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Creatively Speaking: Jimmy Pardo

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You know him from his hilarious podcast, Never Not Funny, or perhaps as the host of GSN's National Lampoon's Funny Money some years back. Or maybe you know him as the co-host of AMC's Movies At Our House. However you know him, and especially if you don't, Creatively Speaking is thrilled to have Jimmy Pardo on board today to divulge all there is to know about the comedy racket, and even offer some tips for those looking to break into the bizness.

So without further ado, let's get right into it.

DI: I'd imagine it's not really a choice, comedy, because, let's face it, why would anyone DECIDE to try and make it in this crazy arena. It must have chosen you, no? At what age did you become aware you possessed the power to make people laugh?

JP: I'm told I was always the kid making people laugh"¦ but I would probably say around 12 or 13. I was a short kid who either had to make the girls laugh to get "dates" or use my wit to avoid getting beat up. And yes, it did choose me (as pretentious as that sounds). I had a great job at MCA Records that I left to make $150 a week doing stand-up. Thankfully my price has gone up dramatically since then.

DI: Once you figured out you had the gift, what did you do next to pursue the dream?

JP: I did the usual theatre and choir stuff that one would do through high school, and when I turned 21, I went to my first open mic. I was great out of the box... and then stunk for a long time.

DI: What's the deal with comedians and Chicago? It seems to be America's funny bone. Is there something in the water there or is it all Martin de Maat and Sheldon Patinkin's fault?

JP: I think it has a lot to do with the "second city complex". Always being the underdog makes one want to get in spotlight and scream "look at me", whether that's the whole city or just one person. I would also place some blame on Sheldon's brother Mandy.

DI: How did you get your first big break?

JP: A talent scout from CBS Television was making the rounds to comedy clubs across the country and saw me perform in Detroit. He then invited me to another showcase in Chicago and eventually became my manager and made me move out to Los Angeles. Three months after I got here, he had a nervous breakdown and quit the business.
I was lucky enough to get signed by an agent a few weeks later and have been working with him ever since.

DI: If someone who never heard of you asked me who you were like, I'd probably say Don Rickles meets Albert Brooks. Who makes Jimmy Pardo laugh? Who are some of your idols? Who influences you?

JP: You are right, Rickles is a huge influence on me, as is Groucho Marx. Johnny Carson is my hero, but I can't ignore how much Richard Lewis and Robert Klein influenced my stand-up as well.

DI: Talk a little bit about your wife, another hilarious comedian, Danielle Koenig. Is it hard being married to someone who does something so similar to you for a living? What happens if we're taken over by aliens and they ban all comedy world-wide? Who'll bring home the bacon and how?

JP: I'm the luckiest man alive to be married to such a funny, talented and beautiful lady. It was hard when we first started dating as I was already pretty well known in the stand-up circles and I never wanted her to be just known as "Jimmy Pardo's girlfriend'. Now that we've been together for eleven years and she's an established comic and writer, it's a breeze. It's great to be able to talk to your spouse about the crap that is show business and have them understand.

Assuming comedy is banned, I guess I could always take a job announcing car lots from the back of a tram at Disneyland. "Goofy, you are now leaving Goofy. Make sure you have your keys!"

DI: What's the worst gig you ever had?

JP: Oh, I've had many horrible gigs"¦ But hands down the worst was in 1991 at The Great Lakes Naval Base just outside of Chicago. I had been there before and it had gone well and was looking forward to going back. The first comic performed and did great, the crowd loved him. I took the stage and for about the first 5-6 minutes was killing. Then something happened, and to this day I have no idea what it was, but the crowd turned on me. I was contracted to do 30-40 minutes and I'm basically out of material after 10, but decide it's best for everyone if I just bail. I say to the audience "I'll tell you one more thing and then go." One of the sailors yells back "Don't even tell us that, just go!"

I come off stage and the entertainment director is standing there with my coat in one hand and my check in the other and tells me "Get out of here, they will kill you." I run to my car while being chased by a dozen or so military men.
Obviously, I got out of there okay, but it was the one and only performance that shook me up so much I was skittish to get back on stage.

DI: What's the worst flub you ever experienced?

JP: I was just a kid of 23 years old performing in Merrilville, IN. The first two acts tried to do their act while a guy in the crowd kept yelling out "My wife is pregnant!". He must have yelled it out 25 times and was ruining the show. I was the headlining act of the night and after he yelled it out at me a few times, I came back with "Yes, we know sir and seeing how you act, we can only hope she has a miscarriage." Oddly, the crowd was with me as this guy was so annoying, but afterward I was forced by the resort the club was in to write a letter of apology. I was angry at the time as "˜the stage is mone to say what I please."

I was just too young to understand how devastating a miscarriage could be to a family and would never think of saying something like that again.

DI: When you're not busy with your podcast, or touring, or writing jokes, what takes up most of your time?

JP: Well, of course my wonderful son, Oliver. He's the highlight of my life and every other cliché you want to use. I'm a proud dad and love spending as much time as possible with him. He's only 20 months now, so it's not as tough leaving to travel as it's going to be in a year or so.

I also play fantasy baseball.

DI: What happens if your kid doesn't like you or your wife's brand of humor? They may burry the girls in China, but not the boys. Then what?

JP: Being a self absorbed comic, I don't care if he thinks Danielle is funny or not, but I can't think of anything worse than my kid not thinking I'm funny. Man, if being in front of a crap crowd for fifty minutes is tough"¦ how bad would fifty years be?

DI: What will you tell your son if he comes to you guys one day and, in all seriousness, says, "Mom, Dad, I want to be a comedian when I grow up."

JP: Ugh, do you have to? If so, learn from your Mother and write! Don't follow in your old man's shoes and rely on working the crowd the whole time.

DI: What advice do you have for those looking to break into the business?

JP: Specifically for stand-up- be true to yourself. Don't sell out and try and be what you think will sell. I'd rather fail and be original than try and fit an image of what a comic "is". Other show business? Learn to juggle, I hear variety shows are making a come-back.

DI: Could you have imagined your award winning podcast "Never Not Funny" becoming such a monster hit?

JP: I was just looking for something to do between TV jobs and really hit on something.
I am amazed at how popular it became and after two years we switched to a subscription platform. The listener can still get the first twenty minutes free via iTunes, but if you want to hear the whole ninety minutes you have to plunk down $20 for 26 episodes.

I was told over and over that nobody makes money with internet content. I guess I've bucked the trend. It's just proof that if you put out a quality product, people will pay to be entertained.

Browse through past Creatively Speaking posts here >>

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]