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Interview: “Doctor Kong” Documents Arcade Champ’s Surgical Precision

Interview: “Doctor Kong” Documents Arcade Champ’s Surgical Precision (photo)

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There’s a reason certain arcade games never really leave the public consciousness. The twitchy panic of “Asteroids,” the interminable march of the pixellated aliens of “Space Invaders” and the surge of revenge from eating a ghost in “Pac-Man” still make all those titles incredibly powerful experiences, long after the heyday of the arcade era.

“Donkey Kong” rates up there as well and the game enjoyed resurgent awareness after Seth Gordon’s acclaimed 2007 documentary “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” chronicled the high-score rivalry of Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell. That film inspired Dr. Hank Chien to try his scalpel-wielding hands at the Nintendo masterpiece. Chien went on to jump right over both Wiebe and Mitchell like so many rolling barrels and is now the current “DK” champion. Filmmaker and actress Alexis Neophytides met Chien just as he was gearing up for his DK journey and recorded him for a year, resulting in the short doc “Dr. Kong.”

040811_Dr_Kong_4.jpgAlexis, it’s not like the “Donkey Kong” game has changed any, so why make another movie about a “Donkey Kong” champion?

Neophytides: Well, I have to say that I would totally agree with you at first glance… but the movie did not start off to be another movie about a Donkey Kong champ and I hope that when you see it you won’t think it is!! I met Hank at Barcade, a bar in Brooklyn that has tons of 80s arcade games. He would come in after work in his scrubs to work on his Donkey Kong skills. I had started working on a feature length documentary called “The Regulars,” which was going to be about 5 or 6 of the regulars at Barcade. Hank was the first “Regular” that I started following around, and it was before he broke the world record. When I asked him to be a part of the project, I had no idea if he would actually break the record, and it didn’t really matter to me. I just really liked him and thought his story was cool and appreciated the fact that this guy who was already successful in his own right as a plastic surgeon was on a quest to be the best a something else. Anyway, I started following him around and then he broke the record! I decided at some point to just concentrate on him and make a short documentary about his story. Docs sometimes evolve like that and take off in another direction from the one you originally have planned… you know, like real life!


Hank, did you have any reservations about being filmed for a full year?

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Chien: When I was first approached about making a documentary, I was a bit reserved given the amount of controversy that surrounds this game. I didn’t want my name associated with anything negative, so I had to make sure the documentary would portray me in a good light and be overall positive. Other than that, I thought it would be a fun experience and it certainly was!

Alexis, what did you try to do differently in telling Hank’s story when compared to “King of Kong”?

Neophytides: I had seen “The King of Kong,” maybe about 3 years ago before I had any idea I would ever be involved in this world, and I thought it was really great. I definitely did not want to remake that movie, which was one of the reasons that I kept this film short (it’s 18 minutes) and strictly to Hank’s story. This movie isn’t about all of the ins and outs and intrigue of the gaming world…it’s about one guy’s glimpse into the spotlight through a quirky hobby.

Alexis, did you have any preconceptions about Hank or people who compete for all-time high scores? What were they and how were they true or false?

Neophytides: Not really. I have known a bunch of gamers for years through this bar that I mentioned before, Barcade, and I know that gamers come in all shapes, colors, sizes and types!

Doctor Kong (trailer) from alexis on Vimeo.

Hank, when did your DK obsession start? Did you ever consider competing for a world record in another game? Do you have other games that you’re as passionate about?

Chien: I started playing seriously in November 2008. It was shortly after I watched “The King of Kong” which got me interested in the game. I’m not sure I would call it an obsession though; it was more like a hobby. When I started playing, it was purely out of curiosity and fun. I had no intention of breaking the world record and in fact, I almost retired several times along the way. I’ve never played video games for world records. It’s always been about recreation for me. Although I do play other video games, I don’t have any plans to set any other world records. I was mainly a console game player before Donkey Kong. Given my story with “Donkey Kong,” I don’t know if any other games will ever be as meaningful.

Billy and Steve live quieter lives than you as an NYC plastic surgeon and maybe the championship might’ve meant more to them psychologically, in terms of achievement, spotlight and adoration. What does it mean to you, Hank?

Chien: I think Billy may be used to the spotlight from all his video game achievements of the past. I believe Steve, like myself, leads a relatively normal life outside of “Donkey Kong.” To me, it was a fun chapter in my life. I don’t plan on holding the world record forever. No matter how high I score, I know someone will always want to beat it and at some point I just have to call it quits. I’ve met so many great people along the way so I’m grateful for what this video game has done for me. I have no regrets!

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Have you met Steve and Billy? Do you feel like the portrayal of them in King of Kong are accurate, or were liberties taken?

Chien: I have now met both Steve and Billy in person. I feel their personalities were both portrayed accurately in “The King of Kong.” However, given Billy’s personality, it was easy to edit him to look like the villain. He has a sense of humor that doesn’t come across well on camera– add some Hollywood editing on top of it and you have a Hollywood villain.

There’ve been studies that say that doctors who play games are likely t be more adept at laparoscopic procedures? Have you found that the hand-eye co-ordination you use to play games carries over to doing surgical procedures?

Chien: Yes there are now at least a couple of studies that correlate video game skills with surgical skills. In every study I’m aware of, there is a good correlation between the two. However, there is a difference between a correlation and a cause-effect. In my opinion the two are correlated, but I don’t think there is a cause-effect relationship. As an example, basketball players are tall. However does playing basketball make you tall? It’s much the same. Good video game players have good surgical skills, but does playing video games make you a better surgeon? I think the common bond here is good hand-eye coordination.

How do you feel about modern video games? What are your favorites and what have you enjoyed most recently Is there anything that appeals to you in the same way that “Donkey Kong” does?

Chien: Before Donkey Kong, I’ve always been a modern console gamer. The modern games have a different feel to them compared to the classics. Modern games are more about progressing through the game. You can pause and you can save. You can play recklessly, die and just continue from your last save. They are well suited for their purpose–to provide home entertainment. The classics are more about how high can you score on a single credit. There’s no reload if you make a mistake. They are well suited for their purpose–to eat your quarters. I haven’t played many modern games since I started playing Donkey Kong–I only have time for one video game at a time in my life. “Super Mario Galaxy” was the last game I played before “Donkey Kong” and “Super Mario Galaxy 2” is still sealed sitting on top of my Wii begging to be opened.

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Aspiring competitive gaming players want to know: has playing Donkey Kong and/or winning the championship gotten you laid more than being a plastic surgeon?

Chien: I plead the Fifth. LOL.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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