Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween! (The favorite holiday)

Now that I no longer go trick-or-treating, I still do celebrate Halloween in my own way. It usually includes revisiting the work of the same gents I revered as a young monster movie fan. Herewith, just a brief tribute to the folks who mean “Halloween” to me.

Although I have a high regard for all periods of Karloff’s career, I came to know him as the “kindly monster” in his senior days in the late 1960s. Here is a TV appearance that references his aging horror-star persona, the infamous Route 66 that featured his last time out sporting Jack Pierce’s Frankenstein makeup. He costars with two other horror icons, Lon Chaney Jr. and Peter Lorre:

Karloff worked with Vincent Price on a few occasions, including The Tower of London and Corman’s farcical The Raven. Last night I rewatched the one and only VP as a torturer extreme (with quite a nice outfit) in The Witchfinder General, which can be found in its entirety here (near-entirety, as for some reason the closing freeze-frame and the final credits are omitted — the rest is there). Here is the trailer:

Price also worked with Alice Cooper, my adolescent monster-hero. Here he is doing his immortal “I Love the Dead” (a favorite of Johnny Rotten!) in the concert film Good to See You Again, Alice Cooper:

And a final holiday message from the immortal East Coast TV horror host John Zacherle (still swingin’ at 92). He says it best:

Friday, October 29, 2010

Recommended interview podcast 2: WTF with Marc Maron

Comedians are either “on” or “off” during interviews. The perfect example was George Carlin — George would be in his revved-up, observational mode for his panel appearances with Carson, Leno, and Letterman; for quieter, non-late night shows, he generally was very quiet and introspective, never coming within a mile of a wisecrack.

Thus, depending on the outlet, comics will give one of two interviews. On the Marc Maron podcast WTF, however, a third option has come into being — that of the comic “on the couch,” delving into their insecurities, paranoias, and petty jealousies. It’s not clear exactly how this has developed, but Marc has surely become the podcasting “therapist” for his comedy colleagues.

Perhaps this is a result of the fact that Marc is not a professional interviewer. I first saw him as one of the million standups who inhabit the late, late hours on Comedy Central, but finally became familiar with him when he cohosted a morning show on Air America called “Morning Sedition.” When that show was axed, he floated around as a substitute host and was the cohost of the network’s only video podcast for a while.

I’ve written about AAR in the past, but suffice it to say that whoever put the network together had the rather wonky idea to pair standup comics or comedy writers with experienced radio people. Marc was teamed with Mark Riley, who continues to do a great job on WWRL-AM these days (6-8 p.m. weekdays). The morning show was fun when I caught it, but Marc’s subsequent hosting gigs found him veering away from political concerns and talking about himself at length. Thus was born the frame device of WTF, wherein he delivers a blog-like recap of what he’s been up to. This is not where the magic comes in.

That occurs when he begins to make the guests on his podcast feel at home by discussing a past meeting they had (with him frequently apologizing for how rude he was to the guest when he met them) or how they’ve been feeling lately (a leading question if ever there was one for people who make a living analyzing themselves in their work). Within a few minutes, the guest oddly consents to sharing information about the darkest times in their career or their lives. Depression, neurosis, breakdowns, incarceration, abuse by a significant other, a child’s life at risk in a hospital — somehow, Marc’s podcast has had all of these situations and more shared by comedians.

Which is not to say WTF is planned to be a therapy session — a good number of the episodes just end up going in that direction (certain guests, like Ray Romano, Stewart Lee, and Thomas Lennon, have seemingly kept it from going there). Perhaps it comes about because Marc overshares with the guest and will openly note if he is jealous of their success. Perhaps it comes about because Marc doesn’t explore the machinations of creating comedy but he does immediately leap into the machinations of the comedy lifestyle (traveling on the road, being booked to open or “middle,” dealing with audiences).

