Songs by Joni Mitchell Re-Imagined as Pulp Fiction Book Covers & Vintage Movie Posters

I wish I had more sense of humor

Keeping the sadness at bay

Throwing the lightness on these things

Laughing it all away 

                           - Joni Mitchell, “People's Parties”

Joni Mitchell has been showered with tributes of late, many of them connected to her all-star 75th birthday concert last November.

The silky voiced Seal, who credits Mitchell with inspiring him to become a musician, soaring toward heaven on "Both Sides Now"…

"A Case Of You" as a duet for fellow Newport Folk Festival alums Kris Kristofferson and Brandi Carlile….

Chaka Khan injecting a bit of funk into "Help Me," a tune she’s been covering for 20 some years...




They’re moving and beautiful and sensitive, but given that Mitchell's the one behind the immortal lyric “laughing and crying, you know it's the same release…,” shouldn’t someone aim for the funny bone? Mix things up a little?

Enter Todd Alcott, who’s been delighting us all year with his “mid-century mashups,” an irresistible combination of vintage paperback covers, celebrity personae, and iconic lyrics from the annals of rock and pop.

His homage to "Help Me," above, is decidedly on brand. The lurid 1950s EC horror comic-style graphics confer a dishy naughtiness that was—no disrespect—rather lacking in the original.

Perhaps Mitchell would approve of these monkeyshines?

A 1991 interview with Rolling Stone’s David Wild suggests that she would have at some point in her life:

When I was a kid, I was a real good-time Charlie. As a matter of fact, that was my nickname. So when I first started making all this sensitive music, my old friends back home could not believe it. They didn’t know – where did this depressed person come from? Along the way, I had gone through some pretty hard deals, and it did introvert me. But it just so happened that my most introverted period coincided with the peak of my success.

Alcott honors the introvert by rendering "Both Sides Now" as an angsty-looking volume of 60s-era poetry from the imaginary publishing house Clouds.

"Big Yellow Taxi" carries Alcott from the bookshelf to the realm of the movie poster.

The lyrics are definitely the star here, but it's fun to note just how much mileage he gets out of the floating text boxes that were a strangely random-feeling feature of the original.

Also "Ladies of the Canyon" is a great producer's credit. Given Alcott’s own screenwriting credits on IMDB, perhaps we could convince him to mash a bit of Joni’s sensibility into some of Paul Schrader’s grimmest Taxi Driver scenes…

That said, it's worth remembering that Alcott's creations are loving tributes to the artists who matter most to him. As he told Open Culture:

Joni Mitchell is one of the most criminally undervalued American songwriters of the 20th century, and that now that I live in LA, every time I drive through Laurel Canyon I think about her and that whole absurdly fertile scene in the late 1960s, when artists could afford to live in Laurel Canyon and Joni Mitchell was hanging out with Neil Young and Charles Manson.

See all of Todd Alcott’s work here. (Please note that this is his official sales site… beware of imposters selling quickie knock-offs of his designs on eBay and Facebook.) Find other posts featuring his work in the Relateds below.

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Songs by David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Talking Heads & More Re-Imagined as Pulp Fiction Book Covers

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inkyzine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, September 9 for a new season of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

 

When MAD Magazine Ruffled the Feathers of the FBI, Not Once But Three Times

Many of us grew up reading MAD, the soon-to-be-late illustrated satirical magazine. But only the generations who went through their MAD periods in the publication's first couple of decades, from the 1950s through the 1970s, enjoyed it at the height of its subversive powers. As hard as it may be to imagine in the 21st century, there was even a time when MAD came under scrutiny by no less powerful an organization than the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation, and faced the wrath of its first and most feared director J. Edgar Hoover at that. But did the heat stop its creators from doing their necessary work of irreverence? Most certainly not.

"In a memo dated November 30, 1957," writes Mental Floss' Jake Rossen, "an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation identified as 'A. Jones.' raised an issue of critical importance." That issue had to do with what the FBI file on the case described as several complaints made "concerning the 'Mad' comic book," and specifically "a tongue-in-cheek game about draft dodging. Players who earned such status were advised to write to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and request a membership card certifying themselves as a 'full-fledged draft dodger.' At least three readers, the agent reported, did exactly that." Agent Jones also weighed in with a judgment of MAD itself: "It is rather unfunny.”

