Sarah Haskins does funny commentaries on themes in TV commercials directed towards women and how these commercials reflect (or purport to) and shape (or attempt to) women’s perceptions. This is one of my favorites, on “Doofy Husbands.”
Sarah is a Chicago native and a Francis Parker grad! (Oh, and Harvard.)
Cathy Guisewhite publishes her final Cathy comic strip on October 3. For 34 years, fans have followed the dysthemic, neurotically low self-esteemed, guilt-racked title character as she tried to cope with her mother, her boyfriend, food, the bathing suit sales clerk, and (most centrally and painfully) her own reflection in the mirror. To every reader who struggled with self-acceptance, Cathy was a comfort. You didn’t have to be a woman to receive the message that you were not alone.
I don’t know what Cathy Guisewhite has in mind for her final strip, but I know what I’d like to see. I’d like to see three panels in which Cathy stands before her reflection in the mirror, looking from various angles to see the same person she’s always seen but, for the first time, appearing content; and then, in a fourth and final panel, turning to us to say, “No acerbic, self-flagellating, self-defeating, hope-deflating punchline. If I can like myself, dear reader…so can you.”
As you might expect of a good documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work connects you with its subject on a human level, exposes her vulnerabilities, gives you insight into what drives her. But it also does something that may be even more important than that. It makes you laugh your ass off.
A realization begins to take hold as we follow Rivers through a year of her life, and see archival material of television appearances going back to her beginnings: Joan Rivers is one of the great wits of our time. Dorothy Parker wrote poems, stories and criticism for Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, and delivered bon mots to Robert Benchley and Alexander Woollcott at the Algonquin Round Table, while Joan Rivers works on nightclub stages and television talk shows; Dorothy Parker was constrained (in her work at least) to be more lady-like while Joan Rivers lives in a time that requires her to be more frankly ribald; but they have more in common than separates them. In the film there’s a clip from a television appearance with Johnny Carson in which Joan, by way of unacknowledged homage, updates Parker’s famous “men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses” in a way that’s every bit as true, as epigrammatic, and as concentratedly witty. I won’t spoil the line for you (one of this film’s great pleasures is rediscovering Rivers’ ability to craft observations that have the power to level you in an economical eleven or twelve words), but suffice it to say that Carson is so surprised by it that he has to jerk back and turn away from Rivers and the audience so as not to lose control of himself.
Barnard-educated, this smart Jewish girl (Parker, incidentally, was half-Jewish, and more covertly) has been delighting our minds for almost fifty years now. Some of the laughs in Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work come from lines that Joan delivers in the public appearances the film documents, but many are from remarks she tosses off as we follow her through her days. (She’s always working, even when she’s not. One of the inspiring messages of the film is that “always working” is as good a prescription for happiness as any of us is likely to find.) Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work has the potential to cause a general re-appreciation of Joan Rivers, an awareness that she is not just a comic but a wit who is the rightful heir to Parker in her mining of the territory of loneliness, possessed of a comparable talent and deserving of the same respect from the culture. I suspect that Rivers knows this and that it’s one reason she agreed to let the filmmakers in her life. The bottom line is that as emotionally connected to Joan Rivers as this documentary made me feel (and it did), I laughed out loud during it more than at any comedy I’ve seen at the movies in the last five years. I was not alone.
This story takes place in three time periods. The seventies, the nineties, and now.
The elevator fart happened in the nineties. But the story can’t be told without the other two decades.
To begin at the beginning…Robert Klein was my comedic idol. He combined observational humor with a countercultural attitude that made him the preeminent comic of his generation. Even George Carlin professed to be influenced by him. Jerry Seinfeld has acknowledged a debt. So have dozens of other comics. Klein could be political (saying what needed to be said about Nixon, but funny), or he could be a smart social satirist, or he could just be silly. His act was a thing of beauty, a perfectly structured work of art. I saw him at a club in Chicago called The Quiet Knight, on Belmont Avenue under the el tracks, in 1975 or thereabouts. At the end of his set my face was literally in pain from the rictus of a grin that had been plastered across it for the previous ninety minutes. It took hours for the pain to go away. “I laughed so much I hurt” was literally true.
To me, Robert Klein was a god among men.
Slow dissolve to the mid-1990s.
