Episode 308: Dwayne Kennedy, Hayao Miyazaki, Radiohead

Air Date:
Heard On BETA
drain at Studio Ghibli Museum
Thom Wong via flickr CC 2.0

Dwayne Kennedy on his socially piercing, provocative comedy. Author Susan Napier tells us how animator Hayao Miyazaki creates his magical cinematic universes. And music critic Steven Hyden on how Radiohead’s 1990 album, “Kid A,” predicted our current world.

Featured in this Show

  • Dwayne Kennedy Answers Who The Hell He Is On Debut Comedy Album

    Comedian, writer and actor Dwayne Kennedy is no stranger to the stand-up stage. The Emmy-winning Chicago native has been performing and writing for over 30 years. Which is why it’s a little curious that he has chosen now to release his debut comedy album, “Who The Hell Is Dwayne Kennedy?”

    “Because I’m slow,” Kennedy quipped to WPR’s “BETA

    In all seriousness, Kennedy — who records most of his material — hints at a penchant for perfectionism as the real reason behind the timing of his long-awaited release.

    “I had tried to do one a number of years ago and I just didn’t like it,” he said. “You listen to it and it’s like, ‘Oh, man, this isn’t what I wanted. This isn’t how I thought it would be or it’s not good enough.’ I’m compulsive in that way.”

    The album is co-produced by fellow comedians W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu. Kennedy is probably best known for being a writer and consultant on Bell’s two critically acclaimed TV shows, “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell” from FX, and CNN’s “United Shades of America,” winning an Emmy award for the latter.

    Kennedy said working on those two shows helped influence his comedy and sharpened his already piercing cultural commentary by, “making me more conscious and cognizant of what’s going on in the world and all the various types of folks in the world.”

    “It just put me in contact with so many different types of people. That informs you, however much consciously or even subconsciously,” he said.

    Kennedy said his favorite segment he did for “Totally Biased” was joining a Civil War reenactment as a Confederate soldier. That same level of absurdist comedic perspective on society is rampant throughout the album.

    I’d like to be more absurd. I’d like to be more abstract. That is my sense of humor more so offstage,” said Kennedy.

    This shows up in hilarious bits like “A Great Day for Football,” “The Dog Don’t Bite Unless…” and “Young Black Psychopath Trying to Make It,” which offers a thought as to why most serial killers are predominately white.

    “The first observation was that it seemed like white folks pretty much have the psychotic murderer, mass murderer or serial killer thing kind of locked down,” explained Kennedy. “But also the fact that if white folks had access to most of the wealth, that maybe is not just a racial thing, maybe it’s an economic thing.”

    On one of the early highlights of the album, “People of Color,” Kennedy posits why the Black community scorns the term “colored people” but seems fine with a semantic adjustment to “people of color.”

    As with nearly every element of Kennedy’s comedy, the conceptual comedic surface gives way to a more thought-provoking core.

    “I think it’s more a matter of taking control of something, because we were assigned that category, ‘colored people’,” Kennedy said. “It’s like you don’t call me whatever you want to call me. I’ll call me whatever I want to call me. So I guess the inversion of it is like your first identifying people as people. So I think semantics is crucial in that sense because first it’s people. So even if you shorten it, it would just be, ‘Oh, look at these people.’”

    Kennedy isn’t afraid to take risks either, perhaps personified in a track on the album called, “Shooting Season in Chicago” which tackles gun violence there. He is also acutely aware of the realm and time he is operating in and emphasizes knowing your audience.

    “As time has gone by, people have become, I think, more sensitized to that. You can still do it. It just depends on where,” he said. “So there’s certain places I could do that bit and it would go gangbusters, and there was some places you could do it and people would not have it. They wouldn’t be feeling it. Just not by nature of you joking about gun violence.”

    Even though Kennedy states, “nothing is off limits and nothing’s taboo as long as it ends in funny” he isn’t dismissive of the audience’s reactions.

    “Sometimes you hear comedians say, ‘Hey, I’m a comedian. You don’t like it. That’s on you.’ I guess to some degree that’s true, but it doesn’t make you inculpable for the things that you say,” he said.

    Kennedy, who also had a role in Ahamefule J. Oluo’s “Thin Skin” (Oluo is the executive producer on the album), said in addition to more comedy, he’d like to tackle writing a book or film in the future.

    “I keep saying that. Yeah, but that takes discipline and consistency. So I’m working on that,” he said.

    “Who The Hell is Dwayne Kennedy?” is out now from Oak Head records.

  • An Author's Take On How Hayao Miyazaki Creates Magical Cinematic Universes

    Hayao Mizaki is one of the greatest living animators. His movies, which include the Academy Award-winning “Spirited Away,” “Princess Mononoke,” and “Howl’s Moving Castle,” feature rich and dense cinematic universes populated by such memorable characters as a red-haired fish girl and a furry woodland spirit.

    Susan Napier knows all about Miyazki’s life and films. She’s the Goldwaite Professor of Rhetoric and Japanese Studies at Tufts University and the author of “Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art.”

