If you’re trying to get with a house, here are some good pickup lines.
Great pranks can become legend. Tales of MIT students’ dismantling a car and reassembling it on the roof of a building have been passed down through the years. Conan O’Brien’s tenure with the Harvard Lampoon birthed several titanic capers as well. But the greatest prank I have ever seen has never (to my knowledge) been chronicled until now, but its execution was so simple and elegant, and its impact was so surgical and explosive, that the story must be told ten years later. I have changed the names in this story to protect the identities of the guilty and innocent alike. Here goes!
In eleventh grade, I had a math teacher named Ryan Parkinson (first fake name). Mr. Parkinson was clearly good with numbers. He calculated with an ease and fluidity that instilled confidence in the class. Mr. Parkinson himself was exceptionally confident from years as a star high school and college athlete. He was one of the younger teachers at our school, and he was really helpful and enthusiastic.
Mr. Parkinson was a pretty great dude. He was always available for extra help after class. He was helpful and understanding if you got an answer wrong. And, even though he coached soccer and basketball, he cut drama kids just as much slack on homework as he did athletes.
In his classroom, however, there were several obstacles to learning. The first being that Mr. Parkinson was not a great communicator. Though he excelled at mathematics, he sometimes had trouble expressing the concepts to students who weren’t picking them up right away. Also his handwriting was abysmal, borderline illegible, really. And there was his speech impediment. It was pretty intense. But, being an exceptionally confident guy, Mr. Parkinson would intentionally choose words that would show how little he cared about his troubles with pronunciation. He said “cahcuwator” when he could have gone with “TI-82.” He said “seewiouswy” in place of a simple, “Come on, guys.” Most notably, when things got out of hand, they were always “widickiwous” rather than…well…pretty much any other word. I have never seen anyone else so brazenly flout his or her own vocal limitations in quite the same way.
The thing that really held us back as a class, though, was that Mr. Parkinson was outrageously easy to goad into any sort of debate. If you expressed an opinion that contradicted his, he could not help trying to convince you of his point of view. Mention that Happy Gilmore was Adam Sandler’s funniest movie, and he would invariably defend the merits of Billy Madison. Mention that one of the other basketball coaches was a better free throw shooter, and he would, without fail, cite decade old shooting statistics from his college career.
My high school was pretty small and very suburban. Most of the time, people got along. One thing my whole class agreed on was that we didn’t want to learn any more math than we had to. So before class, we would literally script scenarios designed to bait Mr. Parkinson into arguments in order to postpone actual academic work. It almost always worked, which meant that as much as we all liked Mr. Parkinson, we had kind of a Lord of the Flies approach to his class.
One day, we were doing some actual learning. I was taking notes because I am a compulsive note-taker and class-non-skipper. A general nerd. In front of me sat Kevin (fake name), Carl (fake name), and Francine (fake name). (Kevin, Carl, and Francine are real names of some people. Just not the people I’m talking about. An authentic fake name would be like…Vortwix. I just think “pseudonym” is too pretentious for the tone here.)
The seating arrangement looked like this:
We had been doing several minutes of uninterrupted learning, which was unusual for us. The natives, as they say, were getting restless. So it was no surprise that several students had begun passing notes around the classroom.
The next thing that happened was a perfectly executed, outrageously simple prank. It was clear in its intention and impossible to deny. It was the “I Want To Hold Your Hand” of practical jokes. I was in a somewhat unique position to enjoy the entire sequence of events as they came to pass.
“Hey Carl,” Kevin whispered. “Pass this to Francine.”
Without giving it a second thought, Carl took the folded-up piece of paper and handed it to Francine. Francine opened the note. She began to blush. She looked at Carl. Back at the note. Back at Carl. Her blush intensified.
“CARL!” she squealed. The note fell to the floor. At this point, the Carl-Francine dynamic had captured the attention of the entire class.
“What?” Carl grunted, incredulous. Incredulous was Carl’s go-to emotion throughout much of high school. And deservedly so. He got a lot of crap from the athlete kids, but that was the social click he had fallen in with, and he was kind of stuck there. Even though we were on the math team together, it was a very slight time commitment, and there weren’t any other nerdly pursuits to take the place of sports practices. So Carl was socially up a creek.
We’re still in touch, and he’s got a good job and owns a home and stuff. But for our four years of high school, the pattern was: 1. Someone teases Carl. 2. Carl reacts in proportion to the entire cumulative body of lifetime teasing rather than the individual event. 3. The cycle continues.
