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

Ask The A.V. Club: January 4, 2008

I Like To Work It Work It

Hey, you guys are a big part of my work day, and I'm curious, what does the average work day look like for members of your writing staff? Watching movies/DVDs, reading books, etc.?

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Joel A. Williams

Editor Keith Phipps leads off the response:

I commute to work, usually on a crowded bus. If I'm working on a book review or a music review or a Box Of Paperbacks entry, I'll usually read/listen to what I'll be writing about, but otherwise, I like to reserve this little space in the day to consume culture on my own terms. (I don't know that anyone out there is clamoring for my take on John Steinbeck, the author I've been revisiting lately, or the awesomeness of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' score for The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, the album I've been listening to somewhat compulsively.)

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When I get in, I do Videocracy first thing. (Yes, that's usually my voice providing the collective "we" and the too-abundant typos, unless I can pawn the duties off on Scott Tobias.) From there, I sort through the latest batch of e-mail, then just try to keep all The A.V. Club's plates spinning at once. With Tasha Robinson and Josh Modell, I keep material flowing for both the print and web editions. With Mike Greer, I work on ways to improve the website. With everyone on staff, I work to develop new features and figure out what direction The A.V. Club should take. (What should we cover in TV Club? Should we do more book reviews? Should we erase all "firsties" comments, or is that just kind of mean? Would, as Nathan Rabin suggests, Dolph Lundgren make for a good Random Roles subject?)

After Tasha makes it look pretty and puts all the misplaced commas where they belong (including my own), I also comb over every line of every piece of content that makes it into the national edition of The A.V. Club (what you read here, plus the non-local content in our print editions). Fortunately, that's a pleasure, since I work with great writers. And oh yeah, when time allows, I do some writing myself. Sometimes I have to make time allow. A daytime film screening means that much more work for me when I get back. And, as this A.V. Club thing grows, I never get to write as much as I used to, but if I gave it up entirely, the job would get a lot less fun. At the end of the day, I try to put out any remaining fires, and then it's back to the bus and back home, where I try—and, as my wife will crossly attest, usually fail—to ignore work until the day starts over.

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Contributor Noel Murray chimes in:

As one of the few A.V. Club writers who lives far from any of the home offices—and the only one with small kids running around the house—my day is mostly self-structured, though big chunks of it are affected by whatever my family needs me to do. I have a first grader and a pre-schooler, so I once I get them dropped off at their respective institutions, I'm pretty much racing the clock until I have to go pick them up again in the mid-afternoon. I typically catch up on e-mail and RSS feeds early in the morning (while watching an old movie or new TV show off the DVR), then try to get some writing done before lunch.

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After lunch, I'll watch a movie or DVD I've been assigned to review, if it's not a heavy deadline day, or do some more focused writing and editing if copy is due. (That is, unless I've got an interview scheduled, in which case I'll be pacing the floor nervously and doing last-second research.) After I pick up the kids, I'll typically listen to music and make notes while they play in our front room, then get started on dinner before my wife gets home.

After dinner and bathtime and storytime and bedtime, my wife and I watch TV, and if I'm doing a TV Club entry, I'll work on that; otherwise, I'll surf the net and maybe make some notes for upcoming inventories or blog posts. After my wife goes to bed, I usually put an old movie on and try to finish any writing I didn't get to complete earlier in the day, or I'll crawl into bed and read a book or comic I'm going to be writing about. I rarely get to sleep before midnight.

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So no commute for me, but it's a full day of watching, listening, reading, and writing, with very little downtime.

Denver editor and music contributor Jason Heller:

6:30 a.m.: Wake up, put on my makeup, walk in the cold, dry darkness of Denver to A.V. HQ while listening to Neurosis on the iPod. If the weather's nice, substitute The Eagles. (Yeah, The Eagles. Shut up.)

