By Brian D. Johnson - Tuesday, February 19, 2013 - 0 Comments
… but first the beloved comedian fields our questions
Martin Short, 62, is popping up everywhere these days, from hosting Saturday Night Live’s Christmas show to pitching Lay’s potato chips in a Super Bowl ad. A profile in Vanity Fair canonized the veteran of SCTV and SNL as “Hollywood’s most beloved comedian.” And the Hamilton, Ont.-born entertainer, who lives in Los Angeles, will host the inaugural Canadian Screen Awards in Toronto. Replacing TV’s Gemini Awards and film’s Genies with a single show, the CSA gala will air live on CBC TV on March 3 at 8 p.m.
Q: Nice to see you christening the CSAs. But after your show-stopping song-and-dance number on SNL, you should be hosting the Oscars. Why not?
A: First, I was never asked. Second, that would be a phone call where you’d say, “Oh God, I guess I have to do it, don’t I?” It’s a tough gig. People are very critical of the person doing that job. And at the end of the day, it’s not about them. You work four months on your monologue and all they write about the next day is “How about that Adrien Brody kiss!”
By Jen Cutts - Friday, November 23, 2012 at 10:25 AM - 0 Comments
Some questions are inherently annoying: are we there yet? Is that seat taken? Are…
Some questions are inherently annoying: are we there yet? Is that seat taken? Are women funny? But is it better to ignore or engage with the children/moviegoers/magazine columnists who ask them? Marie Claire’s Kohen could not resist the urge to take on that last one, infamously explored by Christopher Hitchens in a 2007 Vanity Fair essay. Or rather, Kohen lets the women (and their male colleagues) answer.
We Killed, billed as a “very oral history,” stitches together interviews with comedians like Phyllis Diller (among the first funny ladies who wasn’t expected to also sing and dance) and closes with comics like Sarah Silverman (whose pretty-faced dirty talk has inspired a glut of copycats), and documents the highs and lows of the 60-odd years in between. When Saturday Night Live debuted in 1975, it created some of the earliest spots for female performers and writers on a sketch comedy program, but was considered an incorrigible boys’ club for decades (Molly Shannon’s armpit-smelling Mary Katherine Gallagher character was the beginning of the end of that). Merrill Markoe was one of the first female head writers on a late-night show, inventing the “Stupid Pet Tricks” segment for David Letterman. After their romantic relationship ended in the friction of working together, she left the show. And so on. Continue…
By Jessica Allen - Thursday, September 8, 2011 at 10:40 AM - 0 Comments
Book by Patricia Marx
When a former Saturday Night Live writer and the first woman elected to the Harvard Lampoon writes a novel, you can expect hijinks. And Marx, best known for her New Yorker “On and Off the Avenue” pieces, delivers. Her second novel chronicles an unconventional love story: “perfect guy” Wally, a scientist, falls in love with emotionally distant lingerie designer Imogene, who doesn’t care for perfect types. Their story unfolds in 691 “chaplettes.” (If you’re looking for proper chapters, warns the author up front, then “adios muchachos.”) Marx also includes her own illustrations (musical interludes, pie charts and diagrams of pasta shapes, for example), a who’s who of characters, including Patty—the voice of the author herself—and a farcical index.
When Imogene finally decides to move in with Wally (who shares a Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoise named Stuffy with his ex), it comes out of left field. In fact, her disinterest in him, and most things, is so great that it’s hard to imagine why Wally falls in love with her in the first place. But there are endearing moments, especially relatable for anyone who’s felt the cold touch of domestic complacency: one night Imogene counts the number of divorced friends she has in order to lull her to sleep and at number 44, Wally kisses her on the forehead. But Imogene doesn’t stir: “She was considering whether she would ever leave Wally.”
The self-referential bits are funny at first, as when Wally asks of Imogene, “Do you think we’ll be in this book long enough for them to hear me stop pleading with you?” But, along with many of the illustrations, they leave sensitive types longing for more intimacy with the characters so that when momentous plot points pass, like the birth of children or the death of a parent, they aren’t accidentally glazed over.
And for those still concerned with the brevity of Marx’s chaplettes, she reminds, in her own voice as Patty, “Have you checked out life lately?”
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, September 15, 2010 at 9:20 AM - 0 Comments
Wyatt Cenac of ‘The Daily Show’ is helping to kill off pigeonholing
It’s been a tough time for black comedians on TV: Saturday Night Live is only now in talks to add a second regular black cast member, and at the Emmys last week, there were no African-Americans nominated for comic acting. But the winner of the best variety series award, The Daily Show, isn’t going with the trend: writer-performer Wyatt Cenac has become one of the show’s new stars. Cenac, a stand-up comedian and former writer for King of the Hill, joined Jon Stewart’s show in 2008 after an impersonation of Barack Obama got him noticed by the producers. He’s been more fully involved than the “senior black correspondent” Larry Wilmore, who occasionally appears to parody news shows’ obsession with race. As Cenac told Giant magazine, “A lot of shows would say, ‘Let’s just keep you on black issues.’ But here I deal with everything and anything. I think that’s what diversity is about or something.”
As Cenac himself has joked, his hiring had a hint of tokenism: he joined after Wilmore (creator of The Bernie Mac Show) started appearing less often. But though Cenac was brought on to talk about things like Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s n-word rant, he also does bits where he parodies the general stupidity of journalists of any colour. He recently teamed up with token British guy John Oliver to do an instantly famous routine about a Saudi prince who is a shareholder in Fox News. Cenac argued that Fox was “evil” for insinuating that its part-owner has terror ties; Oliver argued for “stupid.” He’s also done weird, dry humour, including an attempt to mediate a debate between people in a Florida senior citizens’ home, and a trip to Sweden to try to prove it was a socialist hellhole.
By Brian D. Johnson - Tuesday, June 22, 2010 at 3:20 PM - 0 Comments
Who knew there was a mature actor behind Judd Apatow’s walking fat joke?
Chances are you’ve seen Jonah Hill. He’s only 26 and he’s racked up over 20 film credits. He wasn’t a child star—he made his screen debut just six years ago—but as Hollywood’s go-to fat kid, it seemed he might never grow up.
From the oversexed teenage virgin in Superbad to the embittered comedian in Funny People, Hill found a niche as the overweight, oversexed and under-laid loser in Judd Apatow’s slacker clubhouse.
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, April 7, 2010 at 8:40 AM - 24 Comments
Can’t the new female star of ‘Saturday Night Live’ come up with a likeable character or two?
Have you seen the Saturday Night Live sketch where Kristen Wiig plays a horrible person who gets on our nerves? Oh, wait, that’s all of them. Since Tina Fey and Amy Poehler left to do sitcoms, and SNL fired two of its other female comedians, Wiig has become the unchallenged leading lady of the show, carrying many sketches in every episode. She’s also building a movie career, which includes several Judd Apatow films and a supporting part in the new SNL spinoff film MacGruber (opening May 21). But she hasn’t created many characters who are likeably funny, like Will Forte’s MacGruber or Bill Hader’s Italian talk-show host. Instead, Wiig specializes in playing people who are absurdly unpleasant to be around, like a Target clerk who irritates customers by pumping her hands in the air and screaming things like “you’re buying a big bag of feces!” Not everyone would go as far as David Medsker at premiumhollywood.com, who wrote earlier this season that Wiig has “become wildly unfunny, and must be stopped.” But given enough horrible characters, they might.
Like most comedians, Wiig wants to have a lot of range; she told Vanity Fair she doesn’t have a style of comedy because “I’m always trying to change it. I don’t always just want to do the same thing.” But not only does she manage to use some of the same physical mannerisms in most sketches—tilting her head a lot—she seems to make most characters equally hateful. Among Wiig’s recurring sketches, the deﬁnitive one may be her impersonation of Kathie Lee Gifford, co-host of the fourth hour of the Today Show, whom she portrays as a talentless drunk with a penchant for bad jokes and shameless mugging. Judging from Gifford’s reaction—“Everyone seems to enjoy it,” she said on Today, “but I don’t think it’s that funny”—the sketch hit its mark. But it’s completely malicious comedy; even Tina Fey made Sarah Palin a more sympathetic character, with her cheerful, almost innocent stupidity. Wiig seems to want her audience to feel pain at even watching her characters in action.
That’s because Wiig usually plays what Charlie Toft at film.com called “variations on the same character: a neurotic who is either overly talkative and/or inappropriately exuberant,” and who is sheer hell to be around. Take Penelope, a fast-talking woman who is always trying to one-up other people—she arrives at a wedding and says that on her honeymoon, “we went to the moon! Actually, it’s made of honey!” Wiig plays her as a borderline insane person who, in the words of another character, is “ruining” life for everyone else. Another Wiig character who ruins everything is Gilly, a frizzy-haired little girl who commits arson and murder and smirks about it. Then there’s the Lawrence Welk Show parody sketch she co-wrote, where a female singing group is wrecked by one member: a woman with deformed hands who won’t stop singing lyrics about how she ate a dead cat or put a squirrel in her bed. That member, of course, is played by Wiig. Her characters are always out to make things rotten for the rest of us.
