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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.
With a pit-bull-like hold on their branding, TBS is adding a late night stand-up show entitled “The Very Funny Show”, all of which will be filmed at Zanies Chicago during the upcoming Just For Laughs Chicago. Tim Meadows, not typically known as a stand-up, will host the ten episode series, each episode featuring three comedians. Names include John Mulaney, Steve Byrne, Nick Thune, T.J. Miller and Matt Braunger. From the press release and Zanies website I’ve only been able to compile about 22 of the 30 comics that’ll appear (that list after the jump).
It’s been pretty obvious for a while that TBS won’t let Comedy Central own the stand-up game anymore. The question I’ve always been concerned about is that have network execs learned anything from the ridiculous ubiquity of stand-up on TV in the late 80s / early 90s, which pretty much killed the form for a while.
I think the performers are definitely sharper now, more seeing this as an art in itself rather than the sitcom stepping stone. And there’s a lot more diverse voices in that community, so there’s far less likelihood that every performers going to be seen as interchangeable. Plus content restrictions are far looser, leading to a lot more territory for a comic to cover. Although, that does suggest to me the airline food joke of this generation could end up being comics using the word “rape” in a bit.
But this is a little bit out of the hands of the comics themselves. Presentation is going to be a big part of whether stand-up on TV can avoid that again. As someone who looks as thumbnail of stand-up comedy videos every day, I can tell you that a lot of stand-up looks the same. That’s the beauty of it in many ways - one person and one mic. But there’s a lot that go inside that - audience reaction shots, close-ups, editing, angles, focus, etc. None of this should just be monkeyed with for the sake of making something look different. But I fear in a visual culture, that audience will judge stand-up harshly simply because it looks the same. Execs should look at how to present a comedic voice, not just throw a few performers on a stage and call it a day.
Zanies, the club where they’re shooting “The Very Funny Show”, doesn’t look too glitzed up judging from the web videos I’ve seen (never been myself, so I could be wrong). It seems like a nice departure, particularly if the lights can stay a little low. But a more interesting difference about “The Very Funny Show” that may create a break from the way stand-up is seen on Comedy Central is the fact that they’re charging for tickets. Comedy Central doesn’t do for that for either their Comedy Central Presents series or Live at Gotham. I think it always creates a different vibe when an audience pays money for a ticket – perhaps they’ll be more demanding, perhaps they’ll see the comics as more experienced hands. It’ll change the feel of the room a little, maybe enough that folks might notice at home. Let’s hope that’s a good change.
Just For Laughs is making its big U.S.A. invasion in just a month, putting down a flag in Chicago and establishing what’ll probably become America’s premiere comedy fest almost by default.
I’m planning on going next month and these are some of the shows I’m looking forward to checking out:
After the jump, you’ll find my map of the comedy fest…
Analysis later perhaps, but here’s some of the highlights:
Also part of the fest will be multiple performances of the following:
Tickets and more info available on the Just For Laughs website.
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I’m planning a larger recap of the scathing speech Andy Kindler delivered at this year’s Just For Laughs Festival. But for a taste, here’s a video posted by MySpace of the event. Somewhat ironically, I think it gives Kindler a little material for next year’s speech, as much of the video is the very funny “red carpet” bits featuring Greg Fitzsimmons before and after the speech. But I should say Kindler has the best moment in the clip, falling at the very end - a perfect little after-the-spotlight moment.
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I was very excited to see this show and it did not disappoint. After David Cross reasserted his place in the comedy duo by winning a dance contest (somewhat to Bob Odenkirk’s chagrin), the pair did a scene parodying the French preference in Montreal. Bob played himself, simply attempting to order a coffee from a barrista who pretends to not know English and then French, pushing the behavior to logical insanity by insisting inside his cafe he has his own language.
Here’s a show rundown:
I also enjoyed a chance to see some videos fom Straightjacket - a British comedy group that Odenkirk has taken a shine to. Their work is short and punchy, not belaboring the bit at all. Here’s my favorite from the set - I venture to say it was the audience favorite too. It’s called “Font Perv”
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The venue for most of the stand-up is the Kola Note. It’s not a huge venue, but it feels frustratingly cavernous when the laughs aren’t big. It seems like a tough room to get momentum in. Top it off with a crowd that’s got a fair amount of seen-it-all industry people in it. (One industry friend here told me afterward that a joke got a “nice” from her. That’s a compliment.) In short, it seems like a tough room.
With my experience in Aspen at the Belly-Up and this, part of me wonders why put young comics through a trial by fire like this. Of course, that entirely assumes that the atmosphere of the show is intentional - but that’s impossible. Comedy club crowds are difficult to predict, but you still have to go out of your way to make a tough room I think. And truly, having be a hard place to perform is, I suppose, the best measure of a comic. You can’t really know someone until they’ve been tested. Tough crowds are as good a test as any.
Now, there was a lot of laughs that night. But it was very rare that it felt like one of the “New Faces” had the room. The two that did extremely well in my mind were Tommy Johnagin and Kurt Metzger, the later being the only comic who earned an applause break. Johnagin hit me really hard with this exchange while making an appointment with his mechanic:
Mechanic: “How’s seven in the morning?”
Johnagin: “I hear it sucks. I’ll see you at noon.”
Metzger pretty much owned the crowd by teasing them right from the start, talking about wanting to start off on the right foot and then following it with a bit about “why America is the best country.” Cultural differences continue to play a role as he mentioned a girl was a ten and then asks, “do you have that or do you have metric hotness?”
My favorite line of the night has to be from Tom Papa, who hosted the show. One overcurious audience member queried where he was from, and then why he was here. Tom Papa: “I’m running fom my childhood and seeking the approval of strangers/”