June 29th, 2015
Comic Laurie Kilmartin interviews Amy Schumer after the WGA screening of “Trainwreck,” which comes out July 17.
WHO KNEW SHE COULD ACT?
Okay, if you’re not totally familiar with who Amy Schumer is, and why she’s about to explode as the biggest female comic of an entire generation, you should start by watching the incredibly brilliant parody she did earlier this year of the classic 1957 movie, “12 Angry Men.” She’s going to win a stack of awards for that one effort alone (plus she’s already won a Peabody Award for her Comedy Central show now it its third season).
She wrote and directed the episode, shot in black and white, and with pitch perfect music scoring of sultry saxophone straight out of the 50’s. More importantly, the cast is stunning — Jeff Goldblum, Paul Giamatti, and Dennis Quaid as the judge. You can watch a clip of it here.
That episode is equaled by her tea party with Tina Fey and Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the skit about a high school football coach who says “no raping” to his team and … the list goes on and on. In fact, Salon tells you about 15 of her feminist sketches that you will cheer for.
So last night my friend Holly Wortell (Emmy winning writer, producer of The Bonnie Hunt Show and Second City cast member and now instructor, in fact she was my improv instructor a decade ago!) took me to the Writers Guild screening of Amy’s new movie, “Trainwreck,” which was followed by a Q&A with Amy that was as entertaining as the movie.
The first thing to say is who knew she was that good of an actor. That’s what hits you halfway through the movie when she gives a speech at a funeral. You could feel the whole audience saying “whoa,” as she tore it up.
In the Q&A several people asked about that scene and her acting ability. Turns out, yes, she was seriously trained in acting from an early age. In fact, she spent two years studying Meisner Technique with Bill Esper in NYC who was Sanford Meisner’s protege (the crazy acting teacher who tore me apart at the start of my first book was a Meisner instructor — she was always screaming at us about Bill F-ing Esper).
The movie itself is hilarious and by far the funniest thing I’ve seen this year (better than Melissa McCarthy’s “Spy”). The opening scene with Colin Quinn (which I don’t want to give away) is unbelievably funny and sets the bar impressively high. So many of the cast give perfect performances. LeBron James is great, and pro wrestler John Cena is outlandishly funny (in the Q&A she said he rewrote 80% of his material producing all the funniest stuff himself — he’s amazing for a big ox of a guy).
As great as the movie was, the Q&A was almost better — in part because it featured a stack of men who totally embarassed my gender. The moderator, Laurie Gilmartin (veteran standup comic) did a great job of interviewing her, then opened it for questions, which is when it turned both odd and hilarious.
After saying in the interview part that much of the movie was autobiographical, I swear, no less than three men asked her in their questions, “So like … how much of this movie came from your own experiences — like was autobiographical?” After the third idiot asked this, Laurie burst out singing, “When women speak, men don’t listen!”
And then one creepy old dude probably in his 50’s said, “I have a question for your vagina.” It was horrrrrible. The same comment from a 22 yr old kid might have almost worked, but from this guy it made the whole crowd groan, then Amy chewed him up, telling him what a creep he was. By the end of the session people were looking at each other asking, “Where did these guys come from?” (whadya expect — a bunch of writers who rarely go outside)
ANGRY AUDIENCES AND THE COMING FEMINIST WAR
As much fun as the audience was, and as bold as she is as a comic, I have a terrible feeling she’s in for some rough times ahead. In fact, I almost asked a question, but didn’t want to shift the mood into something too serious.
What I was about to say would have been, “Did you read the article in the NY Times today, “Regulating Sex,” about redefining the criminal definition of rape on campus using the catch phrase of “Yes means yes”?”
There’s no denying there’s a new chill in our society that is going around and not clear where it is going to stop. In a fairly major landmark just this month Jerry Seinfeld talked about how political correctness is ruining comedy and a large number of comics have agreed.
Which means there’s a potential disconnect coming between Amy Schumer’s boldness — particularly with feminist issues (and she is indeed amazing, making you cheer for her courage) — and this atmosphere on campuses of creating a legal situation in which the accused in a date rape case is literally “guilty until proven innocent” as the article talks about.
The NY Times article is fascinating reading. We live in a conflicted time, and I’m afraid she’s going to emerge in the bullseye of everyone wanting to argue these issues. Already just yesterday she was accused of being a racist and forced to tweet a clarification that she is not.
She’s a supreme talent, but I fear she’s also about to emerge as a major target. She even talked about how much they’ve gotten away with on her Comedy Central show for three seasons saying that nobody really notices it much.
This movie, when it comes out in a couple weeks, is going to jump her way out there into a different realm. Hope she’s ready for it.
June 19th, 2015
You can see him in the current blockbuster comedy, “Spy.” In the last post I told about my ten years of working with Mitch on short films. Here’s my interview with him from last week. He talks about working with Melissa McCarthy, learning from Charles Nelson Reilly, and calling Helen Keller a bitch.
MITCH SILPA as an incredibly bad version of street magician David Blaine in a video that became one of the first viral videos ever and eventually scored over 40 million views on YouTube.
RO: How much did you enjoy being in the new blockbuster comedy, “Spy”?