Still, however nasty Wiig’s sketches can be, at least they’re relatable: these evil characters mostly seem like people we’ve known in real life. The Target Lady, a character Wiig created before she joined SNL, is the loud-mouthed retailer who keeps you waiting in line. Even Penelope, Wiig told Women’s Health Magazine, is based on real people she knew who tried to one-up her: “I’d say I was going to get a massage and they’d say, ‘Oh, I’m getting a massage this week.’ ” Viewers might like Wiig because she uses comedy to take down the people we already know and hate; she’s like a sketch comedy counterpart to TV characters like Michael Scott on The Office.
But obnoxious characters, even true-to-life ones, are easier to take in small doses. After Wiig was chosen to host SNL’s Christmas special in character as the unspeakably awful Gilly, there were murmurs of online revolt against her overexposure, and earlier this season, in a list of ways to fix the show, Entertainment Weekly argued that Wiig needs to appear less often: “How can we appreciate the woman if she never leaves the screen?” Even the writer of a Wiig fan blog (kristen-wiig.blogspot.com) admitted she was doing too many solo sketches and that the producers “need to mix it up more.” If they don’t—or if Wiig doesn’t come up with a likeable character or two—there may be more people echoing the sage words of Kathie Lee Gifford: “Can’t she get another job? Go off and do something else?”
By Paul Wells - Thursday, February 18, 2010 at 11:36 PM - 13 Comments
It was noon on the day of his latest artistic triumph, and Hal Willner was running late. “Sorry, man,” he said to me as he walked into Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre, where a dozen musicians were beginning rehearsals for his Neil Young Project, part of the Cultural Olympiad that serves as a running performing-arts sidecar to the Vancouver Olympics. “I knew we were going to do this, and I was into talking, but then I thought, nah, I need another hour of sleep.”
What he was here to talk about was a sprawling tribute to the Canadian rock icon Neil Young, which was to be performed Thursday and Friday night, featuring just about everyone except Neil Young: Lou Reed, Elvis Costello, the singer Emily Haines from Metric, Ron Sexsmith, Colin James, Julie Doiron, members of Broken Social Scene and the usual motley crew of session men, lounge lizards, jazz astronauts and other eccentrics who always fill out one of Willner’s shows.
The 53-year-old Philadelphia native has been doing this sort of thing for close to 30 years. His tribute albums to other woolly geniuses — Nino Rota, Kurt Weill, Thelonious Monk — are the stuff of legend. He has been the musical director for Saturday Night Live since 1980. He did a Leonard Cohen tribute in 2006 in Brooklyn, with Canadian consulate money, and that led to this, somehow. Anyone who has followed Willner knows it will be incontestably one of the cultural highlights of this Olympic-fevered Vancouver winter.
By Jaime Weinman - Friday, December 4, 2009 at 12:35 PM - 7 Comments
Before Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock started making all those GE jokes the only one I heard (or the only one I remembered) was Wayne and Shuster’s “I Was a TV Addict, based on the best-selling novel I Was a Pusher For General Electric.”
Update: As noted in comments, David Letterman (in his NBC incarnation) was doing General Electric jokes before the whippersnappers at SNL got around to it:
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, September 9, 2009 at 5:33 PM - 6 Comments
In a big “ouch” moment, Saturday Night Live fired two cast members — Michaela Watkins and Casey Wilson — just before the premiere. (Watkins told the New York Daily News that Lorne Michaels explained this to her by saying that she’s so good she deserves her own show. Oh, Lorne.) Watkins had been there for a year, Wilson for two. I didn’t like Watkins much. Wilson was regularly pilloried, but she wasn’t usually the worst cast member; she just projected the personality of an eager amateur slightly out of her depth (I’m not saying that’s what she is, just that that’s how she comes across) and couldn’t turn that to her advantage.
When SNL dumps a cast member after only a year or two, it must be pretty humiliating, unless it’s someone who came into the show after already becoming famous, like Janeane Garofalo and Chris Elliott. Although SNL is kind of a talent-sucking vacuum in many ways — look at how much more consistently funny Tina Fey is, as a writer and performer, on another show produced by the exact same person — for a performer to join the cast of the show is to “make it,” so getting booted off means you’ve un-made it.