You can see all this for yourself in the documents from the FBI file, excerpts of which are available to download at thesmokinggun.com. "Criticizing or lampooning the FBI has become standard media fare," says that site, "but when J. Edgar Hoover ran the joint, the bureau wouldn't stand for such swipes — and often retaliated by investigating its foes. So that's why it's great to see that MAD magazine wasn't intimidated by Hoover and seemed to take pleasure in needling the Director." It did it again in 1960, two years after publisher William Gaines promised never to mention Hoover's name in the pages of MAD, when it made fun of the FBI's top man twice in a single issue, once in a faux advertisement for a vacuum cleaner called “The Honorable J. Edgar Electrolux.”

The exchanges that ensued, says thesmokinggun.com, reveal the FBI's possession of "one lousy sense of humor." But they also reveal no small degree of courage on the part of a still-new humor magazine in the face of an intelligence organization more than empowered to seriously disrupt lives and careers. Not long thereafter, MAD would become a recognized American institution in its own way, poking fun at seemingly every phenomenon to pass, however ephemerally, through the national zeitgeist. But now that its own run, which adds up to a highly non-ephemeral 67 years, has come to an end, we'd do well to reflect on what its history tells us about satire and the state. The condition of that dynamic today may cause some of us to do just what MAD mascot Alfred E. Neuman never did — worry.

via Mental Floss

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Watch a Star-Studded Cast Read The Mueller Report: John Lithgow, Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Annette Bening & More

Laughter is good medicine, but I've found little genuine humor in satire of the 2016 election and subsequent events. Political reality defies parody. So, I guess I wasn’t particularly amused by the idea of a comic staging of the Mueller Report. But aside from whether or not the report has comic potential, the exercise raises a more serious question: Should ordinary citizens read the report?

Given the snowjob summary offered by the Attorney General—and certain press outfits who repeated claims that it exonerated the president—probably. Especially (good luck) if they can score an unredacted copy. Yet, this raises yet another question: Does anyone actually want to read it? The answer appears to be a resounding yes. Even though it's free, the [redacted] report is a bestseller.




And yet, “the published version is as dry as a [redacted] saltine,” writes James Poniewozik at The New York Times. “Robert Mueller himself has the stoic G-man bearing of someone who would laugh by writing ‘ha ha’ on a memo pad.” (Now that’s a funny image.) One wonders how many people dutifully downloading it have stayed up late by the light of their tablets compelled to read it all.

But of course, one does not approach any government document with the hopes of being entertained, though unintentional hilarity can leap from the page at any time. How should we approach The Investigation: A Search for the Truth in 10 Acts? Scripted by Pulitzer Prize-winning  playwright Robert Schenkkan from the Mueller Report’s transcripts, the production is “part old-time public recitation,” writes Poneiwozik, and “part Hollywood table read.”

The staging above at New York’s Riverside Church was hosted by Law Works and performed live by a cast including Annette Bening, Kevin Kline, John Lithgow (as “Individual 1” himself), Michael Shannon, Justin Long, Jason Alexander, Wilson Cruz, Joel Gray, Kyra Sedgwick, Alfre Woodard, Zachary Quinto, Mark Ruffalo, Bob Balaban, Alyssa Milano, Sigourney Weaver, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Mark Hamill, and more. Bill Moyers serves as emcee.

Can this darkly comic production deliver some comic balm for having lived through the sordid reality of the events in question? It has its moments. Can it offer us something resembling truth? You be the judge. Or you be the producer, director, actor, etcetera. If you find value—civic, entertainment, or otherwise—in the exercise, Schenkkan encourages you to put on your own version of The Investigation. “Your production can be as modest or extravagant as you like,” he writes at Law Works, followed by a list of further instructions for a possible staging.

If, like maybe millions of other people, you’ve got an unread copy of the Mueller Report on your nightstand, maybe watching—or performing—The Investigation is the best way to get yourself to finally read it. Or the most grimly humorous, moronic, pathetic, and surreal parts of it, anyway.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Killer Rabbits in Medieval Manuscripts: Why So Many Drawings in the Margins Depict Bunnies Going Bad

In all the kingdom of nature, does any creature threaten us less than the gentle rabbit? Though the question may sound entirely rhetorical today, our medieval ancestors took it more seriously — especially if they could read illuminated manuscripts, and even more so if they drew in the margins of those manuscripts themselves. "Often, in medieval manuscripts’ marginalia we find odd images with all sorts of monsters, half man-beasts, monkeys, and more," writes Sexy Codicology's Marjolein de Vos. "Even in religious books the margins sometimes have drawings that simply are making fun of monks, nuns and bishops." And then there are the killer bunnies.

Hunting scenes, de Vos adds, also commonly appear in medieval marginalia, and "this usually means that the bunny is the hunted; however, as we discovered, often the illuminators decided to change the roles around."




