is

one tough cookie

On a showbiz level, it survived the death of vaudeville only to roar back stronger than ever.  More profoundly, it has helped millions get through hardships, be they personal or political. It may struggle and morph, but it will never die.

Which brings me back to YouTube.  Comedy is killing it there big-time.  And what’s working best takes advantage of YouTube’s factors of:

  • Democracy (anyone can do it)
  • Speed (shoot in the morning, upload in the afternoon)
  • Vast Audience Reach (every niche is huge) 
  • Quirkiness (impact over aesthetics)

Pranks and pranksters are huge (including Just For Laughs’ Gags channel, with over 4,000,000 subscribers).  So are eccentric people simply talking to their rabid fan base.  Most promising is that the low barrier to entry allows infinite experimentation…which will lead to new breeds of humour analogous to the medium (and to its increasing mobile use).

I remember a sobering trip to Los Angeles a couple years back where I discovered the parallel universe being driven by unconventional YouTube-friendly digital comedians, NONE of whom I had ever heard of before.  During my meetings in traditional Hollywood—along Santa Monica or Wilshire or Sunset—we talked about “digital comedians,” but they were merely savvy analog acts who had a grasp of digital tools like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and the like. 

Once I ventured “below Highway 10” so to speak, the homeland of pure video plays like Maker Studios, Fullscreen and their ilk, I was exposed to a whole new breed of off-beat creators who didn’t care about the old rules, and considered the intrusion of cameras a friend rather than a foe.

And today, that dividing line

is blurring rapidly:

This is why, at this year’s Just For Laughs, my number one priority is welcoming the new-breed YouTube comedy stars to the event, and ensuring that they don’t merely meet their more traditional brethren and sistren, but find a way to collaborate with them…and change the humor industry.

For the better. 

And undoubtedly, in a most surprising way.

Weird-al-tacky

July 14, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week—The Danger of Imagination

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Next to “E=MC squared,” perhaps the most famous quote to emerge from Albert Einstein’s mouth is the oft-cited:

“Imagination is

more important

than knowledge.”

While the meaning of these words is primary and easily understood, their use has been a constant source of positive inspiration to dreamers everywhere for years.   What I’m sure Einstein didn’t consider at the time of his uttering was the offshoot of his observation, namely:

“Imagination is

DisTortEr

of knowledge.”

To explain, let me take you on a walk down the main downtown artery on which I live.  Last Wednesday, I was speedily heading to an art vernissage at the Ritz Carlton Hotel a few blocks away, and I crossed paths with an acquaintance of mine, a woman I’ve known for many years.  I smiled and said hello.

“Are you going to walk right by me again?” she asked.

“Huh? When did I walk right by you?” was my stunned reply.

“A few weeks ago, right on this very street!”

Yikes!  I may not be the most social guy on earth, but I’m not usually this insensitive.

“Was I wearing my headphones, because when I’m listening to music, which is what I usually do when I walk downtown, I zone out a little bit.”

She didn’t answer that question, but shifted gears dramatically.

“I know you’re still mad at me for what happened with that app,” she said, referring to a truly minor inconvenience that took place about six or seven years ago, when I was working in the tech space with my Airborne Mobile company.

“No, not at all,” I said.

“And you never used me to sell your properties!” (Said acquaintance is in sales, to put this in perspective.)

Well, that was indeed true, but for a completely different, totally innocuous reason, one which was miles away from what she felt was the cataclysmic event that spawned my perceived ignoring behavior.  And as for the kerfuffle over the app, it was so insignificant I had forgotten it had ever happened…that is, until she brought it up again. 

Nonetheless, the absence of valid, accurate information and the fact that she couldn’t read my thoughts—then or now—allowed her imagination to run wild, and conjured up all sorts of offbeat, obtuse scenarios that were so far away from the truth, they needed a new area code and a passport.

And therein lies my point, and this week’s lesson.

Imagination is a wonderful and most valuable tool when used properly.  When exploiting and exploring it trying to come up with next big start-up idea, a hit song, an out-of-the-box solution to a pesky problem, or a new way to cook chicken, imagination is great.

But like nitroglycerin,

which can both

re-start a stalled heart

or blow a city block

to smithereens,

imagination can also be

a dangerous weapon.

Probing its depths to explain why that guy or girl passed you by, why you didn’t get the job, or why you weren’t invited to some party may be hazardous to your mental health...and to that of those you are imagining about.

So the next time you find your inner thoughts summoning up outlandish, cockamamie reasons about the way things seem, consider the words of another great philosopher, namely The Tempations, and remember that it may be “Just my imagination / Running away with me.”

A simple ask may save you hours, weeks, even years of unnecessary—and erroneous—worrying.

