What’s the Role of a Director in Constructing Comedy? Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #100

What makes for a good comedy film or show? Funny people reading (or improvising) funny lines is not enough; an good director needs to capture (or recreate in the editing room) comic timing, construct shots so that the humor comes through and coach the actors to make sure that the tone of the work is consistent.

Your Pretty Much Pop hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt are joined by Heather Fink to discuss the role of the director in making a comedy (or anything else) actually good. Heather has directed for TV, film, and commercials and spent a lot of time doing sound (a boom operator or sound utility) for productions like Saturday Night Live, Get Out, The Morning Show, and Marvel’s Daredevil.

We talk about maintaining comedy through the tedious process of filming, putting actors through sex scenes and other hardships, not telling them how to say their lines, comedians in dramas, directing improv/prank shows, and more. We touch on include Bad Trip, Barry, and Ted Lasso, and more.

Watch some of Heather’s work:

  • Alleged, a short about dramatizing accusations against Steven Segal
  • Inside You, a film she wrote, directed, and (reluctantly) starred in
  • The Focus Group, a short Heather directed written by and starring Sara Benincasa

We used some articles to bring various directors and techniques to mind:

Hear more of this podcast at prettymuchpop.com. This episode includes bonus discussion that you can access by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. 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.

The Meaning of Hieronymus Bosch’s Spellbinding Triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights

Hieronymus Bosch was born Jheronimus van Aken. We know precious little else about him, not even the year of his birth, which scholar Nicholas Baum guesses must have been right in the middle of the fifteenth century. But we do know that the artist was born in the Dutch town of s-Hertogenbosch, better known as Den Bosch, to which his assumed name pays tribute. It is thus to Den Bosch that Baum travels in the The Mysteries of Hieronymus Bosch, the 1983 BBC TV movie above, in search of clues to an interpretation of Bosch’s mysterious, grotesque, and sometimes hilarious paintings. What manner of place could produce an artistic mind capable of The Garden of Earthly Delights?

“My first reaction was disappointment,” Baum says of Den Bosch. “I wasn’t expecting such a very ordinary, very commercial, very provincial little town. I couldn’t for the life of me fit anybody as extraordinary as Bosch into a sleepy little place like this.” A hardworking everyday Dutchman might laugh at Baum’s English imagination having got away with him; perhaps he’d even quote his country’s well-worn proverb about normal human behavior being crazy enough.




Nevertheless, fueled by a near-lifelong fascination with Bosch’s fantastical and forbidding art, Baum goes deeper: quite literally deeper, in one case, descending to the dank cellar beneath the house where the artist grew up in order to take in “the authentic smell and feel of Bosch’s own day.”

Further insights come when Baum investigates Bosch’s membership in the Catholic fraternity of the Common Life. A few decades later, that same order would also educate northern Renaissance philosopher Erasmus, whose religiosity is well known. Bosch must have been no less pious, but for centuries that didn’t figure as thoroughly into the interpretation of his paintings as it might have. Focused on the vivid images of bacchanalia Bosch incorporated into his work, some speculated on his involvement in orgy-oriented secret societies. But Baum’s journey convinces him that Bosch was “a fierce and pious Christian” who painted with the goal of turning a gluttonous, wealth- and pleasure-obsessed humanity back toward the teachings of the Bible. And half a millennium later, it is his wildly imaginative renderings of sin that continue to compel us — as well as hold out the promise of further secrets yet unexplained.

For anyone interested, Taschen now publishes an Bosch: The Complete Works, a beautiful and exhaustive exploration of the painter’s work. It includes a special chapter on The Garden of Earthly Delights.

Related Content:

The Meaning of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights Explained

Take a Virtual Tour of Hieronymus Bosch’s Bewildering Masterpiece The Garden of Earthly Delights

Hieronymus Bosch’s Medieval Painting The Garden of Earthly Delights Comes to Life in a Gigantic, Modern Animation

Take a Multimedia Tour of the Buttock Song in Hieronymus Bosch’s Painting The Garden of Earthly Delights

The Musical Instruments in Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights Get Brought to Life, and It Turns Out That They Sound “Painful” and “Horrible”

New App Lets You Explore Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights” in Virtual Reality

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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.

How American Bandstand Changed American Culture: Revisit Scenes from the Iconic Music Show

In a Pontiac advertisement that aired just before the 1969 episode of American Bandstand above, the year’s models are touted as “breakaway cars” — vehicles for escape without rebellion. The ad shows a handful of getaways, all ending at the dealership, presided over by a bland salesman who smiles and nods his approval. It’s an apposite choice for the program that follows — a show which, for 37 years, gave American audiences safe teenage rebellion in the wholesome container of Dick Clark’s fictional 50s record shop.

