Thursday, July 24, 2008

Gilda, We Miss Ya, or when comedy was (gasp) funny

Occasioned by my finally listening to the audio book (on audio tape, yessir, it is) of Gilda Radner’s at times heartbreaking cancer-chronicle It’s Always Something, I offer a little bit of joy from her terrific retrospective show Gilda Live, which I did indeed see when it had its limited time on B’way.

Thinking about Gilda again, I was brought to mind of the fact that the recent Vanity Fair cover proclaiming a heyday for female comedy had it all wrong: comic actresses/sketch goddesses had their heyday back in the Seventies, and the wimmen plying the trade today, while fine and okay to watch, just simply ain’t funny (Tina Fey=snark, Sarah Silverman=deadpan, with “shocking” subject matter; Amy Poehler=perky and… well, who cares?). They are, simply put the female equivalents of today’s biggest movie comedy star, Will Ferrell, a big void on screen. A pleasant, friendly void, mind you (the guy, and those ladies, seem to be well-loved in the biz), but not bright, witty, brilliant, and funny in the way that the classic screen and TV comedians were (yes, call me middle-aged and cranky, but you stack any of these sorry-assed Lorne Michaels discoveries up to Groucho, W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, Sid Caesar, Kovacs, Lenny Bruce, Steve Allen, Richard Pryor, the late Carlin, and you’ll see how the national funnybone is now equivalent to the voting sentiments: “well, he/she seems like they’d be fun to have a beer with…”). It's the triumph of the funny guy at the company picnic, or the office clown, whose humor only has relevance in that same workplace.

Thus, I think back fondly to the Seventies, when Gilda, Catherine O’Hara, and Andrea Martin showed what it’s like to have a range in comedy (please don’t tell me Amy Poehler has played many characters on SNL— they all register as the exact same person in a different wig and costume). I salute them and miss their presence on the tube (Gilda's presence is missed in general). Women in comedy is a tricky subject: there are goddesses at certain times, and the rest are are the grinning wives on sitcoms and women who do wacky/crappy skits on shows like SNL and Mad TV.

There are also women stand-ups who break down barriers, but who don't seem to be eternal as the male comedians (for instance, in the world of comedy records, a world I have delved too deeply into, it's hard to think of an LP by a woman comic, save Elaine May's eternal contribution to the perfect three Nichols/May records, that you'd easily break out and replay countless times). The pioneers were the housewife ladies (Phyllis DIller, Joan RIvers); the stalwarts were the filthy ol' dames (Belle Barth, Pearl Williams, Rusty Warren); and at any given time there are about two-three "famous" (read, in today's favorite term, "branded") women stand-ups. Today, they are Sarah Silverman (again, deadpan, deadpan, deadpan, some funny lines, but it's all 'bout the deadpan), and Lisa Lampanelli (all-out filthy, taking the guys on on their own turf, with the addition of the "I fuck black guys" trope).

Whenever anyone writes about this subject, one steps delicately around the possible assertion that their comedy may not be "for the ages" as it is for the handful of male comic icons. You run the risk of being called a sexist (which I'm doing right now), but I think the best way to counter that assertion is to note the perfection of a small number of female sketch comedians, from Imogene Coca (and, okay okay, Lucy) to the ladies mentioned above, who brought versatility into the mix for good (and then Lorne Michaels' crew sucked it out, with decades of really, really shitty comedy).

To sum it all up (and get down to the clip below), what we’ve got now in the way of comedy “stars” in American sketch comedy and major motion picture crappy-vehicle pics is a sorry, sorry lot indeed. I am reminded of the wonderful Albert Brooks “comedy institute” short film that aired on the show-that-has-now-been-seriously-reeking-for-decades, Saturday Night Live. In that little flick, Albert is cornered by an angry man who has been dying to tell him that he’s not funny. The gent pushes Albert against a wall, and accosts him, telling him that he’s not funny at all, why the hell did he think he was funny, etc.

You know the sad, sorry thing about today’s lackluster “friendly” bunch of comic lights? They’re not even worth pushing up against a wall and screaming at (Chris Farley, now there was one monstrously unfunny performer, worthy of a “what the fuck?” confrontation; Carrot Top, good for an attack; Adam Sandler, doing that fucking high-voice shit for the thousandth goddamned time — but who could even get angry about how tediously deadpan and UNFUNNY Ferrell and his comic posse are, it ain’t even worth it).

I am glad that there are a few folks who are doing quality material (the "fake news" folks on Comedy Central, Larry David, and Brits like Gervais and Coogan, who can construct a comedic concept like it’s nobody’s business). American moviegoers, on the other hand will actually pay to see Ferrell, Ben Stiller (funny for the run of his terrific Ben Stiller Show, rough, truly rough since), and Jack Black (ah, the appeal of rotund "cool" guys — I'm not even getting into that).

Let me, finally, soothe my achin’ comedy-fan head with the words of the late god “Mr. Mike” as sung by our fair Gilda. Who else could add the proper amount of cuteness to “fuck you, Mr. Bunny/eat shit, Mr. Bear/if they don’t love it, they can shove it/frankly, I don’t care…”? Play this one for the kiddies.

The YouTube poster didn’t want embeds (huh?), so click here.

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