MS: It was so much fun — it’s totally a fun movie, Melissa’s great in it, Rose Byrne is hilarious, and Jason Statham is surprising how funny he is. The premiere was so crazy — I’m like there with all these mega-stars — like Jude Law is standing there right next to me — I can’t talk to him — he’s like Jude Law. And Susan Sarandon comes up and says, “You were very funny,” and my head wants to explode.
RO: Tell me about performing with Melissa McCarthy over the years in the Groundlings.
MS: The thing about Melissa is her ferocity and commitment to performing — she will do anything. She wrote a scene for just her and me where I was a bank loan officer and she wanted to get a loan to start a “pizza eating business.” Her character would be — you know how when people end up not eating the crusts — she would come over to your house and eat all the rest of the pizza for you. To watch Melissa every night — to watch this woman every fucking night go after this pizza to demonstrate her technique — like the cheese and the mushrooms would fly off it onto the floor — and to watch her dive onto the floor and eat all of it off the floor — that’s my favorite memory of Melissa, she would do whatever’s needed to make anything funny, to get the laughs — to watch her eat pieces of pizza off the floor — the laughs she would get — she’s so ballsy.
(MY NOTE: I have a buddy who long ago did stand up comedy on Sunset Strip with Jim Carrey before he became famous. He said they used to watch Jim flop around on the stage with so much energy and commitment they would all say to each other, “we’re not that good — we can’t give as much to the performance — we knew he was headed to a higher place than the rest of us.” It’s interesting the similarity of comments for these two eventual superstar comedians about their level of commitment from the start.)
RO: What are the funniest skits you’ve ever been in?
MS: There’s a scene in the current show I love doing where I play this very gay kid in high school — they have to do a report on their most inspiring American and he picked Helen Keller, and he didn’t do any reading on her, but he saw the movie about her, so it’s basically a monologue, but it’s so much fun to do because he’s got some of the information right, and he thinks she’s a badass. So he gets to the part with her teacher and everyone calls everyone else a bitch — “oh, bitch, listen to me” — it’s so much fun to call Helen Keller a bitch.
Another of my favorite skits was years ago where Jim Cashman and I were these two gay school kids who were friends — it was called “Poof” — the parents were Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone and Wendi-McClendon Covey and Nat Faxon — and we were their sons. We would come in and do magic tricks, only — after every trick Jim and I would kiss. The parents loved having us do the magic tricks but they didn’t want us to kiss, so it was like really a scene about these kids being gay where the parents kept telling the kids they don’t want them to do any more magic when what they mean is they don’t want them to be gay.
RO: Tell me about the David Blaine legacy.
MS: We did four of those films where I play David Blaine. I’m always surprised anyone ever even knows it was me — I was wearing a hat, a wig, and a drawn-on mustache. It’s weird how things are connected — even getting the part in “Bridesmaids” — both the Director Paul Feig and the producer Judd Apatow — they knew the David Blaine video, so when Kristen Wiig recommended me they were like, “oh, that guy, okay.”
RO: Where did you do your training?
MS: I got my MFA at UCLA, then I got out of school and started taking classes around Hollywood. I used to study with Charles Nelson Reilly. I know he was always known for things like The Match Game, but he was an amazingly trained actor. He studied with Uta Hagen, he won Tony Awards, he directed — when Julie Harris did shows she would only work with him. I met him because I was in a staged reading he directed. He would teach classes super cheap because he knew actors don’t have money. And you would learn so much — he knew what the fuck he was talking about — and it was fun, but he was also really hard on people.
The thing Charles told us — and this is kind of brilliant — was that when you have the script — everything that is in black, the print, is what the writer brings you. Everything in white is what the actor brings you. It’s like a big canvas. Isn’t that a great image. He was fucking great. The way I teach I hear him coming through me. He would also make fun of people — “What the FUCK are you doing?” You know how when actors in a scene say they have to leave and look at their watch — he would go, “You don’t know what time it is — you looked at your watch, but you faked it — WHAT TIME IS IT???” He would nail you if you bullshitted.
RO: You’ve trained lots in improv, and you’ve trained lots of people — how do you see improv change people?
MS: To be a good improviser you have to learn to give up control because you can’t plan anything — usually you’re making up a scene with somebody else so you have to trust them — so you see people learning to really let go — because, face it, we ALL have trust issues — so you see people have to trust the unknown or the gray area more, which I think helps you in life more.
One of the best things improv can teach you is how to listen — to really listen to everything and notice everything that’s going on. And that transfers over to life in general — to be a better person and listen to people. Improv makes you listen because if you don’t listen, the moment goes by, you didn’t hear it, the audience heard it and it’s gone.
RO: What does “Yes, and …” mean to you?
MS: Do you mean in improv or in life in general? It’s the foundation of improv. It is very difficult to move a scene forward by saying no. It’s really the basis of how kids play when they make up things — I’m gonna date myself — like when they play “cowboys and indians” — if I said I’m a cowboy and you’re an indian, and you said no, I’m not an indian then you’re no fun to play with. If you say, yes, I’m an indian, then we can add to that which is fun.
Companies hire the Groundlings to do improv training. They find “yes, and …” to be valuable for team building — for building on an idea. If someone had an idea, instead of saying “no” and killing it, you say “yes” and build on it.
