Restless Mind Show #1 – Comedy and Authority


The Restless Mind Show! Jacke and Gar take a break from the history of literature to examine the nature of comedy and what makes us laugh.


What’s the Greatest Joke Ever? Sneak Preview of an Exciting New Podcast!

Hello, friends! Just a quick note to let you know that The History of Literature podcast takes its regularly scheduled departure this week… and it’s such a departure, we’re calling it by a whole new name! (It’s a branding thing.)  In any event, it goes by the name of The Restless Mind Show and it will be available on Monday.

We’re using the same feed, so subscribers to The History of Literature will get this show automatically.

Why are we doing this? Don’t ask. It’s just how we’re doing it.

The first episode takes a look at different kinds of funny. What do Steve Martin, Will Ferrell, and Chief Wiggum have in common? Why  are they funny? Why was Kafka hysterical? We’ll take a look!

The Bing/Bowie Christmas Mystery – The Will Ferrell Angle

Okay, we’ve been having fun with this one. The slightly famous (let’s say “underground famous”) clip of David Bowie dropping in on Bing Crosby on an old Bing Crosby Christmas special. They eventually deliver a beautiful, soaring version of “Little Drummer Boy.” If somehow you’ve never heard this, don’t miss the song. Bing’s down-low crooner’s rhythm and Bowie’s pristine melody truly make the song soar. (Was the melody written just for this show? It makes the song so much better!)

Before the song begins there is some awkward patter – well, to call it awkward doesn’t really do it justice. It should be awkward – it’s Ziggy Stardust meeting Bing Crosby, for crying out loud – but somehow it is less awkward than you might think. Maybe that’s why I like it so much. It reminds me of the times when I dropped by a friend’s house only to find his grandparents there.

And you make some small talk, and it’s excruciating because all you want to do is get to the basement and play video games, and the grandparents are telling you about life in the Depression or something. Except then they say something funny, and you have a kind of loyalty toward them as your friend’s grandpa, and you wind up getting through the conversation and giving each other a dose of cross-generational respect. Right? There’s some of that going on in this too. Along with all the awkward.

So anyway, one of the mysteries we’ve been tackling in the comment section is just what David Bowie jokes about at the 1:27 mark. He says [somethings] are coming down the chimney. It sounded to me like “agents,” which didn’t make sense to me. What kind of agents come down the chimney? How is that a joke? And worse, it was close enough to “Asians” to make me worried. (No, Ziggy! Don’t tell me this is some kind of jingoistic humor! Stay in space!)

Here comes Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, who – dammit – live life better than I do. I wish I had talent, and friends who would make videos like this! Well, all I can do is appreciate these two for making my life a little better. Because I’m convinced that videos like this help me to live longer. Will Ferrell! That look in his eye when he’s fully immersed in his character…good lord, this is a delicious video.

And – did you hear it? – he says “agents.” I’m going to use that as confirmation that it’s not Asians. He’d get it right, I’m sure. He may have had a script to work from. At the very least, someone at Funny or Die must have watched this video over and over in order to get it right.

One mystery solved.

Onto the next one!

What kind of agents could these be?

We’ve had three guesses so far.

  • Government agents.  I guess this would be some tie-in to the government pursuing Ziggy Stardust. For drugs? Immigration violations? Protests? Obscenity? Maybe he’d had some legal trouble, and agents were arresting him… something like that. It’s clearly some kind of in-joke, though I don’t know if it’s an in-joke historically or an in-joke based on something that happened earlier in the special. I thought it might be a post-Watergate thing, or a James Bond thing. The “I just got arrested for drugs, it’s in all the papers” seems more likely. But that too is just a guess on my part.
  • Show biz agents. Maybe the joke here is that Bowie’s career is on the rise? And Bing has trouble getting an agent? Maybe Bing complained about it earlier in the episode?
  • Christmas agents. This was a reader’s idea, which I love. Maybe it’s his way of describing elves, or reindeer, or some other tool of Santa. This seems a little strange, but then again, it’s a strange comment. Maybe Bowie is giving us a little tongue-in-cheek slant on Christmas?

Hmmm. I might need to raise the stakes on this….

Okay, let’s do it.! A free copy of one of my books will go to anyone who can figure this out! And good ideas will be in the running, too, no matter how wild. Let’s get the creativity flowing here!

Writing Advice from Will Ferrell’s Dad

Okay, the title is a bit of a stretch. Will Ferrell’s father, a professional musician for thirty or forty years, was actually talking about show business. But his advice is applicable to all creative endeavors and every writer should hear it.

Ferrell told the story about his dad on Marc Maron’s podcast (which I’ve recommended before). The whole interview is worth listening to – it was ninety minutes with the “real” Will Ferrell, not one of his characters. And he’s just what you would hope: thoughtful, genuine, and funny. Underneath that bring-the-house-down persona, there’s a lot of gentle wisdom in that man.

Unfortunately I don’t have the transcript so I’ll have to paraphrase. But first, a little scene setting.

Ferrell had come home from college and figured out that he wanted to try comedy. He started doing some anxious standup in Orange County, then eventually made his way to the Groundlings. He was doing well, although this was still light years away from SNL and comedy superstardom.

Ferrell had lunch with his dad and he told him he wanted to pursue comedy as a career. His dad, who had watched him on stage, gave him some practical advice: Continue reading