Friday, March 6, 2015

Shark jumped, better shows spawned: the “fake news” situation (Part 2 of two)

While the three major networks continue to program their late-night talk shows in the same lazy, overly predictable fashion — one part Johnny Carson promo-chats, one part bad SNL (read: anything from the mid-Eighties onward), and one part Jimmy Kimmel “building a show out of viral videos” — the cable networks have been trying to alter the formula for success in the late evening hours. E! had a hit with Chelsea Lately, and HBO has made Real Time with Bill Maher a Friday night ritual for many viewers.

Comedy Central has the best late-night comedy-talk franchise with its “fake news” duo of shows. I won't dwell on the recent decision by Jon Stewart to quit The Daily Show. Once before on this blog I discussed my feelings about him, and they haven't really changed much. I might be the only person not on the right side of the political spectrum who will publicly proclaim that I'm not heartbroken he's leaving. The shark, it jumped for me during the writer's strike several years back when I saw how limited Jon's comic repertoire is.

Granted, familiarity will breed contempt with almost any comedian. A friend of mine uses the expression “seen the dress...” when referring to Stewart and Colbert (he's left of center politically as well), and it's true that anyone appearing several times a week is going to run out of ideas and fall back on funny faces or voices. Two things that have distinguished The Daily Show, though, are the program's well-edited montages of hypocrisy on the 24-7 news channels, and their correspondents, many of whom have come from the groups that are shut out in the late-night talk “wars” (where you've gotta be white, middle-aged, straight, and male, and that's just about it....).

I noted my feelings about Colbert's comedy character in the first part of this blog entry, but following his lead there have been two other “spin-off” series from The Daily Show. One is good, the other great.

The good but still uncertain commodity is The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore. I've been watching it somewhat steadily since it went on, and it is a very pleasant program that works best if you think of it as a news panel show that happens to have a humorous component. Wilmore is a very engaging presence, and the show has been filling a void by having panels of women, people of color, and other communities that you will only see on the 24-7 news programs when their communities are undergoing a tragedy of some kind.

The show begins with a monologue made up of jokes about the news, then the panel, and then, for some wildly misguided reason, nearly every single show I've seen has ended with a segment called “Keeping it 100,” in which Larry asks an either/or question, the kind of thing people will quiz each other with when they're bored at work or at a bar.
It's a very simple comic idea, and the constant repetition of it (perhaps in an effort to carve out an SNL-style fan-favorite segment?) is puzzling. Is there no other notion the writers can think of to close the show with? Presumably, as the weeks move on, they will ditch this segment or just use it once every so often instead of on every episode.

Wilmore is talented enough that having him tied down to one piece of material is ridiculous. [UPDATE: Since I started writing this piece, Larry has presented varied “either/or” question bits to end the show, but tonight's episode, in which he discussed the Ferguson, MO, police force and gave up the “would you rather...?” segment entirely, was quite good.]

The other show that qualifies in a way as a Daily Show “spin-off” is the wonderful “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” on HBO. As a second banana to Stewart on TDS, Oliver did both brilliantly funny segments and goofy ones where he dressed up in silly costumes. Last Week offers extremely intelligent comedy and, more importantly (don't be scared!), there is an educational aspect to the show, as Oliver and his writers are tackling very serious issues in a satirical fashion – real facts are dispensed with jokes as punctuation (yes, this is possible on American TV!).

The first wonderful thing about Last Week is that the most grating aspects of The Daily Show formula are gone: no audience cheering the host's name; no private jokes for the studio audience; no interviews with movie stars pitching their latest film, or authors who get a nice plug but only six minutes to quickly describe their book; random cursing is indeed allowed on HBO, so it *makes sense* on Last Week. (I've never understood cursing that is going to be bleeped – we're supposed to laugh at the absence of a word?)

It's also important that the show is a weekly one — in this regard (despite the title) it's not a true accounting of what happened in the preceding week, nor is it pretending to be. The topics are more generic, but are very important ones that are part of today's social and political scene. The notion of a “daily” comedy news program is problematic from the get-go, in that The Daily Show has gone away for weeks on end, with no Internet updates whatsoever (Oliver and his team are indeed supplying new content during the “off season” — it really is the only way to maintain momentum and continuity).

