Posts tagged ‘comedy’

May 2, 2018

#140) Book review: “A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever” by Josh Karp

Most people under the age of 50 haven’t heard of Doug Kenney. Until earlier this year, I was one of them. My interest in Kenney wasn’t piqued by the new Netflix film starring Will Forte, but by learning of his rise and fall, from a childhood as an outsider in his own family and in the all-American town of Chagrin Falls, Ohio (where “[F]ew remember Doug Kenney…they remember…Tim Conway instead. He is Chagrin’s favorite son”) to his success at National Lampoon and then Hollywood to his untimely and mysterious death. When I visited the Hanapepe Lookout in Kauai, Hawaii last year I didn’t realize that at that same spot almost four decades earlier, a man who’d had a huge impact on the last half century of comedy either fell or jumped to his death at the age of 33. Learning that Kenney died not in a squalid hotel room or alley but in one of the most beautiful places I’ve had the fortune of seeing fueled my desire to learn more.

Like the exact circumstances surrounding his demise, Doug Kenney was elusive, even to those who knew him best. What is unambiguous is the influence that Kenney’s baby, National Lampoon, had on humor. Josh Karp writes that Kenney and his National Lampoon colleagues “[paved] the way for Saturday Night Live, the Onion, the Simpsons and nearly everything funny that has happened since 1975.” It’s a broad claim – but “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” makes its case convincingly.

As a piece of writing, “Futile” is not perfect. Karp has a tendency to tell more than show, often explaining punchlines after the fact and not making the supporting cast memorable. Kenney’s colleagues at the Lampoon, including Henry Beard, Michael O’Donoghue, Ed Bluestone, Sean Kelley and Ted Mann are all described as one kind or another of misunderstood, creative comic genius who found their voice through the magazine, but without much compelling detail about them, their names start to blend into one another.

Where “Futile” scores is in its getting underneath subjects that haven’t been explored all that much in print but nevertheless have had a big impact on popular culture in the latter decades of the 20th century and the first few decades of this one. If Kenney isn’t a household name among today’s generation, he was associated with many people who are. Though he died less than two years after Kenney, John Belushi’s work has been transcendental. Chevy Chase’s best days may be behind him but he is as recognizable as Clark Griswold, Fletch or Ty Webb today as he was 20 or 30 years ago. Kenney’s work on “Caddyshack” as a producer and co-writer put him in close quarters with star Bill Murray and director/co-writer Harold Ramis; he also crossed paths with Dan Aykroyd. The backlash to the recent all-female “Ghostbusters” remake proves that the three stars of the original are still in the hearts and minds of fans of all ages.

“Futile” is also strong as a study of the relationship between art and commerce; the conflict among readers and advertisers between wanting to feel edgy and dealing with the consequences when edginess becomes offensiveness. Publisher Matty Simmons is the voice of reason – an authority figure with whom his writers have a love-hate relationship. At the outset, he is excited by the dangerous, boundary-pushing humor of the magazine but he soon finds himself putting out fires with angry sponsors and the increasingly influential Christian right while also trying to handle the turnover of staff that results when bruised egos cause one twenty-something writer after another to quit in a huff.

Most poignantly, perhaps, “Futile” shows the effects of personal and cultural changes over time and the inevitable decline that follows sudden success, both generically and in ways specific to the 1970s. “Nixon’s departure would leave an enormous void,” Karp says of the effect Watergate had on the Lampoon. “He’d been a treasure, bringing with him a group of would-be civil servants and hangers-on who were unparalleled in their capacity to be parodied. And now they were gone.” By the mid 1970s, so were co-founder Henry Beard and the brilliant but volatile Michael O’Donoghue, who left to become the first head writer of Saturday Night Live. Kenney continued to drift in and out; Karp describes his relationship with the magazine at this point as “emeritus.” By the late 1970s, the Lampoon staff was “not capable of operating at the same level…[r]ather than appearing out of nowhere, they had been influenced by National Lampoon. They were National Lampoon writers, not individual voices that came to the Lampoon.”