So then, with all eyes on him, Carl picked up the fallen note.
“OH COME ON!” he shouted. He looked over at Kevin. Kevin shrugged. “SERIOUSLY???” he continued. “FORGET THIS. I’M OUT OF HERE.” And he stormed out of the classroom.
At this point, everyone was pretty curious about what had happened. People looked to Kevin for some sort of explanation. He shrugged again and picked up the note from where Carl had left it. He read it out loud:
I love you.
The crowd, finally understanding what had happened, went wild. Kevin had passed that note to Carl and then on to Francine, who had no reason to assume that Carl himself had not written it. A+. So simple. So perfect.
Logically, the joke hinged on Francine’s application of Occam’s razor, which basically implies that the simplest explanation for an event is probably the truest. Francine received the note from Carl signed with Carl’s name. The simplest assumption was that Carl had both written and delivered the note.
Kevin’s intuitive understanding of this principle (and subsequent exploitation of it) has helped me in life from that moment on. I realized that if you want something from someone, you need to tell that person. If you have an idea, get it across as succinctly as possible. Effective communication goes straight for the jugular and doesn’t mince words. That’s something I always struggle with remembering in my own writing. The lesson of “less is more.”
That math class was one of the best writing tutorials I’d ever received, though. If Kevin had written an elaborate and detailed love letter to Francine, she may have doubted it was from Carl. The simplicity of the lie made it resemble the truth.
I learned a lot about communication and comedy that day, but I didn’t realize it until later. That day I was too busy laughing. Even Mr. Parkinson got into it.
“I wuv you,” he chuckled, before throwing the note into the trash barrel. And everyone laughed again.
Sorry, Carl. I hope you’re not too mad I dredged up your case of Occam’s razor burn.
This one’s mostly for the Boston comics who have passed through Sally O’s over the years, but I posted it here in case anyone else is interested.
For the past three years, I have hosted the comedy open mic on Monday nights at Sally O’Brien’s in Union Square, Somerville. Before I ran the show, Myq Kaplan was in charge. Before Myq, Dan Hirshon (who started the show) hosted every week. Now that I’m moving, I’m leaving it in the capable hands of Shawn Carter.
Here’s the secret about performing at Sally O’s: It’s kind of horrible. It’s a 7:30 show on a Monday night that takes place a legit twenty minute walk from any train stop. The audience is a collection of other comics, mostly. Sometimes unsuspecting bar patrons get hoodwinked into sitting through comedy while they eat and drink. Even sometimes-er, some real audience members shuffle in.
But that’s part of it. Standup comedy is a rewarding pursuit at any level, but it can also be a lonely, alienating experience. Long stretches driving out on the road alone. Shows that don’t quite go the way you planned. Working hard night after night and seeing only tiny, incremental progress.
The open mic is a microcosm of the standup comedy experience. The risks and the rewards both. There is little more satisfying than going up in front of a quiet room and breaking them open with the new bit you’ve been working on.
I am not a master of comedy. But Sally O’Brien’s is where I learned to be competent at comedy. Before Sally’s, I could write jokes and tell them. But I couldn’t go up onstage and feel comfortable in front of an apathetic crowd. Even at an open mic, I didn’t have the courage (egoism?) to feel like any idea I thought was funny was worth saying. I didn’t realize that some nights it’s okay to feel like you did your best even if the audience doesn’t carry you out on their shoulders (which, in fairness, is a thing that has never happened to me). I learned this all in a bar room in Somerville with minimal feedback and zero stakes.
I’m really grateful for the tough nights starting out. When more experienced comics I’d met week after week didn’t remember my name and who rarely watched as I struggled to wrangle meager laughs out of audiences. It was hard onstage and off. In Boston, like I imagine it is in many cities, no one hands anything to you. You have to earn whatever you get. And it takes a while. And it stinks.
But then, as you keep on, you realize that the “gatekeepers” didn’t mean anything personal. They’re just trying to safeguard the institution that means so much to them. Most folks who try standup probably stick with it less than a year. It’s not something you’re great at the first time. It takes practice. Most folks don’t have the time/patience. They drop it in favor of work, or kids, or Breaking Bad. That’s understandable. Which is why now, in retrospect, it makes sense why people who were already years in didn’t want to spend their time getting to know someone with barely a month under his belt.
