McSweeney’s vs. They Might Be Giants

Here’s as much as I can remember about the NYC debut of McSweeney’s vs. TMBG, performed last night at Lincoln Center’s Allen Room – which is oddly not located at what you would traditionally think of as Lincoln Center; it’s in fact in the Time Warner Center. I digress.

The evening started with TMBG performing Bangs. I am immediately struck by how fantastic the acoustics are in this room.

The host for the night – tragically, I have forgotten his name, as he was not listed on the program unlike the author who was filling in for Dave Eggers – started us off with some light humor. He was funny, and self-deprecating, and I am kicking myself for not recalling his name. He was an excellent host. (EDIT SIX YEARS AND NINE MONTHS AFTER THE FACT: it was John Hodgman, of course.)

On came David Rakoff, retelling a long essay about his experiences at a tibetian weekend session hosted by Steven Segal. His delivery reminded me of Augusten Buroughs (not a bad thing), and I thought he had a particular gift for mixing the humor in the situation with the occasional moments of pure tragedy that he felt. Excellent author, and I may have to pick up his book(s).

He was accompanied, briefly, by a musical interlude from Robin Goldwasser and a fellow who’s name I didn’t catch. I had seen Robin before at the previous 826NYC benefit covering some Prince songs, and the only impression I got at the time is “Boy, how high must she be?”. But tonight my mind was changed; her duet was minimalistic and suitable to her vocal style.

Again we were visited by the Host Who’s Name I Cannot Remember, and a brief introduction later, out comes our second speaker, Ben Karlin. His name may be unfamiliar, but his humor will not be to the majority of the country:

Ben Karlin worked for The Onion while in college at the University of Wisconsin for three years, serving as editor in 1995-96. After leaving The Onion, he moved to Los Angeles to write for television and to work on numerous screenplays, including two original scripts and a handful of re-writes, which eventually became very bad, bordering-on-terrible, movies. He moved to New York in 1999 to be the head writer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and became executive producer of the show in January of 2003. In the time he has been there, The Daily Show has won a Peabody Award, three writing Emmys, and two Emmys for Best Late Night and Variety Program. Karlin lives in New York City in a tiny, tiny apartment.

(It should also be noted that he’s listed as a co-author for America: The Book, which I’m sure you own at least one copy of. We have two. I’m not kidding.)

Ben’s reading consisted of diary entries from 2004, all of which were hugely funny and gave a large amount of insight into the mindset of what went on behind the scenes at the show during what was arguably their biggest year. It ended on a bit of a tragic note (the last entry read was from election night – Ben noted that at the afterparty where he was surrounded by drunken ad salespeople, he “didn’t need fun to have alcohol”), but it was on a whole terribly funny. As a special shock to the audience, during a portion discussing how just reading from America: The Book is funnier than describing the writing process, he had Stephen Colbert join him on stage to read a section from the book – the one about picking your name if you’re a reporter. Colbert had a very hard time keeping his composure during the formula for Minority: Asian. (For those with the book, it’s on page 144.)

Oh, as an added bonus, TMBG played Ben on and off with themes from the Daily Show. Very neat.
Our final reader of the evening was the lovely, precious, Shining Jewel Of The United States Of America, Ms. Sarah Vowell. Sarah’s piece, like many of her pieces, was not explicit comedy but educational. She wound her way from 9/14/2001, where The Battle Hymn Of The Republic was being sung at memorial services, back to the 19th century, where the song was John Brown’s Body. The entire history of the song was traced, from the very original inspiration in a Methodist hymn, to the joke of a song written by a batallion (“John Brown’s Body” was a commander of the troop, so when they were told the abolitionist John Brown was dead, one responded “But he’s still walking around”). Minor details in the songs lyrics were pointed out over the years, like the change of “let us die to make men free” to “let us live to make men free”.

Making this a true multimedia experience were, of course, TMBG, but also the Julliard Choral Union, who sung most of the main version. All combined, it was a very stirring, informative, and (still) funny lesson on one of the parts of our country’s history everyone somewhat takes for granted.

Sarah leaves, and the Host Who’s Name I Cannot Remember returns to actually lead us through the TMBG portion of the show. We have all received librettos,; the show is a Best Of Venue Songs event. To those unfamiliar with this particular TMBG project, during their tour in the second half of 2004, they wrote a unique song about each venue they played at. Behold, venue songs! 10 venue songs were played, all amusing, all very strange but accessible in a TMBG way.

The band closed by doing some of their regular material – Birdhouse In Your Soul (which I have never liked on the album but adore live), Damn Good Times (one of my favorites off The Spine), Older (which Katie rolls her eyes about every time; I sang it to her on her 24th birthday and found me cruel), and one off the new children’s album, Alphabet of Nations (which I like much better live than on the album). Sadly, they did not play the traditional hometown favorite of New York City, but I think I can live without hearing it one more time.

A fantastic show, a fantastic benefit for a fantastic cause. I will make attempts to not say fantastic anymore, but it really was. For all New Yorkers who have not been to the Allen Room – go at least once. It’s the best concert space in the city.