Hexbyte  Tech News  Wired Amazon Pledges $700 Million to Teach Its Workers to Code

Hexbyte Tech News Wired Amazon Pledges $700 Million to Teach Its Workers to Code

Hexbyte Tech News Wired

Amazon announced Thursday that it will spend up to $700 million over the next six years retraining 100,000 of its US employees, mostly in technical skills like software engineering and IT support. Amazon is already one of the largest employers in the country, with almost 300,000 workers (and many more contractors) and it’s particularly hungry for more new talent. The company currently has more than 20,000 vacant US roles, over half of which are at its headquarters in Seattle. Meanwhile, the US economy is booming, and there are now more open jobs than there are unemployed people who can fill them, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“The purpose isn’t really to create a job ladder from fulfillment center to CEO, but rather to meet employees where they are and to create opportunities for them to build on the skills that they have,” Ardine Williams, Amazon’s vice president of workforce development, said in an interview Thursday morning.

Amazon joins a number of other companies who have announced multimillion-dollar investments in retraining in recent years, as a tightening labor market and technological change forces businesses to evolve. Amazon has already spent thousands of dollars on worker retraining in its Career Choice program, which helps hourly associates pay for degree programs in other, high-demand fields. CEO Jeff Bezos said in a shareholder letter last year that more than 12,000 US employees have participated in the program since it began in 2012. Amazon said they will expand the program Thursday.

In addition, some of Amazon’s new retraining initiatives include: Associate2Tech, a 90-day program for warehouse workers who want to learn IT skills; Amazon Technical Academy, a coding bootcamp designed to transition corporate non-technical employees into software engineering roles; and Machine Learning University, for engineers who already have a background in technology and want to learn machine learning and AI skills. Noticeably absent are programs that would specifically prepare Amazon’s workforce for climate change and the shifting energy landscape.

When asked about training for new energy roles, Williams said she wasn’t aware of any Amazon education program that would address climate change jobs, at least not at this point. “I don’t know that. In the programs that we build, we build them as we have demand for skills internally,” Williams said. “I suspect that over time there will be skills associated with [climate change] that could be included in the program.”

Thousands of Amazon’s own employees have criticized the company in recent months for courting the business of oil and gas companies and failing to take substantial action to combat climate change. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that some of the fastest growing occupations over the next seven years will include solar panel installers and wind turbine technicians, though the overall number of jobs in these fields are projected to be relatively small.

The retraining programs also arrive as Amazon continues to ramp up automation efforts in its fulfillment centers. While executives tend to say they love the efficiency and cost-cutting benefits of automation, 76 percent of Americans say inequality between the rich and the poor would increase if robots and computers perform most of the jobs done by humans by 2050, according to a Pew Research Center study published in December. Only around a third of respondents said they believed widespread automation would create many new, better-paying jobs for humans. (Economists have been more divided over automation’s impact.) Against that backdrop, Amazon’s jobs skills efforts provide some reassurance that—in theory at least—you could be retrained into a new role when the robots arrive.

Labor activists and lawmakers have criticized Amazon for years over how the company treats its employees, particularly those in warehouses and fulfillment centers. Last year, Senator Bernie Sanders introduced the Stop BEZOS Act, which would have taxed companies whose employees receive certain government benefits, like food stamps—as hundreds of Amazon workers reportedly did. Since then, Amazon has raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour, more than double the current federal minimum wage of $7.25. However, some of its workers still remain unhappy with Amazon’s working conditions. Fulfillment center employees in Minnesota are planning to strike during the company’s annual Prime Day sales day next week, which will mark the first time US workers have walked out during the event.

Thursday’s announcement is a shrewd way for Amazon to bolster its image as a positive force in American workers’ lives, but it remains to be seen how viable the retraining programs will be in practice. Similar efforts by the federal government, for example, have failed to be effective.

Is there something about Amazon you think we should know? Contact the author at louise_matsakis@wired.com or via Signal at 347-966-3806.


