comedy, media, television, workaholics, writing

Workaholics: More than weed and dick jokes

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Workaholics is a Comedy Central sitcom beginning its fifth season this month that features three mid-twenties, pothead dudes who work for a telemarketing company and share a house in Rancho Cucamonga, California. On paper, the premise falls somewhere between The Office and a Judd Apatow bromance movie. On screen, the sitcom stands out from all other recent comedies I’ve seen.

Workaholics is funny, unique, multi-layered, and smart, but the reviews of it I’ve seen have largely missed the point. The words “frat humor” get thrown around a lot. Even favorable critics have mistakenly assumed dumb characters indicate a show without depth and an immature audience indicates purely juvenile comedy. They haven’t bothered digging below the show’s bong- and boner-laden surface because they’ve wrongly assumed there isn’t anything to find. That’s why I’m writing my first TV show review–to work through why this show is more than just another sitcom. I hope to answer this question: What does Workaholics have that makes it so special?

Workaholics is disgusting. While I don’t think grossness is the most salient characteristic of the show, it is the factor most commonly written about so I will address it first.  In nearly every episode, some form of urine, feces, vomit, snot, or blood is splashed on a character or finds its way into someone’s mouth. The episodes that do not involve bodily fluids are sure to have a slightly uncomfortable-to-watch injury or masturbation scene. I’m not grossed out very easily, but I still recognize that this show is grosser than most other shows on television.

workaholics mouth to neck

Workaholics is gross for grossness’s sake and, at times, delightfully, unpredictably, creatively sickening. Lazy critics might write off the repulsive physical humor as a cheap laugh, but clearly it takes ingenuity to think of something as disgusting as rats being splattered around a house and yard with baseball bats. I could write an entire post on the grossest scenes of Workaholics (actually, would anyone like that? maybe a top ten thing?), but I’ll leave it at this: when I saw Blake give CPR to an elderly man’s tracheostomy hole and pull away with mucus in his mouth in S3E17 I squirmed in my seat. It was the first time since childhood something on tv made me gag. That is a whole new level of grossness light years beyond farts and boogers, and it’s worthy of admiration.

Now that grossness is out of the way, let’s dig into Workaholics’ overabundance of references. These are part of the wink at the camera that lets the audience know Workaholics isn’t simply an immature sitcom geared toward high school and college students who geek out over weed and dick jokes. The references give the show dimension and layers of humor. I know I don’t catch all of them; I don’t play video games, read comic books, understand role playing games, or watch many action movies. Still, I was a teenager in the 90s and am a big fan of both comedy and hip-hop and that is enough to feel like I’m firmly inside of the inside jokes.

adam jncos workaholics

The constant 90s references are hilarious evidence that the writers are writing what they think is funny, not simply catering to their audience. Twenty-one-year-olds might laugh at Adam in JNCOs, a Blink 182 tshirt, and a visor when the guys pretend to be high school students (S2E1) because it looks goofy, but they’re not laughing for the same reason I, someone born in 1981, am laughing. I can still remember when all of my crushes wore JNCOs, and when I sat at home having serious discussions with my friends about whether or not we should start dressing like skaters (while Blink 182 likely played in the background).

A favorite 90s reference of mine is in S3E15 when the guys sing Stay by Lisa Loeb to a web cam girl (who, not accidentally, I’m sure, is wearing Lisa Loeb-style glasses). Later in the episode Loeb herself makes a cameo and says “Stay” as part of her lines. The show’s younger fans won’t place Loeb’s line or her face. She is clearly there as a treat for those of us in the same age group as the show’s creators, all born between 1981 and 1984.  The same goes for the myriad other 90s references, such as those to BJ Armstrong, Hanging with Mr. Cooper, and Seven Mary Three.

