The 2005 Emerging Comic of New York Award nominations have been set and are now open for voting. If you lust after a particular downtown comic, this is the best way to get their attention, outside of a balloon bouquet sent to their temp job. Vote now!
Filed Under Sketch Comedy
I’ve been a little paralyzed from updating lately because I felt I needed to talk about Dave Chappelle’s flight from his own show. Like a lot of people, I felt sympathy for the man. All the rumors and details - mental hospitals, drug addiction and $50 million - sounded more like gossip instead of my usual interest in deconstructing poop jokes. None of Dave’s troubles in the press had any direct roots to his comedy… at least none that were being put forward at the time.
Dave Chappelle’s interview with Time confirmed that this is a bit more of an art-driven pullout than the usual celeb shenanigans. Chappelle’s fears that his sketches might perpetuate the stereotypes they mean to destroy struck me as a very real concern. Dave’s sensitivity does seem a bit high - the spark for his worries seems to be the raucous laughter of a single white male during a filming of a sketch. But I can still see why it bothers him. Comedy can be a pretty blunt instrument. Because so much of it plays on attitudes we don’t speak of, you first have to show the attitude you don’t like and then destroy it. But the act of reflecting racism, sexism, homophobia or anything else of that nature confirms the suspicions inherent in them. You run the risk of someone missing the point and thinking you share the same prejudice.
To me the risk is always worth taking. I think the more you bring the ugly side of life to light, the more these things robbed of their power. Worrying that one person might get it wrong and not get it isn’t worth it when compared to the others that will. It’s like this: if a child imitates a video game and kill someone, it doesn’t mean video games are bad. If a sketch about stereotypes reinforces racism in a few people, it’s not worth it to worry about because of the others who do get it. But that’s easy for me to say. I’m a white protestant male from the south, pretty much the template of the insider in this country now.
A lot of people make hay out of the $50 million Dave’s making. I’m a little concerned with our sense of scale when it come to entertainment, but I do see the money affecting Chappelle in some ways simply because his entire career has been based on taking risks with racial stereotypes. It’s what got him that $50 million, along with all the attention that comes with it. When you get access to an opportunity like that, you naturally reexamine your motives. Even if your jokes are no different, simply because of the money measure in our society, the jokes are more important. I’ve finally got the mic of the world now, what am I going to say and is it going to land the way I want. It’s easy to deconstruct racism in front of small audiences, but the bigger the audience, the more likely someone’s going to hear you wrong.
I hope Chappelle realizes that his instincts are strong and that the laughs of one white guy are a fair sacrifice for the people he is reaching. Take all the time you need, Dave.
Filed Under Sketch Comedy
Tom Green and Martin Short got in a recent row about an interview Short, in his Jiminy Glick persona, performed with the teat-suckling prankster. Short apparently asked Tom about his testicle cancer and then mimed taking a cell phone call while Green was talking. Tom considered the bit mean and pushed fans to start wearing shirts that said “Martin Short is Lame.” Green seems to have relented without getting the apology he desired from Short, but I think Green is right. Short has become lame.
Martin Short has become far too broad for his own good. His guest star appearance on Arrested Development as a crippled parody of Jack LaLane was the only episode that failed to work for me, simply because he hammed it up so large, it grated against the subtle acting of the rest of the show and the documentary style it is shot in. (I’m not the only one either, Arrested Development fans rate “Ready, Aim, Marry Me” at the bottom too.) Even will all the exaggerated coincidences on the show, the cast always keeps a sense that for the characters that the events are actually happening to them. Short just crammed as much scenery in his mouth as he could.
Plus, he doesn’t seem to understand the need for surprise anymore. His appearance on SNL interview a 70’s era Lorne Michaels was structured exactly like all of his celebrity interviews… mess up the celeb’s name, fall out of the chair, eat like a pig, pretend to choke with slight variations of faux insensitivity only because every celebs’ career highlights are different. The only saving grace from the repetitive schtick for previous interviews was at least you got celebrities’ honest reactions (like Green’s I suppose). On SNL, 70’s Lorne was played by Will Forte, so any improvisational feeling was lost.
Short can be subtle. In what’s possibly one of the greatest SNL sketches ever, he plays a male synchronized swimmer who’s not too strong a swimmer. He can be an amazing player if he doesn’t oversell. It would be great for Short to rediscover how to play small.
I normally hate the impulse of actors to play drama. But Short could actually use it. Find a film where a director will sit on him and make him keep all the manic energy inside. Hell, find a drama about old Hollywood if that’s what it’ll take to keep him interested. Just do something different from falling, screaming and over-eating. Surprise us.
Why TV Funhouse didn’t last confused me. Though its connecting puppet sketches didn’t really work, everything else, the short films and animated parodies, was pretty spot-on. After witnessing MTV2’s Wonder Showzen, I got what TV Funhouse lacked - a firm commitment to its target, children’s television.
The original FOX pilot for TV Funhouse was a full-on Bozo parody with kids in the studio for most of the insanity - including a segment where the camera sweeps through an audience to find a winning child only for it to stop on one tyke and announce “it’s not you!” From that, it’s safe to say, creator Robert Smigel was pretty committed to using the conventions of kid’s show. It was Comedy Central that got nervous (including switching one segment from “Porn to Kids” to “Porn for Everyone”).
Wonder Showzen is a kid’s show in all but title and, of course, content. Kids sing the main theme song and litter nearly all of the dark segments including an investigative report entitled “Beat Kids,” each word labeled across a fist. The show is brilliant - committed to be as horrific as possible with blood poring from dying trees and pictures of dead animals set to chants of children yelling “funny” or “not funny.” The ominous warning that begins every act includes eerie music and, if you listen, screams.