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Hexbyte  Tech News  Wired By Dying, ‘MAD Magazine’ Gets Its Best Shot at a Second Life

Hexbyte Tech News Wired By Dying, ‘MAD Magazine’ Gets Its Best Shot at a Second Life

Hexbyte Tech News Wired

Hexbyte  Tech News  Wired

The humor magazine repackaging its classic material may prove to be a boon for a budding generation of smartasses.

NBC/Getty Images

The first MAD Magazine I ever read flew so far over my seven-year-old head I’m surprised I could hold onto it. The cover, a parody of Time‘s Person of the Year starring Pac-Man, was an utter mystery; I’d heard of Pac-Man by that point, but hadn’t played it. I definitely hadn’t read Time.

Confusion only grew as I read, and slowly turned into fascination. Mad was shaped like a magazine, but felt like a comic book—and talked about stuff that I’d only heard on the news programs adults watched. The first article jabbed at then-president Ronald Reagan and his past as an actor by placing him in classic movies: a “supply-side Robin Hood” stealing from the poor and giving to the rich, as “Ron Quixote,” tilting at Communist windmills for the benefit of Salvadorean villagers. I could tell it was supposed to be funny, and I could decipher some of the sillier jokes, but the only thing I knew for sure was that I was looking into a world far deeper than Star Wars action figures and Rubik’s Cubes.

That September 1982 issue introduced me to the names and sensibility that would shape my humor—at least until puberty and Saturday Night Live. The “usual gang of idiots,” as MAD called them, turned out everything from political broadsides to Borscht Belt slapstick. Don Martin’s four-panel oddities paired long-chinned doofuses with aggressive onomatopeia. (A character eating soup? SHLURP PLIPPLE SLOTCH SHLOOP.) TV and movie satires that exposed Hollywood as hokum, with jokes that still echo in my brain 35 years later. The wordless doodles by Sergio Aragones, Al Jaffee’s foldable back cover. It was acerbic. It was absurdist. But most of all, it was a window into the way the world really worked. And now it’s gone.

Kind of. After reports last week claimed the 67-year-old humor magazine was shutting down, a different truth emerged. MAD will no longer publish new material, instead packaging bimonthly collections of classic material with all-new covers. Sounds empty, right? Like a zombie with a face-lift, right? Or—and granted, this could be my love for parody film titles like Star Blecch III: The Search for Plot talking—it could help make MAD relevant again.

Despite a good-faith reboot last year, MAD had long ago lost the energy that made it so formative for pre-internet prepubescents. Its circulation dropped throughout the ’80s and ’90s. After original publisher William C. Gaines died, it tried to reinvent itself as a raunchier, edgier incarnation, one better suited to the online era. That didn’t work. But for decades, no piece of popular media had better taught kids how to be skeptical. Never cynical—it wasn’t humans MAD loathed, but hypocrisy. Politicians, brands, and blowhards were the enemies, and few places were so willing to point them out to the younger set.

For decades, no piece of popular media had better taught kids how to be skeptical. Never cynical—it wasn’t humans MAD loathed, but hypocrisy.

More surprisingly, MAD opened a portal to the past. Even while publishing monthly, the magazine resold its older content in annual digests and paperbacks, forcing kids to catch references made about the modern adult world and the adult world a decade or more before. As a Reagan baby, I wasn’t just reading trickle-down economics jokes, but ABSCAM and Watergate ones as well. Funny thing about topical humor: when it’s done right it ripens into a history lesson.

Meanwhile, for a relic of the ’70s and ’80s, it managed not to pass its era’s shortcomings along to its readers. All the bad stuff was there—gender chauvinism, racial assumptions, anything else that we sound the Problematic horns for now—but it was there coded explicitly as bad stuff, the world as seen by phonies and fogeys and lazy screenwriters. MAD assumed the most of its young readers, and while its jokes could be juvenile, they were never venal.

