Sunday, November 07, 2010

The Common Denominator

I visited my parents after work this week. I usually have a rather busy life, and don't get to stop by that often. On this particular day, I needed to borrow my father's VHS to DVD converter; I have a few VHS tapes that I like to re-watch that my VCR has suddenly decided it doesn't like. So, I made DVD copies.

My Dad is technologically hip in some ways. When it comes to visual media, he likes to have all of the new toys--except for things that have to be done on a computer. He bought this particular converter a few years ago, but almost never uses it. This is because he doesn't understand the difference between DVD-R/DVD-RW and DVD+R/DVD+RW. I can hardly blame him; when you look at the specs, your eyes drift to the letters, not the punctuation. Why would you think those were meaningful? Isn't a recordable DVD a recordable DVD? Sadly no; society has adopted Crowley's view that "standardisation is the bane of civilization". This is one area where that shouldn't be true. But this is all a digression.

While I was dubbing my tapes, my father went into the main living room to watch TV. It was time for Glenn Beck, and today, Glenn was going to talk about socialists using funny voices and hand puppets. I know that the recent Bill Maher piece criticizing the Rally to Restore Sanity is controversial, but Bill noted that Glenn Beck is "close to eating his own poop". I don't think this is an exaggeration.

Glenn Beck and everything else on Fox News is just one of several "obstacles to communication" that I face when I'm trying to visit with my family. Generally what happens is this: I sit talking to my mother who tells me everything she's worried about. My father sits in another room watching TV and shouting 4-letter insults at any Democrats that flash across the screen. When he finally comes out to dinner, conversation can be rather tense depending on the chosen topic. My mother likes to argue with him about politics, which is kind of a no-win venture.

There's also the go-round they have when she's asked him to do something. For instance: She'll leave him a note to make a doctor's appointment while she's at work. She'll ask if he made the appointment. My father will casually peruse the newspaper, and without looking at her, say "What appointment?" My mother, looking frustrated, will say, "The DOCTOR's appointment. I left you a note to call this morning!" My father will reply, "I don't remember any note." This will go around and around until my mother looks like she is going to blow a major artery, and my father finally decides to mention that yes, he made the appointment first thing when he got up. He is actually being funny, but she doesn't get it. Sometimes I take pity and let her in on the joke before she gets too worked up. The final obstacle usually revolves around family issues; usually my Dad and I agree on certain issues, and my Mom does not agree with either of us. The conversations always leave me uncomfortable and at odds with someone, and all I can think is "Can't we all just get along?" If our discussions were fruitful and thoughtful debates, that would be a different story. Instead, they're usually exercises in stubbornness.

This is where humor comes in. You may have noticed over the years that I can be rather "flip" about some things, and tend to make a joke out of others. This is not by accident. This is survival. A means of saying, "Hey guys, we're never going to agree, and we need to stop making this so deadly serious and depressing." Besides joking around and changing the subject, I will also bring strategic media with me if I'm visiting my parents for an extended time (e.g., for an entire evening). "Strategic media", of course, is usually DVDs of TV shows or movies that I know will keep my parents from talking about depressing things, and probably will make them laugh as well.

Here are some clips that have averted family discord. If you have similar family issues, maybe you can use these as well. Some of them may be more "Christmas-y", because that's usually the time of year that I wind up spending more time with them.

1. Mystery Science Theater 3000. Almost any of the movies will do, but the black-and-white ones are best. If you don't have time for a movie, the shorts are a good choice:

2. Found Footage Festival--any of the volumes will do, but to avoid awkwardness, keep the remote handy for such clips as "Disrobics" and "Venus II", so you can fast forward. Nothing more awkward than watching obviously sexual things with your parents. Even that last sentence makes me feel awkward. Found Footage Festival is a collection of "found" VHS tapes that are so awful, they're good:

Drop dead, in the name of Jesus Christ

3. Rich Little's A Christmas Carol--this one is only good at the Christmas holiday, obviously. I happen to own a copy--it's very hard to get these days. Rich Little is a comedian whose entire act revolves around impersonations. The people in my age group are probably the last ones who could watch this and have any idea about who the heck he is impersonating--anyone born later than 1975 is likely to be stumped. But my parents know exactly what he's about, and they find it funny.

Rich Little's Christmas Carol [VHS]

4. Not Necessarily the News--I've only found this recently on YouTube, and only certain clips. We all remember this show, and strangely enough, my father loves it, even though they spend a lot of time making fun of his favorite President, Ronald Reagan. Personally, I wish they would make an entire tape of Rich Hall's "Sniglets" segments. Those are still my favorite, and not available anywhere.

Best of Not Necessarily the News Part 1 of 6 (embedding disabled)

5. Saturday Night Live--this is one of those shows that was great when it first came out, but declined in quality over the years. Still, there are some classic pieces worthy of trying to find either on Google Video or by sifting through DVD compilations. Here is a Christmas one from Robert Smiegel's TV Funhouse animation clips:

TV Funhouse Peanuts (embedding doesn't work)

You might be surprised at some of the irreverent religious videos. But both of my parents are critical of religion, so this isn't a problem. However, if my aunts and uncles are visiting, that presents a different problem altogether...

Happy daylight savings time, and tell someone to turn on the's too dark in here for November.

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