RO: Do you see a difference between introverts and extroverts — who takes to improv more quickly?
MS: Surprisingly I don’t see a pattern. I feel like the perception of the Groundlings — certainly when I was a student and would go to shows — everyone thinks, “Oh, what a bunch of extroverts,” or “ they seem so fun and everyone loves each other.” But actually, most of the Groundlings I know that I’ve been performing with for years have a lot of social anxiety. They’re not great at parties when they don’t know people. They’re probably more shy than you realize. And maybe part of the reason they gravitate towards performing is because they love getting on stage — you can be fearless on stage, you can disappear in other people.
The people who struggle with the Groundlings — and this is a generalization — are the people who come from stand up because it’s a different mentality. In stand up it’s all about control — you control the audience, you have to be in control, and you work by yourself as you go for the joke. In improv you have to give up control — its not about working by yourself, it’s not about going for the joke — it’s just working with another person in going for the truth.
June 15th, 2015
I was trying to find the right label for Mitch. He deserves something better than “Comic Classic,” but that’s at least close. He’s in the new blockbuster comedy, “Spy,” with Melissa McCarthy where he plays a crazed flight attendant (or pilot?). It opened at #1 at the box office a couple weeks ago. I’ve known him for over a decade and have cast him in 5 of my short films. He’s so talented. He’s so funny. And he’s such a wonderful guy to work with. In honor of all the amazing work Mitch has done, I’m doing this two part feature — first some background on his career and my work with him in this post, then an interview with him in the next post.
MITCH SAVES THE PLANET. A – “The No Seafood Grille 2050” (2004), B – “Shared Visions Evolution Debate” (2006), C, D – “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy” (2008), E – “Dick Tooley, Creationist” (2009), “Death to Lionfish PSA” (2010).
COMIC GENIUS (GONE AWRY)
That’s a pretty cliched label. Mitch Silpa is just so hard to label. He’s so original.
He’s been a member of the Groundlings Improv Comedy Theater for over a decade. In the early days of Youtube, he played the magician David Blaine with the lamest of costuming efforts (a wig, a baseball cap and a drawn on mustache). He and two other Groundlings actors Mikey Day and Michael Naughton, made a short video at a time when the idea of “viral videos” was still emerging. Within a few weeks their video had millions of views — way more than any videos by the real David Blaine (today it has 39 million views). By the end of the year it was in the Top Ten most watched Youtube videos ever. It became so popular they were flown to France by a production company who filmed them in three sequels.
He’s followed that with a ton of hilarious short films, the greatest of which (in my opinion) are “Identity Theft” where he plays the utterly dorky and brilliant Officer Picko (“that’s a little … or a lot”) and the pitch perfect “Exeter” where he plays Randy, a guy who was previously gay but underwent the Exeter reprogramming routine and is no longer gay … much. “Exeter” had it’s world premiere alongside our movie, “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy,” at the 2008 Outfest Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.
I first began seeing Mitch in the main stage shows of The Groundlings in Hollywood. In 2002 I started my Shifting Baselines collaboration with Jeremy Rowley (the gifted veteran Groundling who you can see in this classic short film on dating) who eventually helped recruit about 20 of the Groundlings actors to appear in my short films for ocean conservation and science. I also included them in our stand up comedy contest, and eventually in my feature film, “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy.” Mitch was one of the co-stars of “Sizzle.”
Of course all of my projects have been for minimal pay with wacky concepts. This is the part where the Groundlings have been incredibly good sports. It’s one thing to make a comic film where the only goal is to be funny, but it’s a very different pursuit when there are two goals — to be funny AND say something substantive about an issue such as saving the oceans, or the stupidity of anti-evolutionists, or the poor communications skills of scientists. Retaining the message tends to come at the expense of humor. It ain’t easy.
So here’s the background on each of the 5 films in which I have cast the wonderful and talented Mitch Silpa.
MY FILMS WITH MITCH
A) THE NO SEAFOOD GRILLE 2050 – A prime example of the “not that funny” factor was our first film together — the 90 second piece titled, “The No Seafood Grille, 2050.” To the Groundlings, the film was only lightly funny, if that. But to the target audience — such as the 1,000 attendees at a Sustainable Seafood Summit where it was shown in 2005 — the film brought the roof down. It’s all about being relatable and “on message.” A seafood restaurant with no seafood is not that relatable to comic actors, but to sustainable seafood folks it is drop dead funny. That’s just how it works.
B) THE EVOLUTION-INTELLIGENT DESIGN DEBATE – For my feature film, “Flock of Dodos,” I came up with the idea of staging a comic debate between “Dr. Girr” the world’s angriest evolutionist (played brilliantly by Groundling Hugh Davidson — and I’m serious, if you’ve ever known any bitter, arrogant academics, he nails it) versus “Dr. Sheehee” the world’s slimiest intelligent designer (played equally well by Groundling Tim Brennan, so cocky, so full of crap). Mitch was the innocent moderator, trying to get them to get along. Sadly and painfully, my concept ended up being a bust. I thought their performaces were perfect and in the original cut of “Flock of Dodos” I had them inter-cut throughout the movie — we kept coming back to the debate about once every ten minutes.
