Sunday Nibble #35: A life online

The world may be going to hell in a very big handbasket, and whether we’re all going to die of the plague, roast to death as temperatures rise (either drowning in the rising seas or choking on the endless smoke or both), or we’ll perish in a WW III most likely started by a collapsing and fully fascist United States of America.

Or we could luck out and turn things around. But one thing I have to marvel at is what an amazing era of technology we live in. It’s only the beginning, but we’ve gotten pretty far, pretty fast.

Now, I happen to be of that part of Gen X that has never not been online at any point in their adult lives. In fact, I used a networked computer before I got my driver’s license, way back at the tender age of 15.

But… I was an adult before the founding of either Google (1998) or Wikipedia (2001), and although I wrote all of my scripts and such on computers, I still had to rely on analog research methods until the beginning of this century — mostly libraries and books.

For one black comedy set during the Civil War, my research was pretty much limited to the big book of Ken Burns The Civil War documentary, with occasional library trips and heavy use of my handy Columbia Desk Encyclopedia.

Damn, at one time, I had a huge personal reference library full of dictionaries, specific encyclopedias, writers’ reference books on various subjects that pertained to a particular genre — I think I had Crime and Science Fiction — as well as buttload of foreign language grammars and translating to English dictionaries, including ones like Old English, Hebrew, Hawaiian, Gaelic, Arabic, and Japanese.

Side note: I’ve made a sincere effort in my life time to learn ten languages besides English. I managed fluency in one (Spanish) and, through that, the ability to kind of read and understand one that I studied but could never hear the pronunciation of and another that I never studied (French and Portuguese, respectively), know more than I should but nowhere near enough of the language of the country my last name comes from (German), two for specific purposes of script writing (Italian and Norwegian), two just to try out non-Latin alphabets (Japanese and Russian), one because there seem to be a lot of tall, hot men from there (Dutch), one because the opportunity came up through a theatre company I was in (ASL, until our teacher moved), and one because it’s spoken in the country from whence came half of my genetic heritage (Irish Gaelic).

Funny story, though. Spanish and German are the only two languages that I studied in school. The rest but three were on my own, and most of those were before the internet days. At best, I managed to find recorded lessons to listen to in the car, and for a while I got pretty fluent at basic Russian, but that was about it. As for the other two, once I left school, I kind of lost my abilities in either for a long time.

I remember one particularly informative moment when I traveled to Mexico with an ex, who was himself half Mexican on his father’s side, and realized once we got down there that I couldn’t understand shit, and I couldn’t say shit beyond very simple phrases — that despite studying Spanish in school for five years.

So… I used to have to try to learn languages through books or, if I were lucky, from a human teacher, but good luck with any kind of immersion in it. Likewise, in writing any kind of reality-based fiction, the research was tedious and time-consuming.

And then came the internet. Sure, in the early days (and I was there on the ground floor) you really couldn’t look up shit. I did happen to work for one of the first companies to jump into it with both feet.

This happened to be The Community Yellow Pages, a publication for the Lesbian and Gay community started in 1969 by Jeanne Córdova, who is a piece of lesbian history herself, and whom I was fortunate enough to have known.

She started the guide as a very thin phonebook with both Yellow (commercial) and White (residential) pages, and it was a way to advertises businesses that were either gay-friendly, or owned by gay people and, probably, the white pages part was a de facto but not really acknowledged dating section. (It was eventually discontinued.)

Anyway… 1994 rolls around, the internet is just getting going and, because one of Jeanne’s (many) siblings lives near Silicon Valley and is very tapped into what’s going on, that sibling (a younger sister) convinces her that online is the way to go.

I only worked for the CYP a couple of years, but it was an interestingly schizo time, because we were simultaneously selling people on this paper edition that would come out once a year, along with this electronic thing that could be searched from anywhere and which could be updated if needed.

And… the paper version was by far the best-seller. Bonus points: at that time, we could have done the layout digitally, but didn’t, and so for the few months leading up to publication, we had an actual layout artist come in and physically paste-up the boards that would be photocopied to create the masters for the final run.

Eventually, though, the sleeping giant of the internet’s potential awakened in quick order, first with Google indexing everything, and then Wikipedia accumulating knowledge.

And say what you want about the latter, but over time the ol’ Wiki has really become a stellar example of the “wisdom of crowds” concept. Plus which, it should never be a primary source, but just a guide to finding the same, which are now also all over the internet.

So researching and writing became a lot easier, but so did learning languages, especially after the launch of Duolingo in 2012, as well as the realization that it’s possible to set devices like phones and computers into other languages — and that cars have radios, which make possible both language-learning podcasts over modern tech or, depending on language, radio stations in the target language via old tech.

So those of us with computers, tablets, phones, or other devices, have access to the biggest research library ever assembled. It definitely dwarfs the fabled Library of Alexandria, and most likely has a lot more material than the Library of Congress — which would fit on ten single terabyte hard drives, by the way.

And it’s not just books and stuff like that. It’s full of music, movies, photos, and everything else that humans have left in their wake, all of it there to access either for free or for a nominal fee.

So if we make it through this Anno Horribilis of 2020, then maybe we’ll make it further and continue to see technology make leaps and bounds that our grandparents could never have even imagined.

To be or not to be… fearless in comedy

There has been a lot of debate lately over what is appropriate in comedy or not, but let me give one example from 37 years ago. And here’s an interesting add-on — 38 years before this music video came out was just after the end of the Nazi reign in Europe.

So… we are about as far from this video as its intended satirical target was when it came out. But more on which after the jump. Please give it a watch.

Okay, yeah, there is a lot of shit to unpack here, but I’ll start with the obvious note. All of this was created by Mel Brooks in order to market a film he starred in at the time, To Be or not to Be, which was itself a remake of a Jack Benny movie of the same name that was originally released during WW II.

Both films absolutely parody Hitler and company, by the way. Benny was far more daring because he did it while that asshole was in power, although Brooks certainly earned the right to remake it by virtue of being Jewish.

Which brings us back to the linked video, which I hope you’ve watched because, again… unpacking time.

First of all. the year was 1983. Brooks was around 56. Rap music was barely a thing white people knew about. Second, Brooks unabashedly decided to headline the music video as… Hitler. Nowadays, this probably wouldn’t fly, but there was a little bit of a precedent at the time he did it in ’83.

See, he’d made this little film called The Producers in which two con-artists attempted to make a fortune by over-funding a musical about Hitler they thought would fail, except that it didn’t. And Brooks quotes one of the more famous lines from that film and the Broadway show: “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi party!”

