Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Ask The A.V. Club - April 17, 2008


Okay, so I was recently reading Scott Tobias's "New Cult Canon" installment on Clerks, and one part of the write-up struck me. Near the beginning of the article, Scott mentions working at a stone quarry in Toledo, making a whopping $8 an hour. Scott blames this bum job on his degree in literature. Now, I'm currently a first-year college student with a major in English literature, and for someone like me to read something like that is a tad disheartening. So Scott—or anyone else with advice—what is a young, aspiring scholar like myself supposed to study to get into a worthwhile career involving film or writing? It's always been a dream of mine to get a job after I graduate doing some type of writing or criticism, but, when I hear comments like this one, I really start to believe that I'll either get stuck teaching some snotty kids Shakespeare or working at a stone quarry in Toledo. Should I really keep up with Lit, or should I listen to the naysayers and put my efforts into a more realistic, career-centered major?


Noel Murray has given a version of this speech to nearly every young writer he knows over the past five years:

It's like this, Kubs: If you want to write creatively—as opposed to being an editor, a reporter, or a technical writer—you're going to find that getting out of school and getting a job as "a writer" is highly unlikely. It was tough when I graduated from college 16 years ago with a journalism degree, and it's even tougher now that the number of paying media outlets has narrowed. Becoming a critic, an essayist, an editorialist, or a screenwriter isn't the kind of career that you come to via the want ads, any more than you can follow a conventional up-the-corporate-ladder job track to become a novelist, painter, or songwriter. These aren't the kind of jobs where anyone's ever "hiring," really. By and large, if people want you to write for them, they'll call you.


And why do they decide to call you? Usually because they've read your writing, or because a mutual acquaintance recommended you, or both. That may seem like a paradox, but it really isn't. Up above, I said that the number of paying media outlets is narrowing, but there are more opportunities than ever for aspiring writers to ply their trade, via blogs and the like, and our modern wired lifestyle is such that you can develop collegial relationships with fellow writers that you've never actually met in person. But it all takes time and effort, and in the meantime, yes, you're probably going to have to get "a real job." To put it on a personal level: I started getting paid to write criticism and features while I was still in school, but I wasn't able to do it full-time until about seven years after I graduated, and that was only because I was being partially supported by my wife. It took another seven years before I started making enough that my parents stopped asking when I was going to go back to work.

So should you switch majors? Well, to be frank, you can answer phones and make copies (and make decent money) just as well with an English degree as you can with a business degree, though you'll probably never rise to the level of middle-manager (and make indecent money) unless you go back to school and get an MBA. So you have to ask yourself: How committed am I to being a writer? Am I willing to grind out 50 hours a week in an office, with no ambition to rise in the ranks, and then go home and do my real work? If so, then it really doesn't matter much what you major in. Study whatever interests you and whatever you think will make you a better writer. That's what really matters.

Two Hours Of Punk'd Is Two Hours Too Much

I stumbled upon a movie on Comedy Central about five years ago. The whole movie was basically a practical joke on one of the "actors". This main "actor" was just some guy who has being trying to get his awful movie made for years and years. Somehow, one of his friends got a real director and producer to supposedly make his movie. It was almost a movie within the making of the actor's horrible movie. It was shot in a behind-the-scenes documentary style, as if the footage would be used for an extra on a DVD. Think of it as a two-hour Punk'd. There were also cameos by B-list actors throughout who had different parts in the actor's movie. Ring any bells? Steak dinner to whoever helps me out.

Matthew Lawton

Sean O'Neal takes a break from wedding preparations to respond:

The movie you're referring to is Windy City Heat, which—depending on who you choose to believe—is either one of the greatest comic pranks ever pulled, or an incredibly cruel joke made at the expense of a mentally handicapped man. Breaking down the various Russian nesting dolls of deception isn't easy, considering how many differing accounts there are as to what's really true, but try and stay with me:


According to the official story, Don Barris, a warm-up comic for The Man Show, met a struggling actor named Perry Caravello in 1992. Barris befriended Caravello and promised to help him achieve his dreams of fame as part of an elaborate setup with friend and Jimmy Kimmel writing partner Tony Barbieri. After 11 years of stringing him along, Kimmel, Barbieri, and Barris made Caravello believe he was up for the part of "sports private eye Stone Fury" in an action film called Windy City Heat, tailing him with a camera crew under the pretense of gathering "behind-the-scenes footage" for the DVD. In actuality, of course, there is no Windy City Heat; it's all one long joke on Caravello, and the "behind-the-scenes footage" is the real movie. Oblivious to the ruse, Caravello undergoes various indignities like being repeatedly dumped into manure, tied up and beaten, or forced to eat disgusting foods, all while Barris and Barbieri alternately flatter and irritate him in an effort to help him "unleash the Fury." Along the way, various actual stars drop in. Some play themselves, like Bobcat Goldthwait, who is both the fake director of the film-within-a-film and the director of the actual film. Some play roles, like Dane Cook's casting director, "Roman Polanski." And most characters have outlandish names ripped from movies and historical figures: producer "John Quincy Adams," limo driver "Travis Bickle." The gag is that Caravello is supposedly too focused on finally achieving his moment of glory to question any of it, even down to the ludicrous "one-time-only screening" of the film that ends with him accepting a trophy from the "President Of Show Business."

