DID YOU READ

Q&A: Jason Simms of English, baby!

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It’s often said that English is the hardest language to learn. A classroom setting can only teach so much; Portland-based instructional Web site English, baby! goes beyond the typical curriculum, teaching non-native speakers the way Americans really converse. Among other methods, the site employs celebrities — particularly NBA players, but also musicians like Sheryl Crow and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony — for brief YouTube lessons explaining various slang terms. According to content manager Jason Simms, the site “fills in the gaps left by traditional English courses.” Heck, the videos are so entertaining even native speakers will get a kick out of them. And maybe learn something, too.

Portlandia: How does English, baby! differ from other, more traditional programs aimed at teaching people English?

Jason Simms: English, baby! builds on what you get in the classroom. We introduce students to the latest slang and other terms they will not find in a book or on another English education website. We post a new English lesson every day, and they are all built around authentic conversation, so that students can hear how Americans really talk. We provide a supportive environment for students to practice their English skills while talking about music, sports or other topics that interest them.

How did it get started?

Co-founder and CEO John Hayden was teaching English in Japan when he discovered that his students loved to learn about slang and had a hard time achieving linguistic and cultural fluency through traditional courses and books alone. He found they were particularly perplexed by why people liked to add the word for a small child to the end of a sentence. Hence, the name English, baby! is a lesson unto itself.

In 2009, we introduced English lessons starring celebrities. Basically, the idea was that we could record a conversation between our actors talking about basketball slang, or we could go out and get NBA players to teach it. The latter seemed more qualified.

What’s the response been like from people using the site?

We get a lot of gratitude, actually. People seem to appreciate that we are leveling with them. We give students a break from formal language education and help them learn the kind of stuff they would learn from traveling abroad or having an American friend.

Where are most of the users from?

English, baby! has members in every country in the world. The biggest market for us is China, with about a quarter of our 1.6 million members.

Your YouTube videos feature a lot of NBA players discussing basketball slang. Why use NBA players?

The NBA is the most global American sport. The Chinese TV audience for the NBA is comparable to the league’s American audience. Plus, we’re based in Portland, where basketball is the only major sport. (Soccer is, of course, really popular here, too, and we have featured a lot of soccer players, but for the most part MLS players aren’t as famous abroad as NBA stars.) During the NBA season, we have a steady flow of teams coming through, and many of those teams have players who have shoe contracts in China, do charity work there, or tour China in the summers with promotional events. We offer them an opportunity to connect with their fans overseas while they are in the US playing games.

What’s been your biggest celebrity coup so far? Who was purely the most fun to interview?

Dwight Howard and Steve Nash are our most recent guest English teachers and guys we are thrilled to have, since they are both total performers and actively cultivate fan bases in China. During the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, we interviewed gold medal figure skaters Zhao Hongbo and Shen Xue, which was awesome because everyone in the world saw them win just a few days before. They even demonstrated a “lift” for us right there on the sidewalk in Vancouver.

Girl Talk was one where I had a lot of fun. He was really relaxed and spent some time with us. He took us up on the stage to do the interview in front of his light show. But the best shoot for me would have to be Steve Nash and Grant Hill, who we did back to back at the same practice last time the Suns were in town. They were really good at teaching English (probably rivaled only by Shane Battier), and something about them just left me buzzing for days.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

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

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.