Young readers grow up, and while they leave MAD behind, they do so having inherited something. The Simpsons, The Onion, The Daily Show, even The Lego Movie all exist in some part because their creators learned from some perfectly idiotic teachers. But what’s left for today’s kids? Yes, The Lego Movie is self-aware enough to be fun for parents. Yes, Steven Universe and Gravity Falls and Adventure Time encourage imagination and inclusion and other wonderful things that kids should internalize early. To raise free-thinking kids, though, you also need to let them know that it’s OK to question the way things work. You need to give them things that they read again and again and again, until the dumb puns and televangelist jokes and sarcasm sink deep enough into the brain to carry into teenagerdom and adulthood.

And now you’ll be able to again. Like so many other people who count MAD among their earliest, most formative influences, I’m saddened by its passing. But as long as its earlier self can start to breed a new generation of smartasses with a frame of reference that extends beyond Fortnite and memes with fruit-fly lifespans, then what—me worry?


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Hexbyte  News  Computers How I Made $8,000 per Month Podcasting, and Why You Probably Don’t Want To

Hexbyte News Computers How I Made $8,000 per Month Podcasting, and Why You Probably Don’t Want To

Hexbyte News Computers

Hexbyte  News  Computers Tim Romero

Small podcasts can make real money.

I run the Disrupting Japan podcast. Like many podcasts, the show dives deep into a small niche. It has no real hope of mass-market appeal.

It turns out that if you want to make a living from a small podcast, its best to ignore most conventional advice. At least, that’s what I had to do.

But before I explain, let me back up a bit.

Japan is not a podcasting nation. Most popular podcasts are recycled radio produced by major media companies. Good independent shows exist, but you need to look for them.

I’ve built a few startups in Japan, and the podcast was supposed to be me just talking with my founder friends about startups and innovation in Japan; about what it’s like to be an innovator in a culture that prizes conformity.

I christened the show Disrupting Japan, and launched to decidedly little fanfare in September 2014.

The podcast totaled 42 downloads that month. I thought that was great.

My audience rose steadily each month, and after six months I had about 400 listeners. At this point, I decided to invest in growing my show, but most of the common sense marketing and production approaches I tried either had no effect or actually backfired.

I rented a studio to improve production quality, but it made my guests uncomfortable. Most simply could not relax in the unfamiliar environment and spent the whole interview looking at their mic rather than at me. I tried this with three different guests and didn’t get a single usable conversation.

It’s obvious in retrospect, but few things make people more nervous than shoving a microphone in their face.

So I gave up on the studio. I started going to their offices and using a pair of small lapel mics. The sound quality was lower, but after a few seconds, my guests forgot they were wearing these little microphones and we could talk like two human beings. Showing up with a couple of beers also helped my guests relax and made the recording less if an interview and more of a conversation.

It turned out that sacrificing a bit of production quality and so-called “professionalism” for a more personal, honest conversation was one of the best decisions I made.

Marketing my show proved counter-intuitive as well. None of the “foolproof techniques” everyone uses worked for me.

I’ve had good results using social media advertising for some of my startups, but it was worthless for podcasting. I poured money into multiple campaign strategies on Facebook and Twitter, but I saw no real increase in listeners. These platforms reported lots of “engagement” with my ads, but whatever form that engagement took, there was no significant difference in site visits or downloads between the episodes I advertised and those I did not.

Appearing on other podcasts is also supposed to be a great way to grow an audience, but it didn’t work for me. I really enjoy the conversations I’ve had with other podcast hosts, but my appearances never resulted in a noticeable bump in listeners.

The other problem I ran into here, was that most of these podcast appearances are expected to be reciprocal. I’ll go on their show and tell my story, they’ll come on mine and give theirs. Well, the obvious problem here is that Disrupting Japan is a show about startups and innovation in Japan, and if you don’t have meaningful experience in that area, it doesn’t really make sense to bring you on the show.