Looking through the lens of hindsight, Karp accepts that the Lampoon’s decline was inevitable. The brand would flourish financially in the 1980s, thanks mainly to a series of successful movies, but the magazine’s days as the bad boy of American humor were long gone, a casualty both of changing times and a staff of erstwhile smart-asses who eventually became part of the establishment they hated. As staff writer and editor P.J. O’Rourke said, “We were standing in the flower garden with our noses pressed up against the window, making faces at the grown-ups eating inside. There would come a time for most of us when it would be time to go into the house, take our places and have faces made at us in return.”

Did Doug Kenney’s inability to grow up kill him? For much of the book, Kenney is portrayed as a manchild, “burdened by a desire to belong and a mistrust of the very same.” He craves success, in particular to please his straight-laced family, but doesn’t seem to know how to handle it (the scene in “Caddyshack” where Cindy Morgan discovers a large, uncashed check in Chevy Chase’s room was inspired by an incident with Kenney). Of Kenney’s move to Hollywood, Karp writes, “Though he was now the financial, commercial and artistic success he had spoken of becoming…when he was penniless and living off handouts, Doug Kenney was unfulfilled…he was a success and at the center of a hip, smart, funny social circle that adored him…yet it meant nothing. Somehow it was ill-gotten and illegitimate.”

Ultimately, Karp concludes that Kenney’s death was an “accident that was no accident.” Kenney “knew himself too well, and as a result knew himself not at all.” While those he left behind can only wonder what he might have accomplished had he lived longer, “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” is a celebration of Doug Kenney’s brief time on earth and its influence that can still be felt.

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July 13, 2017

#131) Movie review: “Don’t Think Twice”

“Don’t Think Twice” takes its name both from one of the rules of improv comedy and from the Bob Dylan song “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” Just as Dylan’s success caused feelings of both happiness and resentment among his contemporaries in the New York City folk music scene, “Don’t Think Twice” explores the changes of dynamics, both on and off the stage, when one of the members of a closely knit improv comedy troupe hits the big time.

The six members of “The Commune” – Miles (Mike Birbiglia, who also directed); Allison (Kate Micucci), Jack (Keegan-Michael Key), Jack’s girlfriend Sam (Gillian Jacobs), Bill (Chris Gethard) and Lindsay (Tami Sagher) plod through their jobs by day and perform improv comedy at night. Though the theater is on its last legs financially, it is still frequented by talent scouts from a Saturday Night Live-style show and each of the six actors hopes that they will be discovered. Miles was “inches away” from having made the show back in 2003 but is still stuck teaching beginning improv classes as he waits for his big break. Meanwhile Jack, an alumnus of one of Miles’ classes and who has a reputation as a showboat, launches into an Obama impersonation that is spot-on but doesn’t fit in with the sketch that is being performed. His grandstanding pays off, however, as he is given an audition. He gets the call from the studio heads right after Bill finds out his father has been in a near-fatal motorcycle accident. Upon returning to the rest of the group to find them quiet and somber after absorbing the news about Bill’s father, Jack tells them about his audition anyways.

Like “Funny People”, the Adam Sandler/Seth Rogen movie of a few years back, “Don’t Think Twice” is a drama about comedy, but it doesn’t try too hard for hand wringing or laughs. It avoids the “all comics are miserable off stage” trope, showing us that the members of the Commune are less than thrilled with their day jobs but not belaboring the point. The film also doesn’t rely on one-liners (though there are a few good ones), instead drawing on the subtle and not so subtle jabs among people who still like (maybe even love) each other but have been stuck together for too long. It comes off like an extended episode of a high quality TV show that feels complete without having to wrap everything up nice and neatly a la Hollywood. The story lines don’t resolve the way they’re “supposed” to.

“Don’t Think Twice” may be about comedians, but it also is about anyone who has chased a dream and about anyone who has been part of a tight social circle that gradually starts drifting apart. The film’s not perfect – side plots about Miles’ high school girlfriend showing up in New York and Allison’s interest in graphic novels don’t add to the story and indeed Allison’s character isn’t developed much beyond her thousand yard stare while watching Jack on TV – but “Don’t Think Twice” still shows how far believable performances and dialogue can stretch a $3 million budget.

