Filed Under Just For Laughs
No sooner has the US industry-heavy portion of Just For Laughs gotten underway than it experiences its first casualties. The Comedy Conference’s kickoff event, the 10 a.m. Thursday-morning Keynote Address, got the axe, though The Colbert Report head writer Barry Julien’s addition to the “Late Night: In the Writer’s Room” panel managed to swing the scales back a bit. In the past, “The Green Room with Paul Provenza” enjoyed a healthy three-evening midnight run. This year, only two 1 a.m. shows were scheduled, but Thursday’s offering was removed from the schedule Wednesday night; Friday’s show yanked the following morning. And on the Gala front, Wednesday Britcom host John Cleese was replaced by Lewis Black (the Monty Python star has rescheduled for Sunday) after Cleese was diagnosed with an inflamed prostrate gland. Perhaps he pulled something practicing his silly walks?
Filed Under Stand-Up Comedy
One of Steve Martin’s early specials has made it to the web and it gives what is now a pretty rare look at his stand-up. If you were around at the time, your main image of Martin’s stand-up career is his performances for thousands in arenas. Well in the special “Steve Martin’s The Funnier Side of Eastern Canada”, there’s a segment of Martin performing a more intimate venue. You can see it in this clip, which starts at around 3 minutes in.
Wow, can you hear that? Unsweetened, distinct laughter on TV. Those were the days.
If you want to see the whole thing, I’ve put it together as a playlist that you can watch after the jump.
Filed Under Sketch Comedy
Long-awaited by some, including myself, The State finally made it to DVD just yesteday. I can finally throw away the only previous home-video release of The State, the videocassette of “Skits and Stickers”
I haven’t had a chance to pour through the DVD yet, as I just got it. But the sheer amount of material available, including some never before sketches with commentary that hopefully detail a bit of why they were cut, are pretty much all we’ve been asking for for as long as I can remember. If I took this look to do it right, I’m glad they took their time.
Here’s one of my favorite sketches, the State performing a broadcast-television-friendly version of the non-existent play “Tenement.” I think I’ve worn out this particular part of the tape on the aforementioned video cassette:
Oh, the commitment to the raw humanity of William McGuire’s work. If you love this sketch too, MTV has a very nice viral marketing widget that you can use to share it or 26 other sketches (including Porcupine Racetrack) on the Facespace or your Mybook.
Judd Apatow’s upcoming film “Funny People” has a huge viral media blast going on, with a lot of it centered around Aziz Ansari‘s character in the film Raaaaaaaandy, who I always assumed was going to be a lot of what’s wrong with modern stand-up. The latest piece is this faux documentary of the character by Ansari and Jason Woliner, the director and 4th member of Human Giant. Let’s watch, unless you’re at work, because there’s some borderline NSFW stuff here:
Maybe it’s because I know Ansari’s own performing style well or I’m used alt comedians doing incredibly annoying characters as a bit, but I don’t see Raaaaaaaandy the way I’ve assumed I’m supposed to see him. So I don’t really think this is targeting any particular stand-up at all. Because the difficult thing about terrible comedy is that the characters, just like the perpetrators of bad comedy in real life, have to be absolutely sincere that what they do is funny. But, as Raaaaaaaandy might say, this video winks at me like a muthafucka. And Ansari’s just so naturally funny, he actually makes Raaaaaaaandy look like he has some nascent skills.
In the context of the film itself, this may very well play differently. And this isn’t to say, I’m not laughing my dick off at this. Because I am. Particularly at DJ Ol’ Youngin, who does come off completely committed to his shit here. Maybe it’s because I don’t know him outside of this vid is why I absolutely buy it.
The most annoying to me about Raaaaaaaandy is his name and how he spells the damn thing. It should be Rannnnnnnndy. 8ns not 8as!
Mike Sacks’s book “And Here’s the Kicker” is out now. It features over 20 interviews with humorists and comedy writers from the time of the Marx Bros to today. If you’re a comedy nerd, Mike probably talked to one of your favorites.
I can’t praise “And Here’s the Kicker” enough. It treats humor writing as less than a tab A into slot B affair and interviews comedians with intelligence and a level of foreknowledge that keeps it from asking unproductive questions like “where do you get your ideas?” Instead the book grants a sense of how to think like a humor writer, something that’s much more worthy in the long term.
This excerpt from a conversation Sacks has with longtime Simpsons’ comedy writer George Meyer shares some of that insight:
Sacks: You’ve mentioned in the past that some of your best writing is done when you go into sort of a trance. Do you consider writing almost a form of hypnosis, where you lose track of time?
Meyer: Losing track of time is a sure sign that you’re immersed in the joy of the experience. You’re in the state that [psychology professor and author] Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls “flow.” Actually, I had to be in that state now, just to get his name right. The work you do in this state has grace and ease and resonance. It’s the opposite of what Michael O’Donoghue used to call “sweaty” comedy, when you’ve laboriously squeezed out something tedious, and the effort shows.
When you’re “in the zone,” a joke will just land on you like a butterfly, and only if you scrutinize it later do you see how it came together from disparate elements. Maybe it’s an amalgam of an old half-idea, or something you saw on your way to work, or a strange symbol on someone’s T-shirt. And it happens in an instant. Of course, this state is elusive; it has to be cultivated.
How do you cultivate it?
You have to be prepared. You need basic writing skills, of course, but you also want to have lots of raw ingredients rattling around in your skull: vivid words, strange song lyrics, irritating euphemisms, disastrous experiences that have been bothering you for years. To feed this stockpile, you need to expose yourself to the real world and all its hailstones.
