I had never heard of Dan Licata. I watched this standup special to distract myself from the pain of novel coronavirus.

It’s really funny. I laughed until my sides hurt. However, they already hurt before I started laughing, so that wasn’t difficult.

The concept is simple—a thirty-something burnout tries to win over a crowd of fifteen-year-old boys with jokes about Bam Margera and George Bush—but it works because of how believable Licata feels as an arrested adolescent. I hope it’s an act, but I’m honestly not 100% sure. Over and over, he delivers lines with brash, can’t-fail confidence (“I took my grandma to this all-female Papa Roach cover band, it’s called Mama Roach!”)…only to bomb, because nobody knows what he’s talking about.

But there’s more. Much more. Licata tells vivid stories that pulse with surrealistic nonsense, all while remaining tightly integrated with his character. Bizarre asides—”edging, but with piss“, living in a “fifty-floor walk-up” with his mother and her twenty pet pitbulls, and “foot day” at the gym—are deftly interspersed with actual funny lines (“PTSD? I can’t even get these fuckin’ flashbacks in hi-def?” “They oughta make him change his name to Wario Batali!”). It’s both far smarter and far stupider than it appears.

There’s layers to Licata’s act. At one point, he makes a 9/11 joke, realizes that nobody in the audience was alive when that happened, then condescendingly explains 9/11 to them, as if they’re small children (“okay, here’s what you need to know. Osama bin Laden was like Voldemort and Thanos combined!). He then, in classic Trumpian fashion, centers the tragedy on himself by telling a grandstanding story about how he refused to have sex until OBL was caught (“this was before we had the term ‘volcel’, by the way!”), presenting this as a heroic personal sacrifice. The emotional register is so catastrophically misjudged at every level that it smacks of real genius, just like getting every answer wrong on the SAT is only possible if you could also get them right.

You could contrast For the Boys with Tim Heidecker’s An Evening With Tim Heidecker, which consisted of Heidecker playing an unfunny, obnoxious jerk. The difference is that Heidecker hates his character with a passion, and makes sure you hate him too, while Licata has some fondness for his. When he allows his fictive persona to get a small, momentary win, we smile.

And why shouldn’t we? He seems like he’d be fun to hang with: the living, breathing avatar of “dudes rock”. We all knew a Dan Licata growing up. Most of us wish we were still friends with that kid, but we’re scared to reach out, because what if he changed since high school? What if the world dulled his shine? What if he became boring? There’s something special—almost religiously so—about the Dan Licatas of the world. They’re the holy fool you normally encounter in mystic Sufi parables, just raised on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and Beavis and Butthead.

“Listen, guys. If you take anything for my assembly here today, I want it to be this: don’t do the stuff that I did…because I already did it, and you’d be copying me. You should definitely do similar stuff, but put your own spin on it.”

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Dirty Pair: Project Eden is the benchmark and NIST reference for “80s anime”. When someone talks about “the 80s anime aesthetic”, this is what they are talking about.

What to expect: overwhelming energy and style, thick black fuck-you lines, explosive colors, explosive explosions, a steady drip-feed of sleazy PG-13 fanservice (the director really likes feet), robots, spaceships, gunfights, and bad dubbing. Two seconds of exposure to the Dirty Pair franchise will rot your brain to crude oil, let’s be real, it’s not like your brain was on the verge of solving Fermat’s Last Theorem or anything. Humanity will soldier on without it.

Plot? Yes, there’s a Bladerunnerish sci-fi detective plot that technically—as philosophers say—”exists”, but it only faint relevance to anything that happens on the screen. Two female detectives investigate a series of raids on a distant planet’s trade routes, then technobabble, technobabble, technobabble. In the final third of the film, the plot says “I’m going to the corner store to buy some cigarettes, be back in five”, walks out the door, is never seen again, and the animation unit is then forced to raise the movie as a single parent, working double shifts at the exploding-robot and fanservice factory until it’s finally over.