Anyway… once the video gets rolling with Brooks as hero Hitler, we pack on more levels with some S&M women and some clearly gay dancing boys, the latter of which brings up one often missed trope in Brooks’ oeuvre: While it may have seemed otherwise, he was always homo-positive in his works, just like Blake Edwards. Sure, sometimes it was only via pure Camp, but look at the ending of Blazing Saddles, for one. And for another…

The film I’m bringing up here, Brooks’ To Be or not to Be, was the first Hollywood feature film to even mention the fact that homosexuals were exterminated in the death camps, and the actor who played the role of the character who revealed that information was in real life a grandfather who came out really late in life, and whom Brooks met while going to a drag show in the Valley.

But I think I did digress. Here’s the point. Sure. Brooks played Hitler in a 1983 music video. But do you know why? Simple. It was in fact to ridicule the shit out of people like him. It’s also why he made The Producers and To Be or not to Be, or anything else.

If anything, Brooks exceeded at destroying his enemies by taking on their personas. And that is something that should absolutely be allowed and not fall to cancel culture.

Only the targets of possible hateful humor should be able to judge it, and if a member of a particular identified group happens to be creating that humor with a purpose, that’s their decision.

Some of the performers on RuPaul’s Drag Race glamp it so far over the top that they bring every possible negative stereotype about gay men being flamboyant and effeminate to the table and then double down. But that’s the point, and they are presumably all representative of one part or another of the LGBTQ+ community.

Comedy can be offensive, but remember that word has two meanings. The one people think of in this context is humor that, well, offends someone, either by insulting something near and dear to them, or is definitely designed to cause anger, outrage, or emotional harm to someone from an identified group.

I’m not defending the latter by any means. In fact, exactly the opposite. But regarding the first part, a lot of people are easily offended by different things but this doesn’t merit the comedy being banned. It just tells that audience member they probably shouldn’t follow the comic.

For example, imagine a routine in which a comedian describes their day and how it went off the rails, but every single thing that went wrong was clearly absolutely their own fault. The only target of the piece is the comic telling the story. A lot of people would probably find it engaging, funny, and relatable.

But then you have those handful of people who are suddenly absolutely offended because the punchline to the whole thing is: “Then I looked at the clock and realized that it was only 10:30 in the morning. Shit!”

Yes, there are adults, believe it or not, who literally lose their shit at any kind of cursing, and it can be as extreme as the comic using “dammit” or “crap” instead, or it may only be trigged by the holy Anglo Saxon curse word supreme, “fuck.” But the reaction has nothing to do with the humor and everything to do with the person.

I mentioned previously that comedy should be offensive, and this is where the other term comes in. If you’re a football fan, have military experience, or work in PR, then you’re probably already thinking it.

Offensive can also mean to go on the attack at its most extreme, or to take action against an expected negative consequence in advance. For example, a famous celebrity may have been photographed by paparazzi in an intimate moment with someone not their spouse and realized it. The offensive action in this case would be for that celeb to just come right to the press and say, “Okay. This happened,” and then apologize for it. That neutralizes any value in the photos and blunts the scandal instantly.

But that’s not funny. The way comics use comedy offensively is to do what’s known as “punching up.” That is, going after targets with greater power and privilege than the comic and their audience.

Doing an entire routine about how stupid the bagger at your local supermarket is and yet they want a $15 an hour minimum wage? Punching down and highly offensive.

Doing an entire routine about how the CEO of that supermarket chain can’t shop in their own stores because they have no idea how groceries work, and then extending that to a series of everyday situations to show how out of touch that CEO is? Punching up, and hilarious.

“He tea-bagged the scanner in the self-check aisle because he thought it was some sort of testicular cancer screening machine.”

Remember this line from Arrested Development, delivered by the always amazing Jessica Walter as the amazingly vile Lucille Bluth: “How much could a banana cost? Ten dollars?” In eight words, this captures how out of touch with the “little” people she is, and how much she likely pays for common items compared to them, if she does the paying at all.

“A hundred and fifty dollars for a pair of panties? It’s a steal.”

And so on. The point is that you’d have to be pretty unaware to watch Brooks’ video and think that it’s an endorsement of Hitler. You’d also have to be pretty blind to not realize that Brooks rigged it to appear heteronormative while being jam-packed with homoeroticism.

Watch the video again, and pay attention to the male dancers. There’s the hidden message. In 1983, it was the very beginning of the AIDS crisis and just over a decade past Stonewall.

For the pre TQ+ LGB audience at the time, the real question was: “To be or not to be… myself?”

Image © 1983 20th Century Fox, courtesy the imdb gallery page for the film.

Reconsidering Myra

Sometimes, it’s possible for a work of art to be so damn far ahead of its time that no one gets it until years later, and I was reminded of this recently when random events led me to take another look at the 1970 film adaptation of Gore Vidal’s infamous novel Myra Breckinridge. At the time it came out, the movie was hyped with the tag line, “From the book that couldn’t be written comes the motion picture that couldn’t be made!”

Now, I’ll admit up-front that I’ve always liked the movie and the book because they are both transgressive, and I’m also a huge fan of everything Vidal ever wrote. The novel is epistolary in structure, meaning it appears as a series of letters and memos, alternating between the voices of the titular Myra and her uncle Buck Loner, owner of the acting school she wants to take over. It’s actually not at all an uncommon style. One of the most famous examples is Bram Stoker’s Dracula. A more recent example is World War Z, which itself was directly influenced by Stud Terkel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Good War: An Oral History of World War II. The epistolary form is a very interesting and compelling story structure. In fact, it’s sort of a lynch-pin of a lot of modern gaming, whether text or action based.

But the main point is that Vidal’s original put us in the heads of the protagonist and antagonist and made us understand them both, although Buck’s recorded memos are decidedly colder and more self-serving, not to mention that he likes to lie about shit, while Myra lays it all out to explain what she’s up to. And, in retrospect, the movie does a good job at nodding to that while not sticking in it because, honestly, nothing would be more boring than a film in which we just watch two people write letters. But we do open with an actual view of the words Myra writes, and we have several scenes in which we see Buck record his memos, so the hat tip to the original is there.

What’s really interesting about the film is that the decidedly X-rated Myra (when that rating was still a thing), premiered two months after Midnight Cowboy became the first and only X-rated film to win the Best Picture Oscar. It seemed like movie-going audiences were ready for adult fare and, indeed, Midnight Cowboy grossed $44.8 million on a budget of $3.2 million or, adjusted for inflation, the film cost $21 million to make, but brought back just under $293 million.

The real problem was that while the MPAA trademarked all of its other ratings, they did not do so for X, and suddenly producers of exploitation and pornographic films started to slap the X on them in hopes of getting the same legitimacy as Hollywood fare like Midnight Cowboy, A Clockwork Orange, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, I Am Curious (Yellow), If…, and Last Tango in Paris, all of which were originally rated X.

Side note: What was considered “adult” back then would barely raise eyebrows today. Any single episode of any made-for-cable or streaming show now would have given the censors of the ‘60s and ‘70s total aneurysms despite the expanded sexual freedom as the Hays Code got kicked to the curb. It’s arguable that the only reason that Cowboy did get the X-rating is because of two scenes which imply but don’t show oral sex and anal rape, both acts involving only men.