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7 a.m.: After getting to the office (I'm one of those freaky morning people), I plow through dozens of e-mails from publicists. Best one so far today: "Seth Walker swings, rocks, boogies, and plays lowdown blues all in one set, all on one record!" Then I coordinate with my interns and freelancers to make sure I've got a steady flow of copy coming in. Like a lot of The A.V. Club's city editors, my priority is putting together my local A.V. section. I have to proof the paper before it goes to print, conduct interviews, write features, and plan future local sections. Terribly exciting, no?

11 a.m.: Time for my Newswire shift. This can be excruciating. After cruising around looking for funny and/or interesting stories to regurgitate—ahem, recontextualize—I do a quick couple minutes of research, stretch my remedial HTML skills to the breaking point, and craft a little news-nugget for our readers to waste their lunch breaks commenting on. As astute A.V. fans may have already noticed, any stories about Star Trek, Watchmen, Ian MacKaye, or Bruce Campbell are pretty much guaranteed coverage during my Newswire shift.

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Noon: Siesta! (Read: Taco Bell-induced coma.)

2 p.m.: Mail! Yes, every day is Christmas at The A.V. Club. I've been a full-time music writer for five years now, but I still get giddy every time I tear open a big pile of free CDs, books, and comics. I take notes as I unwrap my presents and prioritize what I'll be listening to/reading first. Then I take all the glossy promo photos (e.g. Akon and Gwen Stefani) to my coworker Rob, who is charitable enough to laugh as if I had done something funny.

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3 p.m.: If I'm lucky enough to have most of my local duties wrapped up for the day, I'll work on national A.V. stuff. For me, that means writing reviews of comics and CDs. Often I'll pack up the laptop and hit the coffee shop. It's a great way to review music. There's something about all that external stimulus—big windows, streams of people, the smell of espresso, the crazy dude in the corner reciting the opening lines of A Tale Of Two Cities over and over—that really helps my writing process. Of course, I don't read comics at the coffee shop, for the same reason I wouldn't be caught dead looking at MySpace or Pitchfork in public. I may be a loser, but I've got a little pride.

5 p.m.: My brain usually shuts down soon after 4 p.m., but sometimes I'll get a wee burst of inspiration and pump out a blog entry for the A.V. website before the day is done. I have a backlog of ideas—most of which (like my epic yearlong series about emo split 7-inches of the '90s) totally stink—but sometimes a random promo CD or reader comment will prompt me to puke up a couple thousand words of solipsistic crap. Hey, it's a blog, after all. It's pretty fun to be able to break out of journalist-mode and rant about whatever dumb thing pops into my head; sparring with our lovely commenters, of course, is another bonus. (My apologies to the one guy I threatened with a skull-fucking last week. I meant that in the warmest possible way.)

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6 p.m.: Eat. Sleep. Rinse. Repeat.

Film editor and writer Scott Tobias:

What's a typical day in the life of an A.V. Club writer? To my mind, there isn't one, just a random assortment of reviews, edits, and pop-culture consumption penned in only by the guardrails of hard deadlines. Frankly, there are times when I long for the structure of a 9-to-5, punch-clock, data-entry job that never changes, just so I can live within well-defined boundaries. Then I remind myself that I spend my days watching movies and TV shows, reading books, interviewing artists I (mostly) admire, and writing for a publication that I would read avidly even if I were a wage-slave. As our editor Keith Phipps likes to say, we're not exactly working in the salt mines here.

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Still, the days and weeks are filled with enormous challenges, and it's a job you often bring home with you. Sometimes you have to catch up with the craptastic Alien Vs. Predator to feel well-informed enough to review the even lousier sequel. Sometimes you have to abandon your family for an evening screening of Code Name: The Cleaner. Sometimes you end a brutal five-movie day at a film festival by writing a 1,500-word blog post, and then you do it all again a few sleep-deprived hours later. And through it all, there are deadlines staring you in the face, and you're utterly worthless if you miss them, no matter how brilliant you might be as a wordsmith. It's a great job, but in the end, it's just a job: If you can't push that boulder up the hill every week, your profound insight into Jeff Fahey's filmography isn't going to save you. Flakes need not apply.

Associate Editor Tasha Robinson:

I'm with Scott: There's no typical or average day for me, except in the broadest sense that I spend eight or nine hours of every day in the office, sitting in front of a computer. Like Keith, I commute (on the train rather than the bus), and I try to reserve that time for reading, but these days, I'm just as likely to be working on my laptop on the trip in.

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Apart from that, and the occasional daytime screening (more than half of the theatrical-release films I see for work screen for critics at a downtown private venue) which requires me to trek away from the office, there's no fixed structure to my day. I generally go in with a plan—write this review, watch this film, edit these three documents—and then it rapidly comes apart amid all the little demands of the day. For instance, today I've been exchanging e-mails with prospective freelancers, scheduling our next few book reviews, requesting books from publishers, discussing an upcoming feature interview with Managing Editor Josh Modell and hunting down contact info for the interview subject, researching and assembling this week's Ask The A.V. Club column, gathering images for upcoming reviews, checking the website for errors and problems, sorting through incoming press releases, assigning tasks to interns, answering writers' questions about style quirks, fact-checking reviews, and assembling and editing next week's print content. I perform most of these tasks in a given week, but apart from the editing and fact-checking, I don't necessarily do any of them every day, or in any particular order.

With all that happening in the office, I pretty much never watch films or read books while I'm here during the day. There are too many administrative demands and distractions. Generally, I read on the commute or on the weekends, and I watch movies at home. I write in the office when I'm under extreme deadline pressure, but generally I prefer to do that at home, too, when there's more time and space to think. As a result, my work days tend to be sort of fluid and lengthy, especially when I have a lot of writing assignments on my plate. While I understand the mental image that we all spend our days lying around in hammocks, eating grapes and chortling over various forms of entertainment, the fact is that we're a small group of people putting together a massive amount of media every week, and we all wear a lot of hats at once, and our office is pretty much an office like any other—full of people sitting quietly at desks frantically typing—apart from the frequent pop-culture discussions, the Rock Band sessions at lunch and after hours, and the mass giggly Taste Tests of weird foods. Oh, and the fact that while everyone tends to be kind of stressed and overworked much of the time, we're also generally all pleased as hell that we do what we do for a living.

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The Angel Made Me Do It

I was wondering where the angel on one shoulder, devil on the other shoulder thing started. Vague guess: Cartoons?

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beachbum13372

noelmurray090970 responds:

Actually, it comes from Islam. According to the Koran, the "Kiramin Kitabin" sit on the shoulders of every human being and keep track of our good deeds and our bad deeds, and report back to God. Some also believe that these "recording angels" guard against demons and subtly influence behavior, and that you should never spit to the right, lest you hit your "good" angel. You're correct that cartoons helped codify this concept into the iconic image of the angel on one shoulder arguing with the devil on the other, though the image appeared initially in print, before showing up in animation.

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The Mutant Mash

First off, big fan. You guys never fail to impress, and ever since the first time I read this feature a long time ago, I've had a question in mind for you all. Here goes: In the early to mid-'90s, I'd guess, I remember watching a movie one night with my younger sister and cousin on Cinemax. Details are sparse, but what I do remember is, it's in the vein of the "kids get lost, end up at a mad scientist's lab, and the next thing you know, one by one, they're being turned into mutants of different sorts" kinda movie, only it wasn't scary at all. Quite the opposite. My little sister was very young, and even she was laughing throughout. Other odd details I remember are that it had some sort of late-'80s, early-'90s B-list heartthrob in it as the main character/hero, and there was a character named "Stewart" or "Stewie" who was a big nerd with glasses, red hair, and buck teeth. He gets pushed out of an airplane in the beginning (this scene was a reference point for my sister and I for years) and ends up mutating into a Hulk-ish version of himself at the mad scientist's lab, becoming one of the final villains. In the end, I'm pretty sure the police show up and restore order, as per usual. Certainly lacking on the details here, but I'm sure others out there must have seen it. Please help. My sister and I have been trying to find this movie ever since it first aired that one night. Thanks in advance! Keep up the splendid work!

