here’s something

February 11th, 2011

Here are some photos of the still lifes I set up for the painting and drawing classes I teach at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan. I like these photos a lot. I think they’re hauntingly plain.

I’d like to make a movie that’s hauntingly plain.


Kaveri Nair and Mitchell Magee wedding

May 24th, 2010

Hello everyone who’s trying to find the link to our website and registry. You can find our website here:

http://tinyurl.com/y9f6yqt


Sitting. Anxious. Thinking of David Robbins.

May 17th, 2010

As I sit at my desk, worried, my sinuses throbbing, I am thinking of the debt I owe to my former teacher, David Robbins.

I’m about to make four new episodes of an internet show I do called “Welcome to my Study.” It’s probably the most popular thing I’ve ever done. And it’s essentially a rip-off of David Robbins’ ideas. Dyna Moe contributed much to the show’s esthetic, but what I brought was totally cribbed from David.

Early on, David thought it might be a good idea to make jokes using a set of rules derived from conceptual art practices. He looked around and it seemed as if Andy Kaufman was already doing this. And maybe Letterman was kind of doing it. But it also seemed as if Martin Kippenberger was doing it too. And Piero Manzoni. Maybe Yves Klein.

If you were going to make jokes within an art context, you didn’t want to make “joke” jokes, because “joke” jokes were too ingratiating. Or maybe they were too caught up with traditional narrative, maybe too immersive. There’s a strain of Modernism (and by extension, Conceptual Art) that is skeptical of illusionism. Illusionism is creating something that’s not really there, a meta-world rather than something that’s physically in the here and now. It’s a pain in the ass because you can be fooled with illusionism into thinking something is good when it’s actually a piece of dump. Maybe you’re looking at a Bouguereau painting and you start thinking “wow, that peasant girl has flawless skin” or something, not realizing that the painting is actually garbage. You’ve been duped. The same thing happens sometimes with traditional standup comedy; a comedian will tell a hammy story that’s obviously not based on any real experience and for some reason you’ll start laughing even though you know the joke is pretty terrible. It’s the narrative form in general and the structure of the joke in particular that made you laugh. You’ve been duped, you fool!

So jokes can fool you. “Maybe,” thought David Robbins, “I could make ‘jokes’ instead.”

So the class I took in graduate school called “Concrete Comedy” showed us how to make “jokes.” Most of the time these jokes took the form of an object: you presented some object you made to the class and you checked to see if anyone thought it was funny. But remember: the objects weren’t supposed to be funny, they were supposed to be “funny.” And if they were good, they ended up being funny. Without the quotes. Just funny.

And that’s what “Welcome to my Study” is to me: presenting objects that are “funny” and, by extension, funny.

I hope these four new episodes turn out well. If not, I apologize in advance to all the people who liked the eight episodes (and one Christmas special) we did for the internet. These next ones are a bit beyond my control. They are meant for the HBO series, Funny or Die Presents. We will see. We will see.


Old Mister Glasses Storyboards

February 2nd, 2010

I found these two Mister Glasses storyboards in a file marked “Comedy.” The numbers in the corner seem to indicate there were at least 4 of them. Pretty fun, I think.

mgstoryboard1

mgstoryboard2

It’s funny—I used to rather meticulously storyboard my videos, partly because that’s what Steven D. Katz told me to do in Film Directing Shot by Shot. It’s a huge pain in the ass. And looking at these now, I can’t imagine them being a whole lot of help. Did I really need to show very normal head-and-shoulders close-ups in storyboard? I could have just written “CU” on a piece of paper and called it a day. I just got back from LA where I wrote and directed a couple of webseries for Funny or Die and didn’t storyboard a thing*. Sorry Steven D. Katz.

*not entirely true, but for the sake of a clean narrative line in this blog post, let’s assume it’s true.


Programming changes at WNYC

October 5th, 2009

Big shifts are happening at New York’s public radio stations, 93.9FM and AM820. Most of the music programming is being folded into the classical programming of NYC’s tepid classical station, WQXR and moving to 105.9FM. So now we have three public radio stations. Fine.

