The Sisters Brothers—Patrick DeWitt [2011]

It’s been said that the best gift you can give someone is something they wouldn’t buy for themselves. Taking that into consideration, receiving a Christmas gift in the form of Patrick DeWitt’s second novel, 2011’s The Sisters Brothers, is made all the better. I’m not a huge fan of Westerns—I’ve never even read any from one of my literary idols, Elmore Leonard—and had I seen this on the shelf at my local bookstore I probably wouldn’t have given it a second thought, and good grief, would that have been my loss.

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A pair of contract killers during the height of the gold rush, Charlie and Eli Sisters are both brutal and ruthless, yet very different at the same time. Charlie, the elder, is wild and cocksure, while younger Eli is more contemplative and soft—emotionally and physically, thanks to his ample gut—and it’s through his eyes we’re told the story.

The men work for The Commodore, a scrupleless businessman who hires the brothers to travel from Oregon City to San Francisco to kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm (if awards were given for character names, I’d bestow one upon DeWitt for this one). The Commodore has a scout in San Francisco, Morris, keeping tabs on Mr. Warm, whom the brothers are to meet upon arriving in town so he can provide them with Hermann’s whereabouts. On the surface it’s a simple plot about a hired hit, but there’s so much more to it than that. At its core, it’s about Eli’s yearning for a simpler, less violent life—maybe settling down with a good woman and becoming a shopkeeper—and the changes he and Charlie go through by the time they get back to Oregon City.

DeWitt does a marvelous job setting the tone for the novel from the outset: Having finished their last job, Eli sits outside on his new horse while Charlie is inside, discussing the pair’s next job with The Commodore. Both the brothers’ horses were burned up during their last assignment, and The Commodore has replaced them with new horses that show just what he thinks of the brothers—suave, dapper Charlie is given a fit, sturdy horse named Nimble, while Eli receives the “portly and low-backed” horse, Tub. While initially not fond of him, Eli comes to find he has a begrudging respect for Tub, sensing that the animal has “a desire to improve himself.” Over the course of the book we discover this applies to our narrator as well.

Comparisons abound for The Sisters Brothers, from the books of Cormac McCarthy to the classic westerns of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood to the more off-kilter films from the Coen Brothers, even to legendary graphic novelist Frank Miller. I feel the best description is as a mash up between the brutal violence of McCarthy with the sometimes borderline absurdity of the Coen Brothers’ quirkier pictures. The picaresque nature of the story, as the brothers encounter one memorable, quirky character after another, calls to mind O Brother, Where Art Thou? (itself a loose retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey). It’s a bit of a shame the Coens aren’t involved in the film adaptation slated for release later this year, starring Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Riley as Charlie and Eli.

One absurdly comic scene in the book involves the brothers finding shelter in a small home occupied by an old woman who the brothers are convinced is a witch. When they rise the following morning to find the witch gone and what they believe to be a cursed garment blocking the doorway, Charlie climbs out through a window, resolving to get help and return for his brother, who is too rotund to follow Charlie through said window.

The first half of the book is made up of several such odd encounters, my favorite of which involves a teenage boy who has been abandoned by his father. After remarking that nearly every run in he’d had with people ended with him being hit in the head, Eli sympathizes with the boy, although after ceaseless pleading from the boy to join them on their travels, Eli almost takes the same action toward him:

“I do not know what it was about that boy but just looking at him, even I wanted to clout him on the head. It was a head that invited violence.”

Eli’s narration is strikingly eloquent and formal, a stark contrast to the contemporary novels I’ve spent the majority of my life reading, as well as a contrast to the story’s odd humor and occasional instances of brutal violence. Once Eli and Charlie reach San Francisco to make contact with Morris (and subsequently Warm), the plot shifts from somewhat absurd to slightly surreal, with a finale that’s in turns funny, somber, and touching.

I found reading this book a joy, with nary a misstep throughout. There was one brief passage I found myself flipping through, but I am notoriously impatient. The short chapters made for an easy, addicting read, and a book that I had a hard time putting down. I really can’t recommend it highly enough, so go pick it up and treat yourself to the gift of a good book.

***A final quote from Mr. Warm, one which I found highly relatable:

“Most people are chained to their own fear and stupidity and haven’t the sense to level a cold eye at just what is wrong with their lives. Most people will continue on, dissatisfied but never attempting to understand why, or how they might change things for the better, and they die with nothing in their hearts but dirt and old, thin blood—weak blood, diluted—and their memories aren’t worth a goddamned thing.”

