To paraphrase Stephen Sondheim: Hollywood used to be a breeding ground; now it is a receptacle.
Sondheim was originally talking about Broadway. At least I think he was; I can’t find any proof that he actually ever said that. Whatever, it’s a good quote. Broadway, formerly a bastion of American artistic innovation, is currently the home of Legally Blonde 2: The Musical 2, the sequel to a musical based on the film Legally Blonde 2.
Look what movies are coming out this summer: Sex and the City 2 (sequel to a movie based on a TV show based on a book based on newspaper articles), Iron Man 2 (sequel to a movie based on a 2nd-tier comic book), Jonah Hex (based on a 5th-tier comic book), The A-Team (based on a campy 80s TV action show), Macgruber (based on a series of TV comedy skits based on a campy 80s TV action show) Robin Hood (beyond being basically a Bible story in terms of freshness, it’s also for all intents and purposes a sequel to the film Gladiator), Step Up 3D (sequel to a sequel… in 3D!), Toy Story 3 (sequel to a sequel… in 3D!), Shrek Forever (sequel to the sequel to the sequel to a movie based on fairy tales and fart jokes), Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (based on the sequel to a computer game), The Karate Kid (remake of an 80s movie that spawned several sequels, starring the sequel to Will Smith), Ramona and Beezuz (based on children’s books which have already inspired filmic adaptations), The Last Airbender (based on an animated TV series), Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (based on a graphic novel), Nanny McPhee Returns (sequel to a movie based on a series of books), Piranha 3D (remake of a movie that was based on ripping off Jaws), Predators (you know, like the movie Predator, but plural!), Dinner for Schmucks (remake of a French film from a decade ago), Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore (sequel to a movie called Cats and Dogs that I’d never heard of until I Googled it so I could write this). That’s not counting films whose plots are just lazy retreads of previous films. And that’s also not counting the Marmaduke movie.
I will say this right now: if there exists a finer metaphor for the creative bankruptcy of the Hollywood film system than a movie based on a half-century old comic strip that has been recycling the same five gags since blacks and whites had separate drinking fountains, I cannot imagine it.
I will also say this: I wish people would stop asking me about it.
I've known about the Marmaduke movie for more than two years now, through a friend of a friend who worked at 20th Century Fox and figured "That Marmaduke guy from the internet" would want to know. Since then, every new industry leak/press release/trailer/advertisement/billboard the studio puts out results in a bunch of different people asking me if I've heard they're making a Marmaduke movie, and what do I think about the Marmaduke movie, and what am I going to do about the Marmaduke movie.
You know what? I bet the Marmaduke movie is going to be terrible. From what I have figured out, it’s real dogs with CGI mouth movements, like in the movie Babe (side note –- Babe 2: Pig in the City was a wonderful movie, improving upon the original in almost every way. Let’s be clear: I don’t think all film sequels are signs of a terrible industry-wide Originality Cancer, or a forthcoming apocalypse.) Owen Wilson plays Marmaduke, and George Lopez, Steve Coogan and Fergie play other dogs. William H. Macy plays a human, which perversely is probably the far more demeaning option in a film like this (I bet you that somewhere in this movie one of the greatest character actors of our time slips on some animal shit while running). I think Judy Greer and Jeremy Piven are in there somewhere too. All of these people (excepting Fergie) are fine entertainers who, for whatever reason –- a fat paycheck, making a movie their kids will like, doing a favor for their agent, “oh what the hell, it’s a weekend in a voiceover booth” –- decided to lend their talents to what will almost certainly be a train wreck of an abortion of a fiasco of an embarrassment to the art of cinema.
To them, and to any actor working on this film, I say “that is your business. I wish you well in your future endeavors, and I hope you are able to wash the stench of Marmaduke away more effectively than I.”
The Marmaduke movie opens in theaters on June 4, nearly four years to the day that I started writing a blog called Joe Mathlete Explains Today’s Marmaduke (later just “Marmaduke Explained.") I began the blog as an unemployed college dropout who’d just moved back in with his parents, about to start a temp job doing data entry. I had little or no experience with blogs, other than thinking they were dumb; a diary for drama queens/kings to air out dirty laundry and gossip with their internet friends. Remember that this was 2006, and remember that I am a stubborn, bitter Luddite. I thought at first Marmaduke Explained should be a zine, something I’d make maybe 50-100 copies of and distribute locally among friends and whoever. Setting up a Blogspot account turned out to be way easier, and http://marmadukeexplained.blogspot.com was created and forwarded around to a few friends, though I still found myself irritated by the conventions of blogs as I figured them out (comments, particularly for something like I was trying to do, seemed at the time like a vile and wholly unnecessary distraction).
A few months later I went into work one morning to discover my inbox had blown up. A nerdy friend of mine told me in an email that I’d been Boing Boinged. I had no idea what that meant. I found out that Marmaduke Explained had been linked to by a blog that links to things, and other blogs were linking to it because that blog linked to it, and people seemed to really like it. By the end of the day I was more well-known and regarded for something I’d worked on for three months without caring about than I was for everything else I’d done in my life combined. It was weird. I shrugged it off because I had work to do that day.
Days went on. I kept getting emails. More and more people were linking to my blog. I got a lot of nice compliments, as well as offers to write for other people’s blogs and websites. Many of these offers were kind of dumb (“I’m thinking about starting a website that does what you do, only for other comic strips, would you want to do explain Marmaduke, and maybe some other comic strips, for my website that I’m thinking about starting?”), but I also got some real offers, from sites I’d read and enjoyed. I wrote back to as many people as I could, but mostly I was waiting for everything to die down. My biggest wish was that I would get a cease and desist from the company that publishes Marmaduke –- even if I wasn’t infringing on any copyright (and I really had no idea whether or not that was the case), I had no intention of fighting anything like that. To misquote legendary football coach Vince Lombardi, “I don’t care and it doesn’t matter.” This wasn’t my passion, this wasn’t my job, this wasn’t even on my radar enough to be considered a proper hobby. I never cared about comic strips, or thought about Marmaduke any more than the next guy until earlier that year; besides, I was already running out of things to say. I thought I’d come up with a pretty original idea and I was proud of that much, but a cease and desist order from United Features Syndicate would look AMAZING framed on my wall.
Time passed. I moved out of my parents’ place. My temp assignment ended. As the months went by (without so much as a legal peep), I became more and more blogger-like. People said I was crazy for not having advertisements, so I put up some Google Ads. Holy shit, I made some money. People said if I sold t-shirts they would buy them, and one guy said he’d manufacture t-shirts for me if I gave him a design. Holy shit, I made rent for three months. People repeatedly told me I really needed to do another blog about comic strips (“Why haven’t you explained Family Circus? Are you stupid or something?”), so I started another blog called Joe Mathlete Draws a Nipple on Ziggy’s Nose So That Ziggy’s Nose Looks Like a Titty in order to shut them up. I did it for a week, then stopped. That got linked to a bunch, too. For years I got random emails asking when I was going to update my Ziggy blog again.
Around town I was Joe Mathlete to pretty much everybody I’d meet now. Originally if they called me that it was because of my band, which I thought was rad in a geeky sort of way; it’s like the Ramones or whatever, y’know? But now I was Joe Mathlete the Marmaduke guy. Sometimes it was “hey, you’re Joe Marmaduke!”. Tons of people – you would not believe how many people – have asked me if Mathlete was my real name. A lot of times I’d just say “as far as you know” and make a mental note not to talk to them for too long.
I went and saw Austin singer/songwriter Pink Nasty (spoiler alert: not her real name) and Jana Hunter play a show a few years ago. After the show, during which I quietly fell completely in love with Ms. Nasty (she is very good at singing songs), I went up and said hi to Jana; Pink walked over and Jana introduced the two of us. “Joe does this hilarious blog – it’s about Marmaduke, you should check it out,” she said. Pink looked at me and said “Oh… What’s Marmaduke?” And I realized that even if I was able to succinctly communicate to her what Marmaduke was, and what I did regarding Marmaduke, and why this is the sort of thing that people who like this sort of thing like, neither she nor anyone in her position was ever going to go “Ah, I understand how that is a cool and worthwhile thing you spend your time doing.” Let alone “That is awesome, we should probably go make out right now.”
God, how I hated explaining Marmaduke. I hated every aspect of the strip. I hated how repetitious the jokes were, to the point where after awhile I was just repeating myself. I hated how I was forced to stray from my original idea (just a deadpan explanation of what was happening in the comic strip) in order to avoid stagnating the way that Marmaduke itself had. I hated that, even after I took my email off my Blogger account, people still found ways to contact me and bug me when I wouldn’t update regularly enough, or when I wouldn’t make the right jokes, or when I wouldn’t do Family Circus Explained. I especially hated how much I hated all this, and how I couldn’t really vent about this to anyone because, shit, some people have REAL problems, and think about how many opportunities I’ve had because of Marmaduke Explained. So stop whining, Marmaduke Guy.
I couldn’t believe the powers that be hadn’t asked me to shut it down yet. It was starting to eat away at me – surely they know about what I’m doing, right? If not creator Brad Anderson, then the legal department has GOT to know some punk is pissing on their product (and making some money doing it, too). Was I really toeing the line of the law well enough? Did they really just have no legal right to give me a cease and desist? Did they think it’d be bad press for them? Would it have been?
Or did they like Marmaduke Explained? Was it good press for them? Not a lot of people were talking about Marmaduke in early 2006, one way or another – did my blog help “the Marmaduke brand” in the end? You know, I’ve heard rumors of a movie…
I started thinking more and more about Brad Anderson, the man who created Marmaduke and still writes it (theoretically, at least; his signature is on the strips, but how much day-to-day input he has is debatable). I’ve said a lot of really nasty things about him in the past, stuff about Alzheimer’s and dementia. He’s somebody’s grandpa, for chrissakes. Is it his fault that his 55-year-old comic strip isn’t funny anymore? Is it his fault that it wasn’t cancelled decades ago, when maybe by the standards of the time it wasn’t so god-awful? As far as I know he doesn’t even own the rights to his comic – the syndicate could just replace him with somebody else if he opted out. Google “Brad Anderson” and you’re going to find tons of stuff I’ve written saying a bunch of cruel, mean-spirited things about him. He is somebody’s grandpa. If he were my grandpa I wouldn’t tell him about some punk on the internet making fun of him, but I might drive down to Houston and kick that punk’s ass.
So why hasn’t Marmaduke been cancelled yet? Does it matter that it is bad? Does it matter that every day it is published is a day that a better cartoon is kept out of that day’s paper? Does having a cartoon in a newspaper matter? Is nostalgia the single reason Maramduke is still in newspapers? Is nostalgia a reason to like something? Does it matter?
I told myself I was going to give it up. I’d had a good run but the run ran its course. And then, in April of 2008, I got invited to speak on a panel at a convention hosted by Harvard and MIT. The convention was a gathering of “internet celebrities,” who would speak on things such as memes and internet fame and what have you. They would pay for my airfare and a hotel room, and I’d also get a chance to see a friend of mine up in Cambridge (who, coincidentally, is the one who was friends with the person who first tipped me off about the Marmaduke movie). The Tron Guy would be there. So would Leslie and the LYs. So would the guy who runs 4chan. So would a lot of other people I’d never heard of. They were calling it “ROFLcon.” I would be speaking on a panel called “You Can Get Paid For This?”
It sounded ridiculous. I was flattered. I said sure, I’ll go.
I had fun, I think. It was weird. I was nervous before my panel so I got extraordinarily drunk; surprisingly it went really well, so I just kept drinking the whole weekend. I met the guys who write Cyanide and Happiness, and the guys who run JibJab.com, and iJustine. The LOLcats guy was super friendly but I still hate LOLcats. The Chuck Norris facts guy was a douche. When I was introduced to him, the Stuff White People Like guy made a joke about white people, which was annoying. Everybody there was really into Twitter; it would be months before I heard anything about it again. I had almost nothing to do with almost any of these people but I was glad to be there: for the rest of my life I can say “I spoke at Harvard and MIT” and pretty much that’s not a lie.
At the convention’s after-party I saw someone I recognized but whose face I couldn’t place; after a weekend of drinking she might as well have been an old high school classmate as far as I knew, so I went up and introduced myself to her. She turned out to be Brooke Brodack, AKA “Brookers” one of the only people at the convention I’d been familiar with before they’d asked me to speak. I’d seen her YouTube videos a couple years before, and later read a magazine article about how she was the first YouTube user to get a development deal for a TV show because of their videos. I asked her about that and she shook her head, saying that it never went through. “They weren’t going to give me creative control so I said no.”
We talked for a little while; she said she was staying on her friend’s couch at the moment, that she’d gone to film school but dropped out – “You can make a movie with a cell phone these days.” She was, as far as I could tell, the most conventionally “famous” person at the convention (I mean, I found out about her through Entertainment Weekly), but if anything she seemed weirded out by the whole experience. I could have been reading her wrong (one more time: I was drinking a lot) but I think she just liked making things, and then all this stuff happened and her life got strange.
I came back to Houston with a stack of business cards that I knew I was never going to do anything with. I’d said enough funny things on my panel discussion and made enough of an impact on enough people that I’d gotten another round of offers to do stuff for other people’s sites, and had also been presented with several different ways to “expand the Joe Mathlete brand,” but this was not my world. I’d had a decent run at internet stuff but I wasn’t willing to take it to the level most people I met up in Cambridge were; if I was going to work my ass off to get known for something, it might as well be something I cared about, right? Maybe I could finish one of those movie scripts I keep starting. Or try to get a job writing for television, I’ve always wanted to do that. Maybe my band can finally make the big time if I push it hard enough. Who knows? I’ll get a job at a grocery store or something to make ends meet but after that, sky’s the limit, right?