Unfortunately at our test screening with 40 friends at Raleigh Studios the only comment that came up with just about every single person present was, “get rid of the comic debate.” It really bummed me out because I thought it was the best thing in the whole movie. But everyone truly hated it. Which was an interesting mismatch in audience and content. I was making the film for science people who were tired of the basic evolution debate and I felt would enjoy the comic relief, but my test audience was non-science people who knew nothing of the basic evolution debate — they were non-science Hollywood folks. I think their feeling was “If we want comedy, we’ll go to a comedy show — we’re here for the science controversy.” So with a sad heart I chopped out the debate entirely, though we did include it in the DVD extras.
C and D) SIZZLE, A GLOBAL WARMING COMEDY. This was the biggest project I did with Mitch — a mockumentary where he co-starred along with fellow Groundling veteran Brian Clark as the gay couple Mitch and Brian (such original names!) who were funding my lame attempt at making a documentary about global warming. Mitch turned in the very best moment of the entire movie in the scene pictured in C above when he says to me, “We’re very worried and upset about global warming, but … we just don’t know WHY we’re worried and upset.” That’s probably the best line I’ve ever written and directed in anything. It was based on all the brainless Hollywood events I have attended over the years, going all the way back to 1990, where you get these Hollywood people fired up about an issue, but when you start asking them about the issue you begin to realize they have no earthly idea of the details or how it works — they just know they are upset. I still love that line — it speaks of so much in our society. Mitch delivered it perfectly, and you can see it in the trailer for Sizzle..
E) DICK TOOLEY, CREATIONIST – In November of 2009 former child actor and creationism activist Kirk Cameron announced he was reprinting Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species”, reworked into the language of creationists. For who knows what reason other than fun, I scrambled my crew and recruited Mitch to play his supposed buddy Dick Tooley telling about his new product, The Kirk Cameron Action Kit, to go with the copies of “Origin of Species.” We shot the whole thing in our office on green screen in one afternoon, then posted it on Funny or Die where it scored 27,000 views and still has a FUNNY rating of about 80%.
F) DEATH TO LIONFISH PSA – Last, but not least, to help out my Shifting Baselines co-founder Dr. Steven Miller in the Florida Keys, we pulled together a 60 second public service announcement in which I had Mitch reprise his role as a cranky waiter, this time in a tropical restaurant where the only fish they serve are lionfish because (as has become true in some parts of the Caribbean) that’s all that’s left for fish after the introduced lionfish have eaten up everything else. For a couple years they showed this PSA before movies in the movie theaters of the Florida Keys. It’s five years later, the lionfish are still a huge problem in the Caribbean, and the Death to Lionfish campaign continues. His co-stars were also Groundlings, Andrew Friedman and Edi Patterson (who also made a cameo in “Sizzle” and co-stars with Mitch in their long-running improv show, “Mitch and Edi Making Love”).
DID MITCH SAVE THE PLANET?
Some days I feel twinges of guilt for all the idiocy I’ve subjected these great Groundlings actors to, but then first, I think of how many audiences in the science and environmental communities have viewed these films (we did over 200 screenings of Sizzle to audiences of upwards of 1000 people everywhere from M.I.T. to the Smithsonian Institution to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution — A LOT of scientists have seen the movie, including plenty who hated it, yay!). And then I walk around the lobby of the Groundlings Theater and look at the photos of all their most famous skits and I realize yikes, the craziness I’ve forced them into is nothing compared to what they normally do.
Also, I’m about to publish my third and most important book in September. My work with the Groundlings has been my training ground for learning how story structure works. These silly films have been an essential part of my education which will hopefully eventually benefit lots of others through the book.
And while I don’t think Mitch alone has managed to save the planet, the fact is we accomplished a lot with the Shifting Baselines Media Project. When I launched it in 2002 there were essentially zero mentions of the term “shifting baselines” on the entire internet. It had only been coined in 1995. The purpose of our project was to help promote and propagate the term. Which we did.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how much we did to propel it, but if you talk with Daniel Pauly, the legendary fisheries biologist who coined the term and was the co-star of our Hollywood Ocean Night where we premiered the No Seafood Grille film, he will assure you that the campaign played a major role. The fact is today you will find hundreds, probably thousands, of websites talking about shifting baselines as well as a detailed wikipedia page that explains the term and mentions the importance of our campaign in “broadening” the use of the term.
Mitch’s performances were a significant part of the effort to broaden all of the science and environmental content I’ve sought to convey. So let’s hear it for humor. As Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman said, the public only listens to voices that they “trust and like.” Humor is a fundamental part of creating a voice that will be liked. There’s nothing worse in the entire cosmos than a humorless preaching environmentalist. We did our part to offset that for the oceans. To this day there are a lot of people who, when they hear this very important conservation term “shifting baselines” first think about our media campaign, and thanks to the Groundlings, they smile. The fine work of Mitch Silpa contributed a lot to that accomplishment.
June 11th, 2015
It’s time for ThrowBack Thursday — back to 2004 when I directed Melissa McCarthy in our epic 3 minute film about a senate hearing on coral reef ecology. It was a piece of sarcasm we concocted at the height of the Bush era. Her new movie “Spy” kicked ass last weekend — #1 at the box office and with a 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. We all knew back then she was destined for stardom. And the same for Mitch Silpa, a fellow Groundling who is in her new movie and I’ll feature next week.