Buy The Sisters Brothers here.

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Big Mouth [Netflix, 2017]

A lot of words can be used to describe puberty: Awkward. Gross. Uncomfortable. Hilarious. These also pretty accurately describe the Netflix animated comedy Big Mouth.

The brainchild of comedian Nick Kroll and his childhood friend and Family Guy writer/producer Andrew Goldberg (plus Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett), Big Mouth debuted on Netflix in September 2017 and has already been confirmed for a second season coming (no pun intended*) later this year.

Big Mouth centers on the relationship between Nick (the aforementioned Kroll) and Andrew (superb comedian John Mulaney), and their friends—the eternally horny aspiring magician Jay (Jason Mantzoukas), the smart and cynical Jessi (Jessi Klein), and the endearingly nerdy and slightly naive Missy (Jenny Slate)—as they traverse the rocky terrain between adolescence and puberty.

Surreality and absurdism play a large part in the show, to both good and bad effect. The best of the good is represented by two things: first, the presence of hormone monsters (and a hormone monstress) that speak to the children (and at least one adult), usually giving them bad advice and encouraging them to give in to their weirdest, most depraved thoughts, and second, some of the musical numbers—especially when a sexually confused Andrew sings with the ghost of Freddie Mercury, or when a tampon resembling Michael Stipe sings a parody of Everybody Hurts called Everybody Bleeds. The worst of the bad can be seen in all its glory in Episode 6, Pillow Talk, where Jay goes on an emotional roller coaster with his sex pillow (later involving his bathmat). When the show crosses that line into the utterly absurd it can become a chore to finish (no pun intended*).

Despite the fantastical, ridiculous, and flat-out weird elements that permeate the show, Big Mouth actually manages to make the characters relatable in the way it handles the characters’ emotions and reactions to what’s happening to their bodies. It’s impossible to watch the show and not at some point be reminded of your own stumble toward adulthood in some way, be it wet dreams, accidental and sometimes confusing erections, exploring your nether regions for the first time, or having sexual relations with the severed head of Garrison Keillor.

The cast of Big Mouth is practically a comedy honor roll—scanning the names voicing the show’s many characters, it was easier to pick the names I didn’t recognize rather than the ones I did. Along with the excellent main cast, the show also features the talents of Fred Armisen, Andrew Rannells, Kristen Bell, Jon Hamm, Kirsten Wiig, as well as my two personal favorites: Maya Rudolph is phenomenal as the sassy and nasty hormone monstress, Connie, and Jordan Peele absolutely slays as the ghost of Duke Ellington, who lives in Andrew’s attic and says a plethora of immoral and outlandish things to the boys, as well as giving them generally terrible advice.

With a show this vulgar and gross, it’s definitely going to have its detractors. My friend Eric in California (Hi, Eric!) stated in no uncertain terms that a show featuring ejaculation, menstruation, and masturbation did not appeal to him whatsoever. To that, all I can say is, different strokes for different folks (no pun intended*). With that in mind, if you’d like to see a completely different take on the show, you can read this extremely negative review I found while doing some research to write my own. Ironically, it is far more graphic and detailed than mine, presumably in an attempt to offend anyone who reads it as much as the person who wrote it.

Although it takes jokes too far in places, for the most part Big Mouth is a solid comedy that will elicit steady chuckles and occasional big laughs. Just know you’re in for some depravity—if you expect any less, you’ve got another thing coming (no pun intended*).

 

*j/k all puns intended

Reverend Horton Heat/Fishbone 09/30/17—The Cotillion Ballroom, Wichita, KS

You could make a lot of assumptions about the city of Wichita, KS. You could assume it’s a flyover state hellhole devoid of any culture or art, but you’d be (mostly) wrong. You could assume it’s a city full of hayseeds and rednecks who don’t take kindly to outsiders, but you’d be (mostly) wrong. You could assume there aren’t a lot of options for live music outside of country concerts…and you’d be almost right on the button.

There are others, however, who perform in our fair city time and time again—the dogged road warriors who tour relentlessly and build their following the old fashioned way, before YouTube hits made someone a celebrity without leaving their bedroom. When I think of who has played Wichita (country acts notwithstanding) more than anyone else, two names come to mind: rapper Tech N9ne from Kansas City (which practically makes him a local), and Dallas rockabilly legend Reverend Horton Heat.