Most of the podcast hosts said they understood and polity withdrew their request to have me on their show. Two were clearly irritated and insisted that since their listenership was significantly larger than mine, I should be grateful that they were even giving me this opportunity. And of course, a few said they didn’t care and just wanted me to share my thoughts with their audience.

I appeared on all of those shows. I enjoyed it. I had some good conversations, but these appearances didn’t really impact my download numbers.

Now, these techniques do work for a lot of podcasters, and if you are starting a podcast, they may work for you and are certainly worth trying. But they clearly were not working for me, and I finally realized why. Disrupting Japan was addressing a very small niche — innovation and startups in Japan — and there were simply not enough existing podcast listeners interested.

I would have to build an audience from scratch.

The most effective way I found to grow my audience with was via interaction.

Online, this meant finding the handful of Facebook and LinkedIn groups interested in Japanese startups and then joining the discussions. Most groups welcomed my contribution.

However, it was my offline efforts that made the biggest impact. I sought out any event or seminar where I could speak about Japanese startups and innovation. Every time I spoke, I saw a small uptick in listeners and email subscriptions.

That email list turned out to be more important than I expected for two reasons. First, casual surveys indicated that about 25% of Disrupting Japan fans were not subscribing to the podcast, but going to the site and listening from the browser or simply reading the transcript. Second, people seem far more willing to engage over email. Even today, when an episode is released, one or two people may comment on the site, but around 20 will reply to the email announcement.

Disrupting Japan fans were, and still are, extremely engaged. Most guests tell me that they receive a lot of positive feedback about their appearance. September of 2015 was the show’s first anniversary, and 120 Disrupting Japan fans paid a $20 cover charge to watch a live podcast and to meet and hang out with each other.

Things were going well for the show, but I still viewed it as a hobby.

In May 2016, the startup I was building blew up. At that point Disrupting Japan had about 3,500 listeners. Three friends urged me to try podcasting for a living. I had no better options, so I gave it a try and wound up becoming Japan’s first professional podcaster.

My first problem was that there were no ad agencies serving podcasters and no sponsors who understood the medium. There was a lot of work to do.

The Disrupting Japan audience consists of startup founders, aspiring founders, and others interested in innovation in Japan. That’s an important and influential group of people. So I sat down and brainstormed what kinds of companies really wanted to connect to this audience. What specific companies really needed to reach Disrupting Japan listeners, and who I would feel good about recommending. After a week, I had a list of 50 likely sponsors.

Of course, almost none of these companies had ever heard of me or of podcasts, but that could be fixed.

I began sending emails, making phone calls, knocking on doors and pitching in Powerpoint. It was tedious, but the feedback from potential sponsors was invaluable in crafting my final sponsorship package. It turned out that my sponsors didn’t really want what I thought I was selling.

Direct response advertising, where every click and impression is measured, dominates podcasting in America, but it’s a losing game for most podcasters. The industry focuses on CPM rates (the rate advertisers pay per thousand listens) because that metric is easy to standardize and measure, but with standardization comes commodification. If you ever buy into the idea that you are simply selling impressions or downloads, you resign yourself to competing with a nearly infinite number of other podcasts.

This is a terrible situation to be in. Because there are a limited number of advertising dollars but an almost infinite supply of podcasts.

The secret to making real money with a small podcast is helping companies build their brand.

With this in mind, I crafted sponsorship packages that combined podcast ads, banner ads, and in-person appearances at my sponsors’ events. These in-person appearances required a significant time commitment, but these live appearances both consistently drew people to the events and brought new listeners to Disrupting Japan. A virtuous cycle was set in motion.

Now, I have some advice for any aspiring podcasters who are thinking of going this route. You need to be prepared to spend at least as much time with your sponsors as you do on your podcast. Writing and re-writing ad copy, explaining metrics, brainstorming messaging, and creating custom presentations for your sponsor’s events will place huge demands on your time.

But it’s worth it.