These 90s references are more than just fun nods to a shared past culture, however. They support a larger underlying theme I’ll discuss later, that of an extended adolescence.  In American society, one’s 20s has, for many people, become a decade of confusing limbo between the teenage and adult years. The 90s references evoke emotions by reminding us viewers of our own teenage years. This allows us to feel more accepting of the guys’ narcissism and lack of empathy, as well as to share in their nostalgia for perhaps silly, yet simpler and more comfortable times of carefree youth prior to adult responsibility.

Workaholics’ comedy and hip-hop references are as plentiful and on-point as the 90s references. The guest actors alone show this is a true comedy fan’s sitcom and the creators are writing (and casting) to the back of the room. Alex Borstein, Chris D’Elia, Tom Green, Tim Heidecker, Leslie Jones, Bruce McCulloch, Chris Parnell, Jordan Peele, and many more comedy favorites have graced the show as guest actors. Sometimes I wonder if the writers are just trying to meet as many of their comedy heroes as possible, which is exactly what I would do if I were in their positions.

In addition to blatant comedy references such as those to John Candy, Tina Fey, and The Office, there are the more subtle gifts that make watching the show feel like a treasure hunt. I nearly missed stand-up Kyle Kinane (S2E8), and had to replay that glimpse of a generic-looking bearded extra in overalls in order to confirm it was him. I also had to replay Ders’s line “You are a medium talent at best” (S4E13) to make sure I heard it correctly, a line that would only be appreciated by comedy fans up on their history of the genre.

The hip-hop references operate similarly (and overlap with the 90s references quite a bit), with overt mentions of Andre 3000, Chamillionaire (my personal favorite), Chief Keef, Jay-Z, Nate Dogg, “Robert Kelly,” Rockafella records, Snoop Dogg, the St. Lunatics, Usher, and more. (Seriously, try and find me another show that references Chamillionaire.) Again, the sweetest references are subtle, special treats, like when Blake thanks Based God (S3E18), or when Anders says in conversation “Ain’t a damn thing changed” (S4E6). The copious use of references itself, especially the practice of using exact lines from other media, could be viewed as a meta-reference to hip-hop, a genre that regularly takes full beats and lines of lyrics then repurposes them to new meaning.

Digging deeper beyond the layers of gross-out humor and cultural references shows that Workaholics interrogates two major shifts happening in our society–the movement toward one’s 20s being an extended adolescence rather than the onset of adulthood and the changing definition of masculinity. These themes are where the real depth and pull of the series lie, and why knock-off shows featuring nerds and/or bros nerding and/or broing out cannot experience the same level of success. Part of the reason the show speaks to viewers, whether or not we consciously realize it, is because it identifies these insecurity-causing cultural shifts and allows us to laugh at our own uncertainties about our place within society in light of them.

Workaholics isn’t a show about slackers, as many tv critics claim. It is largely about one’s 20s (and early 30s, for some), the recently-created and yet-to-be-named cultural space that now exists between adolescence and adulthood. Adam, Blake, and Ders live independently and hold down full-time jobs as adults do, but play videogames and smoke pot constantly like teens. They strive to get promotions and want to be respected at the office, but view their job as boring and devoid of meaning, and continually engage in fireable shenanigans. They are out of college and in “the real world,” yet still don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. Most of the time, they postpone the question by smoking a bowl or going on an adventure.

The guys’ in-between state is perhaps most clearly reflected in their relationship to women. They often mistake sexual attraction for true feelings, and don’t understand how to properly act on either. Their regular mentions of love and marriage show a desire for intimacy and maturity that their fear of and inaptitude with women keep them from. This is most obviously displayed in S3E15 when the guys decide they need to stop watching porn and instead pursue real women, then chase a camgirl. Even when they become consciously aware of their problem, they lack either opportunity or skill to overcome it.

Career success and romantic intimacy elude the dudes both abstractly and concretely. They want more than their current lives offer and often verbalize desires that represent a longing for maturity, depth, and purpose, but are seemingly helpless when it comes to identifying or obtaining those things. In the meantime, partying and friendship is what imbues their lives with meaning, and they oscillate between pursuing these with reckless abandon and facing (or, often, avoiding) the consequences.