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L-R: RJ Contreras, Jim Heath, Jimbo Wallace

RHH has played Wichita maybe six or eight times over the past decade. That may not sound like much, but as someone who’s spent the last ten years in the sunflower state pining for the old days when I could drive to LA or Las Vegas to see any concert under the sun, six or eight times in ten years is a lot. As for me, I’ve personally seen RHH at least eight times now in three different states, with three different drummers, but that hardly matters. No matter the circumstances, The Rev always puts on a fantastic show, and Saturday night at The Cotillion was no exception.

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Jimbo Wallace

One of the things I’ve always liked about Reverend Horton Heat is that, as with a lot of bands who tour exhaustively, they end up playing with just about everyone, which makes for some especially eclectic shows. Over the years, RHH has played with everyone from traditional rockabilly and country acts to White Zombie and Motörhead. Which is to say it should’ve come as no surprise when RHH hit the road with ska/funk/punk heroes Fishbone.

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Angelo Moore

Some may remember Fishbone from their early 90’s commercial peak with the release of The Reality of My Surroundings, featuring their only two singles to make the charts, Everyday Sunshine and Sunless Saturday. Some may also wonder what happened to them since then. It turns out Fishbone is doing just fine, thank you very much.

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L-R: Paul Hampton, Angelo Moore, Walter Kibby

Fronted by original vocalist/saxophonist Angelo Moore (one of three original members still playing with the band), Fishbone took a somewhat lukewarm crowd and had them eating out of the palms of their hands by the end of their almost hour-long set. Opening with the aforementioned Sunless Saturday, Moore and company set the bar high for the energy level they had to sustain for the rest of the set—a bar they had no problem clearing, and then some. Moore is as entertaining and energetic a frontman as you’re likely to find. His exaggerated facial expressions and grandiose, frenetic body language was fun to watch and a blast to photograph.

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Angelo Moore

With occasional help from a trusty roadie, Angelo switched from vocals to one of a myriad of different saxes with ease, even placing and re-placing the mic stand for his horn on cue every time. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say the band sounded incredible. I spent the majority of the set planted in front of bassist and fellow original member Norwood Fisher, who laid down incredible grooves on an array of beautiful basses. By the end of closer Party at Ground Zero, the crowd was hyped and ready to testify.

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L-R: Walter Kibby, Norwood Fisher

 

Reverend Horton Heat, aka Jim Heath, has been cranking out his brand of rockabilly/punkabilly/psychobilly/whatever you want to put in front of “billy” since 1985, and has hardly let up since. Heath and his loyal sidekick/bass player Jim “Jimbo” Wallace were in the midst of recording a new album when previous drummer Scott Churilla decided to go his own way, leaving the band in a tight spot. Luckily, fate intervened in the form of fellow Texan Arjuna “RJ” Contreras, formerly of the terrific-yet-vastly-under-appreciated polka band (yes, that’s right) Brave Combo. He stepped in to record his parts for the album and was on the road touring before he knew what hit him. So would the new drummer change Reverend Horton Heat’s sound? Yes and no.

That’s because many of the songs in RHH’s set were classics and fan favorites. It would take some truly radical drumming to change the sound of set-opening instrumental Big Sky, or the dynamic push and pull of The Devil’s Chasin’ Me, but Contreras definitely has his own style, tinkering with certain drum parts and making them his own. Personally, I think RJ is a great fit for the band and I hope he has a permanent gig with the guys.

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RJ Contreras

The Cotillion Ballroom is probably my favorite venue in Wichita, and possibly the Reverend’s too, as he proudly declared how happy he was to be “in Wichita, Kansas at The Cotillion on Friday night!” despite it being Saturday. He may have been joking (he repeatedly said it was Friday, possibly just to mess with the inebriated), but if he was really confused, it’s easy to forgive—this was their 23rd show in 29 days. I’m impressed he even knew what city he was in, but then, when you’re the hardest working man in rockabilly, I assume touring with nary a day off becomes old hat.