Now here's where the controversy starts: Some viewers believe that Caravello couldn't possibly be so dense, and had to have been in on the joke from the start. Goldthwait, however, insists that the film is "100 percent real." Caravello, meanwhile, is either still very confused or just very committed to a bit: While the DVD commentary he recorded in 2005 indicates that he realizes now that Barris and Barbieri were conspiring to prank him—something he says he learned after reading about the film online—in the same commentary, he continues to brag about his performance as Stone Fury and receiving his trophy (saying he "cries every time he watches it"), so it isn't entirely clear whether he comprehends the extent to which he was being jerked around. And if recent events are any indication, he still doesn't know when he's being played: Last year, he sued Johnny Knoxville, Jimmy Kimmel, and Adam Carolla after they allegedly promised him $10 million if he put his genitals in a mousetrap, as a publicity stunt for the DVD.


Meanwhile, Carolla's former Loveline partner, Dr. Drew Pinsky, has another hypothesis: He stated on his radio show that Caravello exhibits telltale signs of someone suffering from brain damage, a theory that's seemingly backed up by an IMDB review where someone who claims to have known Caravello in high school said he was in a serious car accident that resulted in a months-long, life-altering coma. Hilarious, right? So there you have it: Are Barris, Barbieri, Kimmel, Goldthwait, et. al. just heartless bullies who picked on a brain-damaged man for the sake of some cheap laughs? Or is Caravello a comic genius who willingly made himself the butt of the joke, and who continues to play along to propagate interest in his sole project to date? However you want to look at it, you can't deny that Perry is, in his own small way, now a star; whether he's the kind of star he really thinks he is might be beside the point.

I'll be checking my e-mail for that steak dinner.

Great In The Sack

When I was a young kid (late '80s/early '90s), I saw a version of what looked like an old folktale on TV. In the story, a village doctor is given a magnifying glass, or maybe a pair of glasses, and when he looks at his patient through it, he can see the figure of Death sitting next to them. If Death sits at the patient's feet, the doctor knows he can save them, but if Death sits at the head of the bed, they're destined to die. The doctor gets very successful through the help of this device. Then one day his wife gets sick, and when he looks at her through the glass, he sees that Death is sitting by her head. I don't remember what happens next.


What did I see? My first thought was that it was one of Jim Henson's Storyteller segments, but I found an episode list, and none of the descriptions match what I remember. I do think it might have been some sort of anthology series, and that it was probably intended for children, but I can't think what it would be. I've never come across the story in any other form, and I'd love to know how it ends.


Like many other readers, I'm writing to ask about some television that I found very disturbing as a young child. They were retellings of fairy tales, probably very faithful to the original stories, and for some reason I think they are somehow Henson-related. There are two that I remember specifically: one was a version of Rapunzel, somehow involving cabbages and blindness, and was very depressing. The other one I remember involved a man who could fit anything into a canvas sack, who was involved with a scheme to smuggle people into paradise. He ends up waiting outside the gates of paradise, forgotten, waiting to get in. Any help you could give me to put these childhood traumas to rest would be greatly appreciated.



Tasha Robinson is… no, she isn't touching that one. Never mind:

You were on the money with your guess, Mikayla, you just didn't find a detailed enough description of the episodes, I'm guessing. You're both thinking of the same episode of the 1988 TV series Jim Henson's The Storyteller. It's called "The Soldier And Death," and it's about a soldier who heads home from the war with nothing but three dry biscuits in his pocket. Along the way, he gives away his three biscuits to three old men alongside the road. In return, the first gives him the ability to whistle beautifully. The second gives him the ability to dance wonderfully. And the third gives him a magic deck of cards and a magic sack that can contain anything he orders to get into it.


Turns out there's a horde of gambling devils holed up in an nearby castle, so he uses the magic deck to beat them at cards and win 40 barrels of gold from them, even though they all cheat. When they decide to just eat him, he orders them into the sack and beats the crap out of them. Eventually, he lets them back out, but he catches one by the foot and commands it to serve him. Years later, when he has a wife and child and the child is ill, he calls up the devil, and to escape its servitude, it gives him a magical glass of water, through which he can see Death. Just as you recall, Mikayla, if Death is at the head of someone's bed, that person will die, but if it's at the foot, the soldier can splash the person with a little water from the glass, and they'll heal. Eventually, he's called on to heal the Tsar, but Death is at the Tsar's head. So the soldier asks Death to take him instead of the Tsar. Death agrees, but when it comes for the soldier, the soldier orders it into the sack.