In addition to facing the existential trials and tribulations of being a 20-something in America, the Workaholics characters are also dealing with the more specific issue of being male in America. Cliché as it sounds, they are no longer boys, but not yet men, and well aware of that. The guys are hyper-obsessed with masculinity and want nothing more than to be real men, as can be seen in their constant dick discourse (dick-course?). They praise the size of dad dicks and regularly brag about or insult their own and each other’s penis sizes, obvious measures of manliness. Women and sex are viewed not just as outlets for pleasure, but as sources of identity, self-worth, social status, and affirmation that the dudes possess the masculinity they seek.

Unfortunately, the guys are searching for an elusive masculinity that is impossible to pin down because right now the definition of “man” is rapidly changing in American culture. Whenever the dudes come close to identifying or achieving manliness, what they think they’ve found is quickly turned on its head. The strong men of The Lord’s Force (S3E7) are the manliest guys Adam, Blake, and Ders have ever met, but they turn out to be gay, which is confusing because not wanting to bang chicks isn’t manly at all. Blake blows his chance with Jillian by mentioning that he can’t wait to tell the guys they hooked up, before they hook up–his eagerness to display his manliness makes him lose his chance to obtain it (S3E18). Ders gets to bang Alice, the female boss who emasculates them day in and day out, but still has his manhood undercut when she insinuates his dick is too small and he finishes too soon to please her (S4E2).

A few months ago, the New York Times published a relevant article called The Death of Adulthood in American Culture. The author, A.O. Scott writes, “TV characters are among the allegorical figures of our age, giving individual human shape to our collective anxieties and aspirations.” Scott focuses on Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Sopranos, citing the demise of their protagonists as a reflection of the upcoming end of patriarchal society. If Don Draper, Walter White, and Tony Soprano symbolize the end of manhood as we know it, Adam, Blake, and Ders symbolize the incoming generation of men looking at the mess they left and asking, “What next?” The existing structures are breaking down, but new ones haven’t been built. In the same article, Scott asks, “Adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable…Should we mourn the departed or dance on its grave?” Clearly, the Workaholics guys have, at least temporarily, chosen to dance.

Although Workaholics is gaining in popularity and has made its creators celebrities, from what I’ve seen, it is still being slept on by a lot of people who would enjoy it if they gave it a deeper look. Hopefully with season five, that changes. Because Workaholics is hilarious, rife with cultural references and cool cameos, and providing a poignant commentary on today’s society and the 20-something’s changing place within it, I believe it will be considered a comedy classic one day. If you are a Workaholics fan and you’ve read this far, I encourage you to comment with which scene you think is the grossest, which reference the coolest, or whatever else is on your mind right now. As the dudes say, that would be totally tight butthole.

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death, fear, media, personal growth

People die every day.

People die every day. Every single day. People are dying right now. Lots of them.

Some of them are 85 and older but some aren’t. Some are in the United States–your state or city even–but some aren’t. Some maybe played a part in their death, like they got drunk before they drove, or they joined a gang, or they smoked cigarettes for 20 years, or they dragged a razor against their wrist. Some didn’t play a part in it, like they were a baby who drowned in the bathtub because they didn’t even know what a bathtub was and their parents walked away for too long, or they were painting a building and the faulty ladder collapsed, or they were celebrating at a wedding in Yemen and the United States government murdered them with a robot.

How’s that song go? Six million ways to die: choose one.

If you do the math, which I did, about 33,000 people die per day throughout the world and 6,700 people die per day in the United States.

I’ve gotten better at watching and accepting the news without becoming worked up. I’m getting better, maybe I should say. I’m still working on it. Life includes horrible, terrible things, like constant death, more deaths than we can comprehend. About 23 deaths happen per minute. After I opened this browser window, I spaced out for 10 minutes thinking about what I wanted to write. Over 200 people probably died during that time. Death is upsetting. I will probably never not be upset by it, but I can at least accept that it happens and that it upsets me.