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Jim Heath, RJ Contreras

As it turned out, the show at The Cotillion marked the end of their month-long tour with Fishbone and Los Kung Fu Monkeys (the tour’s other support act, Strung Out, bowed out the night before in Peoria, Illinois), and they commemorated the end of the tour by having a huge jam session on stage with members of all three bands. At one point during Fishbone’s set, I even caught the Reverend himself standing three feet from me, taking pictures of the band on his cell phone. It was a great show, and the best part is that with a band that works as hard as they do, I can count on them coming back to town soon.

Side note: if you don’t believe the “hardest working man in rockabilly” claim, check out RHH’s Facebook page—they already have tour dates up for the entire month of October, featuring some shows with country swing and doo wop master Big Sandy, and the entire month of December, those shows being an amazing triple bill featuring roots rock legends The Blasters and country guitar virtuoso Junior Brown. If they’re coming to your town, I highly recommend checking them out. If not, don’t worry—there’s a good chance eventually the Rev will come to you.

 

The Black Dahlia Murder 08/20/17—The Crown Uptown, Wichita, KS

I’ve been a Wichita resident for eleven years, and a metal fan for considerably longer. Until recently, those two things—being a metal fan and residing in Wichita—rarely intermingled, as live bands playing anything but country or classic rock were few and far between (Steve Miller Band, anyone?). There  was the occasional metal show here and there, but not much in the way of a scene that people could support.

That may be starting to change.

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Brandon Ellis, The Black Dahlia Murder—sadly, the only zippered leather vest spotted all night.

In 2017, Wichita has seen shows by Mushroomhead, Cattle Decapitation, Superjoint, Amon Amarth, Hellyeah, Born of Osiris, and now, The Black Dahlia Murder. Combine that with the steady stream of shows full of local bands at smaller venues, and you’ve got yourself the makings of an actual scene.

The Crown Uptown is a gorgeous place. Although originally a movie theater when it was built in the 20’s (and dinner theater for years after), it seems almost custom made for concerts. As for TBDM show, turnout seemed a bit thin (blame the bad luck of having to book the show on a Sunday), although the fans who did show up were enthusiastic and appeared grateful to have another metal show in their town.

Kicking off the night was hometown act Parallax, playing a short but energetic set. Vocalist Trevor Rickett gave his all to try and pump up the crowd, with help from some vocal Parallax fans in attendance. The band was also shooting a video for a brand new song, so keep an eye out on social media for that one to drop.

Side note: Parallax is playing at The Elbow Room next month opening for Hed PE 09/22, so do yourself a favor and go see these guys while they’re still playing local shows—it may be only a matter of time before they’re touring nonstop and hardly ever home.

Betraying the Martyrs was up next, from Paris, France as a last minute replacement for Russian act Slaughter to Prevail. Their ultra heavy beats and growling vocals warmed everyone up, but the crowd was perhaps not ready for the occasional clean vocals and prominent keyboard parts that permeated the set.

At one point vocalist Aaron Matts urged the crowd to get moving and jump with the music, which the crowd did eagerly until the heavy riff they were jumping to gave way to keyboards and clean vocals, and the crowd lost their momentum. They’re a good band and they gave a tight performance, though by the end it I was thinking of them as “The THX band” due to the number of times their songs had beats drop like the THX surround sound intro that plays before a movie.

New Jersey’s Lorna Shore was up next, playing a short, tight set that was the first of the night to succeed in sustaining a circle pit for more than twenty seconds and consisting of more than two people. Closing with the title track off their newest LP Flesh Coffin, the band succeeded in loosening the crowd up for the remaining chaos yet to come.

Side note: Lorna Shore is returning to Wichita next month, opening for Miss May I at Rock Island Live 09/21. Don’t miss another chance to see this excellent band.

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Adam De Micco, Lorna Shore—guy liked to shred with his leg propped on his monitor.

The final opening slot (in the disappointing absence of Dying Fetus from this stop of the Summer Slaughter tour) belonged to the crushing Oceano. Led by one of metal’s most guttural vocalists in Adam Warren, Oceano brought an intensity the previous bands lacked. In fact, Warren even issued a warning to a member of the crowd to properly channel his enthusiasm, after he sprayed Warren with water during the opening number. After a reminder from Warren that people at the front of the stage were vulnerable to face-level kicks from Warren if he were splashed any more, the crowd put an end to the shenanigans and put their energy into proper displays of enthusiasm like a frenetic circle pit and the evening’s first instances of crowd surfing. Oceano was the band I was most excited to see and they did not disappoint. They were brutally heavy, buzzing with electric energy, and had the crowd worked into a frenzy for the night’s headliners.