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Everett Bacon

Sean O'Neal is happy to stay splendid:

You're talking about the underrated Freaked (1993), a Troma-esque spoof starring Alex "Bill S. Preston, Esq." Winter. (Did Winter count as a heartthrob? Probably for somebody.) Winter also co-wrote and co-directed the film along with Tom Stern—who went on to do Saul Of The Mole Men, That's My Bush!, and The Andy Milonakis Show—and Tim Burns. Winter plays a smug actor in the Jason Priestley/Luke Perry vein who agrees to be the spokesperson for a toxic chemical company. After he accidentally gets sprayed with the company's product, he ends up as a mutant freak trapped on a farm run by Randy Quaid, along with his best friend Ernie (a.k.a. Blossom's other brother) and activist/love interest Julie, played by '90s heartthrob (for a nanosecond) Megan Ward. Some of the other freaks are played by Mr. T, Bobcat Goldthwait (in voiceover), and the Butthole Surfers' Gibby Haynes. Even Winter's old partner Keanu Reeves shows up uncredited as "Ortiz The Dog Boy." (Brooke Shields and Morgan Fairchild also make cameos.) The character you're remembering, "Stewie," is an obnoxious kid who follows Winter around begging for an autograph at the most inopportune time—although his transformation into a mutant actually [spoiler alert!] ends up saving the day. All in all, it isn't as bad as it sounds: There are lots of decent throwaway lines and sight gags (better than anything Troma has put out lately, anyway), and the whole thing has a sort of reckless punk energy that keeps it from dragging. It was recently reissued in a surprisingly reverent DVD edition with lots of deleted scenes. Check it out.

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Stop Dragon My Heart Around

I was a big watcher of Cartoon Network in elementary school (in the early '90s), and next to The Pirates Of Dark Water, my favorite thing was when they showed movies, which they tended to do ad nauseam during certain seasons (especially Christmas). There are two movies in particular I must have watched a million times in bits and pieces from first to third grade—and my parents remember this —but a million Google searches have turned up nothing, and I've never found anyone outside my immediate family who remembers them. Any ideas?

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Movie A was a fantasy that somehow centered around a wizard, his beautiful daughter, and an awkward young man from the real world who was somehow sucked into a board game (which was the world in which said wizard and daughter lived) and turned into a dragon, because why the hell not? The dragon/man went on a quest to defeat evil—at one point near the end I think he actually dies and is reborn, which is how he becomes a human again, but there might have been another, older dragon that actually died. In the last scene, our hero returns to the real world and the wizard's daughter (who was in love with him) leaves the board game to be with him. I remember the animation being very dark and kind of sketchy, in a pretty way that stuck in my mind—reminded me a little of the animated Lord Of The Rings, which I saw around the same time. They showed this movie ALL THE TIME.

Movie B was only on around Christmas, and was about a little goblin prince (part of a clan of goblins that lived in a cave in the mountains) who really hated his nasty, evil family and wanted to be good. The goblin ran away from the mountains, met a little girl with blond braids (the entire thing was very Scandinavian) and a pair of gnomes, husband and wife with tall pointy hats—and (long story short) eventually converts to Christianity and becomes a gnome through the love of Jesus. (His ears either became pointy or lost their pointiness, which showed that he wasn't an evil goblin any more.) The entire story was narrated by the former goblin/current gnome, who lived in a mouse hole in the house of the blond girl he met earlier. Young as I was, the thing that stuck with me about this one was its overt Christian message and its similarity in design to David The Gnome—I've even done searches for David The Gnome Christmas Special, thinking maybe they were one in the same. No luck.