Podcast advertising companies like Midroll and PodGrid are great, and it’s tempting to just let someone else bring sponsors to you. However, you give up a lot when you make that decision. In the end, your sponsorship and advertising rates are directly proportional to the effort you are willing to put into finding the right sponsors.

Nine months after going pro, I had an amazing group of sponsors and about 4,000 listeners. I was releasing an episode each week, with three ads per show at $680 per insertion, and earning a bit of additional revenue selling banner ads. I was earning well over $8,000 a month, and since I was still a one-man show with minimal advertising costs, this was mostly profit.

Disrupting Japan had become financially successful, but I was spending 70% of my time finding and working with sponsors and only 30% of my time creating the podcast.

And then it hit me. “God help me. I’m running a media company.”

As far as media companies go, Disrupting Japan was at an awkward size. It wasn’t generating enough revenue to let me hire someone to handle the advertising and the business side, so the logical step seemed to be to start selling ads for other podcasts. This would increase the amount of revenue coming in and give me the cash flow I would need to bring together a real team to grow the business.

Bootstrapping this podcast advertising venture was pretty simple. I went down iTunes’ list of the top 200 podcasts in Japan, crossed out the ones that were produced by major media companies, and then emailed the remaining podcasters. I introduced myself, explained that I had been selling ads on Disrupting Japan and asked if they were interested in sponsorship. Most of them were.

Finding sponsors wasn’t difficult either, but I found couldn’t command the high rates that I could when selling ads on my own show. Sponsors paid an average of $42 CPM, and I kept 30% as commission. Both the sponsors and the podcasters seemed happy.

I pitched Dentsu and a few other larges ad agencies on podcast sponsorship, and several had clients they felt would be interested in experimenting. Unfortunately, to make financial sense, even on an experimental level, these companies would need to sell at least $100,000 in podcast advertising per month, and there was nowhere near enough podcast inventory in Japan for advertising at that scale.

But I had a plan to fix that.

Podcasting may not be big in Japan, but YouTube is huge. I was confident that with a bit of training and the promise of a 10x increase in their CPM rates, I could convince a number of high-profile YouTubers to take up podcasting on the side.

I was pretty busy at this point. I was interviewing potential co-founders and sales staff to help get this podcasting empire off the ground, and I was, of course, podcasting. I still had a weekly show to put out.

And here, our story reaches its anti-climax.

Looking at this podcast advertising business in startup terms; I had good product-market fit and a path towards scalability. At this point, the startup narrative practically demands that I bring together a fanatically dedicated team to pursue the vision and fast-track the company towards IPO or acquisition.

But that didn’t happen. It could have happened. Perhaps it should have happened. But it didn’t happen.

I was working 80-hour weeks. I was making progress, but I wasn’t finding anyone who really shared my vision of what podcasting could become in Japan. Frankly, I was burning out.

It was right at this time when TEPCO Japan’s largest electric utility asked me to help them set up their innovation and startup investment program. It seemed like interesting work, and it paid a lot better than podcasting.

I took the job and walked away from podcast advertising.

Yeah, I know. That was not the ending you expected, but it actually is a happy ending.

From a startup perspective, my decision may look like selling out, but from a podcasting perspective, it is exactly the opposite.

My podcast advertising empire was a failure, but my podcast is a success. Disrupting Japan has been ad-free for over a year, and it slowly and steadily continues to gain listeners.

People still occasionally tell me Disrupting Japan was what turned them onto podcasting, and so far four Japanese founders have told me that listening to the guests on my show is what gave them the courage to start their own startups. That means a lot to me.

Our fourth-anniversary show had 230 people show up. Once in a while a see a Disrupting Japan sticker on a random laptop or two in a co-working space I’m visiting, and it makes my day.

But I’m not really a podcaster. And many of the other independent voices in podcasting aren’t really podcasters either. We are people who create podcasts, and that difference is important. Our medium is not our message.