As the episode opens, the camera pans around the bodies of teenage dancers, as if they were this year’s newest models, then lands on the smiling, square-jawed Clark, the seemingly ageless host who gave approval to the proceedings for the folks back home. What was he selling?




Viewers could consume the latest dance trends and pop hits in their living rooms, then journey to the local record shop — just like the one on set! The show’s reach was huge, and most every artist who made an appearance crossed over into mainstream success.

American Bandstand began its life in 1952 on a local ABC affiliate station in Philadelphia. Then it was called Bandstandand its hosts were radio personality Bob Horn and former ad salesman Lee Stewart, whom, it was thought, “could bring some of his clients on board as advertisers,” as Steve Cohen writes at the Cultural Critic. “Stewart had no charisma and eventually was dropped from the program.” Horn continued until 1956, when he was fired from the show after a drunk-driving arrest. The show’s wholesome image belied sordid beginnings.

Clark joined at the young age of 26 to replace Horn, the hard-drinking, chain-smoking 40-year-old. Establishing an easy rapport with the show’s young dancers, who came from the local West Philadelphia Neighborhood, Clark helped return Bandstand to respectability, then pushed for it to go national, which it did in 1957, “beaming images of clean-cut, average teenagers,” notes History.com, “dancing to the not-so-clean-cut Jerry Lee Lewis’ ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ to 67 ABC affiliates across the nation.” (A grossly ironic musical choice.)

Renamed American Bandstand, the newly national program featured a number of new elements that became part of its trademark, including the high school gym-like bleachers and the famous segment in which teenage studio guests rated the newest records on a scale from 25 to 98 and offered such criticisms as “It’s got a good beat, and you can dance to it.” But the heart of American Bandstand always remained the sound of the day’s most popular music combined with the sight of the show’s unpolished teen “regulars” dancing and showing off the latest fashions in clothing and hairstyles.

Four years after becoming the show’s host, Clark became a millionaire at age 30. Hauled before Congress in 1960 to answer payola charges, he admitted to taking a few bribes, promised to divest, and skated away on charm while a business partner confessed and resigned. At the time, he described himself as “having an interest in 33 businesses,” Becky Krystal writes at The Washington Post, “ranging from music publishers to, as The New York Times reported, an operation that made and sold a stuffed kitten for sale on American Bandstand called the Platter-Puss.” His business model was decades ahead of the industry.

“A man with an unerring sense of what Americans wanted to hear and see,” Krystal writes (or a sense of who to ask), Clark “achieved his greatest renown for an ability to connect with the taste of the post-World War II baby-boom generation. By the show’s 30th anniversary, almost 600,000 teenagers and 10,000 performers had appeared on the program. Among those to make early national appearances included Buddy Holly, James Brown, Ike and Tina Turner, and Simon and Garfunkel. Dance crazes such as the Twist and the Watusi could be traced to the ‘Bandstand’ studio.”

American Bandstand didn’t only disseminate pop culture to the masses; it also has been credited with helping to integrate American culture with its integrated format. It’s a claim largely spread, his critics allege, by Clark himself. American Studies professor Matthew Delmont argues that, while the show sold an image of integration, allowing a few Black kids from the largely integrated West Philly neighborhood to appear, it also employed discriminatory tactics to exclude the majority of Black students who wanted to dance.

Clark may have bowed to the pressure of the times, but he was a consummate salesman who never lost a chance to make a buck. As Delmont says, he began touting the show’s history of integration when American Bandstand faced stiff competition in the 70s from upstart rival Soul Train,a show that taught a new, post-boomer, post-Civil Rights generation of kids how to dance, and whose smooth-voiced creator-host Don Cornelius made the square-jawed Clark look like a total square. See many more clips and edited episodes of American Bandstand from 1963-1970, before Soul Train considerably upped the ante for dance shows everywhere, on YouTube here.

Related Content: 

John Lydon & Public Image Ltd. Sow Chaos on American Bandstand: The Show’s Best and Worst Moment (1980)

Talking Heads’ First TV Appearance Was on American Bandstand, and It Was a Little Awkward (1979)

Dick Clark Introduces Jefferson Airplane & the Sounds of Psychedelic San Francisco to America: Yes Parents, You Should Be Afraid (1967)

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

Carl Sagan Tells Johnny Carson What’s Wrong with Star Wars: “They’re All White” & There’s a “Large Amount of Human Chauvinism in It” (1978)

Is Star Wars science fiction or fantasy? Different fans make different arguments, some even opting for a third way, claiming that the ever-multiplying stories of its ever-expanding fictional universe belong to neither genre. Back in 1978, the year after the release of the original Star Wars film (which no one then called “A New Hope,” let alone “Episode Four”), the question was approached by no less a popular scientific personality than Carl Sagan. It happened on national television, as the astronomer, cosmologist, writer, and television host in his own right sat opposite Johnny Carson. “The eleven-year-old in me loved them,” Sagan says in the clip above of Star WarsClose Encounters of the Third Kind, and other then-recent space-themed blockbusters. “But they could’ve made a better effort to do things right.”