You will know within 30 seconds whether Dirty Pair: Project Eden is for you. It’s virtuously upfront about what it is. It does not lie to you. Its target audience is a 50-50 split between snobby neckbearded “RETVRN” purists who only watch post-2000s anime to clench their fists over the CGI, and self-described gendertrash trans goblins frantically clicking “refresh” on the tracking data for the DIY bathtub estradiol they just ordered.

Me? I’m spiritually on Dirty Pair‘s side. It’s stylish and colorful and leaves an immediate visual impression. The trouble is, it drags a fair amount of unwanted baggage with it: such as a tedious and irrelevant male lead who is in way too much of the movie for how entertaining he is. The girls are great. The guy stinks. It’s like being invited to a party, having your friends abandon you, and now you’re stuck in a conversation with someone who wants to tell you about his “Goblin Slayer is a metaphor for the Bolshevik revolution” fan theory (“bro, listen, it all makes sense, bro…”) for two hours in a droning monotone.

Something I’ve noticed about anime—even great anime—is that they never feel 100% like themselves. There’s always side stuff that doesn’t feel central to the experience, and is never mentioned when fans discuss it afterward. The Akira film gets bogged down in political digressions that made sense in the manga but come to nothing in the film (which is a psychodrama). Neon Genesis Evangelion (particularly the first half) is loaded with comedic stuff involving Pen-Pen. Sometimes, the difference between remembering an anime and watching one is vast.

Dirty Pair is a hydralike complex of media properties, including novels, OVAs, TV shows, and manga. Most were created by totally different people. Unlike most famous anime, it doesn’t reflect the vision of a single artist. The various incarnations of Dirty Pair land all over the spectrum in tone, style, quality, and internal consistency. Like Yuri and Kei themselves, the franchise lacks a father.

Even viewing Project Eden in isolation, Yuri and Kei make little sense. They’re simultaneously ultra-competent badasses and ludicrous hyperfeminine ditzes, constantly tripping and pratfalling and exposing themselves. Their contradictory natures—private eyes, action heroes, eye-candy—never quite resolve. Ultimately, they’re not characters, they’re plot motors. And the plot is governed by a rule that cool and sexy things must happen at all times.

I assumed Dirty Pair was a knockoff of Andy Sidaris’s “girls ‘n’ guns” movies. Wrong. The actual inspiration was Japanese “joshi puroresu” pro wrestling. This seems obvious in hindsight. Yuri and Kei are obviously meant to look like a wrestling tag team. And like pro wrestling, it’s unclear how seriously you have to take the story. If you don’t care at all, you’re lost. If you care too much, you’re a mark. Story isn’t the important thing here: it’s like a piece of string at Christmastime: it matters, but because it lets you hang shiny baubles off it.

In general, the worst thing a style-over-substance anime can do is double down on its story, and insist they have more logic than they do. NGE and Ghost in the Shell are a good examples, and Genocyber an even better one. It has a literally incomprehensible plot. That would be fine. Except it wants you to care about its incomprehensible plot. You come to Genocyber for gore and cyberpunk aesthetics, not word salad, and at least 80% of the anime is the verbal equivalent of kale. I will gladly listen to Timecube-esque schizobabble, but don’t make me take a quiz on it afterward, okay?

Dirty Pair stays. It’s not a masterclass in clarity or concision, but it’s archetypal enough (evil scientist, stock heavies, plucky gun molls…) to have a clear visual grammar. You can follow the story with a small part of your brain, while the rest bathes in the vibes.

I’d recommend Dirty Pair. Like I said, it’s easy enough to punch out if you don’t like it. It doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not. It’s If you only know this style from fanart and Tiktok, it’s wild to see an actual example in the wild. Historic, even. Like 9/11, but you’re smiling. I don’t mean you’re literally smiling AT 9/11. That would be fucked up: it was a huge tragedy. But it’s like the good equivalent of 9/11. Imagine you saw a Boeing 757 fly over Lower Manhattan, build a brand-new skyscraper, then fly away. Or something. Yes, I thought this metaphor through before typing it. Why do you ask?