What is not fine is that Jonathan Schwartz’s two awful shows, which occupy 8 full hours of weekend programming time at 93.9FM, will not be jettisoned with the rest of the music. And so every now and then, I will still be forced to accidentally stumble upon Schwartz’s shows. Which are terrible.

Jonathan Schwartz loves the “American Songbook.” He loves Sinatra. Great. But Jonathan Schwartz loves Sinatra in a way that makes you slowly hate Sinatra.

Maybe you have a friend who really loves The Beatles. When he (it almost always is a he) was 14 years old, listening to Let it Be, he had his first profound musical experience. It shaped him. He talks endlessly about The Beatles. Every track off of every Beatles album is something to ruminate on and turn over in his mind. The history of every recording session, every tour, every alternate take, the influence of every girlfriend—all of this is worthy of endless debate. When you listen to The Beatles with this friend, he plays the same track over and over again and makes you pay attention to the way that John’s voice breaks on a certain note. And you begin to hate The Beatles. You begin to think that maybe The Beatles weren’t that good (even though they were very good.) You think, “these Beatles wrote some pretty ponderous stuff, really. And a lot of it is full-on cornball. And a lot of it involves dumb studio trickery. Maybe The Beatles aren’t so good.”

The same is true for Sinatra when Schwartz gets a hold of him. The way Jonathan Schwartz coos and rhapsodizes over Sinatra is his whispery radio voice makes you think about all the things you never really liked about Sinatra. Schwartz makes you doubt Sinatra’s genius. A lot is made of Sinatra’s “phrasing,” but his phrasing is very showy and calculated. To my ear, it never feels like Sinatra’s vocal decisions are coming out of any real lived experience or spontaneous moment. He is there only to charm you—Sinatra never makes himself vulnerable. Instead, he endlessly theatricalizes the emotional moments of song, holding them at arms length, controlling the audience—showing the audience what a sophisticated guy he really is. Compare that to a truly genius singer like Billie Holiday. Billie Holiday’s vocal stylings never seem so much a “style” as an effortless extension of herself as a human being. When she sings, you are invited into Billie Holiday’s private world. Maybe that’s why it’s so embarrassing to hear someone do their “Billie Holiday” impression—they’re making something grotesquely inauthentic out of something so authentic. Even a singer like Chet Baker (who Schwartz hates) is far more emotionally sophisticated than Sinatra, because he is willing to dispense with the theatrics. But what is Sinatra without the theatrics?

The “American Songbook” is terrific. Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart, etc.—they all wrote some great songs. But without America’s great black (and some white) musicians and vocalists—if Tin Pan Alley hadn’t transformed into “Jazz Standard”—not many people would be thinking about these songs anymore. They would seem hopelessly dated. And this is what Jonathan Schwartz doesn’t seem to get. Instead of reaching for a Dinah Washington, he inevitably reaches for a Mary Martin (or even worse, Bernadette Peters). And so we have to sit through these endless, drippy renditions of classic showtunes before we arrive at one good one. Also, Schwartz seems to think that Broadway music is still a very viable art form. As good as Steven Sondheim is (not good), he will never be a Jerome Kern, so why must we listen to a single song from Company? But listen we must. And it is painful.

I know Jonathan Schwartz must have a wide legion of fans out there, but I know of only one—improviser Michael Delaney.  And he is an anomaly. So if anyone from the WYNC brass is reading this, might I suggest you get rid of Schwartz now, if it’s not already too late. But please don’t replace him with “Breakfast with The Beatles.”


On Objectified and Rams

May 12th, 2009

Yesterday, I saw the movie, Objectified with Dyna at the IFC Film Center. It’s a documentary on contemporary industrial design—interviews with designers, an endless parade of cool products designed within the last 20 years, discursive bits on the nature of “good design.” You see how certain products (say, an OXO Good Grips vegetable peeler) were created, how various functional and esthetic considerations were thought through, how a product is brought to market. The movie parses the various sub-disciplines of industrial design (Interaction Design is interesting: the design of computer interfaces.) You get a lot on “sustainable design.”

