Write to the Point!

A Neighborhood Studios Program at the Mark Twain House

Archive for the tag “Alan Burkholder”

Twain Studios 2013 Anthology

Anthology cover

This is the cover of the 48-page anthology of work by the Writing Apprentices of Twain Studios. You can see the whole thing by following the link below.

For six weeks in July and August, 2013, a dozen teenagers from diverse backgrounds, different schools and towns, came together as a group at The Mark Twain House & Museum.

This group, the newest of the Neighborhood Studios of the Greater Hartford Arts Council, originated with a great conversation between the arts council and Julia Pistell, who is part of the Mark Twain House communications team.

Led by Master Teaching Artist Jackie Majerus, the teens practiced reporting, interviewing and writing creative non-fiction. They learned about Mark Twain, his Nook Farm neighborhood and neighbors past and present and about each other. Lasting friendships formed. They explored Nook Farm and the state Capitol and learned from an array of guest speakers.

The program was called Write to the Point! and the students, who were writing apprentices, called themselves The Jakes, their shorthand for “Journalism Kids.”

The teens, who ranged from age 14 to 18, worked individually and cooperatively on all sorts of non-fiction writing. They wrote a lot. Most of it is on this blog. Much of their best work was printed in a 48-page anthology – their crowning achievement distributed at their showcase last month, where the youth read their work aloud to an audience of family, friends and others interested in the arts.

Besides the written work, and some artwork of the youth in the studio, the anthology also includes many photographs of these wonderful young people throughout their summer adventure. It is impossible to fully capture a lively group of creative young people on a blog or on a printed page, but this blog, and the anthology, should offer a glimpse into an amazing summer experience.

Thank you for taking time to explore this blog and the anthology.  Comments are welcome, too!

To see the anthology in PDF form, follow this link:

 Twain Studios 2013 Anthology

The Dawn of the Funny Critics

By Alan Burkholder

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

Criticism isn’t hard to do, but good criticism is. When you write a review of something, you need to look at it fairly, but still present your own opinion on it. There is a lot of thinking involved.

There’s an old saying that everyone is a critic. Everyone has something to say about something, whether it be music, movies, art, or even food. And in this modern age, that seems to be the case.

There was never really a critic who was internationally famous for being a critic before the days of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. However, when the two started reviewing movies on television, using their “thumbs up”/”thumbs down” system, criticism became accessible to a wider audience, because Siskel and Ebert kept their criticisms simple, logical, and entertaining.

Even if you didn’t agree with their opinions, and even if their opinions conflicted with each other, the two were always insightful and funny to watch.

However, the first world-famous critics on TV soon became the only world-famous critics on TV. After Siskel died in 1999, Ebert did the show solo for a short period before getting a new partner, Richard Roeper, in 2000. Ebert, however, developed cancer in 2006 and had to stop doing the show in order to get treated. In 2008, Roeper left the show and from there, the show declined in quality. There hasn’t been another show quite like it ever since.

There was another place, however, where people could get a good dose of criticism: the internet.

Recent years have seen something of a renaissance in criticism, and the art of reviews has turned into a popular movement. Some of the more prevalent examples of this include That Guy with the Glasses, a site dedicated to reviewers of all mediums, and The Escapist, an online magazine dedicated to news and reviews of video games.

The mastermind behind That Guy is Douglas Walker, a Chicago-based comedian who runs several web series, including The Nostalgia Critic, which started in 2007.

The Nostalgia Critic is about a foulmouthed, emotionally troubled critic who spends a lot of his free time complaining about bad movies, most of them from the 80’s and 90’s. The character of the Critic takes cues from a mix of comic influences, including Robin Williams and Mystery Science Theater 3000, and also from Siskel and Ebert.

Walker, when reviewing, keeps his criticisms sharp, but still funny to watch.

Thanks to help from his brother Rob Walker, and business partners Mike Michaud, Mike Ellis and Bhargav Dronamraju (the respective CEO, former COO and former CEP of independent production company Channel Awesome), Doug started the website in April 2008 after his videos had been faced with several YouTube takedowns. Doug and Rob have taken a lot of reviewers onto the site, a lot of whom have become famous in their own right. Due to the site’s success, Doug was named “Entrepreneur of the Year” at the fourthannual Mashable Awards in January 2011.