The other weird thing about Myra is that the book was critically acclaimed while the movie was lambasted. The novel was also the first to depict a transgender character, not to mention that she was also the narrator and protagonist. Above all, it is a satire on gender roles and how they are artificially constructed, particularly via mass media.

The film was universally panned and it flopped, making only $4 million on a budget of $5.4 million, or, adjusted for inflation, taking in only $26.2 million on a budget of $37.3. And this was with an all-star cast of its era — Raquel Welch, Mae West, John Huston, Jim Backus, and John Carradine. It was the film that introduced both Farah Fawcett and Tom Selleck, and gave then well-known critic and gossip columnist Rex Reed his film debut (asshole in real life, but actually kind of hot here) — playing the pre-transition version of Raquel’s character to boot. Hell, even Toni Basil, of 80s pop music fame, turns up in a small role.

So I had a re-watch of the film a couple of days ago and, again, while the movie has always been one of my guilty pleasures, I put it in that “so bad it’s good category,” except that now, for some reason on this re-watch, my reaction was, “OMG. This move is really, really good.”

What stuck out, first of all, is that the A-List stars in this thing really, really got it. Nothing was supposed to have been taken seriously because everything was satire and parody. And it’s satire on so many levels. First of all, the film takes a major stab at the illusion that Hollywood is a fantasy factory that will make any rube who wanders in from the sticks instantly famous just because they’re pretty, but in reality makes it a habit to suck them dry of their money while doing nothing to help them improve their talent or make real connections. One character pretty much just says it outright: Students enroll in Buck Loner’s acting school, but none of them ever seem to graduate. And what happens to Rusty and Mary Ann is the literal embodiment of what the industry figuratively does to the naïfs who come here.

Second is how the film explodes the self-importance of those who have made it. John Huston’s character, Buck Loner, is the archetypal Hollywood cowboy star of the 1930s through 1950s. His students adore him, but he is clearly a walking parody from his first entrance. As played by Huston, Loner is clearly too stupid to get this. The only reason his students love him is because he might know people who know people, but the second that façade falls, they would run away.

And then there’s Myra, whose character thinks that the last important American motion picture was made in 1945. In case that date seems arbitrary, keep this in mind: That was the year that the U.S. nuked Japan and yes, we filmed it, so it’s entirely possible that this was the movie she was referring to. (There’s even stock footage of a nuclear bomb test that punctuates a pivotal moment in the film.) She also likes to dress like film starlets of the 1940s, and at one point appears in a uniform that looks very much like U.S. Navy dress white. And when you think about that, it’s a bit of a double gender-bender: a transwoman intentionally becoming a drag king, so basically a woman born in a man’s body who has become a woman through gender confirmation surgery, but then dresses like a man.

On top of all that, the movie is sprinkled with clips from classic American films made before 1945, and the filmmakers were promptly sued over several of them because certain actors didn’t want their work associated with something they saw as pornographic.

Yeah, they entirely missed the point, too.

If Myra were given a re-release today, I have no doubt that it would find an audience and become an instant classic. I’m pretty sure that Millennials would get it immediately. Why? Because it’s a movie that skewers pretension and the artificiality of gender roles, as well as inverts privilege and power. It repurposes pop culture of its era, further tweaking the self-importance of the mass media power structure, and it’s heroine is a very strong woman who knows what she wants and goes out to get it.

It also brings up a really good question. While remakes generally suck, this just might be one movie that merits one today, but updated. Hm. Forty years after… If it comes out next year and we keep the relative timing, that means that modern Myra would think that the last great American movie came out in 1995. If all of the clips reference films made between that year and 1965, when the Hays Code ended, it would give us a hell of an assortment, covering everything from the Getaway and the original Myra to game-changer blockbusters like The Godfather, The Exorcist, Jaws, and Star Wars, among many others.

Casting? Well… Rhys Ernst as Myron, Rain Valdez as Myra. (Double switch, because they’re both transgendered.) Clint Eastwood would be a mega-score as Buck Loner but, short of him… Arnold Schwarzenegger? And for total stunt casting, who do we get for the Mae West Part? Um… Raquel, of course, because she’s now of that age, and I’m sure that she’d love the karmatic revenge, since Mae was so awful to her. Hell, they could be the subject of a future episode of Feud. And if Ms. Welch demurred, then the next logical choice, again for reasons of symmetry, would be Anjelica Huston who, while she’s a decade younger than West was then and Welch is now, she’s also the daughter of the original Buck Loner.

Rusty, who gets pegged by Myra? Zack Efron. As for Rusty’s girlfriend and Mae’s stud? Yeah, let’s toss those roles to two lucky unknowns, just like the original.

For the Carradine and Backus cameos, I’d cast Martin Sheen and Seth MacFarlane, respectively, again because of the echoes of the originals — a famous actor father with famous acting sons, and a perennial and beloved TV and voiceover star.

But there’s one more step. See, Vidal wrote a sequel, Myron, which continued the story but which was also a total satire of the Nixon years with television as the medium instead of film. In a nutshell, Myra is back to being Myron, who is now living a straight, masculine, cis-gender life, married to Mary Ann — Fawcett’s character — but then he literally gets sucked into an imaginary 1948 Maria Montez movie Siren of Babylon while watching it on the late-night movie on TV (Maria did make a film in 1949 called Siren of Atlantis, though, but note the year of both the real and fictional movies. Neither one of them could have been any good according to Myra.)

Once Myron is in the movie, he’s stuck in the narrative while it’s airing but able to wander around the lot during commercials, and then Myra starts to re-emerge and tries to take over, much to Myron’s chagrin.

But… Myra/Myron as a limited run series with each book still set in its original era would get even more meta as we moved from the first book into the second. And the wrap-around meta to that maybe? The whole thing is told from the POV of a modern-day grad student majoring in social media and minoring in gender studies who is watching the movie or reading the books in order to write their thesis, except that maybe they get sucked into them, too, and the grad student is the kind of non-binary, gender-queer, and self-accepting person that people from the age of Myra or Myron couldn’t ever possibly even conceive of existing but which they have always subconsciously hoped to become. Maybe the character could be called Myrum —if you got that, you really know your Latin — or Myrex, which is actually probably better on about five hundred levels, and if you get that one, you really know your Latin@.

Hm. Myra/Myron/Myrex. Hey, FX… are you listening? Nine episodes, great ratings. Easy peasy, pan comido.

Photo: Gore Vidal, 1948, by Carl Van Vechten.

Sunday Nibble #24: Queer as Folk

Recently, the British series Queer as Folk from 1999 popped up on Amazon Prime, and I had to give it a watch again. This is not to be confused with the American series, which ran from 2000 to 2005 and was inferior in every way, just like the American The Office was a pale and bloodless imitation of the amazing British version.