Looking at the list of cast members, though, it’s not uncommon for someone to have a solid career after lasting only a year or two. Not counting the people who were added during the “all-star” season of 1984-5 (by the way, I am one of those people who prefers the Dick Ebersol years of SNL to most of what Lorne Michaels has turned out since returning), Gilbert Gottfried, Joan Cusack, Randy Quaid, Sarah Silverman, Ben Stiller, Nancy Walls (now Nancy Carell) and Damon Wayans did all right. On the other hand, several of those people either had some claim to fame before they joined, or left for other reasons besides bombing out, or just went into something other than sketch comedy. Which may be the subtext of Lorne’s words to Watkins: you’ll never work in sketch comedy again, but you might theoretically do OK at something else.
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, July 8, 2009 at 12:34 PM - 5 Comments
Back in March, I (and others) wondered in print (well, cyber-print) why there hadn’t been any Saturday Night Live spinoff movies in years. The best explanation, from a commenter, was that Will Ferrell movies are SNL movies in all but name — films about an over-the-top, single-joke parody character given some kind of narrative arc — and so actual SNL adaptations would be redundant. But it turns out that Lorne hasn’t given up, and he’s got a director and cast for a movie version of one of the few new sketches that’s really famous. Which, as it turns out, will be a movie based on a sketch based on a TV show that also has a movie in the works. Yes, these things do tend to make one’s brain hurt.
“MacGruber,” the recurring “Saturday Night Live” skit that parodies “MacGyver,” is one step closer to going before cameras as a big-screen movie.
Ryan Phillippe is in negotiations to star in the feature, with Val Kilmer in negotiations to also join the Relativity Media production. Will Forte and Kristen Wiig are reprising their roles from the skits.
Jorma Taccone, who created the character and directed most of the skits, is helming; “SNL” producer and creator Lorne Michaels is producing.
The script is by Forte, Taccone and John Solomon, who wrote the SNL sketches. The proposed plot of the film is your typical SNL movie plot: essentially the same plot as any normal action movie, comedy, or action-comedy, complete with a traditional character arc (MacGruber is called out of retirement, buddy team-up, this time it’s personal), the only difference being that the lead character is a catchphrase-spouting idiot. These films, like Will Ferrell’s films, are sort of like genre parodies, but they’re really not: they tend to take the story conventions at face value, and they want us to cheer for the hero to win just as in a traditional movie; the writers are using those conventions to make the sketch work as a feature. If you take an SNL movie, particularly (but not only) the bad ones and replace the main character with one who looks and acts more normal, you would have a very typical Hollywood movie. (One reason Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story bombed was that it actually gave us a main character who wasn’t all that silly or weird — not Will Ferrell, in other words — and tried to get its humour from actually parodying the genre. That’s too deadpan for the Will Ferrell or SNL type of film.)
Now, if they actually blew up MacGruber and ended the film after one minute, that would be something. Otherwise, I have a feeling a MacGyver movie would be funnier.
By John Intini - Friday, May 8, 2009 at 10:20 AM - 10 Comments
How an ex-boy band Britney survivor dodged all the punchlines and got the last laugh
Justin Timberlake was a global brand when he showed up on Saturday Night Live in December 2006 with a cheap suit, cheesy beard and a strategically placed cardboard box. But in two minutes and 37 seconds, the pop star reached a whole other level. In addition to an Emmy and more than 35 million downloads, the skit, a holiday music video parody, in which Timberlake advises dudes on the perfect gift to give your lady—a “d–k in a box”—was crude, but earned the former Mouseketeer a lot of cred. He also proved that night to be one of SNL’s best hosts in years by appearing in . . . no, by being the funniest part of nearly every skit. Fast-forward to November 2008: Timberlake shows up on SNL again, this time in heels and a leotard, dancing with Beyoncé to Single Ladies—another instant Web sensation. After that turn, some New York media types pleaded with Lorne Michaels, SNL’s producer, to hire the pop star full-time. Timberlake, who now has a standing invite whenever he’s in NYC, is hosting SNL on May 9. Chances are, by the time you read this, his latest skit has already gone viral.
The fact that anyone is even talking about Timberlake is remarkable. This is, after all, a guy who spent seven years with ’N Sync and dated Britney Spears, the kind of credentials that might guarantee someone a spot on the The Surreal Life. And yet, several years since his band broke up (and 14 since he and Mickey Mouse parted ways), Timberlake has positioned himself atop a respected pop culture empire that spans music, film, TV, even fashion (his latest collection earned industry nods at New York Fashion Week in February). He’s a boyfriend to beautiful women—the latest, Jessica Biel—and in crowning him America’s most stylish man, GQ credited him with single-handedly bringing back fedoras, sweater vests, three-piece suits and beards. He’s the modern-day equivalent of the Rat Pack, all rolled into one skinny-jean-wearing guy from Memphis who used to have frosted tips.
By Jaime Weinman - Monday, April 6, 2009 at 12:01 AM - 3 Comments
The great thing about SNL’s “The Rock Obama” sketch a few weeks back was that it helped clarify why Fred Armisen’s Obama impression isn’t very good. The Rock, who is not a professional comedian (well, wrestler is arguably the same thing) managed to get Obama’s voice and inflections in such a way that when he spoke, you could really connect it in your mind with the way the real Obama talks. Armisen doesn’t; he just plays Obama as generically serious and earnest, but he hasn’t come up with any memorable vocal mannerisms. Since they can’t get The Rock back to be Obama every week, they’d better get Armisen some kind of tic that can define his version of the character. They don’t even have to be accurate tics, as long as they are loosely connected to something real. Dana Carvey’s George Bush wasn’t really anything like the real Bush, but it did start with something we all recognized about his voice, that slightly nasal twang. Armisen’s got nothing so far.
Last night’s opening sketch, a lame opening to a mostly lame show with the exception of the Angelina Jolie vs. Madonna bit (I still don’t get how they could miss with something as sure-fire as having everybody dress up as comic-strip characters; but except for the return of Andy Samberg’s Cathy, nobody had a funny take on those characters), was also yet another example of how bad SNL is at one-joke sketches. There’s nothing wrong with a one-joke sketch, but when SNL does them, as I’ve remarked before, it tends to be literally one joke repeated over and over in exactly the same form. So the joke is that Obama will go down a list of businesses and say which ones will be allowed to survive and which ones won’t, and then he… does just that. With almost no variation. That’s not really a sketch; it doesn’t go anywhere, and it could stop at any point withoutthe sketch being any different. A good one-joke sketch has variations on the theme, and even a structure of some kind. The classic example is “Who’s On First?” Not only are there variations on the basic joke, even if they keep coming back to the “Who’s on first” joke, but the sketch actually builds to somewhere, because Costello is getting increasingly angry at Abbott and keeps trying different tactics to get a straight answer out of him. Or a great semi-recent one-joke sketch, the lie detector sketch from Mr. Show.
I’ve said before that SNL’s weakest point is the type of sketch that’s built around one repeated joke, but I’m not sure why. I just know their writing is stronger when their sketches are actually telling a complete story with a beginning, middle and end, like the “Greg is not an alien” sketch or the Sarah Palin sketches last year. When they get to a Who’s-on-First type sketch, they seem to forget that those sketches actually need to have a beginning, middle and end too. Or maybe I’m just thinking too much about why lame sketches are lame. They just are, I guess.
By The Editors - Wednesday, March 11, 2009 at 5:11 PM - 4 Comments
Ignore the critics — a sense of humour these days is priceless
In 1933, when the grip of the Great Depression was at its absolute tightest, the New York Sun made mention of a satirical sign hanging in the front window of a Brooklyn grocery store. “Due to the depression,” it said, “credit will hereafter be extended only to persons over the age of 80 years if accompanied by their grandparents.” Even in such dire times—correction: especially in such dire times—a sense of humour was a priceless commodity.
Seventy-six years later, it’s a lesson worth repeating. As stock markets melt and layoffs mount—and fake news reporters ambush politicians in the middle of “serious” and “important” press conferences—don’t feel guilty about letting out the occasional laugh. Boom or bust, a good giggle is never a bad investment.
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, February 25, 2009 at 8:50 AM - 0 Comments
In this tight economy, cheesy, low-budget commercials are big-budget business
Remember those cheaply produced commercials for useless products, and the hilarious catchphrases they spawned? Well, they’re back, and cheesier than ever. The most famous commercial in the world today is for the Snuggie, a “blanket with sleeves” that looks like a flimsy bathrobe. The ad shows a succession of Snuggie-wearers who look like members of an ancient cult; the spot has already been parodied on This Hour Has 22 Minutes (as “The Fuggly”), was used as a prop on Saturday Night Live, and most importantly, has resulted in the sales of four million Snuggies. Other products have led to commercials that are almost as successful and just as silly. For most of 2008, the advertising sensation was the Shamwow!, an all-purpose washcloth whose two-minute promo was named top infomercial of all time by CNBC. Around the same time, Grey Power, an insurance company for drivers over 50, bought up every spare moment of TV time for its ad featuring an angry woman driver screaming “Come on, already!”; The Rick Mercer Report, among other shows, has spoofed that one. Low-budget commercials have become big-budget business—and they may actually sell more products than the high-end commercials that cost millions.