Also, Stewart, Colbert, and now Wilmore, are often wildly out-of-synch with that day's politics – witness the recent night when *the* story of the evening was the State of the Union speech, which of course hadn't yet occurred when Stewart and Wilmore taped their shows. Thus the shows are constantly playing catch-up and having to ignore the only political events people are caring about on the nights they air (on the recent State of the Union evening, Wilmore's show offered a full episode about the Bill Cosby allegations).

The most important decision made by Oliver and co. was to avoid the latest “blow-ups” and instead cover issues that the average viewer is unaware of. The concept is outlined in fine (and funny) detail, while the phrase encapsulating it — for instance, “native advertising” or the slice of legalese that is “civil forfeiture” — is repeatedly used so that we can wrap our minds around the concept. 

Last Week can thus lay claim to being arguably the smartest political humor show on the air in the U.S. It’s not a surprise that Oliver is at the helm of the show, since he is a fan of the best that British humor has had to offer in the last decade and a half — in interviews he has cited his favorite standups to be Stewart Lee, Dylan Moran, and his friend Daniel Kitson (whom he evokes each time he gets into a “bam!” turnabout moment). He attended Cambridge with future comedy stars Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd, The Double) and David Mitchell (Peep Show).

Oliver has hosted a podcast with political humorist Andy Zaltzman called “The Bugle” for years now (done with Oliver in NY and Zaltzman in London), and, among his other early credits, was a contributing writer for 2004: The Stupid Version, a special created by the sharpest TV comedy producer in England, Armando Iannucci. I also have it on good authority that he is a diehard fan of the original “fake news” shows created by the visionary Chris Morris.

Thus far, the gold standard for humorous news and media commentary has been the year-end and weekly “Wipe” shows on the BBC hosted by former TV critic turned social commentator Charlie Brooker. Brooker's programs are brilliant dissections of the 24/7 news channels, minus the whooping and hollering (and vaudevillian dick jokes) of The Daily Show. 

Last Week is very different from Brooker's programs, but it shares with them a concern for the way in which news is reported and the public is deceived – or, as in the case of a lot of the topics treated on Last Week, are unaware that these phenomena exist in the first place. The Daily Show is smart- and wise-assed, while Brooker's “Wipe” series and Last Week offer the kind of intelligent, adult news and media dissection that needs to be done on a wider basis but seems only to occur in a humorous context.

Oliver is no longer a comedy sidekick dressing up as Peter Pan or a chimney sweep. He is on premium cable and thus doesn't have to worry about time limitations — perhaps the single most important aspect of the show is that the main segments on Last Week sometimes run as long as 16-17 minutes, something that isn't possible on commercial TV. Jokes are dished out every few minutes, but time is taken to discuss the very serious ramifications of what is being talked about.

The program also comes from a left perspective and is not as Democratic Party-centric as The Daily Show. Last Week has been taking the high ground since it came on, and its newly begun second season has thus far operated on the same high plane.

One of the best jokes in a segment about the use of drones was taken from a “cute” remark that President Obama made warning the Jonas Brothers music group that if they approached his daughters he would use “predator drones... you will never see it comin'!” Seeing the president joke about how deadly the drones are does, of course, remind us that we deal death from the sky, and our Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prez thinks it's okay to joke about it. A similarly pointed segment about the wealth gap in America noted how Americans continue to vote against their own best interests, in the delusional belief that they will some day be very rich and can benefit from the tax breaks that now cripple this country.

The last valuable thing Last Week does is to often conclude segments by offering e-mail addresses or Twitter hashtags that could be used to communicate to the parties responsible for a given problem (as in the case of net neutrality or student debt), or simply to spread the word about the issues being discussed. This is not done with tongue in cheek – the show's attempts to involve the viewer puts it leagues ahead of Bill Maher's Real Time, which simply preaches to the choir and lets an abrasive host tell us what is “right” and “wrong.” (I'm in political and most certainly atheistic agreement with Maher, but goddamn if that guy ain't an arrogant bastard.) 

Last Week started off in an interesting fashion in spring of 2014 by not pandering and doing easy material about U.S. politics, but instead presenting an in-depth segment about the very significant election campaign going on in India at that moment. (Note: This upload is slightly sped up, as you'll notice from the audio; it is, however, the only occurrence of the full segment on YT.)