What? While the US has adapted more than a few British shows into American versions, they’ve only hit gold twice: All in the Family and Sanford and Son.

So, yeah… The American QAF sucked ass. The American The Office sucked ass. Fight me. Oh, crap, that’s right. The U.S. even tried to adapt Red Dwarf. And… no, thank you. And the U.S. version of The Prisoner equally sucked ass.

They can’t even do Australia right — the original Kath & Kim is brilliant. The American version, despite the presence of the amazingly talented and funny Molly Shannon, just fell flat. If you get a chance to see the original, do so. It is just as bust-your-side laughing hilarious as the best of Ab Fab. Oh, right — American tried to ruin that one, too, but it never got off the ground.

Meanwhile, let’s get back to the British version of Queer as Folk. Helmed by Russell T Davies, it is both deeply personal and universal and, hindsight is 2020, he made one of his characters a total Doctor Who nerd, six years before he himself went on to be the showrunner who brought New Who back in 2005.

Who is a running theme in the series, including a moment when the two leads list off all of the actors who had played the Doctor to date, ending with: “Paul McGann (pause) — he doesn’t count!” The sentiment at the time, but since changed as the 8th Doctor was brought into canon.

But I do digress…

I watched both series of the show when it first aired, and then hadn’t been back since. Watching it again now brings back those memories, but also reminds me how time and perspective change feelings about art.

At its core, QAF is about a trio of gay men in Manchester in the late 90s, when there’s a thriving gay life on Canal Street (although the sign has been graffitoed to omit the “C”) while the world outside of this Boys’ Town is still quite homophobic. We also meet their many friends, family, and lovers who are rather put-upon by two of the trio, to put it charitably.

Our trio are Stuart (Aidan Gillen), Vincent (Craig Kelly), and Nathan (Charlie Hunnam). In order, they are the insensitive, mindless whorebot, who only cares about his next conquest; the caring friend who tries to meet someone, tries to take care of everyone, and fails at both; and the underage twink who throws himself into a world he doesn’t understand, only to wind up too emotionally deep and over his head on his first real night out.

In other words, it’s a show that is complicated, deep, and truly edgy — as opposed to fake edgy.

So… when I first watched the show, I also happened to be in my slut-boy days, regularly cruising my local equivalent of (C)anal street and, somehow, managing to pull tail without even trying. No, seriously. The big irony was that I was too shy and insecure to approach anyone, but once I learned to give a long enough stare and smile, it was like I had a magnet in my pants. They came to me, I said yes, deal done.

Although, unlike Stuart, who railed a fifteen-year-old (of age in Britain) the youngest I ever went after I was twenty-five was nineteen, and, again, he asked first.

When I first watched the show, I thought, “Ah, okay. I relate to Stuart.” He’s the one who hooks up with everybody, has no attachments and, anyway, isn’t this show about him? Not that I found him attractive because, to me at that time, he just looked old.

Funny how Stuart later grew up to be Littlefinger and, meanwhile, Nathan grew up to be… a lot of people.

Watching again with the advantage of perspective and maturity, one thing is abundantly clear: Stuart is an absolute shit. He doesn’t care about anyone but himself. His picking up Nathan in the first episode is the inciting incident for the whole series, but to Stuart it’s just a hump and dump. As he explains it when Nathan shows an interest in more, Stuart’s reply is, “Why? I’ve had you.”

The thing that really jumps out on a repeat viewing is that although Stuart is 29 and Nathan is 15, the teen is far more mature than the adult — not by much, but at least he manages to sometimes step out of his own self-centered bubble to think about someone else, and he is the direct catalyst for the denouement between the other two.

Vince is the heart of the piece, the one guy who does deserve love and happiness but can’t get out of his own way to achieve it. Partly, he’s stuck on Stuart, although their relationship will clearly never be anything but platonic. Also, he doesn’t believe that he’s worthy of anyone’s love. The punchline is that he’s more worthy of it than either Stuart or Nathan.

I’ll catch up on Series 2 shortly, although that one was a lot different than Series 1, at least in format. The first series consisted of eight half-hour episodes. The second and final series comprised two fifty minute episodes, so felt like a two-part movie, which is a shame. This world and these characters could have easily supported so much more.

The Saturday Morning Post #14, Part 7

Here is the penultimate installment of the L.A. social event of 2029. You can catch up to last week’s installment here or start at the top here.

TAKING HOPE

Fumiko had wanted to leave after the reception, but her nephew Haru had convinced her to stay and come down to the concert, and they’d been there ever since Maná and Natalia Jiménez had taken the stage at 6:30. Haru was a little pissed that they’d missed OK Go’s full show. On the other hand he did get to see their private number after the wedding, and he had made his aunt hang back so that he even got to high-five the quartet, especially his favorite, Andy, who also signed his program and took the time to have a short, friendly conversation.

Even though she didn’t understand Spanish much when it didn’t have to do with sizes and colors of cloth, Fumiko still seemed to enjoy the first act, and she seemed absolutely beside herself when Bette, Cher, and Barbra took the stage.

When A-Pop came on, she seemed a bit… confused.

Meanwhile, Alice and Edna had stayed, and Edna commented to Alice when the kids came on, “Damn. They’re hot. Probably all gay, too, but so what?”

“I… don’t know about this,” Alice muttered.

“What? They’re pretty good dancers and singers. Enjoy the show.”

“The one on the right, okay. He’s fine. And the one on the left. But…”

“But? Oh, damn. Is this one of those cultural things that my privileged white ass is missing?”

Alice just nodded, and then she noticed Fumiko, standing just to the other side of Haru. Of course, she didn’t know their names. All she knew was that Fumiko was giving her the same hateful look that she was shooting back, while the boy looked completely neutral, if not a little startled by Alice.

“Care to explain?” Edna asked. “Sincere question.”

“Thai boy on the right, everybody likes them. Chinese boy on the left, my home team. In between? Japan, Korea.”

“Sigh. So, in Western terms?”

“Think… World War Two, and you’re American. The Thai boy on the right? Canada. Everybody likes them. Chinese boy on the right? G.I. Joe. Your home team hero. In between? Germany, then Italy, in that order.”

“Okay,” Edna replied, “Except that nowadays, Americans don’t hold any particular grudges against Germans or Italians, although we still like Canadians. And the Thai. And now I know what you’re talking about, and it has to do with Nanking, doesn’t it?”

Alice just sighed and nodded. “It has everything to do with it.”

Edna took a deep breath, then threw up her hands. “I understand. I mean, I don’t agree with it, but I have absolutely no place to try to explain. Obviously. All I can say is just try to enjoy the concert, and how those four boys are working together so well.”

“I know,” Alice said, “But… it can be so hard with a reminder.” She nodded toward Fumiko.