Some of the most popular shows on the site are Lewis “Linkara” Lovhaug’s Atop the Fourth Wall, which is a review show about bad comic books and graphic novels, and Joe Vargas’ Angry Joe Show, a video game review show which led to the formation of a sister site called Blistered Thumbs, which hosts a lot of game reviewers.

That Guy with the Glasses has also collaborated with Cinemassacre, a site which plays host to James Rolfe of Philadelphia, who in 2006 started what was arguably the first major online criticism show: The Angry Video Game Nerd.

One of the most well-known critics on the Escapist is Australian-based Ben Croshaw, who goes by the alias “Yahtzee.” Being a former game designer himself, Croshaw brings his insight and experience into his criticism in the weekly review series Zero Punctuation, which, after going for two episodes on YouTube, has been running on the Escapist website since 2007. The series got its name due to Yahtzee’s style of reviewing: very fast-paced and very straightforward.

Croshaw’s rambling is always accompanied by a series of cartoons made in Photoshop that emphasize what Croshaw is talking about, or occasionally throwing in an extra joke (such as the infamous running gag of “Press X to Not Die.”)

“…I’ve always been a vitriolic writer,” said Croshaw, in a 2008 interview with Destructoid. “My chief influences are humorous British critics like Victor Lewis-Smith and Charlie Brooker… There’s something about the sardonic British man with exacting standards that gels well with people…”

In a 2011 interview with Josh Harris, Doug Walker said that some people have noticed similarities between him and Ben Croshaw. “I think we’re both part of that fast talking entertainment that keeps the low attention spans of our audiences entertained…”

A lot of these reviewers have something going for them that most critics don’t: the ability to be funny. Plenty of professional critics bring experience to the table, but these online personalities have made big names for themselves by keeping the viewer entertained. This method of review goes back to Ebert and Siskel: the two were talking about movies, just like any other film critic, but they did it in a way that was entertaining to watch.

It takes almost no effort to ramble about something, but the best critics know how to keep the audience engaged and entertained.

Even if the raucous language and lowbrow humor that a lot of these online critics use would turn off some viewers, and other critics would argue that their style is unprofessional, these online personalities have what most critics lack: a personality.

The first step to captivating an audience is getting them interested. The second step is making them care. Never mind what your opinion is, if you’re writing a review or ranting about something, you have to have certain flair or sense of humor in order for people to listen to you. And in the online era, we’re certainly seeing a rise in personality.

Mark Twain’s Style of Humor Lives On in Today’s Comedy

By Alan Burkholder

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

Almost everyone in the world loves Mark Twain. There’s no denying that his work has had quite an impact on society, both in the past and in the present.

Don’t lie to me. You’ve heard the name Tom Sawyer before. If you know who Tom Sawyer is, you probably also know about his friend Huckleberry Finn. These two troublemaking brats have become two of the most famous child characters in all of literature. I say two of the most because a certain young woman from England has recently had more success in the way of children’s literature.

However, Samuel Clemens, who wrote under the name Mark Twain, is arguably the most celebrated author in classic American literature.

Being from a small town in Missouri, Twain had an American upbringing, and as such Twain’s books are very American in nature. These stories range from a story about a notorious gambler in Nevada who gets too cocksure about a jumping frog, to a man from Connecticut who winds up face to face with King Arthur and builds an industrial empire which later ruins their society. Whoops.

His books varied in message and tone, but Twain always had one quality which set him apart from other writers of the time: a sharp and dry wit. Twain was at heart a humorist, and he never stopped trying to be the witty gentleman, even in old age. He was aware of his humanity, and often poked fun at his own flaws.

“We ought never to do wrong when people are looking,” he wrote in “A Double-Barrelled Detective Story.”

But where did Clemens get his inspiration? What was the source of Twain’s persona as a witty individual?

Part of the blame can be pinned on Sam’s mother. While his father was strict and humorless, his mother was always the unconventional woman. She was humorous in nature and she bounced around from religion to religion, even once taking her son to a temple rather than a church.

According to Steve Courtney, publications editor at The Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, Sam and his mother would often joke a lot with each other, probably trying to see if they could outwit one another.

“This disposition to experiment is an inheritance from my mother,” Twain said in a Feb. 28, 1901 lecture reported in the New York Times.

