Monday, July 23, 2007

Footnote humor

Despite what a crazed man at the party I went to last Saturday would have you believe, Terry Pratchett is a hilarious writer. For those uninformed, benighted among you who are unfamiliar with him, Pratchett writes comedic fantasy novels set in a world of his own invention: Discworld. I know that the phrase "comedic fantasy novels" has already lost half of my readership, which is a little sad because those departing are letting their literary snobbiness get in the way of enjoying some genuinely funny books, but more importantly because I'm only using Mr. Pratchett as a lead in to my broader discussion point.

Which is, footnotes are awesome. In particular, footnotes have an almost mystical ability to bestow humor upon whatever work they inhabit. Mr. Pratchett's oeuvre was my first introduction to this technique, which is fortuitous, since he is quite the master at it. There's something about taking a sudden, tangential departure from a text to focus on a minor digression that brings a smile to my face every time. Even bigger, "more literary" books use this technique: the most dramatic example I can think of is Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. Said book has an entire section (20+ pages) written as a footnote, and features a lengthy comedic digression about the Mean Value Theorem (although he entirely botches the theorem).

I'm heartened to see that footnotes appear to have made the technological transition to the Internet. And so cleverly, too! I refer, of course, to Alt Text, which you may more readily refer to as "those little yellow boxes that pop up when I hover my mouse over the picture." And if you were to refer to them that way, I would not begrudge you, for I am no hyper-critical, pedantic overseer of tech terms.

But I digress. Point being, several web comics I read (Dinosaur Comics and XKCD being the most notable) use said alt-text in fulfillment of a similar role as footnotes; that being, tangential thoughts that contribute -- but don't directly relate -- to the humor of the piece in question. Viz, the alt text in this XKCD strip, which is hilarious if you happen to be a programmer and know what a goto statement is, and have read Cryptonomicon, and know who Goto Dengo is (which ties in to my second theory of humor, which is that every joke has the same humor value, which is distributed more-or-less evenly between all people who get the joke -- therefore, the less people who get a joke, the funnier it is to them).

And that's all I have to say about that. Trivial? Sure. Earth-shatteringly novel? Not a chance. All mine? Hell yes.

Friday, July 13, 2007

An eight-year-old's weekend

I spent a fair chunk of last Sunday hanging out with my friend K. Initially, we had really only intended on doing fairly boring, adult things. You know, hanging out at a coffeeshop and stuff like that. Which was fun, and all. Through some fluke, though, we somehow managed to turn into 8-year-olds for the rest of the afternoon. We spent the day baking cookies, and then decided to go down to the river and feed ducks. Also, we spent some time filling in a coloring book. It was a gloriously idyllic afternoon.

Mind you, I made cookies for some of my coworkers who had to work the weekend, and the coloring book was the Cthulhu Rainy Day activity book. But I refuse to allow that to detract from the experience.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Bollywood extravaganza!

Television in Pakistan was (and still is, I assume) an odd beast. By default, you were provided with a constant stream of public access TV, which is much like its American equivalent but with more religion and without the budget. (A prototypical example of said programming would be a background image of pleasant nature scenes -- flowers and oceans and whatnot -- and images of religious texts, constantly cycling as an audio track of an imam reciting Quranic verses played. For five hours straight.)

If you wanted something a little less spiritually nourishing, you had to result to a satellite dish. A satellite dish, of course, gave you access to Indian television program. And sure, that included such worthy channels as BBC and CNN. But the real joy was in the entertainment channels: MTV and StarTV and Channel V. MTV (and Channel V, the homegrown equivalent) of course adapted to their target market: while they carried their fair share of Britney and Backstreet Boys (and Take That, catering to the more British sensibilities), there was an enormous quantity of Hindi dance music as well. If you have never seen a Bollywood musical (or dance number), you really owe it to yourself to check out this movie so that you have a better idea of what I'm talking about.

At the time, these music videos were endlessly annoying: they were in a language I couldn't understand, catering to musical sensibilities I did not share, and followed a very small number of thematic variations (beachfront dance number, snowy mountain-top dance number, urban dance number, and village dance number, all featuring the male and female dance leads accompanied by location-appropriate backing dancers). If you didn't follow my earlier link, imagine watching (say) a Nirvana video, immediately followed by a Gilbert & Sullivan musical number. In Swahili.

Needless to say, I was somewhat surprised to find myself setting at a friend's house Saturday night, watching Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, a classic Bollywood romantic comedy. And, as much as I would have liked otherwise, I actually enjoyed it. Quite a bit. Sure, the plot was obvious (and ridiculous). Sure, the acting was ludicrously over the top. And, despite my somewhat tenuous expectations to the contrary, the dance routines didn't really fit into the plot at all (a conversation about love at an Indian prep college somehow morphed into a frolicking dance number at a Scottish castle. No, I'm dead serious.) But somehow, the over-the-top kitsch, when hammered into my head over a three hour period, was enormously fun to watch. It didn't hurt that the particular movie I watched happens to star Shahrukh Khan, the quite attractive and enormously charismatic individual featured at right.

I'm not sure if my taste for kitsch has just been augmented with my growing age, or if it was the pure overwhelming sense of spectacle I was assaulted with. Either way, I loved the hell out of it. The fact that there were subtitles and I could actually understand what the hell was going out was presumably entirely irrelevant to this development...

Also, check out this awesome, Little-Richardesque dance video: