R.I.P., Dom DeLuise.
There are two kinds of unreal book store. One is Amazon, a fine virtual source, and the other is Borders, which is to books as spray cheese is to food.
The test of a real book store is, will you ever come across in it a book you never knew existed but now need to have? Amazon is great for books you already know exist. Borders is great for best-sellers. But in neither place are you likely to discover through pure accident a book that nobody is writing about, or to which your attention hasn’t already been drawn through other channels, and which you now must possess.
In Unabridged Books in Chicago — a great, real bookstore in the East Lakeview neighborhood — I found a new memoir by Tom Davis — of the erstwhile comedy team Franken and Davis — titled Thirty-Nine Years of Short-Term Memory Loss: The Early Days of SNL from Someone Who Was There. I haven’t even opened the book and I know how much I love it. There is no way I would know about it if I hadn’t happened to wander into Unabridged, and if Unabridged weren’t run by smart people who think a little like me and know that somebody like me is going to walk in and need that book. I haven’t seen the book written about anywhere. (Some guy named Al Franken gets most of the press these days.)
While I always knew that Franken was responsible for much of the twisted brilliance the pair contributed to the first five years of Saturday Night Live (as performers and as writers), it was also quite clear at the time that Davis had a sick genius of his own. But unlike Franken, he never “took off” as a solo and I never knew what became of him after that. I’m about to find out.
I was in pre-cringe mode — ready to run out of the room if necessary — when Jerry Lewis came out to accept his Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Oscars. I happen to think Jerry Lewis is a genius, as a performer, scenarist and director (the French are not always wrong), but his public pronouncements in the role of Jerry Lewis have tended to give egomaniacal narcissism a bad name. To my relief his speech was brief and gracious.
The child-man hybrid that Lewis created in his nightclub performances and movie roles (with Dean Martin and without) did not come out of nowhere — you see the precedent for it whenever you see Lou Costello. But Lewis took it to the next level, a level both more exquisitely funny and discomforting. It couldn’t be the first without being the second. Watching Costello, you laugh at someone else. Watching Lewis in character, your gaze turns inward, to see the child within you that never quite grew up, the child you never quite left behind — you remember the loneliness, you remember the desperate need for acceptance, you remember the sexual longings you didn’t know what to do with; it all comes rushing back, in a manner that whispers to you in a voice you don’t necessarily want to hear that it never went away. When Lewis goes into his manic “conducting the swing band, dancing wildly” mode, he is every child alone in his room, living out a private fantasy of happiness. The Lewis movie-role persona is a character unique in all of film, and yes, it does deserve recognition as genius.
For an appreciation of Lewis the artist — an appreciation with which I am in sympathy — read this essay, “Jerry Lewis Wins an Oscar at Last,” by Time movie critic Richard Corliss. He makes the case that Lewis deserves not just the Humanitarian award for his good works, but a Life Achievement award for his good work.
Albert Brooks can do no wrong.
Case in point: his funny column about Sarah Palin in The Huffington Post.
Another example: his 2005 movie Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. Hardly anybody saw it. Even on video. (It took in less than $900,000 at the box office and peaked at #36 in video rentals before rapidly falling off the charts.) So practically nobody knows that it marked a real return to form for him, and is one of the three or four funniest films he’s made. But it is. The scene involving the Taj Mahal — and I say this without fear of contradiction from anyone who’s seen it — is one of the classic comedy moments in all of cinema history, up there with Chaplin and Keaton.
All the hullabaloo over Tropic Thunder (well-deserved, by the way—it’s a sensation, which elevates Ben Stiller to a new level of movie stardom, and ought to earn Oscar nominations for Stiller in the direction and screenwriting categories, and best-supporting-actor nominations for Jack Black and Robert Downey, Jr.) reminds me to mention a very good movie I netflixed recently.
Zero Effect, from 1998, was Jake Kasdan’s first directorial effort (which is why I rented it—I’m an admirer of his screenwriting and directing work), and stars Bill Pullman as Daryl Zero, a kind of modern-day Sherlock Holmes with very bad OCD. Stiller is his Watson, and Kim Dickens (Joanie from the Bella Union in Deadwood) rounds out the excellent leading cast. If you remember Cutter’s Way (1981) with fondness, I think you’ll like Zero Effect. Zero is lighter and funnier, somewhere between a modern comedy and a film noir, but (thanks be praised) it is not a “send-up” of any genre. It wants to be its own movie, and it is. While you are never far away from the next laugh, smile, or brain-tickle, a river of melancholy runs through it that lends the movie emotional weight. Stiller gives a good, nuanced performance, not at all a “high concept comedy” performance. The movie is an interesting hybrid, and, if not 100% artistically successful, is good enough to be worth your time. I’d place it near the top of all I’ve rented in the last year.
I’m a devotee of the first 5 seasons of Saturday Night Live–the golden age, as I think of it–and have acquired the first 3 seasons on DVD. (Of course, I haven’t actually watched any of the DVDs yet. At the rate I’m going, I figure I’ll watch all the DVDs I own and haven’t watched yet, and listen to all the CDs I own and haven’t listened to yet, by the year 2016. Sadly, the literal truth is that I’ll probably die with some of them still in shrink wrap.)
