Last week was fueled with speculation about who would play Barack Obama on Saturday Night Live’s first post strike show. After some speculation about some rising African American comics joining the show specifically to play Obama, when Saturday rolled around, Fred Armisen was in the role.
From my eye, Armisen didn’t really seem to have Obama down, but I don’t think that’s his fault. The problem is there’s no good (or lame) joke about Obama yet - where Obama is the target.
During the 2000 campaign, the New York Times ran a fascinating article about how late night jokes contribute to the perception of a candidate. The title: “The Stiff Guy vs. the Dumb Guy.” Essentially a candidate gets at least one word - often exactly one word - which becomes their comedic persona. They become a kind of a shorthand for jokes that time-presseed monologue writers can be sure will land.
Because comedy writers don’t have that shorthand yet for Obama, there’s no comedic trait to attribute to a Barack Obama impression. Once a trait is found, that influences everything from the mannerisms. Hillary Clinton has a comedic trait - that’s she’s false. It makes a building block for Amy Poehler‘s spot-on replication of Hillary’s laughter. (It’s arguably the chicken and the egg here - Hillary’s laugh helped create the “false” trait.)
It can be argued that the writers strike helped Obama. For a whole month he was in the public eye without comedy writers searching for a joke to make about the candidate (the few writers who were working for Letterman and Fuergeson didn’t find one during that time either).
If you scour a month of the Late Night Joke Archive, you won’t find a single joke in there where Obama is the target. He’s mentioned in the jokes, but they’re mostly to make a joke about other candidates… often Hillary Clinton. Hillary has lots of comedic hooks and you can find many of them in the archive. Besides the notions that she’s false, there’s regular jabs at her femininity with increasingly stale pantsuit jokes. She’s also the butt of Bill Clinton as Lothario jokes. On rare occasions a joke will be so thinly veiled that the writers might as well used the word “bitch.” John McCain also already has at least one of his comedic traits defined - his advanced age and the senility that comes with it.
Not that Obama will be hurt by whatever comedic trait he’s labeled with. Sometimes this shorthand joke label can help. I believe that joking about Bush being stupid helped him, minimizing expectations of his debate performances and playing into his black or white worldview. It decreased public awareness that the man was a shrewd politician and made him more of a regular guy. A caricature of arrogance and ego would have done far more on target description, although it’s obviously a harder position to tell jokes from. But it was fertile territory against at least of his opponents. Gore contented with jokes about arrogance in 2000, thanks to missteps that got turned into the fertile comic territory “I invented the Internet.”
Obama has demonstrated some political jiu-jitsu with attacks, but eventually in public life he will be pined down and given a comedic trait. What will it be and how will that perception affect his candidacy? Perhaps the argument shouldn’t be that he hasn’t been vetted, but that he hasn’t been satirized.
One of the videos that Human Giant debuted at their first UCB show teasing their second season has gone online. This sketch shows the unfair lengths it takes to get online celebrity.
Oh, and it features a dude cutting off his dick.
Yesterday, the Upright Citizens Brigade launched what they describe as their “third stage”, UCBComedy.com. They’re making original web videos for it, the first being the clip below called “Shirts vs. Skins.” It’s a little Not Safe For Work.
Today The Ten, an underrated comedy from last summer, comes to DVD. Ten stories highlight each of the Bible’s Ten Commandments in a very loose way, with characters interconnecting between sketches. Each bit is extremely silly (an example: a man becomes a celebrity after falling from a plane and ending up embedded in the ground, unable to move). But they’re all played seriously. Helping to ground the absurd are serious actors and actresses like Oliver Platt, Gretchen Mol, Liev Schreiber and WInona Ryder, who has a torrid affair with a ventriloquist dummy. Also part of the fun are some great alt comedy folk including Ron Corddry, A.D. Miles, Jason Sudekis and nearly every member of “The State.” I got a chance to do a short email interview with “Ten” Director David Wain, who along with being a member of “The State” and “Stella” previously directed “Wet Hot American Summer.” We talked about interconnected sketches, absurdity and the classic comedy “Airplane.”
Sketch comedy movies are often described as hit or miss. Do you think that’s a fair criticism? It seems like an obvious thing to say about any movie – there will be parts you like more than other parts.
It makes sense that one would feel this way about sketch comedy because each part has a different premise, different set of characters, different style—not everyone is going to like every sketch. Also there’s an inevitable “dip” in a sketch-based film, when you’re not following a three-act story, where no matter how funny the jokes are, it can start to get tedious. In The Ten we tried to combat this phenomenon by keeping the whole movie relatively short, and by imbuing each piece with more than just jokes.
It’s interesting that a film using the Ten Commandments only has one segment (Gretchen Mol with Jesus Chriso) that plays with religion. Did you consciously want to stay away from religion?
It wasn’t a conscious choice so much as just where our taste lies. I’ve never been too interested comedy that’s overtly political or religious. In The Ten we were more interested in the underlying moral/ethical themes of the Ten Commandments as basis for a variety of comic stories.
When you’re doing a film that’s not necessarily for a mainstream audience, do you still have audience expectations that you have to deal with?