And then some people got in touch with me about a website they were starting up. They liked my writing and drawing, and they thought it would be a good idea to have an already-established “name blogger” to come aboard from the get-go. They said they’d pay me pretty well. Would I take a job with them?
I said yes, totally, that would be awesome. And then, after awhile, I asked them if they’d like to run Marmaduke Explained. They’d have to pay me more, of course.
Time passes. Marmaduke keeps on getting printed in newspapers (wherever they still print newspapers), and Marmaduke keeps getting explained on the internet. If I could go back in time to the day I got Boing Boinged and show 2006 Joe what 2010 Joe’s life looks like, I can’t imagine he’d be thrilled. I don’t know what would upset him more -– that I ended up “selling out” and becoming a professional blogger, or that I sold out years after it would’ve really counted, and for not that much money. I haven’t finished a movie script, or sent a submission packet to a TV show (or even figured out what goes in a “submission packet"), and I dissolved the Mathletes last year. I played a solo show a couple of weeks ago; right before I started some asshole in the crowd yelled “Hey, explain Marmaduke!” Which, honestly, bugs me less now than it did when that would happen a few years back. I made my bed and I began to get used to it.
So OK, fine: I’m the Marmaduke Guy. I have a responsibility to The Internet, and to a whole sub-subculture of comic strip enthusiasts (and, more specifically, the sub-sub-subculture of enthusiasts who focus on unfunny strips like Marmaduke) to have an opinion on Marmaduke, and on things related to Marmaduke. There is a Marmaduke movie coming out, a movie that by all accounts looks like it is going to be dreadful. So what am I planning on doing about it?
- I was going to make a fake trailer but it was just too demoralizing. People would see it because I’m the Marmaduke Guy, and it might’ve even been good, but in the end all I was doing was making a bunch of phone calls trying to organize people together to help me make this thing that I plain and simple could not have cared less about. Life is too short.
- If someone puts me in touch with the people who do Rifftrax, I would not at all mind doing one of those. I’m a lifelong MST3K fan, I even bought Mike Nelson’s “Movie Megacheese” book. I admire his ability to write about things he doesn’t like without resorting to bile. It is harder than it looks. I would record my own audio commentary for the movie but then I’d be a poseur, and besides I would have no idea how to sell such a thing.
- Side note – do you know why I never published a Marmaduke Explained book? If you do, congratulations, you’re not slow. You would be surprised how many people do not understand that I do not own the rights to do such a thing. However, I think United Features Syndicate dropped the ball by not realizing there was money to be made with such a thing. Really, I just wish their lawyers would contact me at all. The silence is killing me. Maybe that’s been their sick plan all along.
- I doubt I am getting invited to the premier of the Marmaduke movie, which is bullshit – I don’t know who or what The Alvin and the Chipmunks Guy is or does, but I bet he got invited to the Alvin and the Chipmunks movie.. I would go with a smile on my face, and shake hands with anybody who tried to shake mine. I would go out of my way to try to meet Judy Greer. I don’t think any of that’s going to happen. It goes without saying that I will not be paying money to see this movie in theaters. “I don’t care and it doesn’t matter.”
I still wish people would stop asking me about the movie, only because there are not that many ways to say “I don’t care and it doesn’t matter.” I’ve been asked numerous times why I started explaining Marmaduke in the first place. It was because I thought it would be funny. Four years later, most of the world thinks that it is my life. I can’t do much about that, and I’m finally starting to realize that that’s okay. Most people don’t spend so much of their time fighting and cursing what might end up being the best thing that ever happened to them – for all I know this is my one big contribution to society at large, and it could be a lot worse. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I see what Marmaduke is doing, and I try to say something funny about it. I try not to make a joke I’ve already made, I try not to make Alzheimer’s jokes, and I get on with my Monday, Wednesday or Friday.
And then, come July, when the movie has been hustled out of theaters and nobody has to care about Marmaduke anymore, maybe people will stop reading Marmaduke Explained. I can’t deny that the film has drummed up a fair bit of interest (maybe some of you reading this only discovered it because of the movie… though I can’t imagine you’d STILL be reading this far), and anything that brings traffic to 29-95 is good for my employers, and anything that’s good for my employers is good for me, and anything that’s good for me is good for me. But maybe after this movie blows over, people won’t have the stomach for anything related to Marmaduke, and even if I hit some sort of creative renaissance and come up with the best material of my life there won’t be anybody who wants to read it.
I guess if I’m desperate I can always start a blog about Family Circus.