The rise of cable TV in the ’80s and ’90s produced a glut of low-budget commercials that ran nationally; there was the medical emergency company Lifecall, whose commercial spawned the catchprase “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”, as well as the ads for the Clapper and the Chia Pet (a clay-figure animal that sprouted grass). Then when the Internet became popular, it seemed like that was a more logical place to sell useless products. But low-rent companies have realized that a TV commercial with real people has more of an impact than an online pop-up ad. Gregory Ferdinandsen, who created the website billymays.net to celebrate the veteran miracle-cleanser pitchman Billy Mays (“Hi, Billy Mays here for OxiClean!”), says these ads are appealing because “there’s a certain classiness about tackiness.” People may mock the bad production values and hard-sell approach of these commercials (and their promise that you can get two or more products if you order now), but mockable commercials make a product better-known, and that translates into sales. “When people talk about the commercials in the office or at school,” Ferdinandsen says, “that’s the sweet smell of success.”
By Jaime Weinman - Friday, October 24, 2008 at 12:00 AM - 0 Comments
With today’s crop of television shows, you have to know politics to get the jokes
During the last U.S. election cycle, there was a lot of talk about whether viewers were getting their political knowledge from late-night comedy. The Pew Research Center, the respected U.S. polling firm, produced a poll in 2004 that said 21 per cent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 21 were getting their political information from comedy shows like The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and, back when Tina Fey was a regular cast member, Saturday Night Live. But this time around, it turns out that late-night comedy isn’t out to teach us about politics; it depends on us to know about politics. A Pew survey released this year showed that regular viewers of The Daily Show and its spinoff, The Colbert Report, tend to be more politically knowledgeable and aware than average. Asked to identify political figures like Condoleezza Rice and Gordon Brown, regular Daily Show viewers did better than people who watch NBC News, Larry King Live, or even ESPN. Meanwhile, Saturday Night Live, whose political comedy used to be limited to jokes about the way George H.W. Bush moved his hands while he talked, has become part of the world political conversation, especially but not only in the appearances of Tina Fey (now a guest star) as vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, and sketches about other topics that only political junkies used to care about. TV comedy can no longer be satisfied with generic jokes about John McCain’s age (though there are still plenty of those). The writers have found themselves forced to adapt to a viewership that actually knows and cares about who Nancy Pelosi and Ben Bernanke are. Well, maybe not cares.
The traditional political joke was summed up by a 1994 episode of The Simpsons in which an electronically generated disc jockey was programmed to say: “Well, I see those clowns in Congress are at it again.” Political comedy, when delivered to a mainstream audience, needed to be as bland as possible, because TV and radio executives didn’t want to risk offending people or, worse, referring to things they didn’t know about. (A recent DVD collection of the ’60s show The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour is mostly devoted to episodes that were cut or censored by CBS for actually making war and election jokes that weren’t generic.) And so for the most part, politicians and political issues were reduced to the simplest things: Jean Chrétien talked funny, Gerald Ford fell down.
But today, these shows are operating on the assumption that their audiences are following politics as closely as they do sports or celebrities. In the same episode that featured a memorable parody of the Sarah Palin-Joe Biden vice-presidential debate, SNL did a sketch about the Wall Street bailout that was in some ways even better, and nothing like the normal SNL political skit: instead of reducing the issue to its simplest terms, the sketch focused on specific policy details that even a devoted news junkie might not know about. Two of the SNL regulars played Herb and Marion Sandler, the former owners of a savings and loan who sold out to the ill-fated Wachovia bank in 2006; the sketch portrayed them as culprits in the mortgage meltdown and included a caption identifying them as “People who should be shot.” (NBC later removed this caption at the urging of nervous lawyers.) The reference was so obscure that Lorne Michaels claimed he had no idea that his writers were making fun of real people: “I, in a state of complete ignorance, thought they were characters in the piece,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I did not know they were real, up until somebody called me about it on Monday.”
By Jaime Weinman - Sunday, September 14, 2008 at 2:03 PM - 8 Comments
My reaction to last night’s Saturday Night Live premiere was the same as everybody’s: the much-hyped appearance of Tina Fey as Sarah Palin was fine, and almost everything else was boring.
I don’t blame Michael Phelps for that. Phelps is not telegenic, not particularly handsome, not really a showbiz type — that’s part of his appeal, that he’s a great athlete who’s a little awkward when not doing what he does best. Anyway, there’s no reason why he should be good at hosting a comedy show, and SNL was lucky to get him, rather than the other way around; if the SNL writers can’t figure out ways to write around the limitations of a non-actor as host, that’s their problem, not the host’s.