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In 1972, Frank Frazetta painted the artwork below. It was for a book called The Silver Warriors.

The bears have no harnesses. They could not pull the sled.

HarnessGate became a minor scandal, and in an 1977 Esquire Frazetta defended his role in perpetuating this atrocity. “Harness? Ha! Who needs a harness. This is emotion; those bears are comin’ at you, you don’t have time to see a harness. I paint feelings! I thought of the harness, but it’d make a ridiculous clutter.”

There are three arguments here:

  1. Harnesses are visually complicated and their presence might distract or confuse the viewer
  2. The picture captures the emotional thrust of being charged at by a sled drawn by bears (an event we surely all relate to): you wouldn’t notice the harnesses in real life, so he didn’t draw them.
  3. The picture is fundamentally unrealistic anyway. Adding harnesses would be like plugging a hole in a dike made entirely of water.

The first argument is interesting: an admission that art has to be legible. All other considerations—realism, logic—fall before the requirement that the audience understand the piece. The second argument is also interesting—what’s the point of view when we look at a painting? Is it our own, or is it a person within the world of the painting? Are we standing inside the image, or outside it? In Kurosawa’s acclaimed jidaigeki masterpiece Rashomon, each of the four witnesses face the camera while they give testimony. We don’t hear from the court…because we are the court. We (the viewer) are the ones giving judgment. This is a startlingly effective trick: you feel almost forced to watch the movie closely, because a guilty man might walk free if you don’t. Christian art heavily uses this trick: we are Pilate: we are the Roman centurions, we are Peter the denier, we are the thief on the cross who mocks him. We are The Guilty.

But then there’s the third argument: it doesn’t matter.

The image is full of unrealistic details. Why is the warrior using dangerous, untrainable animals to pull a sled in the first place? How does he stop these solitary apex predators from fighting each other? Why is he wearing such useless armor in the cold?

The answer is always the same: even if Frazetta came up logical answers for those questions (maybe they’re genetically engineered bears?), the fact that you’re asking them means the picture has failed. Either Frazetta has not engaged you, or you are a bad-on-purpose critic: a Cinema Sins type who counts “logical errors” and “plot holes”. Either way, there’s no point in bothering with the image after that.

But this is complicated by the fact that parts of the painting is realistic. Gravity exists. The man is having to grip the sled so he doesn’t get thrown off. How do we explain that? If some of the picture is realistic, shouldn’t it all be?

For me, the dividing line is intentionality.

Frazetta is able to defend his missing harness. He didn’t just forget to draw it. He made a conscious decision to not include it.

My view, when people complain about unrealism in fiction, they are really complaining about the author being sloppy. Our time is valuable. We want to feel like we’re reading a work by someone who cares. Frazetta was not sloppy.

Here is something Adam Cadre wrote:

I’m reminded of John Byrne complaining when Marvel declared, for the sake of realism, that dragons in the Marvel Universe communicated via telepathy rather than speech, “Cuz, you know, a 200 foot long telepathic dragon is so much more realistic than a 200 foot long talking dragon.” There is a school of thought that argues that you’re better off embracing a wild, impossible setting for stories like these, because the closer you get to the world outside your window, the more inherently ridiculous a billionaire ninja wearing pointy ears is going to seem. But, well, that’s not the school of thought I belong to. I say telepathic dragons are more realistic than dragons that speak English. So there.

The difference is that the dragons speaking English is pure plot convenience. The author is too lazy to come up a plausible reason for how they communicate despite having radically different larynxes and voiceboxes, etc. Even a fig leaf of telepathic powers is an improvement, because it shows the author put some thought into their fictional world. There is a world of difference between playing a “blue note” on mistake, vs doing it on purpose.

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