Everyone remembers how Star Wars sets its stage: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” But right there, Sagan has a problem. Despite its remoteness from us, this galaxy happens also to be populated by human beings, “the result of a unique evolutionary sequence, based upon so many individually unlikely, random events on the Earth.”




So Homo sapiens couldn’t have evolved on any other planet, Carson asks, let alone one in another galaxy? “It’s extremely unlikely that there would be creatures as similar to us as the dominant ones in Star Wars.” He goes on to make a more specific critique, one publicized again in recent years as ahead of its time: “They’re all white.” That is, in the skins of most of the movie’s characters, “not even the other colors represented on the Earth are present, much less greens and blues and purples and oranges.”

Carson responds, as anyone would, by bringing up Star Warscantina scene, with its rogue’s gallery of variously non-humanoid habitués. “But none of them seemed to be in charge of the galaxy,” Sagan points out. “Everybody in charge of the galaxy seemed to look like us. I thought there was a large amount of human chauvinism in it.” That no medal is bestowed upon Chewbacca, despite his heroics, Sagan declares an example of “anti-Wookiee discrimination” — with tongue in cheek, granted, but pointing up how much more interesting science fiction could be if it relied a little less on human conventions and drew a little more from scientific discoveries. Not that Star Wars is necessarily science fiction. “It was a shootout, wasn’t it?” Carson asks. “A Western in outer space.” Johnny never did hesitate to call ’em as he saw ’em.

Related Content:

Fans Reconstruct Authentic Version of Star Wars, As It Was Shown in Theaters in 1977

The Complete Star Wars “Filmumentary”: A 6-Hour, Fan-Made Star Wars Documentary, with Behind-the-Scenes Footage & Commentary

Carl Sagan Predicts the Decline of America: Unable to Know “What’s True,” We Will Slide, “Without Noticing, Back into Superstition & Darkness” (1995)

Carl Sagan on the Importance of Choosing Wisely What You Read (Even If You Read a Book a Week)

Blade Runner: The Pillar of Sci-Fi Cinema that Siskel, Ebert, and Studio Execs Originally Hated

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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.

Storytelling and Race in Captain America — Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #98

What is it for a super-hero to represent America? Though the character created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1941 may have been a way to capitalize on WWII patriotism, it has since been used to ask questions about what it really means to be patriotic and how America’s ideals and its reality may conflict. We’re of course talking about race, a theme explored by Sam Wilson, formerly Cap’s side-kick, picking up the shield in the comics and now on TV (and in the forthcoming film).

Your Pretty Much Pop hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica, and Brian are joined by comic super-fan Anthony LeBlanc (returning from our ep.  56 on black nerds) to discuss the recent comic runs by Ta-Nehishi Coates and Nick Spencer and especially Truth: Red, White and Black, Marvel’s 2003 comics mini-series by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker that tells the story of American super-soldier experiments on unknowing black men (reminiscent of the real-life Tuskegee Syphilis Study). This was the source of the “first black Captain America” character Isaiah Bradley featured in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Disney+ show, which we also discuss.

Here are a few articles that fed into our discussion:

The final issue of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Captain America is coming July 7.

We recommend the Captain America Comic Book Fans podcast for more information. Their recent interview with longtime editor Tom Brevoort was illuminating, and they spent eps.  33 and 34 walking through Truth: Red, White & Black.

Hear more of this podcast at prettymuchpop.com. This episode includes bonus discussion that you can access by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. 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.

Considering Mare of Easttown — Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #97

Insofar as something is a TV hit at all these days, the small-town Pennsylvania murder mystery starring Kate Winslet seems to qualify, but what distinguishes it from the many many other crime dramas on TV? Your Pretty Much Pop hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt discuss the plot structure, casting, and other creative choices and try to figure out how the show relates to Broadchurch, The Undoing, etc. Should there be a season two?

Here are a few of the articles that fed the discussion:

Hear more of this podcast at prettymuchpop.com. This episode includes bonus discussion that you can access by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. 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.

A First Look at How Tony Soprano Became Tony Soprano: Watch the New Trailer for The Many Saints of Newark

When The Sopranos drew to a close fourteen years ago, its ambiguous yet somehow definitive final scene hardly promised a continuation of the New Jersey mafia saga. Since then, fans have had to make do with reflections, histories, and exegeses, up to and including re-watch podcasts hosted by the actors themselves. As time has passed the show has only drawn higher and higher acclaim, which can’t be said about every product of the ongoing “golden age of television drama” The Sopranos got started. A return to the well was perhaps inevitable, and indeed has just been announced: The Many Saints of Newark, a prequel film co-written by David Chase, the creator credited with contributing to the original series a significant portion of its genius.