Jon Kaneko-James explains further: "The usual imagery of the rabbit in Medieval art is that of purity and helplessness – that’s why some Medieval portrayals of Christ have marginal art portraying a veritable petting zoo of innocent, nonviolent, little white and brown bunnies going about their business in a field." But the creators of this particular type of humorous marginalia, known as drollery, saw things differently.

"Drolleries sometimes also depicted comedic scenes, like a barber with a wooden leg (which, for reasons that escape me, was the height of medieval comedy) or a man sawing a branch out from under himself," writes Kaneko-James.

This enjoyment of the "world turned upside down" produced the drollery genre of "the rabbit's revenge," one "often used to show the cowardice or stupidity of the person illustrated. We see this in the Middle English nickname Stickhare, a name for cowards" — and in all the drawings of "tough hunters cowering in the face of rabbits with big sticks."

Then, of course, we have the bunnies making their attacks while mounted on snails, snail combats being "another popular staple of Drolleries, with groups of peasants seen fighting snails with sticks, or saddling them and attempting to ride them."

Given how often we denizens of the 21st century have trouble getting humor from less than a century ago, it feels satisfying indeed to laugh just as hard at these drolleries as our medieval forebears must have — though many more of us surely get to see them today, circulating as rapidly on social media as they didn't when confined to the pages of illuminated manuscripts owned only by wealthy individuals and institutions.

You can see more marginal scenes of the rabbit's revenge at Sexy Codicology, Colossal, and Kaneko-James' blog. But one historical question remains unanswered: to what extent did they influence that pillar of modern cinematic comedy, Monty Python and the Holy Grail?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

An Archive of Animations/Cartoons of Ancient Greece & Rome: From the 1920s Through Today

Ancient Greece and Rome have provided fertile hunting grounds for animated subject matter since the very inception of the form.

So what if the results wind up doing little more than frolic in the pastoral setting? Witness 1930’s Playful Pan, above, which can basically be summed up as Silly Symphony in a toga (with a cute bear cub who looks a lot like Mickey Mouse and some flame play that prefigures The Sorcerer’s Apprentice…)

Others are packed with history, mythic narrative, and period details, though be forewarned that not all are as visually appealing as Steve Simons’ Hoplites! Greeks at War, part of the Panoply Vase Animation Project.




Some series, such as the Asterix movies and Aesop and Sona staple of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show from 1959 to 1962have been the gateways through which many history lovers’ curiosity was first roused.

(Russian animator Anatoly Petrov’s erotic shorts for Soyuzmultfilm may rouse other, er, curiosities, and are definitely NSFW.)

And then there are instant classics like 2004’s It's All Greek to Scooby in which “Shaggy's purchase of a mysterious amulet only serves to cause a pestering archaeologist and centaur to chase him.”  (Ye gods…)

Senior Lecturer of Classical and Mediterranean Studies at Vanderbilt, Chiara Sulprizio, has collected all of these and more on her blog, Animated Antiquity.

Beginning with the 2-minute fragment that’s all we have left of Winsor McCay’s 1921 The Centaurs, Sulprizio shares some of her favorite cartoon representations of ancient Greece, Rome, and beyond. Her areas of professional specializationgender and sexuality, Greek comedy, and Roman satireare well suited to her chosen hobby, and her commentary doubles down on historical context to include the history of animation.

The appearance of cartoon stars like Daffy Duck, Tom and Jerry, and Popeye further demonstrates this antique subject matter’s sturdiness. TED-Ed and the BBC may view the genre as an excellent teaching tool, but there’s nothing stopping the animator from shoehorning some fabrications in amongst the buxom nymphs and buff gladiators.

(Raise your hand if your mother ever sacrificed you on the altar to Spinachia, goddess of spinach, in hopes that she might unleash a mushroom cloud of super-atomic power in your puny bicep.)

You’ll find a number of entries featuring the work of Japanese and Russian animators, including Thermae Romae, part of the juggernaut that’s sprung from Mari Yamazaki’s popular graphic novel series and Icarus and the Wise Men from the legendary Fyodor Khitruk, whose retelling of the myth sent a message about freedom from the Soviet Union, circa 1976.

Begin your decade-by-decade explorations of Chiara Sulprizio’s animated antiquities here or suggest that a missing favorite be added to the collection. (We vote for this one!)

