I attended the Society for News Design meetup this weekend at Tribune Tower, and contra the Chicago Journalism Town Hall, I left feeling mostly encouraged. There was a lot of talk by people who are doing things that are working, or at least trying new things that, even if they don’t work, will be instructive failures.

Anyway, one line of inquiry centered around “giving people what they want.” I have to admit this frustrates me a bit, as an incorrigible elitist: i still kinda think that an important role of journalists (and bloggers, and colleges, and churches, and people who talk to me) is giving you what you need, or what you don’t know you want but do. That’s where the magic happens. Let me break down a concrete example of how I got into something totally awesome that I want to share with you.

1. Several months ago, our comedy contributor, Ryan Hubbard, gave a Critic’s Choice to comedian Maria Bamford. I should have, but didn’t, look into whether I’d like her work (I have the utmost respect for our critics, but I don’t like everything they like).

Of course, had I done so, I would have only kind of liked it – her back catalog is hit or miss. Her Comedians of Comedy appearance isn’t terribly funny, and How to Win! is just good: all the pieces are there, but it doesn’t quite come together. Don’t get me wrong, there are some hilarious bits, but it’s merely very funny instead of mindbendingly, game-changingly brilliant. She has a very odd approach that’s even more reliant on timing and intonation than most comics, since she doesn’t really tell jokes; she tells long, unpredictable quasi-stories, and the humor’s all in the language and pacing. It’s a high-wire act.

2. One of my favorite bloggers, James Briggs Stratton “Doghouse” Riley of Bats Left/Throws Right, puts pictures of his favorite things along the side of his blog. Recently he added a picture of a woman up at the very top; clicking through, I discovered it was Maria Bamford, whose name I’d stored back in my subconscious. Well, I thought, if Ryan Hubbard and Doghouse Riley like her this much, I should give it a shot.

3. Her most recent album, Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome, is a masterpiece, it turns out. The approach to comedy she takes in her earlier work just clicks. I’m reminded of Greil Marcus’s observations about Chuck Berry’s lead to “Johnny B. Goode”; there are alternate takes where the famous opening riff just doesn’t work as well because of incomprehensibly small changes in timing. The version we all know is inescapable because it’s just right. That’s the case with Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome – in her other work, you can see all the parts, but on her latest release she just puts them all together in the right way.

FWIW, this isn’t rare with comedians. I listened to Chris Rock’s Born Suspect for the first time in a long time, and you can see the genius there, but a lot of his jokes are a bit familiar, and even the good ones are a bit flabby. Listening to, say, Bring the Pain and Bigger and Blacker, the self-editing is evident. It’s pretty cool to watch.

4. So, in sum: I got a rec from a colleague, and just didn’t follow up for whatever reason, but the information stuck. Months later, I got another rec from a source I trust, I checked it out, and discovered something wonderful (and useful; writers should listen to standup, because you can pick up handy tricks, and the transparent evolution of comedians in their craft is fascinating and encouraging).

5. Maybe that wasn’t very interesting, but that’s how the sausage of information is processed. The process of me learning about Maria Bamford really isn’t all that different from how people learn about and become passionate about, say, TIFs or torture. Keep it in mind, at least.


The best thing I read this weekend was from Doghouse Riley, on the stupid White House presser cell-phone business (cell phone goes off during tense line of questioning, distracts journalists from asking about torture):

“That, being judge, jury, and defense attorney, they get to explain to us that This Is Small Potatoes, despite the fact that most anyone who’s ever attempted monogamy knows it’s the small arrogances that talk the loudest.”

If you want to know why I trust Doghouse Riley’s taste, that‘s why. Someone with that sort of finely-tuned attention to language will probably steer you right on comedians.


I’m sad to learn from my colleague Deanna Isaacs that the CSO is cutting pay because ticket sales are down. This weekend, pianist Angela Hewitt will be playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations. I haven’t heard her well-reviewed recording yet (will listen to it today), and will hopefully have more to say about that and the work itself later this week. But since it’s a one-shot deal, consider checking it out.