The podcast is thus ideal for both comedians and comedy fans because of its “shop talk” aspect. Marc has had a number of individuals on whose work I’m not a fan of (case in point: Judd Apatow), but his discussions with them have generally been more entertaining to me than their work is, because of this unintended “therapeutic” level of discussion.

And the show’s guest roster has gotten more and more impressive and expansive (the only missing element: the older troopers who are still alive in NYC and L.A., and would surely consent to interviews). WTF attracted the most attention when Marc has had “name” guests on and discussed “joke theft” with them. Again, because Marc is not a conventionally honed interviewer and is a comedian himself, he generally has the guts to ask questions that most other interviewers would gloss over.

I was very surprised to hear him raise the issue of stolen material with Robin Williams, who offered a very polite and sedate response to the question. He pursued the issue further with Carlos Mencia (in the two episodes that have brought the most attention to WTF) and Dane Cook — again, a performer I won’t spend a second listening to as a comic or actor, but if he has agreed to visit “Dr. Maron’s couch,” I’m all ears.

Marc is definitely an unconventional interviewer, and so his chats go into some very unconventional places, especially when he decides to document “healing” moments with old friends on tape for the podcast, rather than just let them happen “offstage” in real life. Thus, a few weeks ago, he tried to heal a rift that had grown between he and his old friend Louis C.K. (seen at right with Marc when both were much younger lads, along with Dave Attell and Sarah Silverman; the latter couple's relationship was gone into in much depth by Silverman recently on WTF). A related recommendation: Louis' FX show Louie, which debuted in 2010, was by far the darkest, best new American TV comedy to appear since Curb Your Enthusiasm, in my opinion.

The conversation, which spanned two episodes, was direct and honest, especially near the end when Marc once again confessed his envy of Louis’ recent professional accomplishments. Louis responded that when Marc was envious of him he was being a “really crappy friend” since he went through a divorce and a series cancellation while Marc was busy envying him. One can commend Maron for not editing this exchange out of the show, but a lot of what Marc does both on the podcast and in his standup has to do with being honest to a fault….

….which extends even to the “too much information” moments that littered the initial episodes of the ’cast, including an odd anecdote about Marc jerking off to porn on the computer while his ex-colleague Rachel Maddow was on TV. He humorously apologized on the podcast to Rachel for having turned off her show in favor of the porn, giving us yet another “fun fact” about him to try and quickly forget.

So what is the final point here? WTF is a completely unpredictable creation that can range from the truly mundane (Marc talking at length about how his new jeans and boots fit him) to the exceptional (the joke-theft discussions, a talk with Doug Stanhope and Janeane Garofalo where Marc introduced the phrase “children of Bill Hicks”). During the year-plus the show has been on, Maron has spotlighted comics I need to know better (including Brendon Burns), those whose work I forgot I liked a whole lot (Maria Bamford), and one energetic gent whose nonstop kvetches I do heartily enjoy (Eddie Pepitone). Catch WTF on iTunes and on its official site.

One of the few guests who actually has done shtick in Marc’s home studio, Nick Kroll as Latin DJ “El Chupacabra”:

WTF live with Maria Bamford:

And with Eddie Pepitone:

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Wally offers the latest in TV technology

Another obscure rarity from the dawn of TV. Here Wally Cox, the Funhouse favorite star of Mr. Peepers and friend of “Dufo,” explains the benefits of the new 1949 DuMont TV. The joy of this clip is that it was obviously performed live, and Wally either forgets his lines or badly miscalculates a dramatic pause in his recitation. In any case, it’s from the period before he was cast as Mr. Peepers, and it’s a wonderfully awkward piece of footage. We do so need a “Turner Classic Television” network….

Thanks to Richard Speziale of DVTV for sending this one my way.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Recommended interview podcast 1: "Ron Bennington Interviews"

The art of conversation has been dead on TV for years now. The longest interviews one can find on the box are on what remains of PBS (Charlie Rose, who ain’t no Edward R. Murrow, David Susskind, or Dick Cavett — hell, most of the time he ain’t even Bob Costas) and C-SPAN’s Book TV, which can be riveting or meandering in equal parts. Commercial radio is a graveyard, and so one can turn only to NPR or the Pacifica stations for lengthy interviews. OR to a good number of podcasts and Internet radio shows that, naturally enough, need to be found in order to be enjoyed.