“Or so easy if you just say ‘Hello?’” Edna asked. “No, sorry… sorry. I’m just going to shut up and maybe move over there to watch the show. You enjoy the rest of the evening.”

Edna moved off to the side, and she felt really conflicted. Honestly, she had no place saying anything about whatever deep-seated ethnic tensions existed between Chinese, Japanese, and Korean people, even several generations removed. That would be like the Sultan of Brunei telling her how to feel about that whole British/Irish thing, given her ancestry.

On the other hand, it had really taken her aback to see clear racism in a person who wasn’t white. She didn’t think that such a thing was possible. She still didn’t. This had to be something other than that. Or maybe not. Maybe it was just another example of her actually being racist. Either way, it made her preconceptions spin, so she had to step away and just enjoy the music.

This didn’t keep her from watching as Alice and Fumiko gave each other the side-eye. Of course, Edna had no idea who Fumiko was, nor did she know who the young man with her was. She assumed that he was her son.

Toward the end of the concert, the young man finally walked right up to Alice, despite Fumiko trying to stop him, but he was insistent, and they exchanged a few brief words, Alice finally suddenly looking at him, incredulous, then at Fumiko, who glanced away proudly. Alice nodded to the young man, touched his shoulder, then walked over to Fumiko and got her attention, at which point she bowed deeply. Fumiko seemed legitimately shocked, throwing her hand over her face and leaning back but, after a moment, she stepped away from Alice backwards, and bowed even more deeply.

Edna had no idea what was going on, but it seemed to be progress, and the young man was beaming. In that moment, A-Pop were singing their finale, a song in English with the lyrics:

We know no borders and no countries

Religions don’t exist at all

Age and race and lies like these

Should never build a wall

All our genders are social fiction

All our sex is just some friction

Out with the old, and hey there newbies…

Let’s go have a ball!

The two women looked at each other, seeming to acknowledge the lyrics, then stood upright, paused for a moment, and walked away, leaving the young man to stand there looking very confused and sad. Edna wanted to run over and hug him, but didn’t, not knowing what was appropriate to do.

What she hadn’t heard was what had been said. Haru went to Alice and said, “My aunt knows of you, because she met that white woman you helped, and after she heard that story, she told me, ‘Haru, I don’t care if she’s Chinese. She has a charitable heart. I truly admire her.”

Alice said nothing, but just looked at Haru, incredulous, then past him at Fumiko, who glanced away and Alice knew that it was in embarrassment and shame. She nodded to Haru, touched his shoulder in a gesture of thanks, then went to Fumiko and did the only thing she knew to mitigate the woman’s shame because, truth to tell, Alice was suddenly feeling a lot of shame herself for having hated someone on sight who, clearly, admired her actions. Once Fumiko glanced her way, Alice bowed deeply, as she knew that this was a sign of respect among the Japanese.

Unfortunately, Fumiko seemed taken aback by this gesture, covering her mouth, eyes wide, gasping audibly and stepping back. She bowed even more deeply, and Alice understood that they really weren’t communicating as equals, because now they were in a struggle over who could say “sorry” the hardest, even though Alice knew that she was clearly in the wrong.

They stepped apart, regarded each other sadly, and then walked away. Haru couldn’t help but take the last lyrics of the song to heart…

Out with the old, and hey there newbies…

Let’s go have a ball!

As the line repeated, Haru looked up toward the stage, and realized that Li-Wei seemed to be singing it right to him, then noticed that the boys were marching down the steps, repeating the last lines alternately in unison in each of their own languages in turn — and Li-Wei was practically eye-fucking Haru. The only thing Haru knew to do was make strong eye contact, smile, and then do his best demure school-girl by tossing his hands in front of his face, giggling, and looking away.

Of course, there was no way that Li-Wei heard the giggle, and Haru wasn’t even sure that he’d understand that the move was a gigantic come-on. He didn’t even know whether Anime, or its successor Simume, had even made it to China. Or was Li-Wei just a Chinese boy from the west?

And then the Thai boy on the end announced, “Who wants to have a ball with us?” and Haru felt someone grab his hand. It was Li-Wei, and the other three were grabbing people from the crowd as well. Hiroji and Seojun grabbed two very pretty girls their own age. Hiroji’s was black and Sojun’s was most likely Eurasian. Haru wasn’t sure, but he suspected Vietnamese with at least one if not two American grandfathers courtesy of the tail end of that failed war. As for Kiet, he found a man who was probably old enough to be his grandfather, or at least his father, and one that Haru could not find subjectively attractive in any way, shape, or form. Then again, who was he to judge? And he tried as hard as he could to block his grandmother’s words about Thai men from his mind. She hadn’t been kind.

Well, hell. She hadn’t been kind about any kind of Asian other than Japanese, or anyone who wasn’t Asian at all. Haru had always found this odd, since his grandmother was sansei. Her parents were the first generation born in America. She was the third. She was as American as George Washington.

Of course, her big criticism of Thai men was, “Oh, they’re all just fags,” which had really hurt Haru, although he was afraid to say anything about it. That changed when he told it to his favorite auntie, Fumiko and, upon hearing the news, she went off on a tirade against Gran Shizuka, who was her mother, in front of the rest of the family.

That made for one tense and awkward birthday party for Fumiko’s sister Fukumi, who was Haru’s mother. But once Fumiko began berating Shizuka for basically tossing hatred on her own uncle, Masakatsu, now deceased, but who had always been openly gay, she won the argument, and Shizuka fled the party. It was only the intervention of Fukumi that kept the woman from going full-on drama gramma by pretending to perform an ancient suicide ritual.

“Really, mom?” everyone heard Fukumi say from the hall. “We’re in America. We’ve been in America for damn near 75 years now. Nobody does this shit anymore. Not this homophobia, and not this gutting yourself because you got embarrassed. Now grow the fuck up and come back to the goddamn party.”

From that day forward, Haru seemed to be Gran Shizuka’s favorite, so he had high hopes that people could change. And if that was whom Kiet loved, more power to him. Haru was absolutely loving the fact that he was being dragged by the hand back up to the top of the steps — one of the chosen few — by this hot Chinese-American boy who was probably at least half a dozen years older than him, but that was okay. At nineteen, Haru was tired of being a virgin, and he had a feeling that tonight he was going to lose his V-Card to an international superstar.

After a few choruses of wild dancing at the top, the song suddenly turned slow and the lights became muted and colorful, and Li-Wei pulled Haru in close, leading as they did a slow and sensual fox trot.

Haru really hoped that Li-Wei wouldn’t feel the raging boner in his pants, but then Li-Wei pulled Haru in by the small of his back, which was when they pretty much realized that they were both hard as hell.

“What are you doing after our show?” Li-Wei asked him, staring deeply into his eyes.

“You…?” Haru muttered, a breathless question.