Another early segment that was brilliantly constructed found Oliver exploring the death penalty issue, while promising that he'd end the segment with a cute-animal video from YouTube. In this way, he would “reward” the viewers who'd watch the intelligent segment – for me, though, the show was making a sharp, funny statement about how Americans require sugar-coating for every fuckin' thing that they watch:

A similar moment in a great segment on nuclear weapons highlighted the biggest problem surrounding a similar issue: that the American public doesn't give a shit about truly dire parts of modern politics (they're evidently too busy dreaming of being rich....).

When Jon Stewart announced his decision to quite The Daily Show, the biggest concern became who will succeed him as host. John Oliver has been mentioned as a top candidate, but I hope he doesn't do it. It certainly pays a shitload of money — Stewart has been earning more than both Letterman and Leno — but it's LCD stuff (not Lorne Michaels brain-damaged LCD, but LCD nonetheless), and Oliver has graduated into creating his own niche of intelligent, in-depth political humor (without the Maher-like arrogance).

It would be a shame if John went from the kind of high-minded, sharp comedy that Last Week Tonight represents and returned to dispensing dick jokes and dressing up like Peter Pan or a chimney sweep.

You can keep up with Last Week Tonight in a totally legal fashion even if you don't have HBO (full disclosure: I don't subscribe to HBO), since the producers of the show have allowed the lengthy segments to be officially posted on YouTube a day or so after they air on HBO.

Fans of British comedy have also been posting the shorter segments to YT, so you can see this incisive piece on how China is trying to erase the memory of Tiananmen Square, this funny segment on Greece's slick finance minister, and a bit that I could not resist including here: a segment noting that wretched rich arrogant bastard Mike Bloomberg has been buying up new “.nyc” URLs that mock him (like Oliver and his staff came up with insulting URLs that “Mayor Mike” the billionaire forgot to purchase.

The longer piece are the meat of the program, though, so let me spotlight four excellent segments. First, one on “native advertising,” in which the notion of advertisements disguised to look like news (both online and in magazines and newspapers) is examined and mocked at length. I enjoyed this not only as someone who very much agrees with the point that Oliver is making, but as a viewer who never, ever enjoyed Stephen Colbert's “tongue-in-cheek” promotions of real products on the Report (a snarky series of real commercials isn't satire, it's just commerce):

A superb segment on “payday loans” — the predatory lending chains (championed on infomercials) that charge up to 500% (!) interest. This particular segment was the one where I realized that Last Week Tonight wasn't cutting any corners and is a *really* intelligent show that also happens to be very funny. This isn't “fake news” at all, it's very real and very scary in its specifics, but the jokes are all solid as well:

Another excellent full-length segment, this time about “civil forfeiture,” the process by which the police can seize your property — everything from your money or possessions to your car or house — if they feel it has a link to a crime (or, as is outlined in this piece, they simply need the cash or wanted it in the first place). The show stakes out new territory with pieces like this:

To show that the second season of Last Week is thus far just as good, here's a segment that examines how, while smoking has plummeted in the U.S., the tobacco companies have grown in power in third world countries, making cig-junkies out of entire populations. This piece ends with another LWT “campaign” — this one a bit sillier than the others, but the message is very laudable:

And just because this struck me the right way (read: I fuckin' loved it), here's a piece on how the slow death of Radio Shack has been mocked by the media. The chain is perceived as a ridiculous reminder of the past, but Oliver and co. remind us how important the store was to us in years past (and I got news for ya: I have built the Funhouse TV show on a foundation of Radio Shack cords!). Bravo for this kinda satiric sarcasm:

Friday, February 27, 2015

‘Restless’ hosts and the current state of late-night comedy (Part 1 of two)

The last year has seen several late-night hosts flee their shows and others fly into the slots. One can quickly see the result of the hundreds of staff meetings that were held to decide how the new shows should make a splash:

— Don't worry about the “flow” of a particular episode, just assemble the shows out of a series of “viral” segments. To put it simpler: book an A-list guest and make certain to get them to either tell a short tale that works well as a YouTube video, or involve them in a “stupid human trick” (the kind of thing your local bar might find too stupid even for a trivia or talent night).

