Is It Rude to Talk Over a Film? MST3K’s Mary Jo Pehl on Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #45

We live in a commentary culture with much appreciation for camp and snark, but something special happened in the early ’90s when Mystery Science Theater 3000 popularized this additive form of comedy, where jokes are made during a full-length or short film. Mary Jo Pehl was a writer and performer on MST3K and has since riffed with fellow MST3K alums for Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic.

Mark, Erica, and Brian briefly debate the ethics of talking over someone else’s art and then interview Mary Jo about how riffs get written, developing a riffing style and a character that the audience can connect with (do you need to include skits to establish a premise for why riffing is happening?), riffing films you love vs. old garbage, the degree to which riffing has gone beyond just MST3K-associated comedians, VH-1’s Pop-Up Video, and more.

Follow Mary Jo @MaryJoPehl.

Here are a some links to get you watching riffing:

Different teams have different styles of riffing, so if you hate MST3K, you might want to see if you just hate those guys or hate the art form as a whole. The alums themselves currently work as:

Here are a few relevant articles:

Also, PROJECT: RIFF is the website/database we talk about where a guy named Andrew figured out how many riffs per minute are in each MST3K episode, which character made the joke, and other stuff.

Learn more at This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

The Expansive Vocal Range of Joni Mitchell: From the Early to Later Years

It’s quite a testament to Joni Mitchell’s musicianship that her “voice is arguably the most underrated aspect of her music.” So writes a contributor to The Range Place, an online project that analyzes the vocal ranges of popular singers. This is not to say that Mitchell’s voice is underrated—far from it—but her adventurous, deeply personal lyricism and experimental songwriting are how she is most often distinguished from the cohort of 60s singer-songwriters who emerged from the folk scene. (She first became known as the writer of Judy Collins’ hit, “Both Sides, Now.”)

That said, there’s no mistaking her for any other singer. “With very wide vibrato, she would frequently reach into her upper register comfortably with a blissful falsetto while still being able to reach some smooth lower notes with ease.” You can hear examples of her vocal range above, in excerpts from dozens of songs, both studio and live versions, recorded throughout her career. “She was a mezzo-soprano through the late sixties and seventies, with her voice standing out among other singer-songwriters due to its unusual comfort in the fifth octave.”

There are many other qualities that set Mitchell’s voice apart, including her incredible sense of pitch and rhythm. As session singer and vocal coach Jaime Babbitt writes, “singers who study singing and play instruments that make chords are better than all the rest. Joni Mitchell played many: dulcimer, guitar, piano, and flute, even ukulele as a child.” Mitchell’s instrumental skill gave her precise vocal timing, “a critical and often overlooked singer-skill,” and one that contributes hugely to a vocal performance.

Her love of jazz infuses even her folkiest songs with rhythmic vocal patterns that run up and down the scale. (Hear an example in the isolated vocals from 1971’s “River,” just above.) Just as every singer’s voice will do, Mitchell’s range narrowed with age. “Her voice nowadays,” writes The Range Place (though she no longer performs), “is closer to that of a contralto than to that of a mezzo-soprano, having lowered substantially more than other singers from the seventies”—a likely outcome of her lifelong smoking habit.

It’s common to say of an older singer that “she can’t hit the high notes anymore,” but this judgment misses out on the richness of a mature voice. Mitchell’s “indomitable technique” never wavered in her later years, Paul Taylor argues at The Independent. Her later voice was “stunning (bereft, bewildered, stoical),” transformed from the ambitious, piercing falsetto to “radiant/rueful” and wise.

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Watch Joni Mitchell Sing an Immaculate Version of Her Song “Coyote,” with Bob Dylan, Roger McGuinn & Gordon Lightfoot (1975)

See Classic Performances of Joni Mitchell from the Very Early Years–Before She Was Even Named Joni Mitchell (1965/66)

How Joni Mitchell Wrote “Woodstock,” the Song that Defined the Legendary Music Festival, Even Though She Wasn’t There (1969)

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

J.K. Rowling Is Publishing Her New Children’s Novel Free Online, One Chapter Per Day

Image via Wikimedia Commons

J.K. Rowling may be the queen of children’s literature, but how many of her fans have noticed she hasn’t published a book for children in nearly thirteen years? Today’s twentysomethings will recall fondly the summer of 2007, when they descended upon bookstores for their copy, or copies, of the concluding volume of the Harry Potter series. Thereafter Rowling, no doubt eager to write for an audience closer to her own age, put out the bleak social comedy The Casual Vacancy and a series of crime thrillers under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Rowling’s latest Galbraith novel Troubled Blood is scheduled for publication in the fall of this year, but the current generation of young readers can enjoy her new fairy tale The Ickabog online now as she serializes it for free over the next two months.

