Thursday, September 22, 2011

Friendship is Magic (Literally!)

So the new season of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has started this month. Yes, I watch the show, as I'm sure some of you reading this do as well. Trust me, it stopped being ironic a long time ago. If you don't watch the show, then being connected to the internet at all in the last year means that you've probably at least heard of it and the immense, sometimes psychotic, fan following that it has generated. I was tinkering with the idea of working references to the show into some of my all-ages routines, and that's when I decided that now would be a good time to bring up the subject of being topical.

When you're in the entertainment industry, it's actually very important to stay on top of trends, fads, and patterns. Some do it very well, such as Cracked dot com. Some do it very poorly, such as the studios that still refuse to screen horror movies to critics, even when they turn out to be a hit with the social media crowd. Being topical is not easy. You have to pay close attention to the ins and outs of pop culture and get a good sense of what's selling, what isn't, what's popular, what's not, and why. Then you need to ask yourself if this is of any use to you. And then you have to actually research the topic in order to present it intelligently, smoothly, and in a way that doesn't make me the audience want to punch you.

If you want to see some of the worst attempts to be topical, take a look at early 90's cartoons that featured a rap song in some way. Bear in mind that rap was only just going mainstream in the late 80's and early 90's. The genre had been around for years prior, but groups like Run DMC and Public Enemy were taking it to the surface. Artists like Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. also lent their respective talents to expand and refine the genre artistically. On the other hand, there were also more commercial hip-hop acts like The Fresh Prince and MC Hammer who were making a style of rap that was... let's say, much less scary to white people. With the trend of rap as a mainstream genre on the rise, a lot of media moguls and producers tried to be topical and capitalize on it.

The result was some of the worst music ever made and subsequently marketed to children. I still remember cartoons and the commercials accompanying them with awkward MC Hammer references and some of the worst rhymes and flow I've heard in my life. Even as a kid who at the time only listened to whatever I happened to catch on Alternative Nation (a show back from when MTV was still about music), I could tell this was awful.

The sad thing? The same fate is befalling most performers who try to be topical. They come across as awkward, pandering, and ironically out of touch. They show no actual comprehension of the pop culture trend they're referencing. They end up looking like an old fart using anachronistic slang that's 20 years out of date in a desperate attempt to sound hip. I'm reminded of the documentary Uber Goober, a film about the history of games and the lifestyle of gamers. One of the interviews was with a musician by the stage name The Great Luke Ski who lamented that most humor about games and gamers was based on shallow stereotypes that took zero thought to come up with. He elaborated that he tries to deliver actual wit and humor by cracking jokes as an insider, someone with real knowledge of the subject he's singing about.

You must remember that lesson if you want to be topical. Yes, I know that which is topical has a limited shelf-life. Most of the time. Some pop culture phenomena live longer than any of us ever will, so some things will be pretty safe to work into a show years from now. But in the short term, being topical has its advantages. It opens doors. It's something everyone can relate to in some way. It gives them something to talk about. And it gives them an easy point of reference. In an earlier post, Brandon Porterfield described his experience doing a Pokemon-themed birthday party. Brandon didn't have much Pokemon merchandise to work with, so he was forced to be creative. He had to learn about different Pokemon, what they did, and get a decent idea of the franchise's premise and appeal. These circumstances allowed him to create a show that was both topical and effective.

So all you bronies out there, producing a Rainbow Dash figure out of thin air like would a coin or a card just isn't going to cut it. You have a chance to get in front of people and book shows because you can give them magic based on a show that a lot of people love. But you have to know the show, you have to take the opportunities it gives you, and you have to be creative with it. Be topical, but don't screw it up.

As an aside, I wrote this entire post without once making a single horse pun. You're welcome.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Whoooo are you?

Can you tell I'm having a bit of a classic rock binge?

A while back I learned a mnemonic device from Docc Hilford. The problem with names is that they're abstract. It's true that if you trace the etymology of a name far enough back you can discover it's meaning, but that's still an abstraction. If I told you to think of a car, you might think of different brands or models, but you can think of a car because a car is a specific thing. But what if I asked you to think of a Steve? Or a Jessica? Not quite the same, is it?

All memory is based on recall, the ability to connect thoughts together through association. The trick Docc Hilford shared with me is to associate someone's name with something memorable involving that name.

"What's your name?"

"What's your name?"

"What's your name?"
"I've got some jobs for you."

"What's your name?"
"Like Alba?"

Don't worry if they get the joke or not. As long as the association makes sense to you. If they don't get it, just wave it off with a simple, "I don't know what that means," or, "Nothing, I'm just spitballing."

I've been using this technique for about a year now and it works every time. Give it a shot.