Then, as happens in a lot of stories involving Death taking a holiday, everyone's briefly happy because everything has stopped dying, but before long, everyone realizes they really need Death, and the soldier sadly lets it out of the sack, expecting that'll be the end of him. But Death flees him in terror, and he lives on for many, many years, with Death afraid to come for him. Finally, he goes to Hell and asks them to just let him in, but the devils there remember him and his sack, and they cower behind the walls. He winds up telling them he'll go away if they give him a map to heaven and 200 souls they have no use for. He takes those souls to heaven and tries to buy his way in with them, but is told that they can come in, but he can't. He gives one of the souls his sack, and says "Once you get inside, order me into the sack, so I'll be inside too." But as narrator John Hurt points out, there is no memory in heaven, so the soldier waits outside, pretty well forgotten by everyone, until he finally gives up and wanders off. Poor folklore dude. To the degree that there's a moral, it's apparently "Don't mess with the natural order of things."


The entire Storyteller series, incidentally, is available on DVD, and I highly recommend it.

So what about your other memory, Howard, the version of Rapunzel involving "cabbages and blindness"? Well, there wasn't a Rapunzel episode of The Storyteller as far as I'm aware; that show tended to tackle less-known myths. Complicating the question somewhat is the fact that the original Rapunzel story, as recorded by the Grimm brothers, involved cabbages and blindness–rapunzel was supposedly a variety of cabbage, which Rapunzel's mother craved so much during pregnancy that she sent her husband to steal it from the garden next door, which belonged to a witch who demanded the woman's child as payment for the theft. Once the child was born, the witch locked her up in a tower, and then there's the whole business with the hair ladder and the prince climbing up it and whatnot, but when the witch catches on, she cuts off Rapunzel's hair and kicks her out. Depending on the version of the story, she then uses the hair ladder to lure the prince up into the tower, but lets go of the braid and drops him mid-climb, or she lures him up and tells him he'll never see Rapunzel again, so he jumps out of the tower in despair. Either way, he winds up blinded by the thorn bushes below, at least until Rapunzel comes along and weeps over him, and cures his eyes with her tears.


So any reasonably accurate screen adaptation of the old-school Rapunzel story might include cabbages and blindness. But I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that you might have seen the filmed stage version of Stephen Sondheim's Into The Woods, which first aired just a couple of years after The Storyteller was made, and while it was probably still playing in reruns. It's plausible that you might have associated the two, and thought of Into The Woods as Henson-y because it involved singing, dancing, people in costumes, and a couple of fairly puppety effects. There are a lot of other Rapunzels out there, but even the ones that cover the weird cabbage angle mostly gloss over the prince-getting-his-eyes-poked-out thing. Into The Woods fully embraces it, which makes it different from most.

Wading Through The Slush

I'm a writer for a music blog, and receive tons of CDs I'll never listen to again. I feel terrible throwing them out, and I also feel like a dick selling them to a used-record store. I don't have the time/money/energy to send them back to labels. What do you music reviewers do with all those promo CDs you don't end up keeping? Is there a nice thing to do here? I haven't figured anything out.



Honestly? We pretty much sell them. At least once we've exhausted other non-trashing options. We first make the slush pile of unsolicited CDs, DVDs, books, etc. available to everyone on staff, and to our interns, and to friends and guests who come through the office. We've given unwanted material to local charities and to the Chicago Public Library. These days, our unwanted books largely go to a local literacy foundation, which sells them at its storefront to support its programs. And lately we've been sending any appropriate CDs, DVDs, and promo toys to the local children's hospital. In the past, we've sometimes offered promo material to our readers, as contest prizes at local events. Some review websites also have regular contests and giveaways, where readers can win those unwanted DVDs or CDs.


But we still end up with a ton of stuff we don't want, can't use, and can't even give away. Selling them (we generally use secondspin.com or spun.com) lets us feel like we're putting them back in the hands of someone who might actually want them, as opposed to dumping them in a landfill somewhere.

If you really can't stomach that, though, check with your local Goodwill, Salvation Army, AMVETS, and that sort of thing. They may be willing to take them off your hands, and donations to charities are generally tax deductible, if that's any extra incentive. Same thing goes for libraries—your local library may not want your CDs for its own collection, but most libraries these days seem to have $.50 tables where they sell off unwanted stuff, which benefits the library, so they may be willing to take things off your hands even if they aren't worthy of shelf space in their own collections.


But all this is just putting promos back out in the hands of people who didn't pay full price for it. If that just seems too indecent, you're just gonna have to throw them away. Note, though, that plastic CD cases are clear plastic and are generally recyclable, if you live in an area with any kind of decent recycling program.

We're pretty sure, though, that in general, the labels don't actually want them back. Some of us have been getting stuff stamped "property of [release company], must be returned on demand" for 15 years now, without ever hearing of a company recalling its promos.


Next week: Hipsters, spoilers, and more. Send your questions to asktheavclub@theonion.com.