DAYYY-TUH … WELL, THAT’S A BIIIIG WORD — DOES THAT MAKE A LITTLE MAN FEEL LIKE A BIG MAN? At the height of the Bush era — when conservationists were being subjected to Orwellian legislation like “The Healthy Forests Initiative” comic superstar Melissa McCarthy donated her talents to the cause for our “Senate Hearing on Coral Reef Decline” along with future Oscar winners Jim Rash (congressman) and Nat Faxon (the “scientist”) plus Melissa’s husband Ben Falcone (the real scientist). It’s a simple short film but speaks volumes about the frustrations of the conservation community back then. In viewing it now it also speaks volumes about my frustrations with the largely humorless American environmental movement (it was turned down by several environmental film festivals while the NGOs just stared at it wondering why I made it — they like their messaging to beat you over the head).
MELISSA MCCARTHY, COMIC GENIUS
To everyone who was in the Groundlings in 2004 the current super-stardom of Melissa McCarthy comes as little surprise. She was already starring in “The Gilmore Girls,” back then. But more importantly, she was slaying audiences week after week in the Main Stage Show at The Groundlings Improv Comedy Theater. I saw her in an aerobics class skit where her unruly character was named “McRib.” It was one of the funniest performances I’ve ever seen.
That year I was in the thick of my partnership with Jeremy Rowley (who is one of the most gifted of the Groundlings veterans in recent decades — his dating profile video still kills me) producing media about the oceans (and learning the hard way that the American environmental movement takes themselves so seriously they see little place for humor). As part of my Shifting Baselines Ocean Media Project I produced an event called Hollywood Ocean Night which included four short films Jeremy, Roy Jenkins and I co-wrote and directed using members of the Groundlings as the cast.
Jeremy Rowley kept telling me, “What’s cool is that some of these people are going to be huge stars in the not too distant future.” Sure enough, Melissa McCarthy emerged as the biggest star of all. But also her scene partners in the Senate film Nat Faxon and Jim Rash ended up sharing an Oscar in 2013 for writing the screenplay of “The Descendants.”
I ended up presenting these films along with the PSA’s I did with major comic actors like Jack Black and Henry Winkler to the environmental groups for their use. What I got back was mostly, “Whut r we supposed ta do with these things?” No clue about the power of humor to help create a likeable, non-preachy voice. No wonder people got so sick of environmentalists that South Park eventually created a separate episode about them titled, “Smug Alert.”
Oh, well. Thank goodness for Hollywood. And humor.
Oliver Burkman of The Guardian wrote a really nice article yesterday which at it’s core points to the inability of the climate movement to persuade much of anyone that we have a mess on our hands. He cites me in the middle of it, doing a nice job of putting my “bo-ho-horing” message into context. Similar to the famous story from Kilgore Trout (as told via Kurt Vonnegut) about the farting and tap dancing space alien, it’s always a tragedy when everything goes up in flames as the messenger fails to be understood.
VONNEGUT: If you lived through the fire bombing of Dresden you’d probably see the world a little differently, too.
Some people worship the bible. I’ve always worshipped Kurt Vonnegut’s best books. Not the lousy ones. In an interview he candidly scored his own books, and my assesments pretty much match his. But in books like “Slaugherhouse Five,” “Mother Night,” “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,” “Breakfast of Champions,” and of course, “The Sirens of Titan,” he captured the ultimately absurd nature of humanity.
One of his favorite recurring characters was Kilgore Trout, who came up with storylines for science fiction stories that were so lame the only place he could get them published was in the back of pornography magazines (back in a time when the word “porn” wasn’t so popular). In an interview he said, “It seemed to me the science fiction writers were writing about the most important issues of the time.” So it was only natural he would create Trout as his own vehicle for his science fiction ideas that often were cryptic expressions of issues of the day.
If he were still around he would probably have Kilgore Trout come up with some story that would serve as an allegory for our climate problems. But in many ways he already did it with this great one:
One Trout story was about a tragic failure to communicate. Here was the plot — a flying saucer creature named Zog arrived on earth to explain how wars could be prevented and how cancer could be cured. He brought the information from Margo, a planet where the natives conversed by means of farts and tap dancing. Zog landed at night in Connecticut. He had no sooner touched down than he saw a house on fire. He rushed into the house, farting and tap dancing, warning the people about the terrible danger they were in. The head of the house brained Zog with a golf club.
June 5th, 2015
Why hasn’t this term been used more widely? It is applicable to so much, starting with environmentalism. It is the “everything’s going to pieces” mindset. I talk about it a bit in my new book. Everyone needs to start talking about it.
WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!
GOING TO HELL IN A HANDBASKET
Are people’s minds really flexible and open to change, or are they somehow rigidly fixed? Is anybody really listening these days? Or are the haters just gonna hate, as Taylor Swift insists.
I’m quoted this month in Discover Magazine in an article titled, “A User’s Guide to Rational Thinking” by Christie Aschwanden (I think you need a subscription to read it). She does a nice job of presenting the work of Dan Kahan from Yale’s Center for Cultural Cognition. He suggests an awful lot of how you think is constrained by “pre-established cultural or social groups.”