I will be posting a few these in the weeks and months to come, but thought I’d start off with a recommendation for a Sirius radio show that is now being made available to stream/download for free, Ron Bennington Interviews. Bennington is half of the radio team Ron and Fez who, among many other things, introduced the world to the brilliant, mysterious figure known as Sherwin Sleeves. Check out his podcast at once!

The Ron and Fez show, which was on commercial radio and is now on Sirius, is an odd and unpredictable mixture of elements. Ron’s “character” on the program is the streetwise straight man for his partner Fez Whatley, and the timing of his sarcastic lines is impeccable (Ron had a standup career prior to starting the “Ron and Ron” show on radio in Florida). Every so often, though, Ron indicates that his tastes run deeper than what serves as fodder for conversation on the R&F show, which has been wrongly labeled “shock radio” but does often wander into in-studio stunt territory. I think I first realized that Ron was operating on a different wavelength from his radio colleagues when he sang out Ted Lewis’s catchphrase “Is everybody happy?” in one show, went on to discuss how the “carnies/rubes” philosophy rules the mainstream media in another, and would discuss his weekend viewing (which included independent and occasionally foreign features, caught at local arthouses) on various Monday shows.

The Ron Bennington Interviews site includes an impressive array of guests, from filmmakers and authors to sports figures, with possibly the finest chats coming when Ron talks to the “survivors,” musicians who’ve lived through a hell of a lot and whom Ron seems to relate to in a beautiful, collegial way. His talks with Iggy Pop, Marianne Faithful, the ever-fragile Brian Wilson, and Daniel Johnston all demonstrate Bennington’s finesse with his subjects, and his ability to do what an MSM interviewer is expected to do — plug the latest “product” — while also getting the guest to discuss his/her hallowed past.

This knowledge allows him to immediately sink into his chats with Bruce Dern, Terry Gilliam, Wim Wenders, and D.A. Pennebaker, but also allows him to gently touch on the subject of “wild times” (read: drugs) with folks like Iggy and Faithfull. I have been missing Ron and Fez since they made the switch to satellite (for those whose budgets are stretched tight, paying for radio sadly isn’t an option), and the Ron Bennington Interviews site is a blessing and a chance to experience some very informal and enlightened chat.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

British humor 3: Richard Herring

There are thousands of podcasts on the Internet at this point, and only a scant few are really attracting any attention. In recent months, Richard Herring has produced literally dozens of podcast episodes for as many as four different shows, earning him the sobriquet “podfather” on British comedy websites. He may not be the guy who “broke” British comedy podcasts (that would have to be Ricky Gervais). But Herring is certainly one of the hardest working comics in the U.K. and, when he’s firing on all cylinders, he’s also one of the funniest.

He began as half of the comedy team of Lee and Herring with Stewart Lee (about whom, see the blog enry below). Herring essentially played an id on two feet in the duo, acting out his adolescent urges in strange and sometimes dark ways

[That sketch becomes more interesting when you find out that later on Herring worked with and reportedly dated Sawalha for a time.]

Both Lee and Herring are excellent sketch writers, and so some of my favorite Herring moments from the L&H TV series Fist of Fun (which can be found in its entirety on Stewart Lee’s site) found him playing either a sympathetic schlemiel or an utter bastard, as in his portrayal of a spiteful driving instructor. I noted in my entry on Chris Morris below how Morris and Brooker’s Nathan Barley has the daring abrasiveness of Mike Leigh’s early telefilms; Herring’s teacher definitely seems like he could be a cousin to the angry driving instructor in Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky (a tad less volatile, perhaps):

Another Herring fave of mine from that period, his view of married men as mindless zombies:

I won’t delve too deeply into Lee and Herring’s writing credits (for that info, again, see my entry on Stewart Lee), but I will note that when the team broke up it seemed like Herring might just remain in the background and be a comedy writer rather than a performer (he scripted much of a popular sitcom called Time Gentlemen Please). Once he decided to enter the world of standup as a solo act, he began to work on two fronts. First, creating all-purpose bits like this one about the “Riddle of the Sphinx”:

He also began to write themed one-man shows he brought each year to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. These shows ranged from one in which Richard tried to recreate the twelve tasks of Hercules in the modern world, to a fact-filled, surprisingly touching male response to The Vagina Monologues (called, wait for it, Talking Cock) and the recent Hitler Moustache, in which he explored the reactions the toothbrush moustache brings about in people as he valiantly tried to reclaim it “in the name of comedy”:

The Chaplin-Hitler kiss concept in this clip is inspired:

Herring’s one-man shows, including Hitler Moustache, are available on DVD from Go Faster Stripe. Two that weren’t shot on video are available as audio downloads (in what I believe are work-in-progress versions) at, Christ on a Bike and Talking Cock.

So, okay, so far we’ve got a guy who’s a proven commodity as a TV sketch writer and who puts on critically lauded shows at the Edinburgh Fringe. He also writes a blog entry for most every day of the year on his website. He put out a book earlier this year that explored his prolonged adult adolescence and turning forty, the funny and sentimental How Not to Grow Up. All that might be enough for the average standup, but Herring seems to be a particularly driven individual who, for me, produces some of his best material when he’s on the spot and starts tossing off ideas and going into surreal, sometimes dark, and very often vulgar tangents on his podcasts. This tendency to think well on his feet has been seen in the video of his that has had the most hits on YouTube (a million and counting for the shorter version, I’m linking to the longer one here), this moment when he had to cope with a drunk heckler:

Herring can be clean and “fit for broadcast” — he proves that in his DJ gigs like the long-term one he’s been doing with TV/music-critic Andrew Collins and a sit-in for a vacationing DJ on Absolute Radio.

These are both fun programs, whose best moments are boiled down into a short podcast. His most dedicated podcast has no origin on radio: “Collings and Herrin,” also done with Andrew Collins, is an uneven 'cast that ranges from meandering personal chat to insane brilliance — the latter usually happens when the two do live shows for the ’cast and Herring takes it upon himself to playfully torment his cohost or an audience member.

Herring has expressed his admiration for Cook and Moore’s inventively filthy “Derek and Clive” bits, and he often strays into the same territory, sometimes to purely silly effect and other times for really inspired moments. One particular example on the C&H show found Richard going off on the Muslim religion, not because of any personal prejudice, but because it is “just as shit as all the other religions.” (Herring is perhaps the most blasphemous of all atheist comics, and for that I salute him, ex-Catholic that I be.) When he goes on insightful and bizarre tears about things like 9/11 and “what would be really offensive” to be put in the WTC site (a propos of the “Ground Zero” mosque), he’s left behind standard comedy structures and has wandered into an area where his riffing turns into great surreal comedy. Here is that episode.

There is no offense meant by Herring’s rashest routines; in fact he seems to be a pretty “progressive” guy when speaking out of his “Herrin” persona. He needn't worry, though, because he has moved beyond the censorial confines of radio for his finest achievements in the burgeoning world of podcasting. Although he hasn’t really — he's also the host and creator of a currently-airing limited-run series "reclaiming modern-day cultural demons." (Yes, yes, that does make five podcasts in all.) Which brings me to his finest achievement in my view: his very linear, yet also very tangent-prone, sketch-comedy podcast As It Occurs To Me.

AIOTMA, “as it is called by all the cool kids,” is a scripted sketch show that rose out of the ashes of Herring’s this-day-in-history radio comedy program That Was Then, This is Now, which can be heard in its entirety here. After that show was cancelled by the BBC, Herring decided to start a live sketch-comedy podcast that would have no limits in terms of content, but which he would script only a night or two ahead of time (the guy does seem to enjoy the challenges that come with last-minute invention).