 

 

 

 

 

December 11, 2015

#102) Eu-“league”-ogy

I find myself in an unfamiliar position: mourning, or at least contemplating, the end of a favorite TV show. Most programs I’ve enjoyed over the years are either classics that were already in reruns by the time I started watching (“Honeymooners”), too short-lived for me to have developed much of a relationship with them (“Sarah Silverman Show”, “Drawn Together”) or are still on the air but past their prime (“Family Guy”, “South Park” and…sorry, but we all know it…”The Simpsons.”) I know many people who felt a sense of loss when “Mad Men”, “The Sopranos”, “Breaking Bad” and “How I Met Your Mother” ended or when Stewart left “The Daily Show” and I’m not saying their feelings weren’t legitimate; I just didn’t share them.

Now, after the series finale of “The League” I can better empathize.

“The League” didn’t change the world; it didn’t bring us noble or tragic characters; it didn’t employ visionary costume or set design, being nominally set in Chicago but clearly substantially filmed in Los Angeles. Many people believe it declined after the first few seasons and those opinions aren’t without reason. Sad as I am to see it go, it feels more like an inevitable goodbye to an over-the-hill superstar than the loss of one just beginning to achieve their potential. Still, you never want to see it end.

“The League” was a semi-scripted comedy about a group of friends and their addiction to fantasy football. They lied, cheated and colluded to win. Things would go wrong in every possible way for every character, not just for one evildoer whose dastardly deeds backfire. To be sure some of the plot twists required massive suspension of disbelief, but the laughs were pretty consistent.

It’s been said that “The Far Side” was successful because everyone felt as if cartoonist Gary Larson had made one just for them. I discovered “The League” in its second season (2010), around the same time I started my hiking website and submitting photos I’d taken on the hikes to various stock photography websites. I quickly learned that easily accessible stats about post views, affiliate sales and photo downloads were addictive and my cell phone etiquette would have made teenage girls blush. Similarly, the characters of “The League” are constantly looking at their phones for the latest updates on their players. The beautifully inappropriate scene that clinched “The League” for me shows a character pleasuring himself not to Playboy or a porno but to his own fantasy lineup. Don’t believe me? Check it out here. For the next five years, I eagerly awaited the start of each season, watching reruns whenever I could during the off season (thanks to the improvisational chemistry of the cast, the reruns hold up surprisingly well) and even going so far as to create Mii characters on my Wii based on the show.

Behind all of the locker room and bro humor, “The League” actually provided some interesting commentary about friendships in modern times. No, not everyone bonds/clashes over fantasy football–but many social groups have subtle and not so subtle undercurrents of competition. Not everyone impulsively checks their fantasy stats on their phones, but let’s face it – the Phone Stack exists for a reason.

The plight of the series itself also might be seen, at least among folks like me who like to overthink such things, as commentary on our evolving relationship with technology. As New York Times critic Neil Genzlinger notes in this article, “That this is the show’s final season feels right somehow, in that fantasy sports are being taken over by…Internet sites that cater to a more intense, daily type of game played for serious money, often by strangers. The notion of a group of friends getting together with a poster board and player names handwritten on Post-it Notes seems…quaint…” Cynically, one could interpret the decline of group-oriented, season-long fantasy football leagues and the rise of day leagues as egotism and instant gratification giving way to bigger egotism and instant-er gratification. A more melancholy view might say that as we get older, the dynamics of many friendships and rat packs become more muted. The backstabbing and trash talking may fade, but so can the camaraderie.

Thus I bid a bittersweet farewell to Kevin, Jenny, Taco, Ruxin, Pete, Andre, Shiva, Rafi, Dirty Randy, Russell the Sex Addict and all the rest. Thanks for the laughs, thanks for making me feel like I was right there with you throwing back rounds at Gibson’s. Best of luck to all of you in your future endeavors. Now SUCK IT!