I am in Los Angeles on a commercial shoot, staying at the Four Seasons Hotel on Doheny Drive. My room is on the eighth floor. It is morning. I press the button for the elevator to go down to the lobby. The elevator arrives, and it is empty—except for a foul smell. The smell of a human gaseous expulsion, or, to put it bluntly, a fart. I get into the elevator, not thinking of too much other than that I will soon be in the lobby and away from the unpleasantness.
I don’t think about the possibility that on the way down, the elevator will stop at the fifth floor and Robert Klein will get on.
But he does.
And he looks at me with disgust. The man I idolize among all other men thinks that I farted in an elevator.
Why didn’t I just say, “Hey, it wasn’t me, man”? I have asked myself that question a thousand times since that day. I don’t have an answer. I think I was just frozen in humiliation at the thought that Robert Klein thought I farted in an elevator, and that I went into some kind of insane denial in my own mind that this whole sequence of events was happening at all.
Slow dissolve to last week. Robert Klein is playing at Zanie’s, a Chicago comedy club that goes back more than twenty-five years. He is on the road, getting an act together for an upcoming HBO comedy special.
We go. We are sitting in the second row, probably not more than five yards away from him. I am sitting on the aisle.
My face is literally in pain from the rictus of a grin that is plastered across it for more than an hour.
His set completed, he leaves the stage, and walks next to me, since I am sitting right next to the lane by which comedians walk to and from the stage.
As he passes, he puts his hand on my shoulder. I feel that I have received absolution. I know what the hand on the shoulder means. It means, “Hey man, I know it wasn’t you who farted in that elevator. I’ve known it all along. We’re cool.”
I am so sure that this is what his gesture means that I don’t feel the need to bring it up when, after the show, I buy a copy of his memoir (The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue) and have him sign it. I do consider it. I do consider saying, when he asks me how I want my book inscribed, to reply, “To Ted—I know it wasn’t you who farted in that elevator.” But I think that he will think I am stark raving mad, so I don’t. I do tell him about my wonderful memories of him at The Quiet Knight, and we have a nice conversation about that, and he tells me something else about his book, treating me not like a fan but like a friend, which I am.
I decide to just go with the knowledge that we have a secret understanding about the whole fart thing. He signs my book, “To Ted, from Robert Klein.”
But just in case: Robert Klein, if you ever Google yourself and come upon this blog post, now you know. It wasn’t me, man.
Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyer’s Cut) holds you in its grip from start to finish — all six hours of it.
In this massive documentary from 2009, on the occasion of the group’s fortieth anniversary, the five living Pythons — John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin — sat down for lengthy individual interviews. Each appears before the camera solo, framed head and chest against black, facing at a slight angle an off-camera interviewer. In other words, it’s classic “talking heads,” the kind of stuff that’s supposed to be deadly. Plenty of clips are on hand to illustrate what those talking heads are telling us, and the interviews are intercut expertly, but nevertheless a substantial part of the film consists of one or another member of the British comedy troupe just sitting there and talking. What the film proves is that talking heads can work when the heads happen to house some of the greatest comedy minds of their generation.
The film is organized into six chapters. (These were shown weekly on the IFC channel in the fall; the film is now available on DVD, and for download on iTunes.) The participants speak seriously, and passionately, but of course with humor (as how could they not?). They make excellent raconteurs. Each hour-long chapter goes by before you know it; I have watched two at a clip while blissfully losing all sense of time.
Their stories pretty well cohere. We learn who these Pythons were, what they did before Python, and how they came together; Cambridge and Oxford educated (apart from Gilliam, the American animator), members in various underground or overground theatrical troupes at their universities, they had early television careers individually or in pairs writing and performing for British comedy-variety shows of the sixties. We hear how Monty Python’s Flying Circus took off, flying under the radar even of the BBC which aired it irregularly and at odd hours. We discover how cult success became popularity, and how their fame spread to the United States when one Dallas PBS station took a “what have we got to lose” chance on the show. (A Boston PBS executive, who had made initial inquiries, chickened out; literally turned white at a screening.) We hear about the creative difficulties and solutions behind the scenes of their three movies (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life of Brian, The Meaning of Life).
Along the way are interviews with others who played a part in the story as it unfolded, and with comics whose lives were changed by their exposure to Python at formative stages.