Li-Wei pulled him closer. “Oh. I’m Li-Wei. And you?”

“I know,” Haru replied, feeling immediately stupid, then adding “Haru” after an awkward pause during which he couldn’t remember his own name.

“Well then… when this song ends, the exit is right across to City Hall doors, and then we get our own private elevators down to the limo, and to our hotel suites. But once we get there, I think I know where the entrance is.”

Li-Wei moved his hand and grabbed Haru’s ass, hard, one finger slipping as far up his crack as Haru’s trousers would allow. Haru just moaned a little and looked up at Li-Wei with hungry eyes.

“Oh… Senpai,” he sighed, not knowing what else to say.

“I’m getting to like you more and more by the second.” Li-Wei smiled back down before adding, “Kōhai.” Haru’s knees went weak and he almost turned into a manga character right there. He was equally bowled over by a Chinese boy knowing something that he thought only Japanese people and white American weeabos knew. Then the song ended, and the band and their insta-dates marched off towards the doors to city hall, but the evening and rest of the next day were only just beginning

* * *

Friday Free-for-All #19

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

If you opened a business, what kind of business would it be?

This is one of those questions I’ve known the answer to for years, and yet one which has had the parameters for actually doing it change so much in the last three months that the real answer has become something quite different.

Or, maybe not, but let’s start with the pre-plague version.

If I opened a business, it wouldn’t be so much opening my own as it would be facilitating and giving a home to something my friend Che’Rae Adams started, called the Los Angeles Writers’ Center. (LAWC.) It’s a similar idea to Playwrights Horizons in New York, although on not quite as grand a scale yet, but could get there.

In its ideal, pre-plague form, it would have served as a school, developmental center, and production/performance venue, ideally funded by grants, donors, and ticket-sales as a non-profit so that the playwrights would not have to pay tuition while the performers would be paid.

As the idea developed, I realized it would also be the perfect place to fold in ComedySportz L.A. as a second tenant in a building with multiple performance venues, allowing them to have their shows and classes as well, but as a subsidized part of the LAWC.

To go full-on insanely ambitious, those venues would be in a mixed-use commercial/residential property adjacent to a Metro station, but here’s the catch: none of those residences would be luxury properties, and none would be for sale. Instead, they would be available as very low- or no-cost rentals to the artists involved with the company below.

Income that wouldn’t accrue to the non-profit but which would cover operating expenses of the residential and commercial areas of the building would come from the very carefully selected commercial tenants resident on the first one or two floors, designed to cater to our audiences, staff, students, teachers, and artists-in-residence.

Our major goal would be diversity and inclusion, with the primary intent of presenting work written, created, and performed by artists from the BIPOC and LGPTQ+ communities. And while this doesn’t mean that we would never do Shakespeare, it does mean don’t be surprised if you see a production of Richard III set in Feudal Japan with an all-Asian cast, The Tempest recast as an African folk tale, The Scottish Play set as a struggle between native Indians and the Raj, or a First Nations and Native take on Romeo & Juliet.

But no, you would not be seeing an all-white version of The Wiz, thank you. Never, never, never, never, never!

On the other hand, a lesbian version of A Streetcar Named Desire or a gay version of A Doll’s House (with Nora as a twink who’s finally over it) or a transgender, pansexual take on Guys and Dolls could be very interesting.

But all of those are new stagings, re-imaginings, and adaptations. The real purpose and fire of the LAWC would be original works by new voices (new by exposure, not by age — we’re diverse in that way, too) developed via a collaboration of the writers, actors, directors, and dramaturgs of the LAWC, along with a series of readings to get audience feedback.

The ultimate goal is to keep creating seasons to present in our own theater.

Well, it was. The question now is whether and when live theater — or any live event in a venue that holds more than a hundred people — is ever coming back. And, if it does, is the staging going to have to be something new, different, and never before explored?

Will live theaters essentially become a stack of private boxes set in a tower of circles all the way around the stage, enclosed in glass with sound piped in, and occupancy limited to up to six members of the same household who have shown proof?

And how would that effect relative costs it tickets were per box instead of per-person? I’m sure that single theatre fans would pretty quickly revolt.

Do we instead reduce all theaters to 99 seats or less but have multiple shows per day in order to get enough people in? Or would that be too abusive to the casts, as well as forcing them to risk longer exposure times?

Do we turn all theaters into elaborate versions of Pepper’s Ghost, in essence turning the cast into real-time “holograms” to protect them from the audience and vice versa, basically using a 19th century stage trick?

Does being cast in every show from now on out require fourteen days in complete quarantine before rehearsals even start, and how is that paid according to union rules?

Are Noh theatre and Commedia dell’arte about to make a comeback because of the masks?

Too many questions, not enough answers.

I’d still like to make this business happen. I just don’t know what form it would take in the near future.

Theatre Thursday: Sometimes, the movie is better part 1

In the cases of adaptation, a frequent lament of fans of the original is that the movie version just wasn’t as good. We most often hear this about adaptations of novels, both graphic and non, but the same is true of plays, particularly musicals.

The big trick in adapting live theatre to cinema is that the latter is a lot more literal whereas the former has no need to be literal or realistic at all. This is why some shows that work so well on stage fall kind of flat on film. The Fantasticks is a really good example. Being a sort of reverse fairy tale — in which a pair of neighboring fathers conspire to have their children fall in love by forbidding them from seeing each other only to succeed in that to see the relationship go sour — the less literal and, well, more fantastic, the staging is, the better.

A more recent and spectacular example of how film’s need for realism can destroy an adaptation is Cats. Not that that show works on stage at all. In my humble opinion, it commits the cardinal sin of being boring, with no one to really root for. It’s my second least favorite musical, right after the mess that is Rent.

As with any adaptation, changes in the plot or other elements may be necessary for various reasons. When novels are adapted, this often means combining characters and dropping subplots, since a full-length novel is really enough material for a mini-series rather than a single film. (Novellas fare better at more direct adaptations.)

While stage works may more often than not follow a similar structure to film, there are still cases where storylines are dropped — or added — and there’s also the issue of changing times. For example, the original stage version of The Fantasticks, which premiered in 1960, includes a number called “The Rape Ballet.”

Now, it’s explained in the song that this is “rape” in the ancient sense of abduction, and since the character who leads in it has been hired by the two fathers to fake the abduction of the daughter in order to allow the son to be the hero and end the “feud” between the fathers, and he explains that he’s using the word in that sense, that’s how it was originally justified.

Yeah, that fell by the wayside eventually. By the time the movie came out in 1995, the number had been replaced with “The Abduction Ballet,” with none of the connotations of the earlier version.

(Oddly enough, I was involved with a theatre company in the ‘00s that produced the show, premiered it on September 11, 2002, and used the “rape” version of the number. And the artistic director was an old hippie woman. Go figure.)