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If you can find either or both of these movies, I'll send The A.V. Club cookies.

Elizabeth

You owe Tasha Robinson half a cookie:

Well, Elizabeth, the first one's a slam-dunk. You're thinking of the 1982 Rankin-Bass animated movie Flight Of Dragons, a feature adapted in part from Gordon Dickson's novel The Dragon And The George (which supplied the plot about a man summoned to a magical realm and into the body of a dragon) and in part from Peter Dickinson's Flight Of Dragons, a faux-natural history book explaining, among other things, how dragons get their massive bodies into the air. (They're essentially living hot-air balloons.) It has all the plot points you mention: Yes, there's an older dragon who teaches the dragon/man the dragon ropes, and later sacrifices his life to fight evil. There's a princess love interest who's the head wizard's foster daughter. And the dragon/man is summoned to the magical realm through a board game. I didn't remember that last part, but since the whole thing is available on YouTube, it was pretty easy to check:

As to the animation, I wonder if when you said Lord Of The Rings you were thinking of either The Hobbit or Return Of The King, both animated by Rankin-Bass in a very similar style. Flight Of Dragons doesn't actually look all that much like Ralph Bakshi's Lord Of The Rings, though it is considerably darker, visually speaking, than I remember it. It's also considerably cheesier. Dig those voice credits: John Ritter as the scientist summoned into the magical realm, and M*A*S*H's Harry Morgan as the wizard who summons him. That might explain why the disturbingly flat soundtrack sounds more like something out of an '80s sitcom than out of a high-fantasy movie. At least the inevitable James Earl Jones as the inevitable evil wizard is kinda fun.

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As to the goblin movie, it didn't ring any bells with any of us here at the Club. So clearly, it's time to revive an Ask The A.V. Club tradition…

STUMPED!

The A.V. Club has no answers for the questions below, and we haven't heard of Elizabeth's Scandinavian Christian gnome goblin movie, either. Can you identify any of these things? If so, clue us in at the e-mail address at the bottom of this column.

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I have asked every nerd I know about this movie, and no one has any idea what I'm talking about. I saw it when I was a kid, about 15ish years ago, and it was sort of in the genre of "Bizarre Kids Movies," like Labyrinth, etc. I saw it on TV, so it might not have been in theatres. It was about these little puppet people from another dimension who came to earth and stayed hidden with this girl in her house in the suburbs, where she was hiding them from her parents. The puppets looked kind of like Cabbage Patch Kids. The only parts that I can remember are: 1) at one point, one of the puppet people gets put in a dryer, 2) there's an evil witch with some kind of magical fruit, and 3) at some point, the fruit is surrounded by a gate that is lowered. That is all I can remember. What is this friggin movie, for the love of God?

Kirby

Hey, everybody: I remember reading in a secondary Star Wars book (as in, not penned by George Lucas) that Boba Fett slept without an alarm clock, his ninja-like abilities allowing him to rise from sleep on command. Ever since I initially read it (early '90s), I've always found this detail absurd and wonderful, and I often use it either whenever a friend complains about a malfunctioning alarm clock, or in discussions regarding Boba Fett's awesomeness. Anyway, I was wondering if any of you remember which book(s) that fact was from. I'm pretty sure it wasn't in the Timothy Zahn books… Thanks!

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Benjamin

I remember catching the tail end of a science-fiction movie (possibly a short piece) featuring a man playing a futuristic game of chess on a glass board with stylized chrome geometric laser-firing tank-like pieces. He was playing said game against a kind of apelike alien who, when beaten, screamed horribly, and the bearded human protagonist was beamed outside of some kind of pyramid. It was that weird. Naturally, I need to know what on earth it was.

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Chris

Next week: A kwestion of speling and a Muppety dance song, among other things. Send your questions to asktheavclub@theonion.com.

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