July 7, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week: Un-Unforgettable

Who r u

I attended a cultural event over the weekend, and following the evening's performance, I gathered with the rest of the crowd in the lobby of a theatre for a drink and some socializing.

Now I’m not great in these circumstances in general, but considering what happened there in specific, I was terrible.

Never again, though!

Here’s the story:

Trying to make my way through the crush of humanity, I was stopped by a somewhat familiar stranger about my age.  He looked at me and exclaimed:

“Well, well…if it isn’t Andy Nulman of Sir Winston Churchill High School!  You look great!”

Not a bad start, a small compliment.  But it proved to be just a softening set-up for the H-bomb he was about to drop:

“Do you recognize...me?”

While I may have a great sense of recall for events and actions, I am far less gifted in face/name recollection.  It’s something I try hard to improve, but it’s a weak point in my real-life social networking.

So…visibly uncomfortable, shifting side to side and stammering, and because I didn’t want to come across as a pretentious ass, I finally sputtered in as humble tone as I could muster:

“I am so, so, so, sorry but I don’t recall.  I’m really not good at this; I think I may even have a real problem.  Please excuse me.  You are...?”

Proper social grace and decency at this juncture is to extend a hand, smile and reveal one’s secret identity.  But no such luck on this night.   Rather than help a brother off a very big hook, my tormentor responded with a wide grin:

“I can’t believe you don’t know who I am!”

Slight pause, then…

“I think I’ll let you squirm for a while.”

I came to the theatre for a show; I didn’t sign up for a memory test, yet here was one being administered without anesthesia or lube. For some reason, I stood there paralyzed for what seemed to be hours of discomfort before he finally relented and graced my ears and memory banks with the sound of his most precious name (which I will not reveal to graciously protect the guilty).

The result of this unlocking was, shall we say, somewhat less than finding a buried treasure chest filled with gold. 

Yes, we indeed did go to school together at ol’ SWCHS.  But he was a couple of grades younger than me, and never a really close friend.  At most, I remember him as a nice guy in the halls, an acquaintance you would exchange niceties with at the mall or a party. 

And here he was again,

decades later, a grinning

timeline terrorist

holding me hostage by

dangling disconnected

brain synapses

in front of me.

After a minute or so of awkward exchange, I mercifully pulled myself away…and vowed that this was the LAST time I would ever be put in such an uncomfortable situation.

I’m sure that at one point in your life—or many, like me—you’ve shared my pain by being put in situations similar to this one, where the happy innocent becomes the uneasy victim.  And what I learned this week is the Express Pass/Golden Ticket out of them. 

So…the next time someone makes ME feel this ill at ease at the name-me game, my two-pronged sledgehammer attack will start with this body blow:

“I’m sorry…

I don’t know who you are. 

I guess you weren’t really

all that memorable.”

And when that someone breaks—and trust me, they will, almost immediately—and spits out his or her name, I will take a deep breath, twist my face quizzically, and reply with this knockout punch, one word delivered in many syllables:

Who-oo-oo-oo???”

Believe me, after this, I will never ever be uncomfortable again.

Nor, for that matter, forgotten!

June 30, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week: Screw the "Other People"

Gallop-in-Germnay

I was having breakfast with a successful TV producer friend of mine, and we were discussing the determining factors of success and failure in business.  Not just “our” business of show, but business in general.

The primary success factor was blatantly obvious: people.  Call them what you will, but without an audience, a crowd, raving fans, customers, clients, subscribers, spectators, viewers, followers…you’re sunk.

The real surprise was the revelation of the primary failure factor…also people, but more specifically, “other people.”

The best way to explain this is via a quote from a woman I admire immensely, Cindy Gallop.  Cindy is not just a gutsy entrepreneur, a genius-level thinker and a magnificent speaker, but also a human magnet.  Her outlandish appearance (that's her, somewhat tame, atop this post) is an immediate visual focal point, and the way in which she speaks makes just about everything she says instantaneously memorable.

I’ve seen her speak a few times, and the last time around, at C2MTL, she so eloquently summed up what my friend and I were talking about.  To wit:

“You will never

own the future

if you care what

other people think.”

This may sound basic, but sometimes, the best lessons are. 

Because of “other people,” so many ideas are never brought to fruition, which prevents them from ever at all being brought to the people that really count.

Other people” are often the airbrakes on the bullet train of progress.  They are the reason why world-changing projects are stillborn, why budding sages stay silent, why potential superstars remain seated on the sidelines, why companies stay the course of the status quo, why so many of us shut up in meetings.

Rather than do what’s right, do what we want, speak our mind or find another way to bask in our freedom, dreading what “other people” may say or do (or even worse, think, because then it remains a mystery) lays down a layer of inertia and drives the ultimate fear of actually carrying out something we might regret later.