The other essential is humility. You have to be willing to look stupid, to stumble down unproductive paths, and to endure bad afternoons when all your ideas are flat and sterile and derivative. If you don’t take yourself too seriously, you’ll bounce back from these lulls and be ready for the muse’s next visit.
What is it about writing in a group situation that you enjoy? Do you actually prefer this process to writing alone?
Writing solo is lonely and you feel the heat—you want to keep topping yourself. I used to berate myself if I couldn’t think of a killer joke for every spot, but I gradually eased up on that. You can’t keep bitch-slapping your creativity, or it’ll run away and find a new pimp.
That reference to that stockpile comes into play a little later in this excerpt:
Sacks: Jon Vitti, another Simpsons writer, once told The Harvard Crimson, “The physical pain [that] lousy comedy costs George is incredible. You don’t want to be responsible for that.”
It only hurts me if I had a hand in it. I guess I find life so disappointing that I can’t bear to be part of the problem.
Sacks: Are there specific comedic tropes that drive you crazy?
Just material that’s lazy and fake. For instance, when a character has to think of a phony name, sees an ashtray, and then calls herself “Susan Ashtray.” That’s boring. Billy Wilder’s first commandment was “Thou shalt not bore.”
It’s easy to pick up bad habits from watching hackneyed comedy. You’ll find yourself resorting to stock situations, straw men, and hokey resolutions. An artful slice of life, even if it isn’t totally free of editorial contrivance, will inspire you to build your work on the bedrock of reality.
Filed Under Stand-Up Comedy
I’m in Chicago for Just For Laughs, getting ready for another night of the ha-ha. But if you’re not here, the best place might just be your couch for Joe Rogan’s new hour special, “Talking Monkeys in Space.” Joe has been making his name as a stand-up in the last few years with his willingness to confront the ills of the business, particularly joke thievery. But more than a passionate defender of the art, Rogan is a great practitioner of it, weaving some philosophical insight into his jokes that bring him into territory few comics cover. This bit of evolution here is just a small part of something larger about human hubris in going places we shouldn’t be. Check it:
“Joe Rogan: Talking Monkeys in Space” airs tonight at Midnight on Spike.
Filed Under Just For Laughs
You’re going to see “Let Freedom Hum” in a week on a TBS, but let’s talk about what couldn’t or wouldn’t or probably shouldn’t be seen.
I’ve not been the biggest fan of Martin Short, but the man is definitely a solid professional, working the pause-riddled production with unrelenting energy. All his characters are going to be pulled out of the hat for this one - Ed Grimley (who appears pants-less in the opener), Jiminy Glick, and a surprising return of Lawrence Orbach, the failed synchronized swimmer from one of the most beloved SNL skits of all time. That one’s a little ballsy - something that loved, why risk it? We didn’t get to see the taped piece, so I’ll be tuning in with you for that. Some new bits from Short were also brilliant, including a physical bit where he impersonates a bagpipe.
As I mentioned, there was a lot of pauses in the shooting and a couple of redos of some segments. Some of it was a little odd - a piano being returned to the stage at various points before a comedian’s set for what seemed to be no particular reason. None of them were playing it and nor was short necessarily when he returned for intros. Certainly seemed like they could have had all the comedians who were going to be perform with a piano nearby first then remove the damn thing. As Short remarked at one point during an early reset, “This is what we call momentum.”
Such resets for TV productions are not unusual but probably more striking to me because I had just seen Greg Giraldo perform for his Comedy Central hour special the night before. Giraldo was pretty much all self-editing on stage for that, often commenting a particular bit was destined for a DVD extra. Giraldo also performed for “Let Freedom Hum”, using none of the same material. Which is probably a good thing since his hour special isn’t coming til August I believe.
Giraldo was kind of a different comic from the others appearing on “Let Freedom Hum” - a dark rant from Giraldo about an argument with his ex-wife about the life of a road comic is good funny stuff, but seemed a mite bit darker than the comedy I think of on TBS. I couldn’t really say there was a particular thematic reason for any of the comics to be part of a special together. Where exactly do Tom Papa, Kathleen Madigan, Jeremy Hotz, John Pinette and Giraldo all meet?
There’s some big differences between the other comics on the bill. John Pinette and Jeremy Hotz are more solidly shtick driven. Hotz is a nervous one liner with a signature tic of constant finger biting. Pinette is a fat guy comic. But that’s not a pejorative, as Pinette brings a level of anger that makes his bits often surprising. And Madigan and Papa both play as smart, observational comics with Papa’s fatherhood bits standing out. (Papa told us that much of his drinking now that he has kids is “standing in front of the sink drinking.”)
Nor, as Ryan Hubbard, my compatriot at the Chicago Reader points out, was “Let America Hum” particularly America-themed - despite the title. It seems just to fit around the initial date - Friday, June 26th - which is right around the corner from July 4th. It’s probably a good move - any sort of thematic unity would be kind of an illusion.
But the question kind of remains, why? Why are these particular stand-ups together? It’s a question that’s easily answered when you do something like “Down & Dirty with Jim Norton” (the comics are going to be filthier and lean to the Cringe style) or “Comedy Central’s Last Laugh” (where the comics are kicking the last of the topical stuff out the door). I’m not sure people tuning in will think after one or two comics that they’ll be sure they’ll like the next one and not flip the channel. That might make TBS answer this question for future specials.