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The Columnest: This Is Air. Hot Air, Mostly.

A few years ago when I pulled the plug on “Jokes by Brian Beatty,” which had appeared online at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency for more than three years and in print in the gutters of METRO Magazine’s front pages for about a year, I was confident that I would land a new column in no time. […]

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A few years ago when I pulled the plug on “Jokes by Brian Beatty,” which had appeared online at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency for more than three years and in print in the gutters of METRO Magazine’s front pages for about a year, I was confident that I would land a new column in no time. Well, confident by my standards. I’d moved beyond mumbling droll one-liners on stage and was eager to put them to some sort of more interesting use as a writer, too.

What I hoped to do next was dish out inane quips in response to genuine reader pleas for advice.

Amy Sedaris was still writing her crazed “Sedaratives” column for The Believer. Dan Savage’s snarky syndicated sex advice was often the best reading in City Pages. The Rumpus was around, but Oprah favorite, Cheryl Strayed, hadn’t yet assumed her “Dear Sugar” responsibilities. But I’d picked up a used copy of The Slice from a dollar bin somewhere. That cheap paperback retrospective of the advice column novelist Katherine Dunn (Geek Love) wrote to pay the bills in the 1980s was the only proof I needed that there was no shame in pretending you knew it all.

Or, in my case, pretending that I knew nothing. (My pitch line for “Badvice by Brian Beatty” was, “There are no stupid answers,” though that was exactly what I had in mind.) That I was entirely unqualified to offer anybody advice — good, bad and/or absurd — wasn’t nearly as entertaining to editors as it was to me, I soon discovered. Nobody I approached expressed one iota of interest in publishing a column predicated on the idea of getting it wrong every time.

I was stunned. Well, stunned by my standards. Because Americans are usually suckers for awful advice. For a bunch of know-it-alls, nobody’s more desperate than we are to be told by some total stranger what to do next. There are even people who listen to Dr. Phil.

What if I’d performed on (cable) TV before? Perhaps appeared in a holiday ad campaign for Target? Would my ridiculous pitch have been taken seriously then?

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Stand-up comedian Maria Bamford (last seen in the new Netflix episodes of Arrested Development) recently launched an online series called “Ask My Mom!” for My Damn Channel. And not so surprisingly, she gets just about everything right. The episodes are short. Her viewers’ questions aren’t sitcom cute or alt-comedy geek clever. And the back-and-forth between Bamford and Bamford-inhabiting-her-mother is the ideal showcase for an addled, passive-aggressive caricature that epitomizes stereotypes at the same time it skewers them with quick, off-kilter wit too smart for Hollywood.

“Minnesota nice” and “Mother knows best” are banal abstractions easily reduced to meaningless cliché. And ridiculing clichés, meaningless or otherwise, typically makes for lazy, expected comedy. But Bamford’s take on her mother, familiar to fans of the comedian’s stand-up, is neither lazy nor expected. Whether a complicated mother/daughter dynamic originally inspired the impression doesn’t matter at this point. It’s the dark, distracted advice Mom Bamford utters in response to viewer emails that is the real draw here. So far, episodes have been fatalistic and funny in equal measure, reminding me on more than one occasion of my favorite throwaway aside from Bamford’s The Special Special Special download last year. Performing stand-up in her own living room, for an audience of her parents, a lounge keyboardist and the video crew documenting the gig for posterity, the comedian recounts an hour-long online chat she found herself having with a woman who’d forgotten about her baby in a sweltering car.

“We’re all doing the best we can,” Bamford empathizes, finally, remaining wide-eyed with disbelief. “And sometimes it is…not that good.”


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“Ask My Mom!” is better than good — way better. And I’m not just saying that because I can now see how a column like “Badvice by Brian Beatty” might have destroyed innocent lives. New episodes appear every Thursday. (Hint, hint.) So far Bamford has addressed sex, child-rearing, religion and show business, in about a minute each.

It’s a shame that all advice can’t be kept so stopwatch concise.

David Foster Wallace’s commencement address to Kenyon College’s 2005 graduating class,  published in bestseller form as This Is Water, could’ve been cut to half a minute long and not lost its entertainment value. Once past his opening “didactic little parable-ish” anecdote of naive young fish oblivious to the wet world surrounding them (spoiler alert!), the precocious literary maximalist could hardly be bothered to address the grads assembled before him as grown-ups.