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Adam Warren, Oceano—breaking it down while a fan headbangs.

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Chris Wagner, Oceano—you can tell he’s pounding that bass, look at his top string.

The Black Dahlia Murder capitalized on the crowd’s energy level and never let it drop throughout their hour-plus set. Running like a precision machine, TBDM cranked through song after song without sounding like they were rushing to get through their time on stage. Vocalist Trevor Strnad had a good rapport with fans, simultaneously joking around and keeping them buzzing between songs by encouraging them to keep the crowd surfing and stage diving going throughout the set, particularly among the females in attendance, who were up to the challenge.

TBDM closed with a brand new song, the title track from their upcoming LP Nightbringers, which was reminiscent of some of their most popular material. If that song is any indication, fans won’t be disappointed when the album drops in October.

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Trevor Strnad, The Black Dahlia Murder—pointing to a superfan.

Side note: Brian Eschbach had an absolutely insane guitar tone that made this guitarist and former member of metal and hardcore bands incredibly jealous.

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Brian Eschbach, The Black Dahlia Murder—he knows his tone is sick, look at him.

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The Black Dahlia Murder—orchestrating chaos.

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Brian Eschbach, The Black Dahlia Murder—sponsored by PBR.

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Max Lavelle, The Black Dahlia Murder—mid-headbang

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Alan Cassidy, The Black Dahlia Murder—they had him tucked away and not even on a drum riser, like he was some second-class citizen. Drummers are people, too! (Barely)

It was a satisfying night of deathcore and extreme metal, with every band delivering in a big way. One can only hope that attendance was good enough to keep bringing metal acts to town and for a scene to develop. Time (and perhaps turnout at the upcoming D.R.I., Miss May I, and DevilDriver shows) will tell, but when crowds are as enthusiastic as this it’s only a matter of time before word spreads among fans and before you know it you have a thriving scene. May Wichita be so fortunate.

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Soles of shoes in a crowd shot = good concert.

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Ecstatic crowd surfer.

I Love a Horse(man)

It seems like it’s been a while since I’ve talked about TV. I guess that’s partly because my viewing habits have changed so drastically over the past year and a half or so. Once upon a time I wrote a post giving 3 Reasons Why Man Can’t Live on Netflix Alone. Oddly enough, reading back over it, I still agree with most of what I said there.

That being said, I’m now a cord-cutter, and while I do miss the ability to mindlessly surf channels like a lobotomized sloth, I’ve gotten to the point where I can’t imagine being without my dear, sweet Netflix. I originally got the free trial just so I could binge watch Breaking Bad, but (of course) I ended up keeping it. Then back in February I ditched it for Hulu for the sole purpose of watching 11.22.63, but I ended up keeping it for a while so I could catch up on Broad City, plus I got hooked on the Hulu original show, Casual. But I had to go back and get Netflix again, mostly for one solitary reason: a dickhead anthropomorphic horse.

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 I first started watching BoJack Horseman on the recommendation of fellow blogger Dylan at Hooray for Movies!(whose opinion I respect a great deal), who wrote this post about the show after binge watching its first season in 2014.

How do I put this without resorting to hyperbole? Bojack Horseman is one of the best shows on television, and in just 3 seasons is already one of my favorite shows ever, joining the ranks of The Sopranos, the aforementioned Breaking Bad, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Whether you like those shows or not, I realize calling it one of the best shows on TV is a bold claim. After all, we are experiencing a bit of a golden age for television. Why would I make such a statement? Let me break it down for you:

First, let’s talk about the cast. BoJack is voiced by the always awesome Will Arnett of Arrested Development, and his freeloading friend/roommate Todd is played by Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul.  Then there’s BoJack’s feline agent and on-again-off-again girlfriend, Princess Carolyn, voiced by one of my favorite people in the known universe, Amy Sedaris. Rounding out the main characters we have Community’s Alison Brie as Diane Nguyen, the writer assigned to help BoJack write his autobiography, and her boyfriend, golden retriever Mister Peanutbutter, voiced by comedian Paul F. Tompkins.

And as if that wasn’t enough, the talent in the supporting cast is absolutely insane. Here, you know what? Let me bring in a visual aid.