If I can share just one impression among hundreds that emerged from my viewing, it’s my surprise at the drama that prevailed among these guys from the very beginning. Discovering Python as an American in the seventies, I saw a show that spoke with one absurd voice, one brilliantly silly point of view — it was anarchic, but paradoxically, anarchic in a unified way — and I assumed a show like that could only result from superb teamwork. To an extent that was true, but the men collaborated “as one” only rarely. They were really a collection of smaller teams, in alliances that remained what they had been in their college days. Graham Chapman (who died in 1989) and Cleese (Oxford) wrote together as a team, as did Palin and Jones (Cambridge). Idle floated, coming up with many of the musical bits. The internal factions could be harsh with one another, and Cleese could be particularly withering in his criticism of the work from Palin and Jones. Palin and Jones, often as not, would slink off feeling chastened, convinced that their work wasn’t up to snuff — but occasionally sneaking it back into the script when Cleese wasn’t looking.
Meanwhile, in the production of their movies, Cleese often lost patience with Gilliam whom he felt spent an inordinate amount of time tinkering with the “look” instead of just shooting the funny script and getting on with it. In fact, the look of films like Holy Grail is essential to their success as comedy, so Cleese was wrong, but nevertheless his words on the topic have relevance to the success of the documentary itself. Defending his critique of Gilliam, he says, “Everyone talks about film as a visual medium. Well, guess what, life is a visual medium. Yet here I am talking to you, and here you are talking to me.” When the talk is as good as it is in Monty Python: Almost the Truth, he has a point.
The actress who plays the gal who waits on people in the Progressive Insurance Store is Stephanie Courtney, a member of The Groundlings improvisational theater troupe in Los Angeles. Here she is as herself (I’m guessing this video comes from a few years ago), doing a two-and-a-half minute piece that is more performance art than standup comedy. It’s amusing, and I enjoyed seeing what she looks like without her Flo makeup, and hearing what she sounds like without her Flo voice.
One of the nice surprises of the TV season is that Chevy Chase has finally found his funny again. On Community, he plays a business magnate returning to community college to continue his education, and the most recent episode gave him a couple of comedic bits that proved he still “has it.” One was a digression by his character on the different kinds of sneezes and how each can play a role in establishing dominance in a situation, and the other was a bit of physical comedy in the background of a scene as he attempted to get into his mouth a floppy-crusted pizza slice.
For about 28 years, it seemed the comedic genius who was Chevy Chase had drowned in a tsunami of ego. The brilliance he showed in the first season-and-a-half of Saturday Night Live, and which he’d displayed before that in the revolutionary improv-based seventies sketch comedy of the National Lampoon Radio Hour and Groove Tube, seemed to vanish. He hosted an ill-advised late night talk show on Fox in the early nineties that died a merciful early death. His movies were lame and lamer. One kept reading stories of abusive behavior toward colleagues. A turning point for him seems to have been the Comedy Central Roast he endured in 2002. I remember watching it, and thinking that savage as most of these roasts were, this one seemed as if everyone meant it. I assumed nevertheless that he brushed it off — but this Entertainment Weekly article reveals that he didn’t. It was the occasion for some genuine soul-searching.
The problem with genuine soul-searching, though, is that even when it leads an artist to see the error of his ways and to reform his relations with his fellow human beings, it doesn’t always lead to a reignition of the genius that burnt out along the way. More often, what got burnt out stays burnt out. But with Chevy, it looks, from the evidence of Community, that he found his way back to his special place. He’s Chevy Chase and we’re not. It is to be celebrated.
The director John Hughes, who just died at 59, was a copywriter at the same international ad agency as I during my first decade there. I knew him a little — not well. He was a quiet, funny guy who could always be counted on to amuse in a storyboard presentation. His low-key manner of presentation was funny, and his work was funny.
Unless my recollection is wrong, he didn’t sell a whole lot of work. I don’t recall any campaigns he was known for at the time. Rather, he was a beneficiary of those fat times in advertising when you could afford to keep talented writers on the payroll just for their ability to amuse you in meetings. And that wasn’t a negligible or valueless skill. Even if the agency’s recommendation to the client was someone else’s campaign, it helped to soften the client up with some yucks from John and his campaign as an amuse-bouche before the main course. Of course, no agency could thrive without coming up with the goods for clients, but it seemed back then that clients were paying agencies to make them laugh in meetings as much as they were paying them to reach consumers; and that agencies were paying some writers primarily to be court jesters in their own internal meetings, which could be difficult to get through without a substantial leavening of humor. Also, you never knew — some crazy, hilarious idea John came up with just might work.