Writing comedy at the very last minute sounds like a recipe for disaster (or basically just a “Morning Zoo” radio show) but when AITOM is getting really weirdly funny, one begins to think that Herring and co. are in the ballpark of Spike Milligan. Not that AITOM is The Goon Show reborn exactly (nothing could ever be as maniacally inspired as that holy series), but when the Occurs team move quickly in and out of sketches, bizarre characters, and really nasty catchphrases (my personal favorite being the unpleasant but oddly fitting “sexcrement” as a synonym for children), it becomes evident that Herring is using the podcast in the way that the mighty Spike used the radio comedy show format — in effect, killing it in order to produce something new and far more ridiculous.

Herring is self-professed fan of Bill Hicks, and he does operate on AITOM with a great sense of how to deconstruct a comic situation, re-construct it, and then utterly decimate it once more for comic effect, which is an element that I’ve noticed had crept into the most brilliant British standup after Hicks became a cult figure over in the U.K. (he having done the self-examination bit many times in his later, better routines).

The final, essential component of AITOM is the small ensemble cast. Herring has worked with a few small, tight casts (check out the radio series Lionel Nimrod’s Inexplicable World), so he knows how to gather a cast of versatile performers. Here, he has musician Christian Reilly on hand to acoustically provide musical “stings” and topical songs to act as transitions from sketch to sketch; Reilly’s theme for the show is catchy-as-fuck, and his wonderfully prissy impression of Bryan Ferry is also very funny. Emma Kennedy provides all the female voices, from sultry seductresses to batty mother figures; her talent is manifest on the show, but I was most amused by her take on Michael Jackson as a baby-man ready to dance. Rounding out the quartet (because Herring always stays Herring on the show) is Dan Tetsell, who is as versatile as Kennedy and provides voices that are just as memorably deranged — the clear fan favorite being his nasal take on Herring’s radio/podcast partner Andrew Collins, called here “Tiny Andrew Collings.”

Herring’s torment of his C&H partner has gone into some very oddly Freudian and very funny places here, including Herring sleeping with “Tiny Andrew’s” mom, killing him off not once but several times, and doing a really nice riff on the end of The Prisoner where “Collings” and Herring are indeed one (or each other’s parents, or brothers — I can’t say I remember how Richard resolved the problem, but it was very funny and truly McGoohan-like).

You can check out As It Occurs to Me on iTunes or (the better option, I think) on the British Comedy Guide. It might be best to start from the beginning, or you may never know what a “cumpkin” is (maybe that’s for the best, though) or be able to put your finger on the British celebs who are mercilessly spoofed by Herring and company. As was the case with my discussion of the U.K.-specific references in Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle below, I think American listeners can figure out easily enough who Herring is talking about, and who their American pointless-celeb equivalents are.

AITOM has run for two seasons of ten shows (again, the perfect British method of keeping the comedy fresh, as opposed to the American approach, which runs every single comic concept into the ground, for years) and a handful of specials, including a recent “Autumn Special,” which inspired me to write this paean to the program. The visual clips found online don’t really convey what the show is like, so I’ll close out instead with Herring doing one of his most wonderfully blasphemous bits. I think Richard has the right idea — if you’re going to be blasphemous, just go ahead and be fucking blasphemous!

UPDATE (10/23): Since I posted this entry, I've heard two more great podcast episodes from Herring, the first being the initial episode in his "Richard Herring Objects" series found here (as far as I can tell these episodes will only be on the BBC site for seven days after the initial broadcast) and the second "Autumn Special" of AIOTM. Herring shows absolutely no signs of taking a break, so enjoy his productivity now!

British humor 2: Chris Morris

Chris Morris honed his humor not as a standup but as an extremely experimental radio personality. His work is best described as “humor” and not as “comedy” because Morris takes incredible chances with his material, underplaying it with the assumption that his audience is intelligent enough to get what he’s doing and that if they don’t, they’ll just move along.