One thing that SNL has had a problem with for a long time, but seems to be getting worse, is the non-specific nature of the writing and the characters. Comics are usually at their best when they’re given something specific to play, either a specific celebrity or political figure, or a very specific type. They’re at their worst, at least in the SNL format, when given non-specific characters like Family Member or Couple in Restaurant (have you noticed that 50% of all comedy sketches ever written involve a couple going to a restaurant where the waiters are wacky?) or even generic types like the characters in the quiz show sketch; with not much time to write or rehearse, it’s no wonder they can’t make anything specific out of these things. It’s personal taste, of course, but I find I enjoy these performers’ work more when they’re given an established character to riff on — like Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin or the celebrities on the Match Game sketch last season — rather than trying to make up a character on the spot.
Mid-life moms, misconceived babies and stoner misfits: ‘Baby Mama,’ ‘Then She Found Me,’ ‘Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay.’
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, April 25, 2008 at 11:07 AM - 184 Comments
This weekend offers three comedy options, each occupying a different spot on the sliding scale between credible and preposterous. At the silly end of spectrum, there’s Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, starring multi-culturalism’s answer to Cheech and Chong. It’s a stoner movie/homeland security satire designed for adolescent boys of all ages. The other two pictures are both romantic comedies from the viewpoint of smart, single, thirtysomething women who are rapidly losing their patience. Then She Found Me is the more mature of the two, and it’s really more of a dramedy, reflecting the angst and edge of its star and progenitor, Helen Hunt, who’s making her directorial debut. Baby Mama, hatched from the ever-percolating talent pool of Saturday Night Live, is a high-concept piece—a test-tube comedy that has its share of laugh-out-loud moments but never escapes the limitations of its sketch-comedy roots. In fact, none of these movies, live up to the talents of the actors involved.
Then She Found Me
When you know that a sexy, intelligent, Oscar-winning actress has worked her hyphenated butt off to direct, co-write, co-produce and star in a labour of love like Then She Found Me, it’s a downright shame to be sitting there watching the final product, worrying that Helen Hunt looks alarmingly gaunt. Considering that she directed the movie, you would expect she would frame herself in a more flattering light. (Hey, if it were Warren Beatty directing himself, you’d never see a bad angle.) But there’s a bravery in Hunt’s evident lack of narcissism. Also her character is meant to be at the end of her rope, more stressed-out from one moment to the next, so it works for the role—up to a point. Still, I kept thinking I was watching an actress suffering from the sleep-deprived strain of directing a movie. When her character’s suitor, played by Colin Firth, kept going on about how beautiful she is, I wanted to shout, “No! Helen, you look exhausted! When did you last take the time to eat a decent meal?”
Hunt plays April, a 39-year-old primary school teacher fretting about her ticking biological clock. She is adopted, and feels unloved, which is enough to convince her that adoption is not an option. In the opening scene, April gets dumped by her new husband, Ben (Matthew Broderick), a boyish, immature wimp with a classic fear of commitment. He’s the kind of passive-aggressive weasel who bursts into tears as he tells his wife their marriage was a mistake, then gets her to comfort him. It makes you wonder what a smart cookie like Hunt would be doing with him in the first place. Must have been the sex.
Events converge on April at a hectic rate. Mere hours after Peter Pan has slinked out of their marriage, she is being rigorously courted by Frank (Colin Firth), a single father whose daughter is one of her pupils. Frank is a Harlequin romance prototype of the perfect male: a dashing, self-deprecating Englishman with a deft wit, and a grown-up passion for amorous commitment. Mr. Darcy as a playgroup dad.
We’re still in the first act when April’s mother dies and another stranger hurtles into her life. Bernice, played with larger-than-life panache by Bette Midler, is a local TV talk show host with an exaggerated sense of her own celebrity. She’s like a poor woman’s white-bread Oprah. And she claims to be April’s birth mother. Then, completing the set-up of this elaborate scenario, April discovers she’s pregnant, which she happens through a quickie bout of break-up sex with her ex. (In case you’re worried, I’m not giving away more plot than you would find in the trailer.)
Speaking of the plot, it’s all too neatly contrived. And speaking of contrived, what in Allah’s name is Salman Rushdie doing distracting us with a cameo as April’s gynecologist? Isn’t the dude supposed to be in hiding? Also, as a self-respecting guy, I don’t see why movies geared to women have to employ the kind of the facile male stereotypes played by Broderick and Firth—just as women tend to resent the mother-whore extremes in movies geared to men.