The goofier the A-lister is willing to be (dress up, dance stupidly, sing badly, do a moronic physical stunt), the higher the recognition and the stronger the “brand” will become. (Conceiving of a show as a 30- or 60-minute entity is so 20th century — just forget it!) Getting an A-lister to act like an idiot = ratings gold.

— Make certain to repeat segments that the audience likes. In some cases, it's possible the audience can made to like anything, so just repeat the segment until the audience becomes so familiar with it that they begin to look forward to it.

Viewers like myself who dread segments that are run into the ground (Larry Wilmore, no more “Keepin' It 100” please!) are not the demographic these producers want — it's those who will devote time to something they don't quite enjoy; hey, people have been watching the walking corpse called SNL for decades after it last exhibited any originality or innovation.

— When a host exits, make sure to ramp up the sentiment as he prepares to say goodbye. Make certain the publicists issue lists of their “last-ever” guests, as if it actually means something. Evoke the specter of Johnny Carson's last shows (Bette Midler singing to him; Johnny alone on the stool; the low-key, homespun farewell). 

Make sure you replace your white, middle-aged, straight male host with another white, middle-aged, straight male host. If somehow a woman or a person of color gets a show, kill it the instant the ratings dip – if a white guy's ratings start to slide, make certain to keep him on the air for-fuckin'-ever. He is an institution, he has some kind of fan-base, we can save his show.

The women hosts, the black/Latino/Asian hosts (oh right, there never was an Asian host) must hit the scrap heap if there's any question of stability. I know, I know — Chelsea Handler was doing wonderfully at the time she quit; what she did, brilliantly, to attract an audience was move daytime gossip-talk into the late-evening hours... and she got big ratings for a cable network. But not enough for CBS or NBC to want her....

LCD, LCD, LCD. There is no such thing as too much LCD-thinking. And don't worry about the viewership suspecting this – they'll eventually come around and get used to the host and his (always his!) way of doing things. In fact most of them won't even know that LCD stands for lowest common denominator....

The late-night changes in the last few months have all revolved around three networks: NBC, CBS, and Comedy Central. In the case of NBC, the less said the better — I was never a big Leno fan, but his being edged out because of age was ugly, as was the handing over of all late-night slots to Comedy Criminal No. 1 (tm), Lorne Michaels.

Michaels has been single-handedly responsible for more bad comedy in the last three decades than any other individual, thus earning him that sobriquet. He's now the “realtor” issuing placement on the late-night NBC schedule. His encroachment into weeknights began, of course, with the plucking of Conan out of the writer's room. Conan is pretty self-effacing and did have comedy talent; he's also, natch, a middle-aged, straight white guy.

Jimmy Fallon, on the other hand, is a habitual giggler, and giggling is rrrrreally annoying in comedy (see: Skelton, Red). One can only hope we'll someday discover that he's either drunk or high on the show, because dammit, the shit he's laughing at isn't at all funny. (He's the Harvey Korman of the 21st century, splitting his sides over things that aren't amusing.)

Fallon's version of The Tonight Show took the Jimmy Kimmel formula of fabricating episodes out of “viral videos” (“celebs read their mean tweets – people will love that!”) and ran with it, so that it now can't be classified as a talk show. It is “stupid human tricks” with some sit-down promotional chatter. For his part, Kimmel is now fast on his way to becoming an eminence grise in the late-night world; he's the “guy who next door” whose standup skill has improved somewhat, but whose sketch-acting talent is non-existent.

The peacock network handing the keys to late-night to Comedy Criminal No. 1 (tm) has had nothing on the mess that is CBS late night. Letterman “decided” he would retire shortly after Leno was booted out (gray hair is a no-no in late night now; the latter-day Carson wouldn't last a day). Colbert was chosen as a replacement for him, which makes sense (and, again, adheres to the straight/white/middle-aged formula for late-night). I loved Colbert's character when it began and he was bold, obnoxious, and, on occasion, really mean. He was willing to not get laughs for a while in order to be funny, the true sign of a master comedian:

The interesting thing is that Colbert will be himself, not his beloved conservative blowhard character, on his CBS late-night show. Since the character had indeed jumped several sharks in the last few years (that good old Archie Bunker cuddliness is one of the central problems with American TV comedy), it will be a relief to see him not try to keep that persona up any longer — but will his new “real” persona be based entirely around snark?