This week, in sort of the ultimate case study of “the scarer’s gonna scare,” comes Paul Ehrlich. On his NY Times blog Dot Earth, Andy Revkin takes a look at world population growth (which maybe isn’t looking as grim as traditionally thought), and notes that Ehrlich, despite decades of wildy erroneous predictions of global cataclysm, is still at age 84 sticking to his pessimistic guns — determined to be a declensionist to his grave.
THE DECLENSIONIST NARRATIVE
So the term I learned recently that I wish I’d known decades ago is “the declensionist narrative.” If you’re a history student you may be intimately familiar with it from studies of Native American cultures, though it is a form of thinking that goes back centuries. In simple terms it is the deep seated belief that no matter what we do, the world is declining (declensionism).
It’s the “things just ain’t what they used to be,” mode of thinking. I make a brief mention of it in my upcoming book, but I intend to dig deeper into it in the near future. It’s a pretty fundamental question — are people just going to be pessimistic or optimistic no matter what they are confronted with?
And if so, where is this thinking based? Is it formed by environment, or could it be structurally present from birth? Are newborn babies already optimists and pessimists?
My good friend Nancy Knowlton has a nice essay this week in the Huffington Post about optimism for the oceans. But then she’s always been an optimist by her own nature. She was probably an optimist in utero.
NPR’s “This American Life” evolution and climate science controversies is that I sensed a tight correlation between personality types and world outlooks. After a while, I knew that when someone was skeptical about global warming they were probably going to be skeptical about a bunch of other things. The two movies left me thinking of one word only — personality.
In it’s ultimate comic form, what we’re talking about here is Debbie Downer — the Saturday Night Live character who had a hopelessly grim outlook on the world. I think the pattern also crops up in response to Steven Pinker’s book “The Better Angels of Nature,” plus the guys at Breakthrough Institute have often cast the world in a less dire light than declensionists.
FINDING MOTIVATION IN AN NON-CRISIS WORLD
So is nature headed towards oblivion? A new paper this week in Trends in Research in Ecology and Evolution (TREE) reviews 100 species that were previously thought to be headed towards extinction but are now looking much better. They propose the term “Lifting Baselines” as a modification of shifting baselines (but to be honest, I don’t think it works very well — it’s conceptually confusing — is it a command or a description?)
So the real question is something I began pondering a decade ago when I was running my Shifting Baselines Ocean Media Project — which is, how do you motivate people when the problems are no longer at the crisis stage?
This becomes a huge messaging challenge. The public just wants a clear, simple, single narrative — is this a crisis or not, yes or no. The TREE paper presents mixed messages. The title of the paper includes the phrase “conservation successes” — yay, good news! But then in a inset box they reaffirm the declensionist theme by saying, “The sixth mass extinction on our planet is real and by most measures the state of biodiversity is deteriorating.” Wanh, wanh, want (the Debbie Downer refrain).
SHOULD SCIENTISTS BE MESSENGERS?
I’m not going to answer this question — there’s already enough scientists who hate me for my critiques of science communication, and lots more who will join in when the new book comes out in September arguing with the subtitle of, “Why Science Needs Story” and recommending the science world turn to Hollywood for the answers.
But science and messaging are not easily compatible. Messaging requires a keen sensitivity to the current political landscape. Science means getting people to understand the truth of what is happening in nature, regardless of the political shortcomings of humans. There is a danger when scientists attempt both without the proper training, time and resources to achieve both goals at once. It’s not an easy split agenda to address.
ABT IN ACTION
One last note — wanna see a perfect ABT? Have a look at this, the last bit of the abstract for the TREE paper. I’ve added the THEREFORE. The ABT is everywhere.
Biologists and policymakers are accustomed to managing species in decline, but for the first time in generations they are also encountering recovering populations of ocean predators. Many citizens perceive these species as invaders and conflicts are increasing. (THEREFORE) It is time to celebrate these hard-earned successes and lift baselines for recovering species.
This comes up all the time. I heard it when I made a climate movie in 2008 that included climate skeptics. Back then, before Climategate, I was labeled by some in the climate community as misguided. When Participant Productions did the same thing this year with some of the same skeptics (Marc Morano, Fred Singer) they were admired. Now J.K. Rowling is hearing it in dealing with gay marriage. It’s a lame criticism.
GOD HATES FLAGS. This is some of the Twitter mess that J.K. Rowling is dealing with in calling out the Westboro Baptist Church over their idiocy. As she says, “gay kids need to see hate speech challenged.”
IGNORING THE BAD GUYS DOESN’T WORK
In 2004 John Kerry was attacked in his Presential campaign by the Swift Boaters. His “strategy” in response was to ignore them in hopes they would go away. They didn’t. They destroyed him. He lost, big time.
Same thing in 2006 with Al Gore’s campaign to save the world from global warming. In his movie, “An Inconvenient Truth,” the only micro-nod he gave to climate skeptics was to talk about Naomi Oreskes’ Science paper counting how many scientists disagreed with the idea of human-caused climate change. His answer was zero, which suggested you’d have to be a fool to think that way. That was all the screen time he gave to the roughly 50% of Americans then who weren’t buying his climate story.