On the plus side, the script navigates a minefield of sexual and parental politics with aplomb. The wit is disarming and the charm oblique, which is more than you can say about most four-square romantic comedies. You get the sense that Hunt is portraying a character we haven’t quite seen before, a hard-headed heroine who has come a long way from the Meg Ryan cutie-pies, the Diane Keaton klutzes, and even the Helen Hunt helpmate who scored an Oscar for lending credence to Mel Gibson’s antics in What Women Want. An actress who’s willing to risk appearing desperate, needy and unattractive in a movie of her own making at least seems to be coming from somewhere real. But the poor woman deserves a better movie.
Juno seems to have launched a baby boom of movies about misplaced motherhood. Baby Mama is another story of a high-strung professional woman who replies on a working-class girl to have her baby. But while Juno was a simple, faux naïf tale of a pregnant teen who surrenders her kid for adoption, Baby Mama is a cynical tale of an infertile businesswoman (Tina Fey), who hires a coarse white-trash grifter (SNL’s Amy Poehler) to serve as a surrogate mother. Fey’s character has a doctor who says “I don’t like your uterus,” which is described as a T-shaped anomaly deformed by fertility drugs her mother took in the ’60s and ’70s. (Ah, more ecological fallout from blind boomer greed). With just a one-in-a-million chance of conceiving, the girl goes shopping—picking out a prime batch of donor sperm, which she proudly carries home like a Fendi handbag.
When Baby Mama is funny, it’s funny. At times, the comedy crackles along like a well-honed gymnastic routine, mixing sharp one-liners and satirical broadsides. This feature debut was godfathered by SNL producer Lorne Michaels, and written and directed by Michael McCullers, whose screenplay credits include Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. But his over-torqued script is too clever by half and not credible for a second. Which might be fine if it sustained its screwball pitch throughout. But by the time Baby Mama puts on the brakes and makes a bid for some credible emotion, it’s too late.
Fey and Poehler seem stuck in their scripted stereotypes, especially Poehler who’s cast as an ignorant white-trash bitch. Later, when Fey’s character gets angry and calls her exactly that, we’re supposed to feel she has stepped unfairly over the line—but really she is just spelled out the unfortunate stereotype embedded in the script.
Some of the comedy’s best moments come from cameos by more established movie stars. In a startling return to form, Sigourney Weaver, cast as the smarmy executive of the surrogate mother agency, upstages the leads with her comic timing. And Steve Martin casually pulls off a priceless turn as Fey’s boss, a health food mogul expanding his chain of “Round Earth Foods.” As a CEO/guru with a gray ponytail, he says things like, “I was swimming with dolphins this morning in Costa Rica,” and “I’ve toasted pine nuts at the mouth of an active volcano.” Cradling a tiny spiral seashell, he says, “I found this while running barefoot through the Toronto airport,” then instructs his baffled minions to design his new Round Earth store in its spitting image. The script improves so much when Martin opens his mouth that you have to wonder if he upgraded his role with some uncredited writing. Both Martin and Weaver make you realize there’s a difference between movie stars and TV stars. Fey and Poehler don’t quite cut it. Their personalities seem pinched on the big screen. And they’re performances, which aren’t generous enough to go beyond parody, seem no more than the sum of their gags.
Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay
Seven years after Sept. 11 made a certain kind of political humour off limits, it’s now open season on Homeland Security. I’ve yet to see War, Inc., John Cusack’s spoof about American warmongering, which is also out this week. But one the most remarkable things about Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay is that it busts previous taboos with such blithe abandon. It also offers an odd fusion that we haven’t seen before, grafting the poop-dick-’n'-bong genre of gross-out slacker comedy with a light satire of racial profiling and the war on terrorism. That said, this is a pretty dumb movie.
Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Pen) are Americans of East Indian and Korean descent who land on the wrong side of U.S. intelligence while on a flight to Amsterdam. Kumar, who just can’t wait to get to the city’s marijuana cafes, breaks out an allegedly smokeless bong in the plane’s washroom, which soon fills with pot smoke. Soon enough, our heroes are in the clutches of a maniacal intelligence chief (Rob Corddry of The Daily Show), who ships them off to Guantanamo Bay, where the horrors of prison life include the dreaded “cock sandwich.” Enough plot. Let’s just say, the boys get the escape part over with quickly and spend most of the movie back in the good old U.S.A. being chased by the loony feds. In the final act, a George Bush impersonator shows up to drive home the comedy with some good gags.
It’s hard to dislike this film, even though it’s so patently lame. Cho and Pen have great chemistry. And they’re so amiable and endearing on screen—so effortless in their roles—that you can’t help wondering what they might be capable of in a better movie.