A lot of the time, the original is better. But, every so often, the changes, particularly when they involve story or focus, can make an okay stage musical into an amazing film. Here are some of my favorite examples.

Cabaret (1972)

The film version of Cabaret is actually a fourth generation adaptation. It was based on the Broadway musical of the same name, which was based on the legit play I Am a Camera by John Van Druten, which was in turn based on the short novel Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood.

Oddly enough, Isherwood played the character based on himself in the original Broadway run of the play in 1951. And while there’s a gay couple in his original novel, his character is apparently not and he pursues a relationship with Sally Bowles — who is British. There’s also not a hint of gay in the first film adaptation of the non-musical stage adaptation, and certainly not in the Broadway version.

The whole thing gets pink-washed, although Isherwood bears some of the blame for that. So it’s kind of a surprise that when notorious heterosexual womanizer Bob Fosse gets the project, one of his big innovations is restoring the homosexuality of the male lead. The other is making all of the songs in it diegetic. That is, the musical numbers are moved into the Kit Kat Club, where Sally Bowles (now American) performs, with the two exceptions being a record that Sally puts on in her room and a sudden nationalistic Biergarten rallying song begun by a member of the Nazi Youth.

The other big changes are in the treatment of the secondary couple, and the relationship between Brian (aka Isherwood), Sally, and Max — a character dropped from the stage musical, but brought back.

In the stage musical, the secondary couple is largely played for comedy and are cast as much older. The woman is Sally’s landlady and her suitor is also an older gentleman. A lot of the numbers that got dumped in the transition were theirs. Oh — a word about “secondary couple,” for those not up on musical theatre conventions.

Quite often, although not as much in the modern era, every musical would have two couples, the leading couple and the secondary couple. Both of them would fall in love, with one couple’s story mirroring the other. Usually, one half of each couple would be connected. Most often, it was divided into the boys and the girls. The most common relationships would be either siblings or best friends, with either set being one or the other or a combination of both.

Of course, there are other ways to mix and match. In Cabaret, the film, the couple are Fritz and Natalia, and Natalia is an English student of Brian’s. She’s a member of a wealthy Jewish family. Fritz is apparently a Protestant, so Natalia’s parents won’t allow them to marry. This leads to one of the most poignant moments in the film when Fritz shows up on Natalia’s doorstep at night, then hesitantly announces “I am a Jew.”

As for the other relationship in the film between Brian, Sally, and Max, who is a wealthy Baron, it turns out that Brian and Sally are both… as Natalia asks in a language question and Sally answers to Brian’s horror, “How do you say ‘screwing?’” Bumsen.

I’ll be polite and translate that into Yiddish instead of English: Max was shtupping both Brian and Sally, although neither of them knows that up until a confrontation between the two that has one of the most darkly funny dialogue exchanges in film in three sentences.

All the while, by placing the musical numbers in the club, some performed by Sally but a lot of them headlined by our Emcee, who serves as a Greek chorus, those songs entertain and distract the in-film audience while commenting directly on what’s going on in the film.

One of my favorite numbers in the whole film speaks directly to Max’s attraction to Brian and Sally: He’s rich.

Some interesting notes on this number: First, it’s the only one in the film that Joel Grey and Liza Minelli really have together, because there had to be that star moment, and it replaced a number that, in the stage show, is performed only by the Emcee and Kit Kat Girls.

Second, there is a strong hint that the Emcee is creeping on Sally Bowles and, while she doesn’t appreciate it, she kind of has no choice, so the more intimate moments in the choreography here are colored by that and add an extra layer to the whole thing. If she doesn’t perform with him, then she’s not going to make any money.

Finally, note that a lot of the Emcee’s choreography here is based on traditional dancing that would have been done by Jewish men during things like weddings, especially during the silhouette part behind the scrim at the end. Nothing is ever said about the Emcee’s religion in the film and, in fact, there’s the strong implication that he’s a staunch supporter of the Nazis, but this idea will color later adaptations, more on which below.

This diegetic music idea is one that the film adaptation of Chicago will pick up in 2002 and, while the film and stage versions of that show are equally good, Chicago won the Oscar for Best Picture along with five others. Cabaret won eight Oscars total, but not Best Picture. The only reason I won’t insist that it should have is that it lost to The Godfather.

By this point, full disclosure. I discovered Cabaret as a tween because my paternal grandfather liked to collect records by buying up lots from garage sales and antique and thrift stores and the like, but he was only looking for jazz music from the 1950s and before.

So anything else — which included rock, pop, and musical soundtracks — went into boxes that were fair game to me and my three cousins whenever we visited. My oldest cousin (seven months younger than me) was only into hard rock and that kind of crap, which I never was.

The other two were really too young to care. So that left me to dive into all the weird shit — meaning musicals and stand-up and so on. Grandpa also apparently didn’t like big band, swing, and classical. Score!

So I found the original Broadway soundtrack of Cabaret, gave it a listen and immediately wanted to play the Emcee. This was long after the film had come out, actually, but I eventually learned that it existed, although I didn’t actually see it until a screening in a college class on film musicals.

When I finally saw the stage show, a year after I graduated from college, I realized, “Wow. The movie was so much better.”

Flash forward. When Cabaret was restaged by Sam Mendes in 1993, it picked up elements from the film, made Brian/Cliff’s bisexuality even more explicit, and hypersexualized the emcee, now played by Alan Cumming. And the biggest change to that character also makes for a really chilling ending.

In text and song, not much different from the original. In context… hang onto your socks.

I can’t help but think that this update was informed by the movie musical and Fosse’s choreography of his Emcee, which Mendes and Cumming ran with. And the last little bit here takes it on to a whole other level, just like the movie did in the 1970s.

Stay tuned for next week’s installment

Image author IsarSteve, licensed under (CC BY-SA 3.0), used unaltered.

Our best weapon against AI is humor

My day job revolves around health insurance and, because of HIPPA regulations, the office has landlines. We can’t do VOIP because it’s not as secure. The theater I work at some evenings uses nothing but VOIP. I’m sure that the main consequence of this is that the theater never gets robo or sales calls, while the office gets them constantly.

Fortunately, I have absolutely no obligation to be nice to robo-callers or even to listen to their pitches. I’ve hung up on them in mid-sentence. To make it more confusing for them, I’ve hung up in the middle of my sentence. Sometimes, if they’re trying to pitch a service that the boss already has and I know that he did meticulous research before he obtained it or has a personal relationship with the provider, I’ll respond with a terse, “Thanks, but we’re happy with what we have,” and then hang up.

The fun ones are when we get calls trying to sell Medicare insurance. They start out just talking about Medicare Supplement plans, and those are perfectly legal to advertise. Why? Because no matter the provider, each particular plan has the same premium, determined by age, and has the same basic benefits.