You don’t get much arguing between the designers. All of them are pretty strictly in the Modernist/Functionalist camp. No one is fighting for doohickeys. Some of the car designers (like clothing designers) will talk about “aspirational” design, design as fantasy for how you want to see yourself. Some talk about nostalgia and sentiment (one nerdy-looking Times writer talks about a scenario where you’re forced to save the most treasured items from your burning home. You choose kitsch.) But for the most part, people agree that design should first and foremost be useful.

There’s no historical context presented for this understanding of design. Design was not always this way—design was ornate Rococo sliver candlesticks and the like. We get a bit on mass-production, but no Bauhaus, no Mies, no Corbu, no Jean Prouvé. No discussion of traditional craft or traditional utilitarian objects, no discussions of “class.” It would be interesting to get something on the Protestant ethic’s influence on design thinking. Or Communism. We get some Zen ideas from the (fun) designer at Muji. [EDIT: this is the amazing Naota Fukasawa who did more than just things for Muji.]

We get a tiny glimpse of the great Charles and Ray Eames, but not nearly enough.

But I’m so interested in this stuff that I’ll forgive the movie’s faults (it’s a bit boring.) For example I got to see the work of the great Dieter Rams who was Braun’s lead designer in the 60s.

image_rams

Oh, Dieter Rams! You are so very, very good! I never knew your name but I knew your things. You were doing Apple designs long before Apple. In fact, from the looks of it, Apple ripped you off.

In the movie, Rams reminds me of a calculating German supervillain—kind of ruthlessly austere. And his products look at bit as though they were designed by a cold, emotionless supervillian. But I love them. They are perfect. So in honor of Mr. Rams, I present a catalog of his work:
rams1

rams21

rams3

rams4

rams5

rams6

rams7

rams9

The Tivoli Audio Model Three radio totally aped the design of this, but the Tivoli radio is a complete piece of junk…

rams10

rams11

rams12

rams13

rams14

rams15


Not sure what to call this rant.

February 18th, 2009

Art History books are full of errors.

I read art history books from time to time. Sometimes I’ll read a passage where a work seems misinterpreted and I’ll wince. If I see this error repeated over and over again in several different books, I’ll go to my blog and write an Andy Rooney-like post.

The painting, La Raie Vert [the Green Stripe] from 1905 by Henri Matisse is a great painting. It’s a painting that everyone likes. It’s a famous painting. You think of Matisse as being a little too frilly—big turquoise floral patterns, naked French woman dressed up as Moroccans, lounging on cushions, their faces looking like 1920s illustrations for Vogue. But the Green Line is something else—it’s a tough painting. The sitter* is looking almost straight ahead, the oval of her face dead-center on the canvas. The background is separated into three near-geometric sections—orange, teal and purple. Much of her is outlined in black. And also there appears to be a green stripe that runs down the center of her face from her forehead into her upper lip and chin.

green stripe

And so an art historian looks at that green stripe and thinks “wow, that green stripe is really something. I mean, that green stripe is crazy, right? It doesn’t make sense. That green stripe is so arbitrary!”

And then Mitch Magee has to read over and over again in art history books that La Raie Vert is one of the first examples of the use of arbitrary (or unnatural or random) color in Western Art. And then I wince.

Staring in the Baroque**, there appeared the flashy convention in portrait painting of depicting a subject using two different light sources of different temperatures—the warm light source would indicate lamp light, the cool light source would indicate natural light coming from a window. You see this kind of lighting now in movies and also in classic illustrations like Haddon Sunblom’s Coca-Cola Santa:

e037d689a5

Santa’s face is being lit by the warm glow of a fireplace and the right side of his head is being lit by the cool light of some window we can’t see, like really strong moonlight or something. And as those two light sources meet and mix, there is a dark patch on the right side of his forehead.

Light is funny—it doesn’t combine in the same way we would expect pigments to combine. And weird things happen when two light sources of different temperatures mix. And sometimes colors shift in unexpected ways.