As with all of the people I’m going to profile in this series, Morris’ work is not known in America. He has been incredibly influential in the U.K., though, thanks to three of his series, all of which did the comic concept of “fake news” to a very fine turn. There are a number of reasons these shows worked so perfectly — top-notch professionals in front of and behind the camera; the deadpan, fully authentic tone; the emphasis on odd concepts rather than jokes or puns — but the key factor in my view is that Morris has a way with words.

The best British humor, from Carroll, Swift, and Lear to the Goons, Beyond the Fringe, and the Pythons, has contained an element of really inspired wordplay, dare I say whimsy? (A word that sounds very coy but is indeed accurate.) Morris’ ability to manufacture nonsense language is daunting, as is evidenced by the “feedback reports” he produced for his radio shows — man on the street interviews that asked members of the public about non-existent concepts (“spherical cows” and the like). The passersby who responded to his questions were obviously thrilled to be on the air, and so they went along with Morris’ earnest absurdist queries, even as he altered his voice to signal it was all a game. (He was fond of replaying one old man asking him why he had changed his voice just then — the only gent who had actually paid attention to what was going on!)

Two of Morris’ heroes are all-time Funhouse favorites Peter Cook and Vivian Stanshall. He worked quite superbly as a sarcastic “straight man” for the former before he died, and attempted to work with the latter. I think it is safe to say — and this is a major compliment, given the unfettered genius of those icons — that Morris belongs in their company, although his brilliance is more controlled and he clearly lacks the self-destructive tendencies that plagued those comic deities.

For Morris is nothing if not a perfectionist. He worked for years on radio, using his various stints as a DJ as a kind of comic laboratory for the ideas he was developing. There is an incredible amount of wonderfully entertaining material on the Morris fan site Cook’d and Bomb’d. However, since he began writing and starring in TV comedy in 1994, he has crafted only 25 half-hour episodes (26 if you count the Nathan Barley pilot, which was later cannibalized for episodes of the show). To consider that most American series crank out 20 episodes per season and go on to jump the shark in painfully awful ways, Morris deserves additional praise for pulling the plug when his series were still inventive and on-target.

Morris’ radio work does indeed dwarf (in quantity, not in quality) his work in other media. The folks who run Cook’d and Bomb’d have collected hours and hours of this material, and I was stunned how radically weird Morris was on mainstream stations in England, parodying the music-radio format while also conjuring up some esoteric “theater of the mind.” It’s hard to pick the single most outlandish moment, but a good nominee is the show in which his hapless sidekick, Peter Baynham (of Fist of Fun and later a screenwriter on Borat and Bruno) “kidnaps” a baby and then he and Chris watch it float to the ceiling of the studio.

One of Morris’ finest radio creations was top-40 DJ Wayne Carr, whose best moments are collected here. He also read “heartrending” letters asking him for musical requests:

Baynham wasn’t Morris’ only radio sidekick. He also recruited an intrepid gent named Paul Garner to do odd or irritating things in public settings, usually airports or hotels. Here Garner takes commands from Morris as he enters a cab:

The union of two men with brilliantly strange imaginations: Chris interviews Peter Cook as Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling. In this installment, Morris throws a concept to Cook that he had introduced on his own radio show during the Christmas season, namely that “the fossilized remains of the infant Christ” had been discovered, and that Christ could reproduce himself like larvae:

Many of the segments that Morris crafted as a DJ were patently bizarre, but his lightning-quick nonsense news flashes showed his talent for spouting absurdity in a genuine-sounding manner. And so producer-writer Armando Iannucci made Morris the star and head writer of On the Hour, a flawless radio send-up of news shows that ran for two seasons of six episodes each (ah, that magic number!) and can be found on YouTube and other sites.