These are the plans that cover deductibles, copays, and coinsurance not covered by other plans or Medicare itself. Where they differ is in the extras they toss on. Some of them provide gym benefits, others provide personal emergency systems — i.e. the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” necklace, others provide free over-the-counter stuff, like vitamins and cold remedies, by mail. It’s a mix-and-match, and what it’s really doing is providing people to decide what they prefer among plans that are otherwise identical.

So far, so good. If it’s a slow day and I get one of these calls, I will always push the button for more info, which connects me to a live operator. This is where it gets fun, because it is illegal to cold-call someone to try to sell them Medicare Advantage or Medicare Prescription Drug Plans.

Don’t worry if you don’t know what all those terms mean. I didn’t either six months ago. The gist of it is that selling these in the same way is illegal because their costs and coverages vary wildly, and it all depends upon the person being insured, and which medications they’re taking.

For somebody taking no drugs or with one or two common and cheap generics, Coverage X may only cost $13 a month. For someone with a lot of prescriptions, especially if one or more only come in a brand instead of a generic, Coverage X may cost hundreds or thousands of dollars a year. And for each of them, the price of Coverage X, Coverage Y, and Coverage Z may also vary widely, also depending on whether they have a preferred pharmacy or not, and whether that pharmacy is in or out of network for the provider.

In other words… this is something people need to discuss with a professional who can look at their specific needs, analyze the options, and give the best and cheapest advice. That cold caller is probably only calling for a small number of (or even only one) providers, so they don’t care what your situation is going to cost. They only want to get you to buy what you’re selling.

And that is a big part of why these kinds of calls are so illegal.

Now, when I get a person doing one of these calls on the line, they will usually launch into a fast-talking spiel about how they can save me and my family money on all of our health insurance needs, including Medicare Advantage or Drug Plans, and what would I like to sign up for today?

My reply is always, “Hey, you sell Medicare insurance, too? So do we. My boss is an insurance broker.”

Analogy time: This would be the equivalent of somebody robo-dialing in order to hire a hitman to take out a rival, giving the fully incriminating pitch to whomever answers, and then finding out they’d called the FBI.

When I say this, I can hear the sudden confusion in the silence and the unstated “Oh, shit.” It takes a second or two, but then I hear them hang up on me, and that is the Holy Grail of dealing with these unethical idiots: making them end the call.

Some of them must be paying attention, though, because the other day I got one of these calls during a slow late afternoon, hit 1 to talk to a rep and then instead of immediately being put through, got some hold music, and then after about ten seconds, the call disconnected.

So, other Holy Grail. I think I actually got our office number blocked by a spamming, illegal robo-caller. That’s really satisfying.

However, there’s another trend in these robo-calls that’s somewhat more disturbing on a couple of fronts. First is that it could actually put people out of jobs. And yes, while we all hate these kinds of calls, I still get that for some people, these jobs are their tenuous lifelines. I blame the companies behind them, not the people who have no options other than to work for them.

Second is that this trend is using AI, and it’s getting a lot better. When you get a call that has a voice announcement or is reading off a recorded message, it’s pretty obvious what it is. Beyond the robotic cadence or the message outright stating that it’s a recording, there’s also just a huge difference in sound quality between a recording or digital audio and a live speaker.

Why is this? Simple. Digital or analog audio goes direct through an input line to the headset speaker in your phone. Spoken voice has to take the extra step or traversing a few millimeters of open air between the speaker’s mouth and their microphone, and this creates a completely different quality. You don’t even have to be an audiophile to pick up on it. It’s something we just automatically sense. “Recording” and “Real Person” appear as different from each other as “Mannequin” and “Human Being.”

But then they tweaked the technology, and now I’ve met a couple of AI robo-callers that were obviously filtered to sound like real people with that atmospheric connection. I don’t doubt that this is now a trivial process to add via computer, although to be honest, it could be done really low-tech and in cheap analog by setting up a speaker playing the voice next to a handset picking it up. Either way… these couple of calls got me at first.

Call number one, it was easy to spot after the initial two exchanges, because the voice launched into the uninterruptable spiel so, despite the sound quality, I got it and hung up.

The second and, so far, last time, it was a bit harder. The very human sounding voice started out with, “Hello, how are you today?” I replied, “Fine, and you?” It replied. “Great, thanks for asking. Can I ask you some questions about your family’s shopping habits?” “Sure,” I said, waiting for an opportunity to mess with them, but then also noticed that there seemed to be slightly too long of a pause between their question and my response. Also, every response started with a filler word. And the next response nailed it for me.

“That’s great. Are you responsible for the grocery shopping in your household.”

Trivial thing, but just like we can detect by hearing whether a voice is recorded or on the phone, our brains are also wired to detect whether we’re talking to a human, and this was the point that the bot failed the Turing Test. The responses were a bit mechanical and not keying into my tone at all. So I decided to give it a real test and replied, “I only pay for it, but everyone else decides what they want.”

The pause was slightly longer, and then came the reply, “I’m sorry. I don’t understand. Can you repeat that?” Of course, the human response would have been a laugh at a thing that AI hasn’t mastered yet: A joke.

Bingo, busted bot. So lots of points for the realism of the voice, delivery, and sound quality, but there’s still a long way to go on making it believable, and this is a very, very good thing, indeed. If you think it’s a bot, engage it with non-sequiturs and humor, and see how fast it falls apart.


Image: Alan Turing Memotial by Bernt Rostad, (cc BY 2.0).

Christmas Countdown Bonus!

The Boys in Blue Are Back

The latest Christmas Charity single from Out of the Blue Oxford dropped today, so I couldn’t not share it as a bonus track on the countdown, since they’ve been featured before not once but twice. This time around, it’s an unabashedly gay and over-the-top medley of tunes from Disney’s Frozen.

Bonus bonus! Three years ago to the day, they dropped this one, which becomes more joyously gay by the second with the nice conceit of a pretentious director trying to rein them in. Ah, for oh-so-innocent days of late 2016 again!

Meanwhile, please visit their page and donate to Helen & Douglas House and/or buy the charity single that this video is plugging to benefit the same group. And drop a tip in my jar if you’re so inclined. It is the giving season, after all. You’ll be glad you did.

Watch the Christmas Countdown from the beginning!

Christmas Countdown, Tuesday #3

Day 19

Here’s another holiday number from the boys from Out of the Blue Oxford, and while it includes a nod to their earlier cover of All I Want for Christmas Is You, they really camp it up here with an all-male rendition of a song that is traditionally sung by a woman, Santa Baby.

Then again, it’s the 21st century and we’re just over a year away from starting the second decade of that century, so to hell with “tradition,” because that’s a thing that doesn’t exist, just something that is constantly recreated.

See the previous entry, check out the next, or take it from the top.

And this just in: The Boys in (out of?) the Blue just dropped their 2019 Holiday Single. Check it out!