“The idea for The Ickabog came to me while I was still writing Harry Potter,” says Rowling in an introductory post on her own web site. Having written “most of a first draft in fits and starts between Potter books,” she ended up shelving it for nearly a decade. “Over time I came to think of it as a story that belonged to my two younger children, because I’d read it to them in the evenings when they were little, which has always been a happy family memory.”

The unfinished manuscript came back to mind more recently as a possible entertainment for children in coronavirus lockdown all over the world. “As I worked to finish the book, I started reading chapters nightly to the family again. This was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my writing life.”

With the work now complete, Rowling will “be posting a chapter (or two, or three) every weekday between 26th May and 10th July on The Ickabog website.” The first chapter, which is available now, begins as follows:

Once upon a time, there was a tiny country called Cornucopia, which had been ruled for centuries by a long line of fair-haired kings. The king at the time of which I write was called King Fred the Fearless. He’d announced the ‘Fearless’ bit himself, on the morning of his coronation, partly because it sounded nice with ‘Fred’, but also because he’d once managed to catch and kill a wasp all by himself, if you didn’t count five footmen and the boot boy.

This prose will feel familiar to parents who grew up reading Harry Potter themselves, and who will surely be pleased to see Rowling’s signature sense of humo(u)r still in effect. These parents can read The Ickabog‘s weekly installments to their own children, as well as encourage those artistically inclined to contribute their own visuals to the story by participating in the Ickabog illustration competition. “Creativity, inventiveness and effort are the most important things,” Rowling notes. “We aren’t necessarily looking for the most technical skill!” She also emphasizes, as regards the story itself, that though its themes include “truth and the abuse of power,” it “isn’t intended to be read as a response to anything that’s happening in the world right now.” Many factors have contributed to Rowling’s great success, but her preference for the timeless over the topical surely isn’t a minor one. Read her story 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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

This Is What an 1869 MIT Entrance Exam Looks Like: Could You Have Passed the Test?

The late 19th Century was the time of Charles Darwin and James Clerk Maxwell, of Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. It was a golden age of science and technology. So you might wonder how hard it was to get into one of the top technical universities in that era.

The answer, according to this video? Not very hard.

At least that was the case in 1869 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT,  as the young Australian science and math teacher Toby Hendy explains on her excellent YouTube channel, Tibees. MIT was brand new and desperate for tuition revenue in 1869, so the object of the test wasn’t to whittle a massive field of applicants down to a manageable size. It was simply to make sure that incoming students could handle the work.

MIT opened in 1865, just after the end of the Civil War. The idea was to create a European-style polytechnic university to meet the demands of an increasingly industrial economy. The original campus was in Boston, across the Charles River from its current location in Cambridge. Only 15 students signed up in 1865. Tuition was $100 for the whole year. There was no formal entrance test. According to an article from the school’s Archives and Special Collections,

The “conditions for admission” section of MIT’s catalogue for 1865-66 indicates that candidates for admission as first year students must be at least sixteen years old and must give satisfactory evidence “by examination or otherwise” of a competent training in arithmetic, geometry, English grammar, geography, and the “rudiments of French.” Rapid and legible handwriting was also stressed as being “particularly important.” By 1869 the handwriting requirement and French had been dropped, but algebra had been added and students needed to pass a qualifying exam in the required subject areas. An ancillary effect was to protect unqualified students from disappointment and professors from wasting their time.

A couple of years earlier, in 1867, the MIT Executive Committee reported that faculty members had felt it necessary to ask parents of “some incompetent and inattentive students to withdraw them from the school, wishing to spare them the mortification of an examination which it was certain they could not pass.”