I love Cindy’s quote for so many reasons, but mainly because it embodies her spirit of going for broke by over-arching and striving to “own the future.”  She’s not just saying that if you care what other people think you “won’t succeed” or you “won’t be happy”; she’s saying that despite your reticence, you may still enjoy a modicum of achievement…but you’ll never reach the summit.

Put another way...

The only way

to attract people

in the end

is to ignore them

in the beginning.

It takes a certain type of person to disregard the “other people.”  Like Cindy, you have to be a bit outspoken, a bit outrageous, a bit outlandish and a lot “out there.” 

But every major advancement—EVERY one—from life-saving medical breakthroughs to the creation of the device you are reading this on, has been launched by someone who, when push came to shove, didn’t give a rat’s ass about what “other people” had to think. 

Don’t believe me?  Don’t agree?

Well guess what?

I don’t care ;)

June 23, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week: Comparing Apples and…Pears

Pears!

One great thing about striving to learn at least one something every week is that one never knows where the next nugget of inspiration will come from. 

For me, this week’s was found at the bottom of a box that contained my weekly P&A grocery order.  Underneath the mounds of fresh vegetables, boxes of Quaker Oat Squares, bag of Spanish peanuts and cartons of Tropicana grapefruit juice was a padded liner (you can see it above) on which the following tidbit was printed:

Apple and Pear Merchandising:
*75% of apple purchases are planned
*54 % of pear purchases are unplanned

For some reason, I found this fascinating, and wondered why the wide difference in predetermination.  Was it because apples have entered our modern-day lexicon in such a dominant fashion (everything from Apple computers to The Beatles’ Apple Records to the adage “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”)?   Are pears considered more exotic, or an acquired taste, like bourbon or oysters?  Did it have to do with the color and/or shape of the respective fruits and their subsequent appeal to the buying public?

Luckily, there was a call to action link:

“learn more at SUPERFRESHGROWERS.COM

So I went there to do just that.

And was sadly disappointed.

The site is indeed colorful, and if you look hard enough, will hint at why apples may give you more energy than a cup of coffee.  But nowhere does it explain why they are more deliberately purchased than those impulsive pears (even in December, which was National Pear Month…and which shows you just how very deep I dug!).

I had to drill down the Internet a bit more, to a January 2009 research paper from the Washington State University School of Economic Sciences to find out that:

“Fresh pears are one of the most popular fruits consumed in the U.S. Yet, annual per capita consumption is by far lower than bananas, melons, and apples, the top three.

"Indeed, pears are ranked ninth in annual per capita consumption out of a list of 23 fruits listed by the Economic Research Service – USDA (2009).”

NinthNinth!  No surprise they’re purchased on a whim!  And I wonder what the percentage of planned banana buys are?

Now the point here isn’t about apples or pears, or even bananas; it’s about information and learning.  While the two can be intertwined, they are not so automatically. In other words… 

Information does not

equal learning;

it is the raw material,

the catalyst to it.

The relationship between information and learning can be likened to the ingredients of a recipe.  While alone they may be very delicious, only when used in the proper combination and via the optimum process do they culminate into a complete dish that can be considered gourmet.  

I noticed this connection—or lack thereof—at last month’s C2MTL creative conference.  There were some amazingly bright people presenting, and nearly every one of them flooded heads with information.  But the truly successful speakers were those who added relevance to their info with stories, passion, visuals or other “mind hooks” that people could personally relate to.  Those who did turned benign listeners into active learners; an important and profound difference when you’re at a conference. 

Information without relevance

is incomplete; it’s merely

words and/or numbers. 

But to many, and unfortunately, that seems to be enough.  I come across this so very often.  People tell me about a book they read, or a course they took, or a TED talk they watched, and exclaim: “I learned so much!” 

My response is usually: “So tell me, what was the most important lesson for you?” 

Their response is usually: “Uh…”

This can lead me down the rabbit hole of many of my favorite diatribes, most notably my rant against “memorize and regurgitate by rote” education.  But the reason why I think it’s so urgent to distinguish between information and learning, and apply the right degree of enthusiasm and context to the former to convert it into a relatable latter, is because of the coming Big Data boom. 

Well, never mind “coming”; with the proliferation of data flying at us so fast and in so many ways, I suppose it’s already here.  Whether or not it all has “meaning” will depend on the way it is processed…which brings us back to the food analogy.  Will data just be tossed haphazardly into a blender, resulting in an informational smoothie?  Or will it be carefully crafted into memorable significance? 

While I don’t have the answer, at least I hope to have provided some—pardon the pun—food for thought.

In the meantime, I think I’ll head back to the supermarket.

And buy a basket of peaches.