I remember one that didn’t, but which did crack us all up at the time. Several creative teams were working on a freeze-dried instant coffee (freeze-drying was new technology in the seventies), the claim of which was that it was indistinguishable from ground roast. John’s campaign depicted people who inexplicably didn’t know this about our coffee, and who therefore, naturally, went around wearing dunce caps. Schoolboy dunce caps in 1979 were already so antiquated that there was a wonderfully absurd and somehow sick quality to the humor of the idea. In my memory, I actually see people doing spit takes around the room as he unveiled it, and guffawing. There wasn’t a chance in hell the idea would make it to the client; that didn’t matter.
It occurs to me now that the theme of “school” which was present in that idea informed most of his great movie work that came later. Perhaps it was also present in the National Lampoon magazine pieces he was writing at the time he was at the agency. I remember all of us being jealous that he was getting those pieces published while holding down the same job we did, but also holding him in awe for the energy and industry required by his double life.
When you say “there’s something funny about that guy,” you usually don’t mean he makes you laugh. You mean there’s something wrong with him. The word “funny” means two very different things in our language — or so it seems. The brilliance of Judd Apatow’s new film Funny People is that it raises the possibility that the meanings aren’t different, after all. He makes the link between comedy and pathology.
It’s not that no one ever noticed that comedians tend to be screwed up. But not until Funny People has there been a movie that connected the dots. To be a good comedian, to produce over a career’s time a steady stream of life observations that have the fresh surprise we call humor, means continuously to be observing life rather than living it. That takes a toll. You can see that this is what has led the fabulously successful main character, played by Adam Sandler, to the miserable state he’s in, and you can see the struggling young comedian characters in the film, played by Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Aubrey Plaza and Jason Schwartzman, well on their way to that hell. What the film doesn’t resolve is what’s the chicken and what’s the egg. Do people who are so disconnected from themselves and others that they are borderline-autistic find their way into standup comedy because it’s the one way they can turn their mental illness into a living? Or does choosing a life of comedy, with the commitment it entails always to be an observer, always to be at a remove from life and other people, make one over time into an alienated, depressed and anxiety-stricken creature? Or is it simply that getting up in front of people and trying to make them laugh will turn anyone into a nervous wreck?
Whichever it is, Apatow has found a way to make you guffaw and feel miserable at the same time. The film is a 130-minute anxiety attack, and it doesn’t send you out of the theater feeling good, but it makes a journey into hell as much laughs as a journey into hell can possibly be. Funny, that.
The devolution of the mockumentary in shows like The Office, and now Parks and Recreation, interests me.
The fake-reality comedy form has become, through audience familiarity, simply another film-style choice. The premise that The Office and Parks and Recreation are documentaries — well, that faded long ago into the audience’s unconscious. There are a million things in both P&R and The Office that would never happen in front of a documentary film crew; people would never say or do those things when they knew they were being filmed, and a camera would never be around to capture them in the unlikely event they wanted to. Not to mention that if The Office (now at the end of its fifth year) were the product of a documentary shoot, it would be the longest and most expensive single shoot in the history of film. But that’s OK.
Back in the fifties, George Burns talked to the camera in The Burns and Allen Show. Nobody asked, “Hey, how can he be a character in a situation comedy and still know he’s in a situation comedy?” Today’s mockumentary shows are not different from that — they’ve added a shaky camera, that’s all.
But that’s everything, since the shaky-cam updates the tradition — an ancient one, going back to Shakespeare’s asides; the gloss of modernity may be what we need in order to believe in characters we otherwise, in this cynical time, might not. It breaks through our defenses.
Speaking of character, the complexities of P&R lead character Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), mid-level Pawnee, IN municipal government bureaucrat, continue to fascinate. Sympathetic figure, or complete buffoon? Both! Her failure to carry out the blackmail of the zoning commissioner last night was sheer, pathetic ineptitude (she ended up with a glass of water thrown in her face, while she poured out a torrent of apologies) — but it was also a sign of innate goodness. When she later says to friend and confederate Ann, as if it were a confirmation of her moral fiber and not merely of her incompetence, “I didn’t have it in me to do that,” she’s actually speaking the truth. She wanted to do it, and that sucks, but it’s also true that her ineptitude in the situation was a direct result of a core decency. She’s not cut out for politics, and part of the reason is that she’s not a horrible enough person to be cut out for politics. So Leslie is a floor wax and a dessert topping — and I find that believable, and unusually layered for a situation comedy. That’s the real reality.