Nowadays, the students who make it into MIT have average SAT and ACT scores in the 99th percentile. Of 21,312 first-year applicants hoping to join the Class of 2023, only 1,427 made it. That’s an admission rate of 6.7 percent. What a difference 150 years can make!

To take the 1869 entrance examination in English, Algebra, Geometry and Arithmetic, and to see the correct answers, visit this cached article from the MIT website.

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The 135 Best Podcasts to Enrich Your Mind: An Introduction to Our New List

Twenty years ago, podcasts didn’t exist. Fifteen years ago, podcasts were more or less entirely for the tech-savvy early adopter, listener and producer alike. Now, across large sections of society, podcasts have become everyone’s favorite thing to listen to. Just yesterday the New York Times ran a piece headlined “Joe Rogan Is the New Mainstream Media” about the enormous success of the comedian, mixed martial arts enthusiast, and interviewer now popularly seen as the face of podcasting. “Even books on tape can require too much thinking,” the article quotes Rogan as saying. But a podcast “doesn’t require that much thinking at all. You get captivated by the conversation,” not least because “it’s really easy to listen to while you do other stuff.”

Characteristically, Rogan downplays the strengths and importance of his medium. But requiring thinking and encouraging thinking are indeed two very different things, and in the latter aspect podcasts are now unsurpassed, compared to other internet media. Of course, much of the competition — listicles, cat videos, TikToks — may not seem especially strong, but podcasting’s combination of the oft-praised “intimacy” of radio and freedom from the temporal or demographic limitations of traditional broadcast media has proven unexpectedly potent. In fact, humanity’s craving for podcasts is such that, for more than a decade now, there have been too many to choose from. To help guide you through this embarrassment of audio riches, we’ve put together this list of the 135 best podcasts to enrich your mind, tailored just for you, the Open Culture reader.

As of this writing, Open Culture’s podcast collection breaks down into twelve categories, from “art, design and fashion” and “music, TV, and film,” to “history and philosophy,” to “business and economy” and “personal development.” You’ll find shows you’ve probably heard of, like 99 Percent InvisibleThe New Yorker Radio Hour, Freakonomics Radio, and This American Life. You may well also find show that you haven’t: if you’ve never tuned into an episode of Entitled OpinionsThe Truth, Philosophize This!, or Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything, you owe it to yourself to sample a few today. And if you haven’t yet heard Pretty Much Pop, a podcast curated by Open Culture, why not start with its debut discussion on “pop culture” versus “high culture,” or its chat with yours truly on the film of Martin Scorsese? Finally, you will also find a slew of audio dramas–a reinvention of an old form that Orson Welles made famous during the 1930s–featuring the likes of Rami Malek, Catherine Keener, Tim Robbins and more. (See our post yesterday on that.)

Luckily, among the glories of podcasts is the fact that almost all of them are completely free, allowing you to fill even your most isolated days — and in this era of COVID-19, some of us have had more than a few — with a nonstop flow of stimulating conversation, rich storytelling, and boundary-pushing uses of speech, music, and sound. Given the popularity of podcasting, you almost certainly listen to a few shows we haven’t yet included in our collection. Feel free to make recommendations in the comments below, even if — and perhaps especially if — they don’t fit into the categories listed so far. And if your favorite subject has a Joe Rogan of its own, we certainly want to know who it is. Explore the collection here: The 150 Best Podcasts to Enrich Your Mind.

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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.

Clare Torry’s Rare Live Performances of “Great Gig in the Sky” with Pink Floyd

When Clare Torry went into the studio to record her now-legendary vocals for Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky,” the centerpiece of 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon, neither the singer nor the band were particularly impressed with each other. David Gilmour remembered the moment in an interview on the album’s 30th anniversary:

Clare Torry didn’t really look the part. She was Alan Parsons’ idea. We wanted to put a girl on there, screaming orgasmically. Alan had worked with her previously, so we gave her try. And she was fantastic. We had to encourage her a little bit. We gave her some dynamic hints: “Maybe you’d like to do this piece quietly, and this piece louder.” She did maybe half a dozen takes, and then afterwards we compiled the final performance out of all the bits. It wasn’t done in one single take.