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I’ll spare you any gushing about the amazing cameos throughout the show by the likes of Daniel Radcliffe, Greg Kinnear, Candace Bergen, and oh so many more—other than to say that this show has raised the bar on cameos so high that I don’t know if another show will ever match it.

But wait, you may be saying, what’s this show even about?

BoJack is a washed up 90s sitcom star. He was on a show called Horsin’ Around, where he was a single horse raising three kids. Think Full House, but with a talking horse. The show made him very rich, and he…well, he doesn’t do much but party. He drinks, does drugs, and screws whoever will let him. Diane is hired to ghost write his autobiography, and her boyfriend is BoJack’s arch frenemy (and fellow 90s sitcom star) Mister Peanutbutter, and the show takes off from there.

The thing is, the show is about so much more. This show goes deep and gets real in a way few shows can manage. It’s astounding how real and three dimensional these characters are, a feat made all the more remarkable since many of them are animals, but the feelings they have are distinctly human. I attribute that to the incredible writing.

The storylines, character arcs, and dialogue are all among the best I’ve ever seen. Certain lines of dialogue can alternately make me laugh, gasp, or leave my jaw hanging open. They’ll spend nearly an entire season setting up a joke, or subtly reinforcing a punchline over and over without you even being fully aware of it (For anyone who’s watched the show, I’m referring to the ‘What are you doing here?’ line woven throughout season two). I feel like all writers could benefit from watching this show; it’s a true master class.

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A little meta humor for the Aaron Paul fans out there.

Ultimately, it’s a show about depression and how people seek validation and happiness in their lives. BoJack is not a very likable character—to call him an anti-hero is much too nice. He’s a toxic asshole who destroys everything he touches. The thing is, he knows he’s toxic, and he wants to be better, and to be happy. At least, he thinks he does, but he manages to sabotage himself every step of the way.

As I was trying to think of how to explain the type of character BoJack is, I found myself looking back at a show I mentioned earlier, The Sopranos. In a lot of ways BoJack reminds me of Tony Soprano, in that they’re both selfish, manipulative narcissists, and yet you find yourself still liking them (to a degree, at least) in spite of that.

Lest we forget, however, that in all the talk of the dark, bleak themes, the show is still a comedy. And there are so many joke. So. Many. Jokes. Silly animal puns. Clever jokes. Smart jokes. Stupid jokes. Vincent Adultman, for Christ’s sake—two children stacked on top of each other inside a trench coat pretending to be an adult, dating Princess Carolyn who is completely oblivious. The show practically requires repeat viewing just to catch the jokes you missed the first time around.

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So why aren’t more people watching?

I mean, it has its (very devoted) fans, but this show deserves the adulation (and ratings) of Mad Men, House of Cards, and the like. I think it suffers from two problems.

1) the first impression it makes. A lot of people simply don’t want to give an animated show with talking animals a chance, period. They’ll write it off as another Family Guy wannabe, which really couldn’t be farther from the truth.

2) The show requires some investment. The  first few episodes are funny, but it’s not until you learn more about the characters and some of their true (and very dark) colors come out that the show really gets its hooks in you.

Look, what can I say—I love pretty much everything about this show. It’s damn near perfect.

And I haven’t even mentioned the incredible opening and closing themes, composed by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and Grouplove, respectively.

So here’s what I ask of you:

Give the show an honest chance. At least 5 or 6 episodes. You may already enjoy it by then, but that’s when the show takes its first dip into darkness, and that’s when it really got my attention.

And if my urging isn’t enough for you, there’s this: Time magazine just announced its list of the best TV episodes of 2016, and none other than BoJack Horseman’s  underwater-set (and largely dialogue free) episode Fish Out of Water was named best television episode of the year. What more recommendation do you need?

Do yourself a favor: watch it. You won’t regret it.

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How Exactly Does One Become a Buff?

It’s weird. People who are into music are called audiophiles, people call themselves a geek or a nerd about whatever subject they’re into, but it seems like I only ever hear two types of people call themselves ‘buffs’: film buffs and history buffs.

I’ve been a self-proclaimed film buff for years—I know there are tons of people who know way more about movies than I ever will, but to the average Joe I’m pretty knowledgeable. History, on the other hand, well…in school, history was up there with math as classes I’d sooner get a root canal than attend. Part of it might be because my teachers always seemed to make it so dry and uninteresting (what was up with that, Mr. Curi?). It wasn’t until college that I took a history class that was somewhat interesting, and it only covered up to the revolutionary war, but it did stoke my curiosity a little. So this past weekend when I was checking TripAdvisor for things to do for a trip to Kansas City with my significant other, I was interested when the first thing that popped up was the National World War I Museum and Memorial.