In 2008 I made my small, humble, both silly and serious mockumentary “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy” which included 6 climate skeptics — three of whom continue to be about the loudest voices in the climate skeptic movement — Marc Morano, Fred Singer, and Pat Michaels.
The movie was invited for consideration by five “environmental film festivals” in DC, Georgia, Colorado and California. All five rejected it. Wasn’t their brand of planet worship (plus included gay and non-white people, demographics they’re not used to). In the meanwhile numerous enviros suggested I was “helping the enemy” by giving them screen time. I had to endure a lot of snide and stupid comments.
And then there was ClimateGate in 2009 where the climate community revealed it’s communications incompetence — so severely that even Jon Stewart made fun of them.
And then there was 2010 when the last piece of climate legislation collapsed and I attended a workshop in DC where supposedly the best minds in the environmental movement conceded they had completely failed in their mission. Apparently their opponents weren’t negligible.
And now there is this year’s documentary “Merchants of Doubt,” which features the same Marc Morano and Fred Singer, almost a decade later. This time around there are no comments of “helping the enemy by giving them screen time.” Apparently there’s been a change in the thinking. (Minor note: I guided the director, my buddy Robbie Kenner, to Marc Morano.)
Whatever. The bottom line is that Kerry, Gore and lots of others have slowly learned this basic lesson — that yes, you do have to roll up your sleeves and get down in the trenches to confront even the most dishonest of opponents. There is no high road in this stuff. It’s America. You can’t send people to prison camps if they speak out against the orthodoxy.
All you can do is communicate more effectively than they do. Which is bad news for lousy communicators.
CENTRAL NARRATIVE. It’s the basic divide between the two Clintons as Thomas Friedman pointed out yesterday.
BEING DECLARATIVE ABOUT THE NARRATIVE
Here’s something that currently distinguishes Bill from Hillary Clinton.
“Nothing in Bill Clinton’s Administration made sense except in the light of his overall take on the world.”
“Nothing in Hillary Clinton’s campaign makes much sense (so far) because of her lack of an overall take on the world.”
These are two extrapolations from what Thomas Friedman had to say yesterday on NBC’s Meet the Press. The first uses my “Dobzhansky Template” which I will be formally presenting in my new book in September (“Nothing in _____ makes sense, except in the light of _____ .”). The second is a variation on the first sentence.
Here’s what Friedman had to say about Bill Clinton yesterday on Meet the Press:
THOMAS FRIEDMAN: I’ve only covered one campaign, it was Bill Clinton’s, and I knew why he was running. From the beginning, he was a conservative Democrat, he had a take on the world and everything was connected to that.
That’s the Dobzhansky idea — that there was one central narrative and “everything was connected to that.”
Now here’s what he had so say about Hillary:
THOMAS FRIEDMAN: I think what hobbled Hillary last time, is what I see hobbling her again, which is — why — what is your take on the world — what do you really believe — and how is this connected to that — and until she fills that void everything — money and everything else is going to jump into there.”
Bottom line: Hillary is lacking a central narrative so far. Which is not good in politics.
MCKEE, ARCHPLOT AND MINIPLOT
Here’s a little more sneak preview of my upcoming book. A major part of it is reaching into the narrative structure developed within Hollywood for tools and templates that can be of use in science. One of the most powerful is Robert McKee’s narrative triangle. At the top of his triangle he places “archplot.”In his 1997 book, “Story,” he rather passionately defines it as the classical form of narrative over the ages. Here’s what he says about it:
“These principles are ‘classical’ in the truest sense: timeless and transcultural, fundamental to every earthly society, civilized and primitive, reaching back through millenia of oral storytelling into the shadows of time. When the epic Gilgamesh was carved in cuneiform on twelve clay tablets 4,000 years ago, converting story to the written word for the first time, the principles of classical design were already fully and beautifully in place.”
This is part of what I’m trying to say — everyone needs to understand the power, importance and shape of archplot. Bill Clinton does. Hillary doesn’t.
May 11th, 2015
I can’t say it enough. Daniel Kahneman said it. Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post said it yesterday on NBC’s Meet the Press. The most important question the science and environmental communities could address is, “How do we build public trust?” And yet there is little talk of this. Instead, they talk about “The public understanding of science.” Which sounds more like, “You people need to do a better job of learning this stuff.” The world doesn’t work that way any more. Sorry.
WHO CAN YOU TRUST? Above is what Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post had to say yesterday in talking about next year’s Presidential elections. The issue is age old.
A ROTTEN ACRONYM
It’s about to be three years since I began quoting Daniel Kahneman’s line about how, “the source has to be liked, and the source has to be trusted.” It’s such a simple element, yet is overwhelmingly powerful. And is fundamentally lacking in the mindset of the science community.
I know this well from a few years ago. I was recruited to the AAAS committee that went by the foul and disgusting acronym of COPUST. At the core of that acronym was the old phrase, “public understanding of science and technology” — the wretched PUST part of the name. I was told this phrase came from England where it has been in use for a looooong time. Which figures.