    “I first saw a Miyazaki film in 1990 — “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind,” which is from 1984. It’s one of his earliest films,” Napier told Steve Gotcher of WPR’s “BETA.” “It is an extraordinary, beautiful film. The imagery is remarkable. And the characters are … still really more complex, more interesting, deeper than most characters you will see even at a Hollywood movie.”

    Napier describes the young female protagonist Nausicaä as Hayao Miyazaki’s alter ego.

    “In Nausicaä, I think Miyazaki really created a person who is passionate and full of desire to change the world and ameliorate it, but can get frustrated. And we see Nausicaä changing. And I think that’s why she embodies so much of Miyazaki, his own ego, because she is passionate about everything. Also, she’s a scientist. She’s a good swordswoman. She has a laboratory down at the bottom of her castle where she works to find ways to help the post-apocalyptic wasteland revive. And that’s very much what I think of as Miyazaki, someone who’s really trying to help things.”

    Sometimes people tell Napier that they thought Miyazaki was just a kind, cuddly person who made kind, cuddly, feel-good movies. But Napier says there’s more to Miyazaki and his movies.

    “They are movies that that make you feel good, I believe, or even sometimes transcendent because they do speak of joy and hope, absolutely. But also, they do deal with the challenges and dark sides of living in the world that we’re in,” she said.

    Miyazaki was born in 1941. And as Napier writes in her book, Miyazaki’s grandfather, father, and uncle profited from World War II by running a factory that made fan belts for fighter planes. Napier identifies a pivotal moment in his childhood when Miyazaki was 4, and an air raid destroyed his neighborhood.

    Miyazaki and his family were riding in a van through streets bursting with flames in the wake of huge civilian air strikes. As Miyazaki told his biographer, he remembers a neighbor with her baby asking if they could ride with them in the van. The adults looked at each other and told the woman that they were sorry but they just didn’t have any more room in the van. Miyazaki said that he’d like to think that if he and his brother had been stronger, they would have spoken up and said that they could do something to other people escape.

    Napier describes this as “an extraordinary moment because you see him revisiting it in so many ways in his films. Throughout his work, you have these very strong, resilient, smart children who say ‘No, I’m not going to accept what’s awful going on here. I will try to change things. I will resist.’ And, of course, this is also Miyazaki himself, but he dreams of these little kids as changing the world in a very positive way.”

    Napier came up with “Miyazakiworld” as the title of her book because she kept referring to him as a world builder. She also said that there’s an overall message that Miyazaki is trying to convey with his films. He’s critical of our own world and raises questions about whether or not we have to live the way we do. Napier points to “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” as an example of that kind of Miyazaki message, with its “lovely society that manages to survive without using war and really heavy-duty technology.”

    “And just generally the way people interact in “Miyazakiworld, there are almost no villains,” Napier explained. “This is something that American audiences find very, very difficult sometimes to process because they keep wanting to see who’s a bad guy, you know, who’s the bad guy, who’s a good guy, because the world of Miyazaki is not a clear-cut place. It’s not obvious who’s good, who’s bad. People are shaded. People are complex.”

    Napier describes Miyazaki as “a filmmaker whose legacy will include visions of catastrophe, of apocalypse, of war, of darkness and trauma,” who at the same time “insists on showing some kind of heart of light that continues to glow in his movies.”

    Napier highlighted a quote from the last scene of the manga version of “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind,” where Nausicaä is arguing with a creature called The Master of the Crypt.

    “And the creature is trying to say to her ‘You know, life is light.’ He’s trying to make it kind of easy, like a platitude. And she says ‘No, life is a light that shines in the darkness.’ And to me, that’s (Miyazaki’s) legacy. He doesn’t pretend or minimize the darkness, but he insists that there is still a light that shines inside the darkness,” said Napier.

  • The Overture Of The 21st Century: Radiohead's 'Kid A' Predicted The Future

    The author Steven Hyden was a teenager in 1993 when he first heard “Creep” by Radiohead.

    “I discovered them the way a lot of people my generation did, was which was from MTV,” he said. “They were like this sort of poppy alternative band that I think a lot of people expected to be a one-hit wonder. And of course, that’s not how it turned out.”

    Hyden recently spoke with Doug Gordon of WPR’s “BETA” about his new book, “This Isn’t Happening: Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’ and the Beginning of the 21st Century.” In the book, he unpacks the legacy of an album now considered one of the best rock records of the 21st century.

    “This Isn’t Happening: Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’ and the Beginning of the 21st Century” by Steven Hyden

    After shedding their “one-hit wonder” status for good with the release of 1997’s prophetic “OK Computer,” Hyden said the band reached a level of notoriety that became difficult to handle.

    “‘OK Computer’ was the album that really established them as one of the signature bands of their generation,” he explained. “And so they were getting a lot of press and a lot of attention at that time. And I think as the tour went on in support of that record, it just started to wear on Thom Yorke.”

    That frustration with stardom is captured in the 1998 documentary film, “Meeting People Is Easy,” which followed Radiohead as they toured in support of “OK Computer.”

    Hyden said there was a moment as their tour was winding down that planted a seed for what would become 2000’s “Kid A.”