If you stick with it, though, you’ll earn the acknowledgement then the grudging respect, then the friendship of the other folks on the scene. That’s what I’ve observed.
The open mic is the most brutal womb, but when you need it, it gives back. Like when a more experienced comic asks you to do a weekend gig for the first time. Or when your friend that you started with talks you out of quitting after a couple of rough barroom shows.
Last night was my last time hosting Sally O’Brien’s. And last night gave back. Friends I started comedy with, friends who started before me, and friends who started after me all came together to eat pie and hang out and take a night off of doing comedy to send me off. It was exceptionally generous. And I am grateful to have started comedy in a scene full of talented, hard-working people who care about what they do.
Thanks to everyone who came out last night. Thanks to everyone who texted or e-mailed. A special thanks to anyone who brought a pie or said nice things. It’s a pleasure to work with all of you.
Keep supporting Sally O’Brien’s every Monday in Union Square.
I envy lots of things about rappers. Their sneaker collections. Their collections of Scarface memorabilia that cost more than my car. Their friendships with other rappers. It seems like they have everything I want! And I don’t even like Scarface!
I love Boston like you love a grandparent.
In spite of its racism, its draconian rules, its going to bed early. I love it because it is mine. I was born into it.
I love the first day of spring, real spring. Sometimes it’s not until May. The first spring day when people peel away their winter jackets, the thick cocoons that shelter them half the year, and relax their faces for the first time in months. Eyes and mouths braced and battened down against the cold and wind that bombard the city a full six months every year.
I love the 3am quiet on the roads. The secret feeling of coming home under cover of darkness. Just you and the drunks, who creep along the highway after bar close, unsteady in their lanes, eyes probing the rear view mirror for signs of trouble. The roads and the streets. Walking through the long-vacant parts of town, the day much more past than future. Quiet footfalls and sporadic traffic. Privacy in a public space.
I love the blind pride, the maniac allegiance to neighborhoods and sports teams. T-shirts, hats turned backwards. Frenzy. The euphoria of victory. The thick, glum fog of defeat. We’re in it together. It is part of us. Roger Clemens signs with the Yankees, and he is dead to us forever. He’s a turncoat, a Benedict Arnold. We honor the roots of the American Revolution when we choose sides and stick to our choices.
I love the way the population swells in September with the rising tide of incoming students. Eager, frightened faces navigating the labyrinthine streets and unreliable public transportation. I love the time in May when those same faces, hardened by New England’s winter (their first?) flee homeward for the summer, leaving the natives and long-term transplants to our warm weather.
I love the old churches, Fenway Park included. The joy of finding a 24 hour eatery in or near your neighborhood. The relentless accents. The shamrock tattoos. The winding, unpredictable, poorly marked thoroughfare that is Storrow Drive. The potholes. It is as much a part of me as my clothes or my hair. It is my childhood home, all of it.
There are rough times, though, too.
I hate how the restaurants and bars shut down so early. And I hate the suffocating traffic that handcuffs the city for an hour every day. I hate the beefy yah dudes that overrun every bar. But these are hates like you hate the way someone chews or you hate when you forget your headphones at the gym. They are different from real hates, like war, famine, and injustice. They are the hates you hate when you forget to love.
And I’m leaving. And moving to New York. Something we never entirely forgave in Johnny Damon and Babe Ruth. I’m moving from the city know nation-wide as the punk-ass younger brother with the incurable Napoleon complex to the cool, confident, older brother.
Boston is a place. New York is a thing with an exoskeleton of bridges and tunnels and buildings and a thick concrete skin upon which protruding trees look foreign.
And I’m excited and I’m scared and I’m sad and I’m heartbroken and I haven’t even tried to sort it all out yet.
Because New York doesn’t care that I’m coming, but somehow, it feels like Boston will miss me when I’m gone.
New Sandwiches Named After Celebrities
The Sarah Palin: Freshly hunted deer meat and minced bear whiskers, wrapped in a photocopied transcript of the constitution with several words crossed out.
The Barack Obama: A sandwich that promises all of the ingredients you’ve been waiting for in a sandwich for years, and then when it arrives has completely different ingredients, but it’s still way better than any sandwich you’ve eaten for the last eight years.
The Paris Hilton: Sprouts, Ecstasy Pills, and Non-fat Italian Dressing. Served on an oversized lettuce leaf instead of a bun to cut out carbs.