Some bits are ridiculous - bugging everyday people on the street with a puppet just makes the puppeteers look like assholes. But even then, they know it, and target people who deserve to be bothered like impolite cell phone users. The most recent, a visit to find out why people are angry in Harlem was even a good demonstration of how bad race relations still are.
The show even knows when it goes over the edge and calls itself on it. One cartoon featuring a song about celebrating differences includes “ooga-booga” African tribesmen and “Ching Chong” Chinamen is followed by a six-year-old saying, with perfect inflection, “Oh, I get it. Your racism is ironic.” The show is childlike clarity in form, but it has adult ambivalence and pain underlay every part.
It’s a shame it’s buried someplace like MTV2, but that might be the only reason why we’re seeing it at all. If you don’t get the channel, check out some segments here (wmv) or a bootleg of the original pilot here. And for the brave, check out the creators’ fantastically trippy site.
Filed Under Sketch Comedy
SNL guest host David Spade used a Owen Wilson impersonation to sneak a penis nose past the censors. Aristophanes would approve. I’ve been thinking that if a FCC crackdown does happen, that we’d go back to more veiled allusions of sexuality in comedy like early film and television. And strangely enough this is an example of that. Nobody really noticed until a week after broadcast and there wasn’t a single complaint the night it happened. Sounds veiled to me, even if it was plain as the nose on Spade’s face.
Comedians hate standards and practices, but these censors are, in some ways, the best thing to happen to comedy. You need real human cruelty and stupidity to make great targets for jokes. And you need watchdogs so you aren’t just making the crudest joke you can think up. Having something or someone to resist against makes something funnier. It forces you to use innuendo, suggestion and wit to hit a target. As well as make-ups jobs apparently. The cat and mouse game of what you can and can’t say isn’t fun for comedians, not to mention tedious with the splitting of hairs (saying “ass” is just fine, but imply there’s a hole in it…). But the process as a whole is probably better for comedy. Standards that are too loose make nothing shocking. No shock = no surprise. No surprise = not funny.
Filed Under Sketch Comedy
Reader Mike Gerber commented that I was far too charitable with Lorne Michaels in a previous post on Saturday Night Live. At the time, I was imagining I was damming with faint praise, but I can see how describing someone as a “good producer” in the most mercenary sense isn’t really damming enough.
Mike’s right. Just keeping something running isn’t enough. How much brain surgery does it take to pick guests that excite tweens? I’m surprised this week’s host, Paris Hilton, wasn’t made sooner. (Naturally it got bloggers talking look at suggestions for sketches here and here from Gawker.) The important thing is, when you make these concessions to keep something running, if you must make concessions at all, what can you do to keep it funny. To make it something of quality.
I’ve mentioned how cast and writer bloat and the ultra competitive nature of getting something, anything on air hurt the show. But reader Rob Bates (who knows a little of how SNL goes wrong considering he’s a writer/performer in the excellent SNL Rewritten show. Go see it.) pointed out how so few of the sketches even seem to have points to them anymore. During last week’s sketch featuring the Bush daughters in their rooms talking about the inauguration, I realized that SNL has completely dropped premise-based sketch comedy all together. They’ve simply replaced it with character sketches which are all middle, nothing to grab onto but a performer’s ticks, catchphrases and vocal mimicry.
Weekend Update remains the best part of the show, simply because it’s the only part of the show which seems to have comedic targets (though it misses all the time, at least it’s aiming). But the rest of the show has left behind any sort of notions of take-no-prisoners comedy, because how can you expect to kill anything if you’re not even hunting. The best thing the writers can do is simply pick something that they hate and then write a sketch that destroys it without consideration for characters at all. It’s Comedy 101, but they need the remedial education. Desperately.
Filed Under Sketch Comedy
The second article from Sunday’s NY Times was on everyone’s favorite comedy punching bag, Saturday Night Live and it’s recent fascination with celeb-focused sketches. I don’t say “punching bag” because they don’t deserve being slammed. They do. But reading this article reminded me how good a producer Lorne Michaels is. A producer keeps his show on the air, period. It chills me to think of teen stars doing sketch comedy, but Michaels knows that they’ll get an audience. Particularly when he’s got the fractured network audience he describes (“a big tent show”). For a producer, he’s got his priorities in order. Ratings before funny.
The NY Times story laments the lack of quality political material on the show. It’s rather strange, because if anyone understand politics (at least of the office variety) it’s an SNL writer. The immense pressure to get on air is so big, it’s no wonder SNL writers begin to act like network executives… as soon as sketches about X start working, they’ll make as many sketches of X as possible. I caught an episode of “Dinner for Five” when David Cross asked Molly Shannon how she could stand working in such a poltical place. He argued that anything political between co-workers simply just gets in the way of creating funny stuff and he’s right.
Even more disheartening was to hear was the self-censoring writers did themselves… cutting poltical sketches because they feared the backlash from 9/11 patriotism. To hear SNL really run away from any sort of satirical bent means it’s become the establishment show it was meant to buck 30 years ago. It’s “Carol Burnett” with better fart jokes.
When I first read E! had gotten the rerun rights for SNL instead of Comedy Central a few years ago, I questioned the change. It didn’t make sense. Now it does. SNL is just part of the tabloid spectacle… a “funny” version of “Celebrities Uncensored.”