I Want to be an Awesome Robot: Inspirations and Influences

Involvement in the indie RPG scene impressed on me the idea that there’s no shame at all in openly discussing your interests and inspirations. I want take some time to talk about the things that inspired I Want to be an Awesome Robot and instilled in me the kind of humor that makes the book work. Remembering, researching, and writing about these things turned out to be intensely nostalgic in some cases. Does everyone have works that influenced them when they were young, little treasures dug out of weird corners of pop culture? I didn’t expect this project to lead me to dig up quite so much of my own past. I ended up ordering new copies of a bunch of books I used to have too.

Ask Dr. Science

“Where does the other sock go when you unload the dryer? The answer is of course B. Demons take it.”

Way back when I was in elementary school my dad got an audio tape and then also a book by “Dr. Science,” a comedy character from Duck’s Breath Mystery Theater. It was first and foremost a radio show on NPR, but I never managed to actually catch it on the radio. Instead I listened to that tape over and over, sometimes even letting Dan Coffey’s voice lull me to sleep, and I read the book cover to cover more than once. Duck’s Breath seems to have disbanded apart from the occasional reunion, and Dr. Science is down to a WordPress blog . It was my first exposure to the kind of beautiful lies delivered with an air of unflappable authority that John Hodgman later perfected. Dan Coffey would explain, without any shred of doubt in his voice, how money is a kind of fungus, about the kind of protective clothing he wears to divide by zero, about how to create life in your own bathtub. There was also a single TV special, The Ask Dr. Science National Science Test , which someone put up on YouTube, presumably from a VHS tape. It’s exactly the kind of relic of my past that I wish were better preserved than it is. The local PBS and NPR stations (KTEH and KQED) loomed large over my childhood.


The Brand New Monty Python Papperbok

“FEAR NO MAN! I’ll make you a master of Llap-Goch …The Secret Welsh ART of SELF-DEFENCE that requires NO INTELLIGENCE, STRENGTH, or PHYSICAL courage.”

When I was little my family had a ridiculous number of books in the house. There had to have been close to a dozen different book shelves spread across half a dozen rooms, and they reflected my parents’ eccentric tastes in basically everything. My dad introduced me to Monty Python when he used our first VCR to tape it off of PBS. The Monty Python Papperbok was one of the treasures I unearthed from digging through the family’s mad collection of books. It’s a wonderfully spastic collection of random stuff, mostly the kind of humor you see in Monty Python’s sketch comedy, but also some things that really take advantage of the printed medium. There were also some oddly interesting bits, like a story told with colored words. It also included the idea of turning the book shop sketch into a game, and for a while I harassed my friends to play it. That tendency to have things that are functional, or pretend to be, is proving a direct influence on my book.

Another thing we had plenty of around the house was vinyl records. I would listen to scratchy records of Doctor Demento, Cheech and Chong, The Beatles, and so on. The ones I really liked I made tapes of and listened to even more. We had three Monty Python albums–The Contractual Obligation Album, the Matching Tie and Handkerchief, and The Album of the Trailer of the Soundtrack of the Film of Monty Python and the Holy Grail–and I made audio tapes of them and listened obsessively. The Holy Grail one was a mass of randomness, even less coherent than the movie, and I would play it over and over while playing the original Final Fantasy on NES, such that I remember the professional logician sketch at least as well as Knights of Ni. The other two albums were more musical than typical Monty Python fare, and memorable in their own ways. The ” Rock Notes ” track, a concentrated burst of rock-themed nonsense, is notable for being the origin of the name of the real band Toad the Wet Sprocket. There are also songs on the virtues of Henry Kissinger, Finland, and traffic lights, a skit on the Olympic “Being Eaten by a Crocodile” event, and Christian hymn parody ” All Things Dull & Ugly .”

John Hodgman

“If you meet Hodgman on the road, kill him.” –Neil Gaiman
“Please do not kill me.” –John Hodgman

I’d liked John Hodgman’s appearances on The Daily Show, but when I looked into his own works, I was promptly sucked into another world, what Neil Gaiman calls “Earth-Hodgman,” a world where Tesla and Edison had a lightning-fight, where the hobos left the Earth behind in their dirt-rocket, where the founding fathers had great friends in the mole-men. His books are very densely packed with beautiful lies, but there’s something wonderfully elegiac about them too. The hobos are gone, the mole-men retreated from the surface world, and the floating state of Ar has not been seen in many years. Inspired by the almanacs of old, there is a delightful miscellany to his books, and although more or less grouped into themes, his Trilogy of Complete World Knowledge jumps from topic to topic.

I won’t lie, my book started out with the impulse to make something like More Information Than You Require , but for RPGs. I even went so far as to write a list of 700 catgirl names and start on a daily calendar, things that he rightly warned people not to do, because I’m some kind of writing masochist. Fortunately my book has already started to grow beyond mere imitation and I’m developing my own style for this kind of writing, and not just in terms of not writing CERTAIN WORDS in all CAPITAL LETTERS. I also don’t have the advantage of being college friends with Jonathan Coulton, though I am acquainted with a woman who does My Little Pony filk .

Patton Oswalt

“It’s a new product that hasn’t come out yet, it’s called the MEGA-LEG. Which… that sounds biblical, like out of Revelations. ‘And then Leviathan, and Asmodeus, and Megaleg pulled themselves out of the briny deep and laid waste to the cities of man.’”