Of course. Even small independent movies take millions of dollars to make, and must connect so some sort of audience. That said, I’ve been extremely lucky that my first two movies (Wet Hot American Summer and The Ten) were made with almost zero influence from financiers, and we were largely allowed to freely explore our instincts and tastes (with certain casting requirements). As with most everything I’ve done, I just trusted that what we find funny, others will. How many others, I can never predict. Most things I’ve done has been met with obsessive worship from some, and abject hostility from others.
It seems with a sketch comedy film that once you move on to a new sketch that it’s hard to keep momentum. You’re setting up the next bits and what not. Do you think the ways that the characters in “The Ten” interconnect help to keep the momentum going?
Definitely. More than I anticipated, actually. We thought the way the characters overlapped was just icing on the cake of The Ten, but it turns out to have been a crucial element of the film that I’d have done much more of, in hindsight.
There’s a real love of the absurd in a lot of your comedy. How grounded does a scene or a sketch have to be before you can go off on a non-sequitur?
There’s certainly no formula. That kind of thing is entirely a matter of instinct and taste.
Are there times you have to throw away a gag because you have to serve the scene?
All the time. There’s a ton of deleted material on The Ten DVD that is exactly that. Of course The Ten had a much higher threshold for tangents and absurdity because we didn’t have an overall story to serve, to keep moving forward. The jokes were the first priority. In Wet Hot and Stella we more often had to throw out jokes that took away from the story drive, but those too were sketch-like narratives. The movie I’m working on now (currently untitled comedy for Universal) is a much more “straight-forward” narrative, and it’s an interesting and satisfying discipline to try to keep every scene and every joke as on-topic, on-character, and on-story as possible, while still making you laugh.
Is there a point where absurdity can change the tone so much that a film becomes like “Airplane”?
Well in infer from the way you word the question that you don’t like “Airplane.” I think “Airplane” is a classic comedy and far more sophisticated than it appears on the surface. This is why its myriad imitators (and sequels) haven’t worked, but the original “Airplane” lives on. It’s much more than just string of puns and sight gags. On the other hand, I have to admit I have always been wary of having too many “airplane jokes” in what I do, but that’s because I want to be true to my own specific voice and no one else’s. The Ten and Airplane share the idea that anything goes, in service of comedy. Narrative structure, logic, continuity, emotional reality, character depth—they all take a back seat. I can understand why this puts off some people. And truthfully, it puts me off too, when done recklessly. Nor would I want to have a movie diet of only absurdist comedies. But when done well, whether it’s Monty Python, Woody Allen, Steve Martin, Cohen Brothers, Peter Sellers, whoever… they can be sublime. The audiences and critics who have embraced The Ten have seen it as a whole movie, that even though it doesn’t the conventional earmarks of most feature films, there’s a cohesiveness to the point of view.
Editor’s Note: Just to be clear, I love “Airplane.” The reason I asked David about this is simply, “Airplane” is one thing and generally I think the aesthetic aspired to by Wain is another. It seemed like a pretty fine line to tread.
Filed Under Sketch Comedy
The members of Human Giant (Aziz Ansari, Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer) started showing off some upcoming video from their upcoming second season last night at the UCB. I’m going to list some of what I saw last night, but without giving away what you’ll be enjoying in March (unless of course, for some bizarre reason, one of these very funny sketches didn’t actually make the show.)
The night also had guest stand-up appearances from Jessi Klein, Todd Barry, Nick Kroll and Demetri Martin. Todd Barry had great fun at the Human Giant’s expense, making fun of the temporary graphics that made up the sketches. He asserted, “am I going out with temp punchlines?” beat “probably.” Barry got a fair amount of mileage from it - at one point noting he only had done one joke in his first six minutes. Demetri, who noticed people might be recording his set with their cell phones, asked them to keep it to 30 seconds as he was doing some new jokes. He showed off a few leaflets he made. My favorite:
Found: One Cat. Looks delicious. Call by Friday otherwise don’t bother.
If you want get a premiere of some of what Human Giant’s second season, the group is showing more sketches every Monday nights at 11PM at the UCB. Get tickets as soon as they become available, because they do sell out. Admission is free save for putting whatever you want to give in the ol’ Bucket of Truth.
Some other good news: material from Human Giant’s brilliant 24-hour takeover of MTV will make their upcoming Season One DVD. That marathon had appearances by nearly everyone revered in comedy circles. A full list can be found on the Human Giant blog. Mouth watering, isn’t it? Can’t wait ‘til March. If you’re intrigued, the first season DVD of Human Giant is available for pre-order on Amazon.
The second season of David Wain’s show “Wainy Days” just began yesterday. If you were like me yesterday and hadn’t watched any of the episodes, you’ve been (and I was) missing something. I watched all eleven in a row and gradually found myself falling for its non sequiturs, bizarre choices and playfulness.
The show revolves around Wain’s dating life, and though he supposedly found the girl right under his nose (his real life girlfriend Zandy) at the end of the first series, the reset button is pressed very quickly here.
Filed Under Sketch Comedy
To me, its more of an evisceration of comedy audiences than SNL itself. Do you think if legalize pot in this country, that would stop the “Woo!” you get every time from an audience at it’s very mention?