This morning I came across a fun web page by Kara Kovalchik that lists, and describes, “5 Awful Saturday Night Live Hosts” from these first 5 seasons. (If you’re curious, they’re Milton Berle, Louise Lasser, Frank Zappa, Jodie Foster, and Chevy Chase–but I recommend going to the page and reading it to find out just why.)
When on Thursday I read in Slate that one of George Carlin’s main idols had been Danny Kaye, I thought, “How odd.” But then I remembered that a few days earlier, the following video had crossed my desk. Even in a week when George Carlin videos have been flying around the globe, this one stood out as awesome. Beautifully written, impeccably delivered, you could put notes and rhythm behind it and it would make a tremendous piece of musical-theater patter:
In fact, if you did set it to music, you might end up with something very much like this—Danny Kaye’s “Tschaikowsky,” the song with which he stole the musical Lady in the Dark out from under star Gertrude Lawrence. Written by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin for Lady in the Dark‘s score, the song culminates in Kaye’s singing the names of 54 Russian composers in 38 seconds. You can hear it
Incidentally, in the worthwhile Kaye biography Nobody’s Fool, Martin Gottfried writes:
…[Lawrence] had the leading role and the evening focused on her. Young Kaye had only “Tschaikowsky” to make his mark, but for Lawrence it was as if the loss of full audience focus for even a moment would mean the end of her recognition altogether.
It eventually settled into a duel of stage “business”—any kind of moment while the other was singing…Once, while Kaye was performing “Tschaikowsky,” Gertie put a cigarette in a long holder and lit a match, holding it until it nearly burned her fingers. Then, as he continued singing, she lit a second match.
On another occasion, she wore a bracelet that had little bells on it. Not content with the visual distraction of its glitter, she actually shook the bracelet while he was singing.
It didn’t work. Kaye became a star. And George Carlin found his inspiration.
Remember how at the opening of The Dick Van Dyke Show, sometimes he tripped over the hassock, sometimes he narrowly averted tripping over the hassock, and sometimes he averted tripping over the hassock only to trip over his own feet? Now scholars can examine all three versions helpfully sunk-up with each other, looking for tiny tells.
Versions 1 and 2 were obviously shot at the same time (the opening shot of Rob coming through the door is identical; Buddy and Sally are sitting in identical positions on the couch; Laura’s hair is the same; wardrobe for all characters is the same; etc.—so that version 2 is simply an “alt.take” of version 1). Version 3 was clearly shot in a later season (the coming-through-the door shot is different; Laura’s hair is different; wardrobe is different for Laura, Sally and Richie; and Richie looks a little older).
Is integrity taking care of your responsibilities to your family? Sure it is. Is integrity staying true to your dream? Heck, yeah. But what about when you can’t do both at the same time?
Ay, there’s the rub with which The TV Set massages us, and it’s got great hands. When the movie came out a year or so ago, most reviews said it was “interesting, but…” For me, there’s no but. This deft, subtle, and superbly-acted satire is five stars on a scale of four.
A view of the royally effed-up system that gives us our TV programming, seen through the struggles of show-runner Mike Klein (David Duchovny) to get a pilot produced and picked up by the Panda Network (think “pander network”) run by Lenny (Sigourney Weaver), The TV Set was damned with faint praise upon its release. It garnered only a 65% “fresh” rating among the top newspaper and magazine critics compiled on rottentomatoes.com. Among those who liked it, some couldn’t resist noting an over-preciousness or staleness about it. Comparisons to Paddy Chayevsky’s Network and Robert Altman’s The Player floated through the reviews. Around the same time, the now-defunct cable network Trio aired a good serial half-hour sitcom called Pilot Season (Sam Seder, Sarah Silverman, Isla Fisher) that covered some of the same ground as The TV Set. But The TV Set is its own thing—a meticulously-detailed satire that deserves comparison not with Network, The Player, or Pilot Season, but with the best film comedies ever made.
The DVD contains two commentary tracks. The first, with writer-director Jake Kasdan, Duchovny, and actress Lindsay Sloane, is amusing and worth sitting through. The second is indispensible. It features Kasdan and the film’s producer Judd Apatow. Both came up in the world The TV Set depicts (they collaborated on the series Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared). I wouldn’t say their commentary takes us deeper into the comedic hell The TV Set displays (the movie really can’t be beat at this), but it adds detail around the edges. If the movie is sharp-eyed satire, the movie-plus-commentary shows us the world behind the screen in 1080p, super High-Def vision.
In Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Jenna Fischer (sweet, modest Pam from The Office) gives whole new meaning to the word wow.
But the really great thing about Walk Hard is that because of it, Hollywood will never be able to make a movie like Walk the Line or Ray again. Satire in the right hands can kill, and Walk Hard kills the clichés of the musical-biopic genre like a bucket of cold water on The Wicked Witch of West. To all screenwriters who might tell the story of a musician’s life the same old way again, Walk Hard issues a big, fat, “Don’t even think about it.” It’s a hoot, and a public service to all Americans.