    “They’re doing a soundcheck. And Thom desperately wants to leave the arena and, you know, just to kind of get some fresh air,” said Hyden.

    “He hops aboard a subway train, and he realizes that he’s in the vicinity of the arena where he’s going to be playing a show,” he continued. “So everyone on the train are Radiohead fans. Basically, this ends up kind of being a metaphor in a way.

    Thom Yorke literally cannot escape stardom, and he’s trying to do that. So ‘Kid A,’ in a way, becomes the vehicle with which he’s going to try to maneuver his way out of there.”

    After the show, Yorke had a panic attack and couldn’t speak. The moment stuck with him. After the tour ended and the band convened in the recording studio to begin work on the follow-up to “OK Computer,” Yorke had included the experience in the lyrics to a new song called, “Everything in its Right Place.”

    “There’s a line on that record where he says, ‘Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon.’ You know, he was catatonic, and he had this sort of fixed expression of horror and disgust on his face that he likened to the face that you would make if you were sucking on a lemon,” said Hyden.

    The experience hinted at a larger shift that lay ahead for the band. Hyden said that as they began work on “Kid A”, there was a crisis of confidence. Radiohead didn’t really want to be a guitar band anymore, and didn’t want to keep making music that sounded like what they’d already done.

    “But like, what do we do next?” said Hyden. “And the solution they arrived at … was to just radically remake the kind of music that they were making.”

    Hyden thinks “Everything In Its Right Place” was instrumental in setting a new course for the band.

    “So that’s the first song on the record. And when you listen to it, if you have any familiarity with what Radiohead sounded like before that … it doesn’t really have any of the hallmarks that you would associate with the band,” explained Hyden. “You know, there are no loud ringing guitars. Thom’s voice is not the sort of operatic, angelic voice that you associate with the first three Radiohead records. It’s treated. It’s buried in the mix.

    “And he originally wrote it on a piano and there wasn’t really much of a response to it,” he said. “But then they decided to play it on this synthesizer. And it’s that very distinctive riff that begins the record. And I think it’s like, one of the great opening tracks of any album.”

    Those recording sessions yielded two albums: 2000’s “Kid A” and 2001’s “Amnesiac.” They weren’t smooth sailing, Hyden said. The bandmates were very critical of themselves in the studio, and routinely scrapped material in search of perfection.

    They would record this stuff and they’d be like, ‘Oh, this is garbage,’ you know? ‘We can’t use any of this stuff,’” he said. “And then they would come back maybe six months later and have a change of heart, you know, and feel like, ‘OK, maybe this is good after all.’”

    Was that extreme self-critique ultimately beneficial?

    “I think you could argue that Radiohead would not have progressed the way that they did if they didn’t question themselves with every turn,” Hyden said. “It would’ve been very easy for them to just make another record like ‘OK Computer.’

    “They were actually recording really good stuff, but they didn’t like what they were doing,” Hyden suggested. “I think that self-doubt pushed Radiohead in more interesting directions, ultimately.”

    A song called “Lost At Sea” was one of the first to be recorded during the sessions.

    “And it ended up on the record as “In Limbo”, which is a very sort of woozy guitar song with a really strange tempo. Like, it took a long time to figure out how to play that song properly,” Hyden revealed. “But, you know, just looking at the song title ‘Lost at Sea,’ it’s so indicative of where Radiohead was at at that time.”

    The song “Knives Out”, which was recorded during the same sessions and appeared on “Amnesiac,” sounds like a straightforward classic Radiohead guitar track. But Hyden said it took the band around 300 recording hours to finalize.

    With a menacing bass riff and a dissonant free-jazz horn section, “The National Anthem”, created the violent, chaotic center of “Kid A.”

    “Thom Yorke said to one of the musicians that, you know, imagine that you’re in a car and you get into an accident and you get out of your car, the other person gets out of their car and you’re raising your fist and you’re just about to hit them. Now, play like that,” recalled Hyden.

    He added that Yorke acted as a sort of hyperactive conductor for the horn section on that song, and actually suffered an injury.

    “And he was jumping up and down so excitedly that he fractured his foot,” said Hyden. “It just kind of speaks to the level of artistic commitment that was going on at that time.”

    In his book, Hyden writes: “As a work of art, Kid A arrived as a missive from an unseen time beyond the visible horizon, an inarticulate mishmash of garbled words and passive-aggressive electronics that eerily emulated the contextual wastelands of online communication platforms that were still several years away.”

    “I call “Kid A” the overture of the 21st century,” he said. “I feel like there are things in that record that really you couldn’t have planned.”

    How has “Kid A” managed to still sound so relevant 20 years later?

    “I think it has a lot to do with the fact that this album feels like our modern age,” he said. “Nothing feels like “Kid A”. And nothing feels more like the lives that we live, especially online, than this record.”

    And it just seems like in the same way that people put on ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ to evoke the summer of love in 1967, that ‘Kid A’ has that same thing for the year 2000.”

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Brad Kolberg Producer
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Doug Gordon Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Doug Gordon Interviewer
  • Steve Gotcher Interviewer
  • Dwayne Kennedy Guest
  • Susan Napier Guest
  • Steven Hyden Guest

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