The Michael Cera: Peanut butter and jelly with the crusts cut off, served to you like that’s something an adult would want to eat at a restaurant.
The Jim Carey: Ham, well past its prime. Served on any bread but rye.
The Charlie Sheen: Pudding and macaroni salad served in a banana skin. This sandwich obviously has some serious problems, but no one will address them. Everyone will just laugh that it’s still on the menu.
The Philip Seymour Hoffman: A double-decker reuben, to be eaten in a fit of rage.
The Lady Gaga: A McDonald’s hamburger smothered in glitter.
The Shia LaBeouf: A wildly arrogant roast beef club that nobody really seems to enjoy but for some reason keeps showing up on expensive menus.
The Kim Kardashian: A collection of any synthetic deli meats that the chef thinks someone might want to eat served on two enormous “organic” buns.
The Mark Zuckerberg: Pastrami on a stack of pictures of you from the last nine years. Developed at a deli co-owned by his best friend, who is no longer an owner of that deli. Mark does not want to talk about it.
The Katy Perry: Two plump chicken breasts with not a lot else going on. Good for about another fifteen minutes.
The Justin Bieber: Veal parmesan with bangs, served on CD or digitally.
The Tom Petty: A grilled chicken sandwich with lettuce and tomatoes that makes your dad talk about how much better sandwiches used to be when he was a kid. Back before the beef was full of hormones and Autotune.
The Ryan Reynolds: Corned beef with no added flavor, listed at the top of the menu, and forced down everyone’s throat twice a year. Not a disagreeable sandwich, just overrated, according to popular consensus.
Bruce Springsteen’s songs often fall into two categories. There are the depressing songs about working in your hometown. Then there are the inspiring songs about leaving your hometown. There’s also “I’m On Fire,” which I put into the subcategory of creepy songs that use absurd sexual imagery. To be fair, “I’m On Fire” may take place in the hometown of the narrator.
“Atlantic City” is a rare Springsteen hybrid. It’s a depressing song about leaving town. (I don’t think he has any inspiring songs about staying home. I’d like for him to try one out, though.) The down-on-his luck narrator urges his lady friend to fancy herself up and join him in Atlantic City, where he is most likely going to kill someone for money.
It’s a dark, catchy tune with an oddly Buddhist refrain (“everything dies, baby that’s a fact/maybe everything that dies someday comes back”), and it has been covered lots of times. So yesterday when I drove to Atlantic City from downtown Manhattan, I decided to listen exclusively to a collection of several of these versions. I managed to scrounge up fifteen in all. Notable omissions include the Hold Steady’s recent cover, which failed to load on my iPod as well as any live Springsteen version which supplements the austere album version with a full-band sound.
I got through the playlist two and a half times. By the end, I was very, very ready to get out of the car. In fact, I was in the mood to hear some Ke$ha. The following is a diary of my thoughts on each of these fifteen tracks. There is no reason for this. I just thought it would be something I’d have fun with. And I sort of did. So now I just hope you do. The track list was alphabetical by artist.
1. “Atlantic City” – Automatic 7
A punk cover to start off with. Aren’t we done with these? Remember when The Ataris remade Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer?” They did a okay with that. We don’t need any more. That said, whoever Automatic 7 is did a pretty good job recreating the haunting “whoooaaaahhh” background vocals. I’m a sucker for some good whoas. Overall, not necessary but not bad.
2. “Atlantic City” – The Band
So this one changes the whole intent of the song. The chugging guitar and the substitution of accordion for Springsteen’s harmonica give the song notes of optimism that cheer up the bleak source material. When Robbie Robertson sings “Last night I met this guy, gonna do a favor for him,” you get the impression that he thinks that it might make a difference. Maybe he’ll get out of debt. It could happen.
3. “Atlantic City” – Bruce Springsteen
This one’s pretty spare. Just guitar, vocals, and harmonica. Springsteen crams lyrics into each line like he’s not concerned with singing, just getting the message out before it’s too late to tell his story. When he sings: “Down here it’s just winners and losers, and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line,” he throws meter to the wind. And he clearly doesn’t think that anything this guy is going to do will make a difference. It’s not a tale of redemption. It’s a vignette about desperation and the importance of giving it a shot even in the face of certain futility. Like I said, a sad story about leaving town.