Even when I was a full-time podcaster, my podcast did not define me. None of my sponsors were really paying for ad space on the podcast. What they were really paying for was a chance to deliver a sincere message to a community they could not reach any other way.

Podcasting lets me tell stories that cannot be told in any other medium. It let me create a community that would not have formed around video or print. Podcasting has been financially rewarding and an amazing tool for networking and building a personal brand.

All the benefits you hear about podcasting are absolutely true, but there is also something I never expected going into this project.

I discovered that Interviewing people is easy, but having a meaningful conversation? That’s hard.

It’s hard to get people to go off-script — particularly if they are not media-trained and are not speaking in their native language. I wanted people to open up about what really worries them and to talk about the problems that keep them up at night. But that takes a level of empathy and sincerity that I simply didn’t have when I started this project.

Ironically, it turned out that the best way to get people out of their comfort zone is, for lack of a better term, being comfortable outside my own comfort zone.

Everyone is happy to give abstract advice and recite clever anecdotes, but I found that if I wanted people to open up and be honest with me, I had to go first. Being an objective, detached observer simply didn’t work. Only when I shared my own hopes and fears and insecurities, where others were willing the share theirs with me.

I discovered this was true not only in podcasting but personally as well. Every time I pushed myself to talk candidly about something that made me uncomfortable, whether it was the search for my birth parents or the catastrophic failure of a recent startup, I was rewarded.

Every time, the stream of support was overwhelming. Every time I shared something real, people contacted me to let me know they were in — or had been in — the same place. A lot of people told me that it made them feel a bit better just to hear someone else talk about it.

Podcasting changed me.

I listen more and talk less than I used to. At parties, I find myself subconsciously slipping into interview mode, and people I’ve just met end up telling me their life stories.

And I enjoy those kinds of parties a lot more than I used to. People are a lot more interesting than they used to be. But of course, I’m the one that’s changed. These people have always been interesting, I just hadn’t noticed before.

I’ve become friends with many of my guests, not “expanded my network” or “leveraged my platform”, but simply become friends. We get together for drinks and exchange crazy ideas.

Today our world is filled with click-bait content, influence marketers, and fake-it-till-you-make-it founders, but we are desperate for honest connection. I think the reason people have responded so passionately to my stories is not because they are exceptionally interesting, but because it gives them permission to share their own.

Podcasting is uniquely suited to this intimately sharing of oneself. It gives us the ability to literally whisper in people’s ears and tell them our secrets and our truth. That kind of honesty and connection is rare today. It is valuable.

And I don’t mean valuable in the simplistic capitalist sense of creating something that can be monetized. I mean it in the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” sense of value.

That kind of personal, honest communication; that kind of connection is a big part of what makes us human.

Over the past five years Disrupting Japan has evolved from a hobby to a full-time job to a passion project. I have no idea what it will be five years from now, but it feels like it’s just getting started.


Thanks for reading. If you want to know more about me or about Japanese startups, check out the Disrupting Japan podcast.

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Hexbyte  News  Computers Once A Joke Goes Viral, Who Cares Where It Came From?

Hexbyte News Computers Once A Joke Goes Viral, Who Cares Where It Came From?

Hexbyte News Computers

On Tuesday, January 4, 1957, the Santa Monica Police Department responded to a call from Bess Eisler’s, a local restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard. The bartender had gone to check on a customer who disappeared into the men’s bathroom—only to find, gruesomely, that the man had shot himself in a stall. In his pocket was a polite, dispassionate note with instructions for informing his wife and detailing his desire that his body be donated to a nearby medical school. He also informed the police that the gun he used had been borrowed, and requested that they kindly return it to “[his] pal, Buster Keaton.”

The man in the stall was named Clyde Bruckman, and all but the most dedicated cinephile would be hard-pressed to list one of his credits even though, as a prolific writer and director of early Hollywood comedy, he worked with nearly every renowned star of the era. Keaton, Harold Lloyd, W.C. Fields, the Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello—all of them, at one point or another, owed a movie to Bruckman. Others, like Laurel and Hardy, may have owed him their careers.