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in New York City for the next installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain, this April. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Cringe-Inducing Humor of The Office Explained with Philosophical Theories of Mind

"I'm a friend first and a boss second," says David Brent, middle manager at the Slough branch of paper company Wernham-Hogg. "Probably an entertainer third." Those of us who've watched the original British run of The Office — and especially those of us who still watch it regularly — will remember that and many other of Brent's pitiable declarations besides. As portrayed by the show's co-creator Ricky Gervais, Brent constitutes both The Office's comedic and emotional core, at once a fully realized character and someone we've all known in real life. His distinctive combination of social incompetence and an aggressive desperation to be liked provokes in us not just laughter but a more complex set of emotions as well, resulting in one expression above all others: the cringe.

"In David Brent, we have a character so invested in the performance of himself that he's blocked his own access to others' feelings." So goes the analysis of Evan Puschak, a.k.a. the Nerdwriter, in his video interpreting the humor of The Office through philosophical theories of mind.




The elaborate friend-boss-entertainer song-and-dance Brent constantly puts on for his co-workers so occupies him that he lacks the ability or even the inclination to have any sense of what they're thinking. "The irony is that Brent can't see that a weak theory of mind always makes for a weak self-performance. You can't brute force your preferred personality onto another's consciousness: it takes two to build an identity."

Central though Brent is to The Office, we laugh not just at what he says and does, but how the other characters (which Puschak places across a spectrum of ability to understand the minds of others) react — or fail to react — to what he says and does, how he reacts to their reactions, and so on. Mastery of the comedic effects of all this has kept the original Office effective more than fifteen years later, though its effect may not be entirely pleasurable: "A lot of people say that cringe humor like this is hard to watch," says Puschak, "but in the same way that under our confidence, in theory of mind, lies an anxiety, I think that under our cringing there's actually a deep feeling of relief." When Brent and others fail to connect, their "body language speaks in a way that is totally transparent: in that moment the embarrassment is not only palpable, it's palpably honest." And it reminds us that — if we're being honest — none of us are exactly mind-readers ourselves.

You can get the complete British run of The Office on Amazon here.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

John Cleese Revisits His 20 Years as an Ivy League Professor in His New Book, Professor at Large: The Cornell Years

Creative Commons image by Paul Boxley

It takes real intelligence to successfully make dumb comedy. John Cleese and his Monty Python colleagues are a premium example. You can call sketches like the “Ministry of Silly Walks” and “Dead Parrot” surrealist, and they are comparable to the absurdist stunts favored by certain early 20th century modern artists. But you can also call them very smart kinds of stupid, a description of some of the highest forms of comedy, I’d say, and one that applies to so much of Cleese’s best work, from the Pythons, to Fawlty Towers, to A Fish Called Wanda. We are moved by stupidity, Cleese believes, and silliness is the engine of good comedy. “Sometimes very, very silly things,” he says in the interview with Cornell University Press director Dean Smith below, "have the power to touch us deeply." Then he tells the old joke about a grasshopper named Norman.

Is Cleese still funny? Depends. Many listeners of a recent BBC Radio 4 show found his act a little stale. He has also come off lately as a “classic old man yelling at a cloud,” writes Fiona Sturges at The Guardian. (He called, surely in jest, for the hanging of EU president Jean Claude Juncker, for example, during the Brexit campaign).




In curmudgeonly interviews, he complains about hypersensitivity with examples of jokes contemporary audiences simply don’t find amusing, or at least not coming from him. Cleese has railed about the evils of political correctness, especially on college campuses, while spending the past 20 years as a “professor-at-large” on the prestigious campus of Cornell University, where he has delivered “incredibly popular events and classes—including talks, workshops, and an analysis of A Fish Called Wanda and The Life of Brian.”

These appearances draw hundreds of people, and their enormous popularity should offer Cleese some reassurance that he may not need to fear censorship, and that his wit—while it might not be as well appreciated in today's mass entertainment—still has plenty of currency in places where smart people gather. From seminars on script writing to lectures on psychology and human development, Cleese’s appearances at Cornell lead to riveting, sometimes hilarious, and often controversial conversations.

In the episodes here from the Cornell University Press podcast, you can hear Cleese’s full conversation with Smith, part of the promotion of his 2018 book Professor at Large: The Cornell Years, in which he includes an interview with Princess Bride screenwriter William Goldman, a lecture about creativity called “Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind,” a discussion of facial recognition technology, and a talk on group dynamics with business students and faculty. Like Cleese’s mind, these lectures and discussions range far and wide, demonstrating, once again in his long career, that it takes real smarts to not only speak with ease on several academic subjects, but to understand the mechanics of stupidity. You can pick up a copy of Professor at Large: The Cornell Years here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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