Onscreen, The Sopranos drew its power from one Soprano above all: local mob boss Tony Soprano, as portrayed by James Gandolfini in what has been ranked among the greatest screen acting achievements of all time. Whether or not Tony survived that final scene, Gandolfini died in 2013, and ever since it has been impossible to imagine any other actor portraying the character — or at least portraying the character in a modern-day setting.




Telling the story of a Tony Soprano in his youth, with a young actor necessarily playing him, has remained a viable proposition. Into that role, for the 1960s and 70s-set The Many Saints of Newark, has stepped Gandolfini’s real-life son Michael.

For the then-20-year-old Michael Gandolfini, taking over his father’s role had to be a daunting prospect, especially since he’d never seen The Sopranos before. At least one binge-watch of the series (among other rigorous forms of preparation) later, he delivered the performance of which you can take a first look in The Many Saints of Newark‘s new trailer above. “As rival gangs try to wrest control from the DiMeo crime family in the race-torn city of Newark,” Consequence Film’s Ben Kaye writes of its story, the young Anthony Soprano, a promising but indifferent student with an eye on college, “gets swept up in the violence and crime by his uncle Dickie Moltisanti.” As Sopranos fans know full well, “Anthony becomes the feared mob head Tony Soprano and treats Dickie’s son, Christopher, as his protégé.” Evidently, an antihero of Tony’s stature is made, not born.

Related Content:

How David Chase Breathed Life into the The Sopranos

Rewatch Every Episode of The Sopranos with the Talking Sopranos Podcast, Hosted by Michael Imperioli & Steve Schirripa

David Chase Reveals the Philosophical Meaning of The Sopranos‘ Final Scene

Why James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano Is “the Greatest Acting Achievement Ever Committed to the Screen”: A Video Essay

The Nine Minute Sopranos

James Gandolfini Shows Kinder, Softer, Gentler Side on Sesame Street (2002)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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.

David Bowie on Why It’s Crazy to Make Art–and We Do It Anyway (1998)

Art is useless, Oscar Wilde declared. Yet faced with, say, a painting by Kandinsky, film by Malick, or great work by David Bowie, we may feel it “impossible to escape the impression,” as Sigmund Freud wrote, “that people commonly use false standards of measurement — that they seek power, success and wealth for themselves and admire them in others, and that they underestimate what is of true value in life.” However ambiguously, art can move us beyond the selfish boundaries of the ego to connect with intangibles beyond ideas of use and uselessness.

That experience of connectedness, what Freud called the “oceanic,” stimulated by a work of art can mirror the sublime feelings awakened by nature. “A work of art is useless as a flower is useless,” Wilde clarified in a letter to a perplexed reader. “A flower blooms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers.” It’s an imperfect analogy. The flower serves quite another purpose for the bee, and for the plant.  “All of this is I fear very obscure,” Wilde admits.




The point being, from the point of view of bare survival, art makes no sense. “It’s a loony kind of thing to want to do,” says Bowie himself, in the interview clip above from a 1998 appearance on The Charlie Rose Show. “I think the saner and rational approach to life is to survive steadfastly and create a protective home and create a warm loving environment for one’s family and get food for them. That’s about it. Anything else is extra. All culture is extra…. It’s unnecessary and it’s a sign of the irrational part of man. We should just be content with picking nuts.”

Why are we not content with picking nuts? Perhaps most of us are. Perhaps “being an artist,” Bowie wonders “is a sign of a certain kind of dysfunction, of social dysfunctionalism anyway. It’s an extraordinary thing to do, to express yourself in such… in such rarified terms.” It’s a Wildean observation, but one Bowie does not make to stigmatize individuals. As Rose remarks, he has “always resisted the idea that this creativity that you have comes from any form of dysfunction or… madness.” Perhaps instead it is the market that is dysfunctional, Bowie suggests in a 1996 interview, just above, with Rose and Julian Schnabel.

Art may serve no practical purpose in an ordinary sense, but it is not only the provenance of singular geniuses. “Once it falls into the hands of the proletariat,” says Bowie, “that the ability to make art is inherent in all of us, that demolishes the idea of art and commerce, and that’s no good for business.” Wilde also saw art and commerce in fundamental tension. “Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him,” he wrote. “But this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence. It is accidental. It is a misuse,” an artificial elevation and enclosure, says Bowie, of expressions that belong to everyone.

Related Content: 

Bowie’s Bookshelf: A New Essay Collection on The 100 Books That Changed David Bowie’s Life

When David Bowie Launched His Own Internet Service Provider: The Rise and Fall of BowieNet (1998)

David Bowie Songs Reimagined as Pulp Fiction Book Covers: Space Oddity, Heroes, Life on Mars & More

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

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