Matisse in his Fauve period was inheriting a tradition of French painting that was very much interested in the effects of light. If you were Monet, you would sit around and look at haystacks all day. You would make lots and lots of paintings of haystacks at different times of day and you would concentrate on the quality of light that hit the surface of those haystacks. You thought of images as little particles of light hitting your eyeballs. You would try to be impartial in your perception of light—sometimes a haystack might look purple; sometimes a haystack might look orange; sometimes green. Light is weird.

monet_grainstack_at_sunset_1891

claude-monet-paintings-1889-1894-9

Derain and Matisse knew what Monet was up to—they had made similar work. What they both decided to do in the early years of the 20th century was to push these impressionist investigations into visual perception (where a shadow on green grass can appear purple, for example) one step further. It was like they had a big “color intensity” knob attached to an impressionist painting and decided to turn it all the way up. When they saw a shadow that appeared slightly blue, they would just make it blue. When an orange-looking light hit the side of a brown boat, they’d paint the boat orange. It was all based on observation. And to some it looked arbitrary.

La Raie Vert, is not an example of the “arbitrary” use of color (what painting is?) It is a painting that—among other things—emphasizes the strange visual effect that occurs when different temperatures of light combine—the “warm” yellow light from a lamp, combing with the “cool” white light from a window, creating what to Matisse’s eyes looked like a dark, almost-greenish stripe that ran down the center of the sitters face. And so he made the stripe green.

* EDIT: Somehow I forgot that the sitter was Mme Matisse! Whoops.

** (I may be a bit off here. I’m thinking of the work of Jacob Jordaens. Most painting from the Baroque uses one light source. This minor convention of using two light sources really hits its stride in the 19th cen. and becomes an illustration and portrait painting convention a little later on near the turn of the century.)


I did a Harold last night.

December 17th, 2008

I muscled my way into an improv set at the UCB Theatre last night. Actually, the way I remember it, Neil Casey asked me if I wanted to do a Harold and I said “sure”—the way Dyna remembers it, Neil asked her if she wanted to do a Harold and I said, “can I do one too!” The last time I did any improvising was 5 years ago. Being on stage again, I felt that slightly self-conscious feeling I always felt when improvising, like going to a sports bar and having to pretend I like sports—pretty soon I’ll give myself away as an impostor. Also, after complaining that back when I was on an improv team, my characters were always labeled “gay,” I decided last night to initiate a scene where I played a gay lumberjack. But I was fine considering how long it’s been. Fine.

On a totally different note, Kaveri and I went to Carnegie Hall on Sunday to see a performance of the Turangalîla-Symphonie by Messiaen. I had never been to Carnegie Hall before—it’s impressive. It looks exactly like a grand concert hall. When you close your eyes and think “concert hall,” you will think of Carnegie Hall, even if you’ve never been there. This is what we looked like, sitting in our box:

carnegiehallmitch

carnegiehallkaveri

Turangalîla is something else. I had never heard it before. It’s exciting. There are lots of angular percussive parts. Some parts have a near-schmaltzy Romantic vibe. A lot of it is balls-to-the-wall madness. The piano is constantly banging away, often going against the grain of the main theme. Several themes repeat themselves again and again. The orchestra includes a crazy electronic instrument called the Ondes Martenot, which sounds like a Theremin (but you can also play it like a piano)—you hear it and think, “what the fuck was that?” There were also two people playing what sounded like toy pianos. And a vibraphone. And maracas.

Here’s the 1st movement:


here’s the 5th:



Seattle

October 22nd, 2008

This past weekend, Kaveri and I flew out to Seattle for the Rawstock Film Festival. The organizers promised to partially pay for the trip, so I said “why the hell not?”

I had never been to the Pacific Northwest before and so, when I had to venture a guess, I imagined Seattle to be town of earnest flannel-wearers, constantly hiking up mountains, high on coffee. I couldn’t really square this image with the show Frasier, so I always decided not to think of the show Frasier when thinking of Seattle. To a lesser extent, I also decided not to think of Sleepless in Seattle.