Asked the follow-up question “what did she look like?,” Gilmour replied, “like a nice English housewife.”

Torry, for her part, was hardly starstruck. “If it had been the Kinks,” she later said, “I’d have been over the moon.” She also remembers the session very  differently. “They had no idea” what they wanted,” she says. Told only “we don’t want any words,” she decided to “pretend to be an instrument.” She remembers “having a little go” and knocking out the session in a couple takes.

This Rashomon scenario involves not only faulty memory but also the legal question as to who composed the song’s melody and vocal concept—a question eventually decided, in 2004, in Torry’s favor, entitling her to royalties.

She clearly wasn’t about to become a touring member of the band, even after the album’s massive success and two subsequent tours. Still, while Torry may not have suited Gilmour’s physical preferences for female singers, and while she may not have thought much of Pink Floyd, she has appeared live with their different iterations over the years, including a show at the Rainbow Theatre in London just months after the album’s release (further up). Later, in 1987, Torry appeared again, this time with Roger Waters at Wembley Stadium on his K.A.O.S. on the Road Tour.

Torry would then join the David Gilmour-led Pink Floyd in 1990 for “Great Gig in the Sky” at Knebworth. I do not think she resembles an English housewife in the concert film at the top—or at least no more than the rest of the band look like middle-aged English husbands. But she still pulls off the soaring vocal, more or less, seventeen years after she first stepped into the studio, having little idea who Pink Floyd was or what would become of that fateful session.

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

A Nearly Impossible Sudoku Puzzle Solved in a Mesmerizing 25-Minute Video

Watch it go. And thank Simon Anthony when it’s done. And, oh, check out his YouTube Channel, Cracking the Cryptic

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This Huge Crashing Wave in a Seoul Aquarium Is Actually a Gigantic Optical Illusion

I live in Seoul, and whenever I’m back in the West, I hear the same question over and over: what’s Gangnam like? Presumably Westerners wouldn’t have had anything to ask me before the virality of “Gangnam Style,” and specifically of the music video satirizing the image of that part of the Korean capital. In Korean, “Gangnam” literally means “south of the river,” the waterway in question being the Han River, which runs through modern Seoul much as the Thames and the Seine run through London and Paris. Developed in the main only since the 1970s, after Korea’s unprecedentedly rapid industrialization had begun, Gangnam looks and feels quite different from the old city north of the Han. In the financial center of Gangnam, everything’s bigger, taller, and more expensive — all of it meant to impress.

With Psy’s novelty song a thing of the distant past — in internet years, at least — the world now thrills again to another glimpse of Gangnam style: a digital screen that looks like a giant water tank, full of waves perpetually crashing against its walls. When video of this high-tech optical illusion went viral, it looked even more uncanny to me than it did to most viewers, since I recognized it from real life.

Though I happen to live in Gangbuk (“north of the river”), whenever I go to Gangnam, I usually come out of the Samsung subway station, right across the street from COEX. A convention-center complex embedded in a set of difficult-to-navigate malls, COEX also includes SM Town COEX Artium, a flashy temple of K-pop run by music company SM Entertainment. Announcing SM Town’s presence, this colossal wraparound display, the largest of its kind in the country, usually offers up either fresh-faced pop stars or ads for Korean-made cars.

Occasionally the SM Town screen’s programming gets more creative, and “#1_WAVE with Anamorphic illusion” has made the most striking use of its shape and dimensions yet. Designed by Gangnam’s own d’strict, this piece of public video art “serves as a sweet escape and brings comfort and relaxation to people” — or so says d’strict’s Sean Lee in an interview with Bored Panda’s Robertas Lisickis. It’s even impressed Seoulites, accustomed though they’ve grown to large-scale video screens clamoring for their attention. Even up in Gangbuk, the LED-covered facade of the building right across from Seoul Station has turned into a “Digital Canvas” every night for nearly a decade. Though that artistic installation never displays advertising, most of the increasingly large screens of Seoul are used for more overtly commercial purposes. There may be something dystopian about this scale of digital advertisement technology in public space — but as every Blade Runner fan knows, there’s something sublime about it as well.

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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.

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