How did a man who helped produce some of funniest gags ever filmed wind up a forgotten suicide, a footnote in the biographies of his more-famous associates? The Gag Man, a book-length expansion by Matthew Dessem of his 2014 study of the same name for The Dissolve, doggedly pursues Bruckman into the recesses of Hollywood history, and into the potential tragedy that lurks, even today, behind every pratfall and spit-take. From stand-up specials on Netflix to the latest Tumblr meme, there’s more comedic content available now than anytime since the days when the Keystone Cops cranked out films a dime a dozen—but are we always sure who, exactly, is making us laugh?


Bruckman’s cautionary tale began auspiciously enough: After a brief career out of high school as a Los Angeles sportswriter, he started working for Hollywood in 1919 as a writer of intertitles for silent shorts—a job that required the kind of quick, pithy wit that, almost a century later, might’ve made Bruckman a Twitter sensation. He worked primarily with a long-forgotten screen duo called Lyons and Moran (whose work, like so many other silent shorts and features, is lost now), punching up already-completed films with his titles. It’s difficult to attribute any one particular joke to him specifically, but Dessem gives a sense of the work Bruckman did on Bashful Jim (1925): In a scene where an old woman in a movie theater is supposed to fawn over the handsome leading man, Bruckman and his fellow title writers sharpened a rather dull first effort—“If he don’t kiss her pretty soon I’ll scream!”—into something far more biting: “I got his photo in a box of prunes!”

In 1921 Bruckman jumped to Buster Keaton’s fledgling company, where, based on some combination of comedic talent, a passion for baseball, and mutual alcoholism, the two quickly became great friends. Bruckman served as one of Keaton’s “gag men”—creative staff that devised funny scenes, situations and intertitles for comedies, but didn’t necessarily receive any writing credit (the film’s star would receive the lion’s share of the public acclaim). All studios at the time had such teams on hand—Keaton had so many there were enough men to field two sides for baseball and play a couple innings during breaks on set.

But Bruckman was one of Keaton’s favorites, and he worked on most of the star’s biggest hits of the 1920s—Our Hospitality, The Navigator, Sherlock, Jr.—before finally receiving a co-director credit for The General, Keaton’s masterpiece about a Confederate train engineer that is now widely considered one of the greatest silent films ever made. Bruckman’s work in helping to wrangle an enormously complicated production was appreciated enough within the industry to earn him more writing and directing gigs. He’d bounce around from one comedian and studio to another for some time after, crafting films that varied in terms of creative success but were nearly always popular hits. Occasionally he even hit on both, as with The Battle of the Century, the Laurel and Hardy two-reeler that launched the pair to the A-list and features cinema’s most legendary pie fight.

Films like The Battle of the Century demonstrated the vaudeville roots that still lay at the heart of early film comedy. When they started their careers on the stage, comedians like Keaton, Chaplin, or W.C. Fields made their living performing old routines with a fresh take: In vaudeville, it wasn’t so much what you did but how you did it. That principle held true on screen for Bruckman—pie fights, for instance, were already old hat by 1927, but expanding the slapstick to include a cast of hundreds in a city-wide custard calamity took the gag to a new level. Reusing basic scenarios was standard practice at Hollywood studios—even a visionary like Keaton wasn’t above it, following up the huge success of Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman with his own campus-themed comedy, College. Recycling even more specific routines was considered acceptable as well; long before revival theaters and home video, reusing gags was sometimes the only way to keep them alive.