4. “Atlantic City” – Canvas
I don’t know anything about Canvas other than what this song told me. But if I had to make an educated guess based on their sound, I would assume that they all wear hemp necklaces and sandals and that they spend more time following Dave Matthews on tour than they do traveling with their own music. I am super impressed with how they managed to capture the sound of holding a red solo cup in the air while singing. It really came through on the record.
5. “Atlantic City” – Charge of the Light Brigade
Some weirdish electronic stuff going on here. Like industrial-lite. Real heavy and great bass line though. They add some lyrics towards the end about the girl looking beautiful and the singer feeling old. Way unnecessary. Come on now, guys. This song’s about being desperate and making what Bruce might, in a cheerier mood call a “last chance power drive.” It’s no time to wax philosophical on your own mortality.
6. “Atlantic City” – David Munyon
This guy is great. He’s got a real old-timey rasp when he sings, like a gentler Johnny Cash. He knows what it’s all about. Very faithful to the original but with a distinctive vocal style. Good job, guy.
7. “Atlantic City” – Denis Fischer
Just piano and vocals on this bad boy. It sounds like a solo from a musical scored by Springsteen. That’s something I’d like to see. The first half is all guys working in their hometowns. Then the second half is those guys leaving those towns. It’s missing a little of the original’s edge, but it’s something that people might like on American Idol if the guy played the piano himself to show his versatility.
8. “Atlantic City” – Doc Holiday
Oh dear goodness. It’s like a truck full of Marc Cohn (Yes, you know who that is. “Walking In Memphis” ring a bell? Yeah, that’s that guy.) crashed into a truck full of Rod Stewart. It’s a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of unlistenable. Just terrible. This guy clearly misses the point. It’s over produced and over emoted. When he smugly speak-sings “Last night I met this guy. I’m going to do a little favor for him,” it sounds like he’s going to help someone move or sleep with his wife. Just smug and unpleasant. Ugh.
9. “Atlantic City” – Ed Harcourt
Piano and vocals again. A little more plaintive than the Denis Fischer version. Like Ben Folds minus the snark. However, he changes a pretty critical lyric. He takes “I’ve got debts that no honest man can pay” and makes it “I’ve got debts that I cannot pay.” It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it’s that line that shows the narrator is about to get mixed up in something grisly. He really puts some bite into “everything dies, baby that’s a fact,” so that’s pretty good. I can picture William H. Macy’s character from “Fargo” listening to this over and over and over.
10. “Atlantic City” – John Anderson
A full-on pop-country cover. I was not looking forward to it from the opening seconds, but I was really delightfully surprised by this one. I guess I shouldn’t have been taken unawares. The song already has all the elements of a country jam. Fighting. Being broke. A girl doing her hair up pretty. The only snag was that it sounded like he should have been singing “Meet me tonight in Branson, Missouri.” Just a more countrified place that also has gambling. I was really fired up to hear this one again.
11. “Atlantic City” – Mark McKay
This one was from a live album, and it’s got a fun, sloppy sound to it. The guitars feed back like a Drive By Truckers album. Nothing too special, but it seems like everyone was enjoying it at the time. Which, you can’t ask for much more than that from a cover song by a guy you’ve never heard of.
12. “Atlantic City” – Peter Protschka
Okay, this one’s my fault. This isn’t actually a cover of the Springsteen song at all. It’s a different song entirely. But, in my defense, the iTunes sample I listened to was a bunch of free-jazz piano hammering that could have been anything, really. The players settle into kind of a smokin’ jazz groove, though. I like how the piano and the percussion work together. When this came around the second time, it was a welcome respite from the murder ballad mopery.
13. “Atlantic City” – Rodney Parker and 50 Peso Reward
A lesser version of Anderson’s cover but with a better band name. Next.
14. “Atlantic City” – Warren Zevon
I’m a big Zevon fan. It’s fun to hear him play this live. The fans seem to get a kick out of it. But the sound quality is kind of dismal. Fun to have on the hard drive as a novelty, not super listenable.
15. “Atlantic City” – Hank Williams III
Hank Williams III starts off all strummy and funky, and then it gets dark half way through. The material sounds natural on him. He smooths it way out, but it doesn’t lose its impact. He even shortens one line by half to make it fit the structure better. It’s a good cover and a good way to close out the playlist.
Overall, I’m glad I did this noble experiment. My favorite track was the Band’s slightly breezier slightly more upbeat take. But that also may be because it gave me a break from how dismal this song is to listen to for two straight hours. What I do know is, it’s a great song, and I’m ready to not listen to it for several years.