Wallace instead spends the remainder of This Is Water condescending to his young audience about the humdrum adult challenges they can’t possibly imagine ahead of them, explicating trite self-help clichés until he’s revealed the secret, significant truths he’s convinced they contain. Even with prodigious white space (to accommodate reader note-taking, no doubt) and not a footnote in sight, This Is Water is a slow, sanctimonious read that feels more self-helpless and cynical than sincere in light of Wallace’s suicide a couple of years later.

The shame is that since graduation seasons roll around annually, it’s possible This Is Water could wind up with more readers than Wallace’s infinitely more empathetic and emotionally resonant fiction and journalism.

“Make interesting, amazing, glorious, fantastic mistakes,” prolific fantasy author Neil Gaiman advised University of the Arts grads toward the conclusion of his 2012 commencement address. Now in bookstores, Make Good Art is far more inspirational than Wallace’s fish-in-water tale — even if features what has to be the ugliest work of celebrated book designer Chip Kidd’s career.  Gaiman’s self-deprecating remarks and firsthand insights ring true because Gaiman is willing to confess that his address is based on his own trial-and-error life experiences, while Wallace keeps his audience at an authoritative, academic arm’s length. Gaiman’s grad address is a lighter read than his usual fare, too, though that in no way excuses the pastel color palette and gratuitous typographic winks that make Make Good Art appear, at first glance, sherbet-sweet and/or mind-numbing.

The book looks scratch-n-sniff — not cool.

Chip Kidd & Neil Gaiman/

Chip Kidd and Neil Gaiman/

I’ve decided that Kidd couldn’t be bothered to read what Gaiman wrote. Or perhaps he did, and it inspired Kidd to make his own “interesting, amazing, glorious, fantastic” mistake as a tribute. Buy Gaiman’s book for your shelf, if you must, but watch his speech here, too, if only for his accent.

It’s unfortunate, but many readers will miss Kurt Vonnegut’s If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? (Subtitle: Advice for the Young.) Since his 2007 death, quickie electronic publications of Vonnegut’s trunk texts have flooded’s Kindle store. That the Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Copyright Trust is behind this deluge of posthumous publications suggests that the decision-making has been more legal- than literary-minded.

Nice is an ugly book padded out with oversized margins and giant print intended for e-reader screens, but it’s still worth a download or online purchase. Vonnegut was often as entertaining (and insightful) behind a mic as he was in his stories and novels. The pieces brought together for this thin volume reveal an older, crankier Vonnegut than we might remember from his Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons, Palm Sunday and Fates Worse Than Death non-fiction collections. But for all of his vitriol, Vonnegut still has room in his heart for Indianapolis, good music, the University of Chicago’s Anthropology Department, his Uncle Alex and anybody devoted to public education.

Vonnegut was a seasoned speaker when he delivered the talks here. He knew better than to preach — unlike Wallace and Gaiman both, to varying degrees. And, as ever, Vonnegut makes it look easy.

Several anecdotes recur from speech to speech, and in some pieces Vonnegut does “sound” tired, but it’s a delight to realize how unreformed he was re: his political, cultural and humanist values. Vonnegut succeeds as a speaker because he’s more personal than he is prescriptive. His advice, if/when he finally gets around to it, is blunt, for sure. But his old-fashioned directness — minus vague, new-age niceties — is refreshing for its candor. He knows who he is. You do, too. That’s why he’s here.

“If you don’t know what the Sermon on the Mount is, ask your kid’s computer,” Vonnegut advises the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana in a speech that he concludes with a rhetorical question, which he then answers in a way that challenges audience assumptions. “What did The Battle Hymn of the Republic and Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and all that have to do with our present enthusiasm for women’s rights? Not that much, really. Women just got lucky this time.”

So it goes.

In a recent Esquire Magazine interview, Maria Bamford explained the genesis of “Ask My Mom!” this way: “I wanted to do a show with my mom for a long time and she used to answer questions on my website for people who were looking for advice. That was good until she started getting inundated with questions that she didn’t like.”

Fortunately, Bamford discovered an entertaining workaround, so this time we’re the lucky ones.

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