But as his career wore into the 1940s, Bruckman’s line between “fresh take” and “retread” started to wear perilously thin. His functional alcoholism became gradually less functional, and he began returning again and again to ideas that had worked for him 20 years earlier. The last straw was an infringement lawsuit Harold Lloyd leveled at Bruckman for “stealing” gags from Lloyd’s 1932 film Movie Crazy in a 1945 short for the Three Stooges. Never mind that Bruckman had co-written and co-directed Movie Crazy, giving him a pretty strong claim to intellectual ownership of the routine, or that Bruckman and Lloyd may very well have borrowed their ideas from a vaudeville act in the first place. A drawn-out court battle eventually landed Lloyd’s way, with Bruckman’s comedy publicly branded that of an outmoded hack. Bruckman was now a legal and financial liability, and his drinking sent him into a creative and emotional tailspin that ended in a bathroom stall in Santa Monica.


The question of who is responsible for a joke, raised by Lloyd’s claims, feels startlingly relevant coming just weeks after Josh “The Fat Jew” Ostrovsky was accused by comedians and the internet at large for failing to properly attribute the jokes he “aggregated” on his Instagram feed. Like those social media users whose names Ostrovsky cropped out of existence, Bruckman became a victim of our casual disregard for intellectual property, particularly when it comes to comedy. What matters is how much we laugh, not how much creative effort was put into crafting, fine-tuning, and delivering a joke as a completed, marketable product. That tendency has only gotten worse with the internet—once a funny GIF goes viral, no one sharing it on Twitter or Facebook really knows who made it or where it came from.

Despite all the fun and games of comedy—in fact because of all the fun and games—we are likely making more Clyde Bruckmans every day. Whenever a big new Hollywood comedy is released (Trainwreck, Spy, Ted 2) there’s often a lot of talk about the collaborative or improvisational nature on set. Credit gets passed between the biggest, starriest names, whether they’re the lead actor, director, or producer—Judd Apatow, Amy Schumer, Paul Feig, Melissa McCarthy, Adam McKay, Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, etc. But what about an uncredited screenwriter who may have done a pass and punched up a gag or two? The cinematographer who found the perfect framing or the editor who knew just when to cut? Tracing a joke back to its origin, whether that be in the 1920s or two months ago, is a difficult and nebulous task, and the danger in not performing it might be greater than we think. As Bruckman’s troubles proved, validating someone’s intellectual effort is no laughing matter, even when it’s literally a joke.

Giving credit where credit is due can be a difficult task, however, when the public record overwhelmingly favors the star-obsessed narrative. To that end, Dessem sets an impressive example to follow, diving deep into studio records, personal papers and trade periodicals to trace Bruckman’s winding and often obscured path through the comedy scene—even when many of the short films Bruckman worked on don’t even exist anymore. Furthermore, Bruckman seems to have only given one personal interview, and left only a few scattered pieces of correspondence, including an emotionally shattering letter written three years before his suicide to George Stevens, Bruckman’s cameraman who had gone on to huge success as director of Hollywood classics like Woman of the Year, Shane, and Giant (the letter came when Bruckman was desperately seeking work—Stevens politely extended a $100 loan, possibly never understanding the significance of the exchange).

The overall lack of Bruckman’s voice makes Dessem’s meticulous reconstruction essential to understanding the gag man’s life and predicament. Detail work has always been a strength of Dessem’s—his blog, The Criterion Contraption, is notable for its formal close readings, breaking down narrative structures scene-by-scene, even frame-by-frame, to understand how film art functions. His work in The Gag Man is similarly exhaustive, drawing out a more complete, and wonderfully engaging, picture of Bruckman from a thousand fractured splinters.

Nearly 60 years after his death, Clyde Bruckman’s public reputation, if he has any at all, is still largely based on a few sketchy details. Dessem’s biography will hopefully correct that, but Bruckman’s story remains a menacing example of the way that, even in a field as purportedly light and trivial as comedy, distortion, oversimplification and misattribution can linger, particularly when the alternative is so salacious. As of this writing, the longest and most detailed section on Bruckman’s Wikipedia page, by far, is dedicated to Lloyd’s infringement suit and the accusation of recycling gags. The section, in an irony apparently lost on whoever wrote it, has no citation. One wonders if that would have made Bruckman laugh.