Twain was also inspired by a lot of other people in his life. He based several characters in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer on his boyhood memories in Hannibal, Missouri. His mother became Aunt Polly, his childhood sweetheart became Becky Thatcher, and several troublemaking boys combined to make the ever-bothersome Huckleberry Finn. He also based the runaway slave Jim on his butler, George Griffin.

Twain wasn’t just about characters, though. He was also heavy into politics and could never keep his mouth shut about anything. The grand result of this love of satire was a book called The Gilded Age, in which Twain practically tore American values of the time apart at the seams and revealed the ugly truth beneath all of it, all the while never letting up or apologizing for his actions.

Despite his controversial nature, however, Twain was not a troublemaker. He was simply a rabble-rouser, and he always had a good reason for writing every shocking sentence he ever put to paper.

“Always do right,” Twain wrote in 1901. “This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”

Twain’s work, to this day, continues to both gratify and astonish readers all over the world. Part of the reason is the way Twain presents his humor.

Mark Twain House & Museum Chief Curator Patti Philippon said Twain tended to write how people actually sound.

Instead of being flowery and poetic, Twain wrote his books in plain English so that the message wouldn’t be lost.

“You can understand (Twain) a lot better” than most writers of the time, Courtney said.

People had written plainly before Twain, Courtney said, but he was “the first to make it a point.”

Twain, however was never completely blunt. He realized that in order for the audience to get the message, he had to make it interesting. He didn’t tell you to be honest. He simply said, “when in doubt, tell the truth.”

Twain is not the only person in the world to use humor as a selling point, however. Modern entertainers borrow heavily from Twain’s method of telling stories like they happened. Good humor is always a welcome addition to any story.

Most modern comedies realize that in order to be funny, there doesn’t need to be a lot happening.

Shows like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, and Louis CK’s Louie draw a lot of praise and laughs basically having a small group of people who have a small focus, but a lot of insight. I like to refer to this kind of humor as “Seinfeldian,” after the show (and comedian) that made it popular.

One person who’s familiar with this style of humor is Patrick Skahill, the producer of WNPR’s The Colin McEnroe Show, a Connecticut-based radio program that deal heavily with satire and wit.

Before each show, Skahill said, the producers and stars of the shows “keep an eye out for weird stories,” and then “brainstorm and think of ideas” that they want to discuss.

“Most of it is on the fly,” Skahill said.

Humorists don’t always script everything. Often, they just come up with ideas and work with them from there. This was certainly true of Huckleberry Finn, which started out as the sequel to a boy’s book and turned into one of the most humorous and heartfelt books in recent history. A lot of modern humor is based on social satire. Twain was not shy about social satire.

Twain did a lot of lecturing in his time, which was basically the 19th century equivalent of stand-up comedy. He would go out on stage, start telling a tale, and leave the audience roaring.

Off the stage, Clemens was shy and hated talking to people. On stage, he was a social commentator who seemingly knew more about the country than every politician of the era combined.

Philippon said Twain and Clemens were the same at the core, but Twain was more of a “persona.”

Twain used this persona when writing jokes, because Twain was much funnier. The same can be said for a lot of modern comedians. Everyone adopts a sort of stage persona, whether it be the loudmouth who loves to judge people, the quirky girl who observes a lot of crazy stuff happening, or the good-natured fat guy who likes to poke fun at himself.

All have a character on the stage who represents an exaggerated version of themselves. They earn bonus points if they act like this off of the stage as well.

Comedy writers also like to indulge in exaggeration for comic effect. Twain was a master in this field, especially when it came to his satire. Early in his career, Twain wrote in a newspaper about a “Terrible accident” that hadn’t actually happened, a satire on the sometimes alarmist nature of the news. Alarmingly enough, this kind of satire still holds up today, as several members of Saturday Night Live could easily attest.

Twain’s humor is timeless, touching on topics that are still relevant after about 150 years. To this day, people still follow his lead, in comedy, drama and in writing overall.

In his story, “Green Hills of Africa,” novelist Ernest Hemingway wrote, “All of modern American literature can be traced back to … Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

It seems rather ridiculous to place this much credit upon one person, but Twain was brilliant enough to deserve it at the time.

And he still deserves it today.

Mark Twain Sketch

Twain Sketch, Alan Burkholder

Mark Twain sketch by Alan Burkholder, Writing Apprentice

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