The Rawstock Festival is a fun, scrappy festival of film shorts that happens about 4 times a year. And for the past year—starting with the “Mister Glasses” series—they’ve been showing stuff I’ve made. And now they were showing stuff Dyna and I (and Bill Buckendorf) had made—three episodes of the “Welcome to my Study” series. What is it with “Welcome to my Study”? People really go apeshit over it. It’s become a minor internet hit. Seattle was full of “Study” fans.

But more on that later; what was Seattle like?

From the little I saw of it, Seattle felt like the city that would emerge if New York and Northhampton, Massachusetts had a baby and that baby decided to live by a bay. It was far more cosmopolitan than I would have figured. The people we met (and maybe this was not a representative sample) seemed to all be done up in black cocktail dresses and suits.

our new Seattle friends

our new Seattle friends

And just like in New York, there is the trend for “pre-prohibition” cocktails in the fancier hipster Seattle bars. So, we got to enjoy drinks that had egg whites in them. Which was fun.

The city has a very walkable downtown area surrounded by a bunch cute neighborhoods that are nearly impossible to get to using public transportation. And so we found ourselves quixotically riding the bus to a neighborhood called Ballard. And then cabing it to Capitol Hill. People of Seattle: invest in modern trolleys!

Ballard

Ballard

From what I gather, most of Seattle was destroyed in the late 19th century. You can take a tour of the old buildings now buried  underground. They sit (I think) below the downtown neighborhood of Pioneer Square which is composed of cute late-Victorian brick and stone buildings in that “American Downtown Vernacular” that you see in a lot of Eastern cities.

What else…there are a few of great, deco department stores and a lot of soulless postmodern office towers from the 80s. Also, there’s the very cool Public Library designed by Rem Koolhaus Koolhaas, which looks like a crystal spaceship descended to earth. Kaveri and I spent a lot of time in that library walking the slowing sloping spiral of stacks. The interior of that building is amazing.

Seattle Public Library

Seattle Public Library

There is also a huge working port.

And a market with amazing floral bouquets and tons of fish.

The Ace (with Kaveri)

The Ace (with Kaveri)

We stayed at the Ace Hotel. The Ace Hotel answers the question, “what does a hipster do when he’s too old to stay in a youth hostel and too poor to stay in a nice hotel?” The rooms were breathtakingly small but they were painted white and outfitted with a stainless steel sink and an Eames rocker and ironic landscape wallpaper so it all seemed pretty cool to me and Kaveri. Also, the bathroom was in the hall. Like a youth hostel. But we liked it.

And again, people went absolutely apeshit over “Study”—huge laughs. And lots of people came up to me after the show and told me how much they liked it. So I was really touched. It was great. I have to thank the organizer of the event, the extremely nice Justin Freet, whose mom may have been the most devoted of all the “Study” fans that night.

And the event was sponsored by Bulleit Bourbon which is tasty.


Please, please, please, come see my show!

September 10th, 2008

I’m like James Brown—I’m begging you.

This weekend is the New York Television Festival (NYTVF) and my show, “Sexual Intercourse American Style” will be featured.

SIAS NYTVF

I loved working on this show. I loved writing for Will Hines and Julie Klausner and Matthieu Cornillon and Eliza Skinner. I stand by this show.

And so I invite all friends or non-friends alike—ignore the fierce pull of apathy and try to make it to one of the screenings. Do it for the Baby Birds. And if you mention “Sexual Intercourse American Style,” you’re guaranteed a seat!

Sexual Intercourse: American Style
New York Television Festival
Saturday the 13th, 2:15 pm
Sunday the 14th, 9:30 pm
New World Stages 340 West 50th Street (between 8th and 9th Aves.)
FREEE!!!!!

And come see the new “Mister Glasses” at the NYTVF’s special Channel 101 screening. Tuesday at 8:00 at the New World Stages. I’ll be on the panel for a discussion afterwards. Seriously.