 

September 3, 2014

#84) The ten best quotes from the first five seasons of “The League”

I love “The League”. At first I thought it was just a guilty pleasure, but over the last few years, it’s become a full-on obsession; at least if creating Mii characters on my Wii to resemble the cast makes me obsessed. In tribute to the show’s upcoming sixth season, I present a few of my favorite gems from this semi-improvised fantasy football comedy.  If you haven’t watched the show, perhaps this might clue you into what you’re missing; if you’re already a fan, enjoy…and let me know if I missed your favorite.

#10) Rafi: “I am day drunk…get ready to see my dick!” (“The Lockout” – season 3, episode 1)

#9) Kevin: “It’s not about race, it’s about the color of your skin!” (“Carmenjello” – season 3, episode 7)

#8) Jenny: “Sad little man, no!” (“The Expert Witness” – season 2, episode 9)

#7) Ruxin: “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to jerk off to inter-racial porn.” (“Thanksgiving” – season 3, episode 8)

#6) Jenny: “Kevin, hold my purse!” (“The Usual Bet” – season 1, episode 5)

#5) Rafi: “It’s like the white rain of a thousand loads. You’ll basically be able to climb the walls like Spiderman.” (“The Lockout” – season 3, episode 1)

#4) Jenny: “How big do you think you are, Kevin?” (“Training Camp” – season 4, episode 1)

#3) Sgt. Panico: “Ever have to tell your friend his dick got blown off on the battle field and then realized it was YOUR dick?” (“Chalupa vs. the Cutlet” – season 5, episode 3)

#2) Jenny: “It’s a tur-guinea!” (“Thanksgiving” – season 3, episode 8)

And the number one quote from the first five seasons of “The League” –

Andre: “I’m inside me!” (“Vegas Draft” – season 2, episode 1)

Agree? Disagree? Either way, let’s hope Season 6 gives us some moments to remember. Shivakamini Somakandarkram!

 

June 4, 2014

#78) Film review: “A Million Ways to Die in the West”

The problem with “A Million Ways to Die in the West”, the new film from “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane isn’t, as many have suggested, the fact that he cast himself in the lead role.  It’s that he didn’t.  Despite a few inspired moments, the lead actor in “Million Ways” shows precious little of the off-color comedic genius that MacFarlane’s fans know and love.

MacFarlane stars as Albert, a sheep-farmer in 1882 Arizona.  He hates living on the frontier and his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) has just left him for Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), a proprietor of a mustache accessory shop.  Albert confides in his friends he’s about to leave for San Francisco when he meets Anna (Charlzie Theron), who happens to be married to the territory’s most notorious gangster, Clinch (Liam Neeson).  Though he’s still in love with Louise, Albert slowly starts warming up to Anna.  When he discovers the truth about her however, things take a turn for the worse.

Just as MacFarlane’s character is timid and negative, the film itself seems to be afraid of its own comedic potential. “Family Guy” often makes viewers cringe, but it makes them laugh harder, whether it’s showing a barbershop quartet singing to a patient that he has AIDS, speculating that Mike Brady’s first marriage ended when he beat his wife to death because she brought him a warm beer or building an episode around a brand-new roller coaster called the Holocaust (“It’s got local Jews up in arms…as they go over the first hill.”)  “Family Guy” may or may not be your thing, but generally it delivers what it’s supposed to.

“Million Ways”, however, doesn’t.  Yes, we get to see N.P.H. defecate into a hat and get up-close views of sheep genitalia, but much of the movie seems as if MacFarlane is just trying to use fifteen years of curse words that he can’t say on “Family Guy”, without being particularly memorable.  Just as he doesn’t live up to his own potential, MacFarlane doesn’t give his talented cast much to work with.  Sarah Silverman – branded the “Westward Ho” in the film’s advertisements – can match MacFarlane’s offensive humor punch for punch, but her part is ultimately little more than the same basic sex jokes recycled.  Liam Neeson is particularly disappointing as the villain Clinch.  Dedicated “Family Guy” fans might remember the cutaway bit describing a situation as being as “hopeless as Liam Neeson playing an American cowboy”; having Neeson actually in the film seemed like a perfect opportunity to develop that joke.  Unfortunately, Neeson’s part is played straight, denying the potential for a great gag while failing to intimidate as a villain.