I’ve liked standup comedy basically for as long as I was aware that there was such a thing. I started watching a show called Comedy Tonight on PBS, and later ate up Comedy Central’s standup filler programming. I still like the form, though my tastes are a bit more discriminating now. Patton Oswalt is by far my favorite. [1] His comedy is geeky and cynical, but it also takes up a curious mythic quality, veering into imagery of demons and goblins, painting pictures of people who live in their own personal epics, their legends filling whatever space is available to them. A big rat in his backyard turns into the return of a Sumerian trickster god , William Alexander cries out that he wields the Wand of Odin , and an open mic performer’s heroin habit briefly turns him into the world’s greatest comedian .

In January of 2011 his first book, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland , came out. I got the audiobook from iTunes the first day it was available. It alternates between brief comedy articles–punch-up notes, a wine list, greeting cards, etc.–and these incredible literary nonfiction snapshots of different points in his life. Just like in his standup comedy, he finds those places where people struggle to find their own kind of greatness in whatever tiny world they live in. My book is going to get a lot of its form from John Hodgman, but I think it’s going to get a lot of its soul from Patton Oswalt. He takes his craft very seriously, and shows a real passion for standup comedy. I want to be that serious about writing, and it’s intensely frustrating to me when I don’t live up to that.

ZeFrank

“If the earth were a sandwich, we’d get along so well. And we could feed everybody with a piece of ourselves.” (from If the Earth Were a Sandwich )

The internet has created all kinds of new ways for people to express themselves, and ZeFrank really epitomizes that. I first noticed him when I saw the nerdy comedy thing he did at a TED conference , but he’s created all kinds of things on his website. His web series/video blog ” The Show ” was where from my perspective he really hit his stride. The Show was a blend of comedy, news, and interactivity. He has a certain knack for creating spaces that people want to contribute to, and a wonderful way of putting words together to express things that touch all of us.

For me the definitive example of this is his “Chillout” song . He asked people to ask him for ideas for “songs you already know,” songs that fit into people’s lives. A woman wrote asking for a song to help with her anxiety. The resulting song includes amazing lyrics like, “Right now it feels like I forgot to turn the light on, and things that looked so good yesterday are shades of gray,” before its crowdsourced chorus says, “Hey, you’re okay. You’ll be fine. Just breathe.”

I started watching The Show about halfway through its run, and it became a source of enjoyment and comfort while I was in grad school. More recently, following a successful Kickstarter campaign, he began ” A Show With ZeFrank .” As a fan of The Show, it’s hard to put into words how glad that he’s back to making a regular show. I hope my own work can also make people happy.

A Few Other Things

“Please do not be cynical. I hate cynicism. For the record it’s my least favorite quality, it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get, but if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen. I’m telling you, amazing things will happen. I’m telling you… It’s just true.” –Conan O’Brien

  • The Old Farmer’s Almanac: As I mentioned before, Hodgman drew inspiration from the almanacs of old. When I checked out the current Old Farmer’s Almanac, I found a book at turns factual, corny, and charming, with fantastically fringe ads.
  • Abbott and Costello: When I was in elementary school my family were regulars at the public library. One of my treasure was a tape I made from a vinyl record of Abbott and Costello. It had a reprise of “Who’s On First?” and some other routines. My favorite was the one about how Costello bought a farm. It also had vintage commercials about how most doctors prefer Camel brand cigarettes.
  • The Daily Show: I started watching The Daily Show when it first started waaay back in the Craig Kilborn days, but it came into its own a few years into Jon Stewart’s tenure. He’s at turns sarcastic and self-effacing, and every now and then shows a fiercely human side.
  • The Colbert Report: Colbert is the other half of my daily Comedy Central news hour. Always in-character, Colbert has a relentless, ludicrous self-confidence in the ridiculous satire that comes out of his mouth.
  • Conan O’Brien: I never had an interest in late night talk shows before a friend introduced me to Conan. His humor is random, corny, and self-effacing. Few comedians seem to give quite so much of themselves to making the audience laugh.
  • Epic Rap Battles of History: Aside from the fact that I referenced it in my Today in Geek History calendar, ERB is one of the greatest things on YouTube right now. Nicepeter and his cohorts have a real knack for distilling historical and fictional figures down to their bare legends and letting those duke it out.
  • The Devil’s Dictionary: Another treasure I found in the family’s library, Ambrose Bierce’s dictionary oozes gentlemanly sarcasm. I always remember the definition of “cat” as “A soft, indestructible automaton provided by nature to be kicked when things go wrong in the domestic circle.” It’s also public domain.
  • Kids in the Hall: Sketch comedy is another form I’ve always liked, though good sketch comedy is even harder to find than standup. Kids in the Hall was another thing I discovered thanks to Comedy Central airing it too much, and they rival Monty Python for sheer absurdity.
  • Terry Pratchett: I wouldn’t even know where to begin with gushing about Terry Pratchett.
  • Douglas Adams: I think The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was the first science fiction novel I read, and although Adams never wrote in volume, everything he wrote was well-crafted, textured, and hilarious. Oddly, it was The Salmon of Doubt, a posthumous collection of Douglas Adams miscellany, that influenced me the most, with his unusually clear-eyed views of the world and technology.

[1] Though I also greatly enjoy the comedy of Maria Bamford , Louis C.K. , Lewis Black , Jackie Kashian , and Kumail Nanjiani .

2 comments

  1. Jeff says:

    I heard about the Paton Oswald book on The Book Report the other day, I think I will give it a try, as I am already a huge fan of his stand up.

    • Ewen says:

      Some comedians end up writing books that feel like flat renditions of their standup routines, but Patton Oswalt wrote all-new stuff that really embraced the medium. He’s apparently working on another book too, and I’m definitely looking forward to it.

Leave a Reply