I no longer feel confused about the fact of death. Sure, I’ll never truly “get” it, but that’s because I’m not God. I accept that deaths happen. I accept that they won’t stop happening. I accept that I’ll never fully comprehend it. In my teenage years, I didn’t have this acceptance. I was obsessed with the concept. I desperately wanted to understand why. Not any more. I accept that I cannot know.

What I don’t “get,” what I’m stuck on now, what I hope I can start to see more clearly, is, with so many deaths, how do we pick? Which deaths matter? How do we decide? Which deaths are the most sad? Which are unfair? Which are tragedies? Which should make national or international news? Which ones deserve our attention, and which do not? Which should we rally around and have conversations about? Which type of death should we work the hardest to prevent from recurring? At a societal level and at an individual level, when to respond and when to ignore death?

I read Elliot Rodger’s autobiography. I felt sad for him. Maybe it’s because he was a decent writer and I relate to writers. Maybe it’s because I generally empathize with loners and outcasts. Maybe it’s because he was clearly an unreliable narrator, clearly delusional, and I could see his mistakes happening in slow motion throughout his story, but I knew it was too late for me or anyone to try and intervene. I didn’t pick these emotions; they just popped up. I noticed them, though. I accept them.

Rodger killed and died because of almost entirely imaginary rejection. He was convinced women were repulsed by him, but he had never so much as said “hi” to one that he liked. I felt sad that he dealt with that anger and loneliness. I felt sad that his anger and delusion drove him to such an extreme. I felt sad that his life ended so early. I felt a sad, deep sense of loss while reading that he toyed with the idea of becoming a writer. When I read that his mom had encouraged it as a career path, I saw a glimmer of hope, a salvation he had nearly grabbed, but let slip through his fingers. Writing is transcendent. I felt sad he got stuck in his own obsessions, and wasn’t able to use writing to overcome them, to gain clarity, to see them for what they were.

Which deaths matter? I’ve seen many people write that they’re glad Elliot died. I’m not. I don’t agree with what he did, of course. You might think it’s foolish, but I don’t know I can honestly say I’m glad about anyone having died, ever. I’m sure some deaths throughout history have been for a greater good, but even typing the beginning of that sentence puts a bad taste in my mouth. I mourn for the friends and families of Elliot’s victims. Still, I don’t think his death is any less sad than the deaths he caused. Yes, even though he chose his death. Even though, according to many, he “deserved” it. It’s still sad. It’s all sad. Death, itself, is sad.

Were the seven deaths that occurred in Isla Vista more sad than the ~33,000 other deaths that happened across the planet that same day?  More sad than the ~6,700 deaths that happened in the US? They certainly garnered more air time. Who chooses? Who gets to pick? We seem to agree that when the elderly die, it isn’t as sad or important because it’s more expected. Plus it seems more fair–they were given a chance to have their way with life. But even excluding the elderly, there are still thousands of deaths per day. How many deaths can we hold in our attention at once? How many should we hold? How do we pick which ones matter?

Like I wrote earlier, I’m getting better at watching, at accepting. I see waves of outrage and despair. I see raw, expanding, uncontrolled emotion. Sometimes I feel it in myself, but then I stop and look at it. I try to figure out how it got there. Why am I outraged about this death, and not the thousands of others? Generally, the answer is that it’s because I know about this death. I’ve heard details. I can fairly easily imagine either the life of the victim or of the mourning loved ones.

I don’t want to call the outrage and despair “manufactured.” These are emotions that feel awful and real, in response to events that are terrible. Who am I to trivialize them? Still, when there are 33,000 deaths a day and large groups of people are all blinded by anger over the same six, I’m suspicious. Who picked which deaths people were supposed to feel sad about that day? Could it have just as easily been different deaths?

How does the media choose which deaths to emphasize and run detail after detail about? Am I a cynic to think they choose the deaths that involve the largest spectacle, or are the most novel? Am I a cynic to think they choose the deaths with the story attached that is most easy for their audience to understand? Am I a cynic to think they choose the deaths that are most likely to rile people up and get them angry, ensuring they’ll watch, click, comment, and share?