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What I knew about WWI could fit on the inside of a matchbook, so everything I saw in the museum fascinated me. Everyone has at least a cursory knowledge of WWII, but The Great War seems to be somewhat overlooked in school.

The first thing I noticed upon entering the museum was the abundance of poppies—pictures of poppies on the walls, poppies on plates and keychains, on mugs in the gift shop, and this sight under your feet as you make your way from the lobby to the museum itself:

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It looked odd, seeing all the flowers with no grass or anything green around them, and although it’s hard to tell in the picture, there are a couple of wooden planks in the middle of it all. What did it all mean? We wouldn’t find out until the end of our visit.

We were guided to a cozy auditorium showing a short film that tried to explain as quickly and clearly as it could what led up to the war, namely the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. In the virtual blink of an eye following the assassination, multiple countries had declared war on each other and all hell broke loose.

The museum had more content than you could shake a stick at: Uniforms of the soldiers and nurses; gas masks, firearms and artillery; life-sized recreations of the trenches on the battlefields and the enormous craters left by the rounds fired from a tank; and my personal favorite, propaganda posters.

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There were dozens upon dozens of posters on display, and a really cool interactive feature that let you create your own mashup poster from the ones provided. There were also some newspapers from the time and various quotes from historic figures regarding the war.

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And the poppies?

Unhappy with the lack of any real explanation, we wandered to the information desk where an elderly volunteer was more than happy to explain it to us. As it turns out, under the right conditions poppies can grow wild (being as much like a weed as they are a flower), and the atrocities of war gave them near perfect conditions to flourish: the heavy foot traffic and vehicle wear aerated the soil, the decomposing bodies fertilized it, and a chemical from the artillery shells killed off any pests that would eat or damage the flowers.

The result was that the battlefields that had been stripped barren of any sign of life (and instead were full of death and decay) soon were brimming with poppies. Soon after the war it became a symbol of remembrance not only for the Americans but for all the soldiers who died in the war worldwide. As for the scene under our feet when we entered? Each poppy below us represented 1,000 military lives lost in the war, 9 million in total.

We spent about two and a half hours at the museum, but could’ve easily spent twice that long. Your ticket is actually good for two days (although we had just one day to spend), which makes it that much more of a value. Being there over Veteran’s Day weekend meant that a) tickets were half price, and b) it was exceptionally crowded. I look forward to going back to the museum at a more relaxed pace to try and take it all in. If you’re ever in Kansas City, I highly recommend it.

I almost forgot to mention how cool the gift shop was! They had all sorts of things, from t-shirts to mugs to dishes to collectible replica helmets. I was absolutely tickled to find stoneware coasters with some of my favorite propaganda posters on them, and this mug which delighted my girlfriend to no end:

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Considering I was already gaining an interest in war and general history, I may soon be adding history buff to my self-proclaimed film buff status, which is cool because I know damn well those are the only kinds of buff I’ll ever be. 

Chaos with a Smile: Andrew W.K.’s The Power of Partying Tour

In  the pantheon of great motivational speakers, certain people come to mind:images-2

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One of these things is not like the other.

Saturday night, thanks to an overwhelming sense of curiosity and a girlfriend who’s always up for something new, saw me at a venue normally associated with rock performances, hosting a rock singer. This, however, was different. It was a spoken word appearance by self-proclaimed King of Partying Andrew W.K., as part of his 50 state The Power of Partying tour.

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What I knew going in: I knew of Andrew W.K., as I suppose a lot of people might, from the 2001 hit single “Party Hard” (which, along with some other singles, has popped up in various video games) and from the now-iconic album cover featuring W.K. with one doozy of a bloody nose. Beyond that, all I knew was that Andrew had parlayed the party lifestyle he’d become famous for into serious motivational speaking gigs framed by his own rock ‘n’ roll viewpoint. He had some material prepared, but a large chunk of the evening would be open to Q & A from the audience.

Side note regarding the venue: I can’t believe it took me over a decade to finally go to Barleycorn’s. The place was cleaner, nicer, and smaller than I expected. Over the course of the night I must’ve remarked at least three different times “I really like this place.” I can’t wait to go back and see some bands, as with a capacity of only around 250 people there is literally not a bad seat in the house.