Another common criticism of this film simply the fact that it is a western, a genre widely believed to be dead.  The movie could have worked as a send-up of westerns, but with sweeping panoramic landscapes, a grandiose musical score and a run time of almost two hours, it seems as if MacFarlane was going for the real thing.  It’s visually impressive and the music fits the aesthetic, but this is a film being sold as a comedy; people don’t watch “Blazing Saddles” for its cinematography.  If MacFarlane was trying to make a real western, he didn’t make it exciting, tense or engaging enough; if he was going for a comedy, the laughs are too sparse.

MacFarlane’s body of work and fan base is likely strong enough that one misfire won’t sink him.  Hopefully he’ll learn from what didn’t work in this film and get back on track the next time around.

January 21, 2012

#37) “Hello, VADGE!” – part 2: Betty Believe It

There’s an old joke: Q. How many militant feminists does it take to change a lightbulb? A. That’s not funny!

Yes, gender-based humor is a tricky thing.  But recently I came across a quote that would have to make even the most testosterone-choked males tip their caps and say, “Well played, my lady.”

Funny, yes.  But worth devoting a whole blog to?  Worth spending time discussing that could be spent on one of my other blogs?  Yes, too.

Why?  Because this is a great example of something that I think is lost on many: that humor is often the best way to make a point.  Most people would rather laugh than be lectured, right?  Yet so many people are completely dry and preachy when speaking their mind.  Humor can be a key element in bridging the gap between any two groups of people who don’t always see eye to eye: men and women, Republicans and Democrats, and Blacks and Jews.

We NEED to laugh; we NEED humor, and it’s not always going to be tasteful.  But in a way, being able to take or make a joke about oneself is the ultimate form of self confidence.  Woody Allen made it hip to be a neurotic Jew; Jeff Foxworthy brought rednecks out of the south and into the mainstream.  And at age 90, Betty White is still bringing the goods.  She can teach us all a thing or two about laughing at, and with, ourselves.

June 27, 2011

#15) Shout-out to another D: My Top Ten David Sedaris Quotes

#10) “You can suck the cream out of my grand-daddy’s withered old cum-stained cock before I ever…let you look into this motherfucking baby’s wrinkly-assed face.”  (From “C.O.G.”, dialogue Sedaris overheard on a cross-country bus trip)

#9) “My home – well, one of my homes – is on the garden tour, so I’ve got to get back to Williamsburg.” (From “The Ship Shape”; dialogue Sedaris and his mother overheard at a dry cleaner in Raleigh)

#8) “There’s only so much you can do for someone who thinks Auschwitz is a brand of beer.” (From “C.O.G.”)

#7) “It had now become the kind of masturbation that’s an act of determination, not pleasure.” (From “Blood Work”)

#6) “I’m the stepsister of Jesus Christ sent back to earth to round up all the lazy, goddamned niggers and teach them to cook ribs the way they was meant to be cooked, goddamn it.”  (From “Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out!”; said by a woman at the nursing home where Sedaris’s grandmother lived)

#5) “I hate to bother you, but I’m going to lie down for a while…if for some reason I don’t wake up, I’m wondering if you could possibly insert this into my anus.” (From “Blood Work”; Sedaris is cleaning the house of a client who recently recovered from surgery)

#4) “He must truly believe in miracles if he thought I’d ask a complete stranger if she accepted deliveries in the rear.” (From “C.O.G.”, describing a trip to a crafts fair in Portland, OR with a man who called himself a “Child of God”)

#3) “I couldn’t read the phrase ‘He paunched his daughter’s rock-hard nopples’ without thinking of Gretchen barricading herself in her room.”  (From “Next of Kin”; describing a poorly edited adult novel that Sedaris and his sisters read)

#2) “I was then to suggest that the hook-nosed Jew bastard could shove his delivery charge up his ass.”  (From “That’s Amore”, in which Sedaris’s elderly neighbor enlists him to help negotiate with the local pharmacist)

And the number one David Sedaris quote of all time…..

“They’re not little creatures!  They’re tool people!” (From “The Girl Next Door”)