Am I insensitive to say that, in the whole scheme of things, if we’re sorting deaths by importance, which we are by necessity because of the sheer number of them, that I think the Elliot Rodger mass shooting-related deaths were probably some of the least important that occurred that week, and least worthy of our mass amounts of attention? I fell into it, too. I watched his videos. I read 138 pages of his writing. I got caught up in it. Only later did I realize it wasn’t a good use of my time or attention.

About 100 people die per day in car crashes in the US. That’s much more important to me than mass shootings because it’s more likely to negatively impact me or someone I love. Even if I view it unselfishly and objectively, car crashes are still more important because they’re more likely to affect anyone. It seems logical to focus most on the deaths that are frequent and most preventable. Car crashes get my vote. Connect them as a trend. Market them as an overwhelming tragedy deserving of our attention. Talk about them in connection to one another on the news in grave voices night after night until something is done.

Car crashes don’t have a simple story line, however. They’re not very sensational. The American public watches psychological thrillers and murder mystery shows, not shows about how to build safer cars, write policy that reduces drunk driving, or create more widely used transit systems. The mass shooting deaths follow a story line that we’ve seen before, feel familiar with, and, in some perverse sense, have fun trying to solve. In the past week I’ve read literally dozens of articles, blog posts, and tweets of people who believe they’ve figured out the six Elliot Rodger murders and know how they could’ve been prevented. I’ve even shared my two cents in conversations with friends. I haven’t seen anyone in the past week, however, comment on how we as a society should handle the probable 1,200 car crash deaths that have happened since the day of the shooting.

Or maybe it isn’t the lack of a catchy story. Maybe it’s big oil. Maybe it’s the car manufacturers. Who owns the media? What stake do they have in an auto-centric society? How involved are they with government, and in what way? I’m not sure. Thinking about it makes me feel sadder, and tired. Who chooses which deaths are important? Not us, I don’t think. Not the ones feeling the outrage and despair. Not usually. People with more power.

Several mass shootings have occurred in Chicago recently. Why aren’t those stories sweeping the nation? Murders happen in Chicago neighborhoods way more than they do on college campuses. Wouldn’t it be most beneficial to use our time and effort trying to solve that problem? Maybe there’s silence because of the unspoken social agreement that deaths are less important when they happen to people who “deserve” them. Maybe the American public can’t find clear cut “good guys” and “bad guys” in the Chicago murders. Does a gang banger deserve to die? Does a drug dealer? Because of racism, is the American public fuzzy on which of these Black deaths are “innocent” and which aren’t? Everyone knows the blonde, teenage sorority sister was innocent, and that the narcissistic sociopath who daydreamed about forcing all women to starve in concentration camps was not. That mass shooting was clearer cut, easier to understand.

Confession: I don’t have a conclusion. I don’t know where I’m going with this. I’m not building up to “the answer.” I’m muddling along. I’m thinking about all of the people our federal government is killing with drones and I’m feeling sad, then I’m looking around and not seeing many others feeling sad for that reason and as a result I’m feeling isolated. Which lives matter? Which deaths are important? Who gets to pick? What constitutes “news?”

Maybe the slightly sick feeling I have is because I’m so averse to manipulation. Maybe I can’t stand knowing that these corporate media outlets play such a big role in dictating what we talk about and think about on a day-to-day basis. Maybe part of my sadness lies in looking around and realizing that so many others, even intelligent others, don’t seem to notice this regular cycle of manipulation of thoughts and emotions. Maybe part of my anger and frustration is with myself for not having cracked the code yet, for not having figured it out. Who chooses which deaths are important? How do they pick? What are their motives? Could more deaths be prevented if different stories were run? Could our wars end? What are we sacrificing as a society by giving away our attention, by trusting that the stories we see on TV and the internet most often are the most important?

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