The more interesting slot, though, is the one after Letterman, the one which Craig Ferguson recently abandoned (and which was carved out by the always erratic and very watchable Tom Snyder — a straight, white, middle-aged guy, but one who was very much off the conventional charts, as he still valued conversation above all).

The strangest thing about Ferguson was that he was, in my opinion, the most compulsively watchable of the half-dozen-plus late-night hosts (do we count the unkillable Carson Daly?), simply because he made it all look so easy. He also was able to do something none of the others can do: be serious without mawkishness:

He is a standup comic by trade, so his opening monologue flowed beautifully. Of course it was scripted, but he was one of the few late-night hosts who was able to make it look like he was just ad-libbing the whole thing. The ridiculously cheap nature of his talk show made it all the more endearing — no in-house band, a cohost robot (voiced by Josh Robert Thompson), goofy segments involving puppets, and the hoariest of all showbiz clichés: a pantomime horse.

The thing that Ferguson did not excel at was interviewing. He was loose and informal, but he also seemed competitive with his comedian guests — not for him the classic straight-man role inhabited so beautifully by Steve Allen and Carson. He did ask the guests about their current projects and recent activities, but it was pretty much all trite talk inspired by the Carson show-biz model; once Johnny had settled in L.A. and The Tonight Show needed to be “souped up” for the Seventies, the seeds had been planted for today’s “non-interview interviews” (thanks to Robert Klein's “no-news news”) on late-night talk shows.

The single oddest thing about Craig's very low-key last episode was that he had as his sole guest Jay Leno, and the two pretty much admitted they had never really enjoyed conducting interviews. It not only seemed as if they burned out on it, it clearly sounded like they hadn’t *ever* liked doing it. This kind of explained why Craig had been so off-the-cuff while talking to guests (he didn’t care much about what they were saying), but it also sadly undercut the wonderful experiments he had conducted on the show, which included taking it to other countries (something which had been generally avoided since the heyday of Jack Paar and his former writer, Dick Cavett).

He also took a chance at doing a one-guest show, something that been done brilliantly in the b&w days of the medium and later, again, by Cavett. Ferguson’s choice for a sole guest in a show that aired in May of 2013 was the incredibly eloquent and funny Stephen Fry:

Now that Craig has ditched his late-night show (to go back to standup, something he clearly does like to do and does beautifully, and to host a rrrrrreally bad syndicated game show), the Late Late Show slot remains one of the few really interesting things on late-night TV, simply because CBS clearly wants to dump their Ferguson reruns forever and instead is offering a succession of different hosts, from all of the categories that are constantly overlooked for permanent late-night slots: women, people of color, gay entertainers, etc etc.

As a result, you can never be certain what you’ll see in that slot these days: it could be the mundane sight of someone who is under CBS contract (as so many of these hosts are — either because they have an upcoming CBS series coming on, or their older series was cancelled) simply hyping their new show (as Thomas Lennon did), or it could be a more “unconventional” host (like Sean Hayes) interviewing a guest you might usually see only in passing on a late-night show (as with Marion Cotillard, whom he spoke to for two full segments; her film clip was also [gasp] in French with English subtitles!).

So currently the Late Late Show is worth a look-see, if only to see different kinds of hosts doing the late-night thing, and witness their interaction with an oddly unpredictable group of guests. For viewers like myself who prefer an “edge” to their comedy, the late-night shows will never have that ever again. It's too costly for the networks to do anything unpredictable in such valuable “real estate” — thus the involvement of Comedy Criminal No. 1 (tm).

Seeing a revolving group of hosts take on a low-budget late-night show is far more interesting, though, than watching someone who is bored with his job and/or just aiming for the LCD. (Is there any greater way to measure a host's disinterest or tendency towards both LCD-thinking *and* OCD-behavior than to count the giggle-breaks?)

The late-night talk show should serve as both an arena for guests of different stripes (but it never is), and it should also have longer segments that are not purely motivated by a new film/series/book/CD (but it never is). What we can know with the utmost certainty is that The Late Late Show will soon be where it has to be, given the tunnel-visioned network mindset: helmed by yet another straight, white guy who's nearly middle-aged (36), British comic actor James Corden.

Corden may be an unknown commodity here in the U.S., but it's for sure that nothing too radical will occur on his show. It can't — it's late-night network TV....