What I found upon arrival: Free pizza? Are you kidding me? Okay, the guy knows how to start a party—music, pizza, and alcohol. We got settled into one of the few remaining seats with our party accoutrements, and not a moment too soon—the show uncharacteristically (for a typical rock show, anyway) started right on time.

Andrew began the show by getting what I would’ve called in my prime pro wresting watching days “a cheap pop”—pandering to the home crowd for some easy applause. And yet, right off the bat I felt a vibe coming off W.K., in all his white jeans/plain white t-shirt wearing glory: the dude was completely genuine. There was no pandering, he was actually happy and excited to be there in Wichita, KS.

He spoke about the rigors of a 50 state tour, and how if he’d taken any time to think about it before committing he may have reconsidered. Before long, he got to the topic at hand—what it means to party in Andrew W.K.’s world.

So, what does “party” mean to man who’s practically made a career out of the word? A lot of things, actually. Positivity—being upbeat, finding the silver lining, etc. He spoke of having feelings of melancholy since he was a little boy, and how music helped him (then and now) weather the storm of negativity and gloom that would seemingly invade his thoughts.

One thing that really resonated with me was this (paraphrasing slightly): “Some of the biggest sparks of inspiration can come from the lowest of places. If you know how to acknowledge that bad feeling and roll with it, you can create something incredible.” I know exactly what he meant, as I’ve had a lot of bad things to draw inspiration from in the last year or so.

Although he didn’t use the term, a lot of what he touched on related to the concept of mindfulness. I’m nowhere near knowledgeable to go into detail about it, but if I had to try and sum it up in a sentence, it involves learning to acknowledge feelings and sensations as they happen without judgement (plus an awful lot more—again, I’m no expert). A major part of mindfulness is meditation, and while certain aspects appear to be easier to grasp than others, it seems incredibly beneficial to your mental and physical well-being if you can get a handle on it. You can learn more about mindfulness (highly recommended) by clicking here.

Upon opening the floor to questions, I was surprised how many people wanted to ask Andrew about coping with depression. I expected more rock ‘n’ roll stories from the road, or meeting celebrities, that sort of thing. (One guy asked about his high-energy live shows and W.K. described it as “chaos with a smile”, with raging mosh pits that would stop everything to help someone look for their glasses.)

My favorite exchange of the night was when a young woman asked him how she could help a friend who suffered from chronic depression and sometimes had suicidal thoughts. Without a moment’s hesitation he said, “Love them.” He went on to elaborate on that, but I (along with everyone else in the venue) was struck by the touching simplicity of his answer.

After the Q & A session, W.K. invited anyone who still wanted to talk or take pictures to come see him in the back of the bar by his merch table. Almost everyone in the room got in line to talk to him, or so it seemed. I was positioned to be able to see him with just a slight turn of my head, and I admit I enjoyed watching him interact with his fans, for a couple reasons.

First, just the act of hanging out like that to meet people and talk to them is a cool thing to do. He didn’t have to do that. It took upwards of 90 minutes for him to talk to everyone, shake every hand, take every picture. Second, he wasn’t just going through the motions. He was there, in the moment, with everyone who came before him. Eyes locked on theirs, listening intently to whatever it was they had to say to him. That really spoke volumes about the kind of guy he is, and I have to say it left me pretty impressed. That’s not to say he didn’t make a bee line out of there once the line was gone, but still. Just an awesome guy.

What I learned:  I learned that even guys who seemingly never have a bad day still struggle with their own demons. In the case of Andrew W.K., those don’t seem to be the typical rock ‘n’ roll demons of drugs and alcohol (I don’t think he even had a drink after the show, even though I’m sure people would’ve lined up to buy him one), but much more common ones: depression, self-worth, seizing the day, etc. It was nice reinforcement to know a fellow death metal loving oddball goes through it too.

W.K. mentioned he was about 1/3 through his 50 state tour, if he comes to your town I highly recommend catching him. He’s a good guy with a good message, and given the year I (and the nation) have had, you really can’t have enough people like that. Here’s a link to his remaining tour dates, check him out.

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I almost forgot, he also created a political party, The Party Party (naturally). I don’t know about any of you, but I’d sure vote for the guy.