I quit the committee, saying I couldn’t be part of something with such an off-putting acronym. I recommended they rework their name into something that took the reverse perspective — instead of having the tone of lecturing the public, they send a signal that we are interested in what the public thinks of us. And in fact, given the Pew Poll earlier this year showing declining public trust in science, I’d say it’s about time for this mode of thinking. I recommended something that included the phrase “public perception of science.”
They did throw out the old name (yay!) and at least went so far as to put “engagement with the public” into the new name. Which is halfway there. But eventually they need to go the full distance.
It’s about LISTENING. People trust people they feel are listening. They don’t trust people who don’t listen. Scientists are VERY bad at listening. This is part of why we use improv techniques in our workshops — they foster listening.
Again, it all comes down to trust. As Kahneman says, it doesn’t matter how much data and how strong your arguments are. Without trust, you have nothing.
May 5th, 2015
There’s a popular and fun TED ED animated video about applying “communications theory” to lying that came out last fall which is nice, BUT … it’s still more complicated than necessary. It attempts to identify several characteristics of liars, but there’s a simpler principle underlying most of what is said, which is the fundamental rule of, “the power of storytelling rests in the specifics.” Bottom line: Dude, most of this stuff just ain’t that complicated.
LIAR, LIAR, WORDS ON FIRE
Last fall Noah Zandan, who is big on “quantified communication” posted a fun TED ED video about ways to spot liars using “communications theory.” He opens the video with a simple ABT about how lots of ways have been developed over the ages to detecting lying AND they all work to some extent BUT ultimately they can all be fooled, THEREFORE we need a different means to analyze the language of a liar. From there he points to what is called linguistic text analysis.
Which is nice, BUT … I’m going offer up an even simpler way to look at this, which is to examine the underlying narrative dynamics.
THE CLEAR TRUTH ABOUT OBFUSCATION
What he presents are four different shapes of the language used by liars. In the video he gives detailed explanations of each and offers up examples, especially from famous politicians who got caught lying (no shortage of material there). Here’s what he concludes — four language patterns common among liars.
1 MINIMAL SELF-REFERENCE – “liars reference themselves less when making deceptive statements” “often using the third person to distance and dissociate themselves from their lie.” What this means is putting the focus on someone or something else, leaving yourself more vague.
2 NEGATIVE LANGUAGE – “liars tend to be more negative” “for example they might say my stupid cell phone died, I hate that thing.” This means they add on extra, conflict-rich wording as a means of distraction.
3 SIMPLE EXPLANATION – “liars typically explain events in simple terms” “As a U.S. President once famously insisted, ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman.’” This means in addressing the material they need to lie about, they resort to vagueness.
4 CONVOLUTED PHRASING – “liars tend to use longer and more convoluted sentence structure, inserting unnecessary words and irrelevant but factual-sounding details to pad the lie.” They achieve vagueness through narrative confusion.
The overall pattern is: DISTRACTIONS: clarity good THE LIE: clarity bad
THE NARRATIVE RE-INTERPRETATION
I don’t know exactly what “linguistic analysis” is but it sounds more convoluted itself than what is needed to grasp the basic dynamic of what’s going on. The core principle at work is basic storytelling, for which one of the most simple and universal principles is that, “the power of storytelling rests in the specifics.”
Take a look at these four patterns described and you can see at their core, the main variable at work is simply specific versus general communication. If the liar is wanting to distract, then specifics provide the power. If the liar is wanting to be vague, then leaving out specifics is the answer.
1 MINIMAL SELF-REFERENCE – liars paint a SPECIFIC picture of something else, leaving themselves more general and vague
2 NEGATIVE LANGUAGE – conflict-rich SPECIFICS distract from the truth
3 SIMPLE EXPLANATION – the liar is covered up by not being SPECIFIC (remaining general and vague)
4 CONVOLUTED PHRASING – the lie is covered up by presenting an overly SPECIFIC narrative
He also goes on to apply “linguistic analysis” to the lies of Lance Armstrong and John Edwards. But in both cases, it’s the same simple pattern. When the dude is lying, the narrative is weak through over-complication or being non-specific. When he wants to be honest he is specific. Same, same.
He ends by saying how you can use this information in your daily life. He offers up the four categorizations, but I’d make it simpler, which is more useful — just develop a sensitivity to “the power of specifics” in storytelling.
FOREVER STORYTELLING ANIMALS
As Jonathan Gotschall said with the title of his 2013 book, we are, “Storytelling Animals.” This is the core premise of my upcoming book, “Houston, We Have A Narrative,” which will come out in September but is now posted on Amazon. What the book is about is that we have been recording stories for at least 4,000 years, but recorded science only goes back a few hundred years. Which begs the question of which means of communication would you expect to be more dominant?
The idea of “linguistic analysis” sounds cool, but in the end, the simplest and most powerful of all dynamics for understanding communication is simply narrative, for which there are just a few very simple rules of thumb that explain so much. The power of specifics is perhaps the most all-encompassing of all. The deeper you absorb it, the more you see how much of what goes on in our world is driven by it.
And p.s. — beware of communications folks looking to over-complicate the world. When I finished film school at USC I did a 20 minute video called, “Talking Science” where I interviewed faculty from both the Cinema School and the Annenberg School of Communication. That’s where I first saw this pattern, clear as day. The communications folks could theorize about how to communicate. The film folks knew how to actually communicate.