Morris brought his alter-ego Wayne Carr onto On the Hour to discuss back-masking in rock records:

In 1994, the show was rather effortlessly transformed by Iannucci and Morris into The Day Today, the landmark fake-news TV program that spotlighted an ensemble of versatile performers, including Doon Mackichan as an unflappable (and incomprehensible) financial reporter:

The show's longest-lasting contribution to TV comedy was clueless sports reporter Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan), who later became a clueless talk show host in Knowing Me, Knowing You With Alan Partridge and then a clueless show-biz has-been in I'm Alan Partridge. A sample of Alan in his earliest incarnation:

The Day Today contains a number of references that only Brits will understand, but most of its six-episode run needs no footnotes, as with this short but potent bit about Sinn Fein:

Or this brilliant encapsulation of what cable-news networks are all about:

In 1997 Morris came back with an even more brutal satire on TV news, Brass Eye. The program lampooned TV news magazines and specials that claimed to decry social issues but exploited them in the process. Morris himself played most of the male news anchors in the six themed episodes, and the concepts introduced in the shows were even more outlandish than those he had presented in his "vox pop" (man on the street) interviews on radio. Among these was a made-up concept called ”heavy electricity.” Two other segments that showed off Morris’ perfect comic timing found him insulting a gay audience member for having “bad AIDS” and coming on to a teenage incest victim.

The most elaborate idea Morris created for the series was "cake," a fashionable and lethal party drug that was addicting British youth. In the course of several interviews he convinced well-meaning but dunderheaded celebrities (proof again that a camera pointed at someone makes them ask no questions!) to do PSAs against the drug, and recruited politicians to speak against it publicly, which one proceeded to do in parliament. Watch the segment here. Brass Eye took the concepts created by Morris and Iannucci in The Day Today several steps further, to the point where earnest British newscasters acknowledged that Morris' presenter characters were spot-on and that his spoofs had made them, the real newscasters, feel odd about affecting a super-earnest pose on-air — but they continued to do so anyway (hey, satire can only do so much).

For me the height of Morris' art is Blue Jam, a startlingly original radio show that aired from 1997-99 in a late-night slot at Morris' request, as he wanted the show to seem like something dimly heard while one was half awake. The show is like nothing else that has ever appeared on radio (the closest thing we ever had over here was the early "Mr. Mike"- produced National Lampoon Radio Hour).

There is no way to describe Blue Jam, except perhaps to call it "Ken Nordine meets Terry Southern and David Lynch" with "trance" music and a decidedly British deadpan tone. The show aired in three series of six episodes, and the entire run (including an episode that was pitched off the air for making fun of the Archbishop of Canterbury) is available at the Cook'd and Bomb'd site. If you want to sample some bits of the last series, a poster on YT has uploaded a few of the shows from late in the first series.

The indispensable Morris biography Disgusting Bliss: the Brass Eye of Chris Morris by Lucian Randall (who also wrote the even more indispensible Ginger Geezer about Bonzo supreme Vivian Stanshall) includes quotes from Morris that explain his approach to comedy in general and Blue Jam in particular. The two most important quotes are Morris' remark that he likes to "bury the humor" in the work he does, and that he feels that Blue Jam was different from other comedy in that there were "no cues" (meaning comedy cues, not musical ones) in the show. On that note, I should emphasize that Morris' TV series have never had laugh tracks or even live audiences supplying the laughter — again, he trusts that the home viewer either gets what he's doing or they don't.

One of the hallmarks of the show were sex sequences in which the lovers cry out odder and odder things at each other (possibly the finest being “whack my bonobo!”):

Blue Jam appears to be a free-form exercise, but a careful listen reveals that Morris' "dream comedy" (my phrase — his own was "ambient stupidity") was very carefully constructed. Hypnotic music, from Gainsbourg, the Beatles, and Eno, to Beck, Bjork, and Mercury Rev, is played in between dark-humored sketches which dealt with Morris' comic staples — animals, doctor visits, sex, and children in peril, among others. Morris himself delivered monologues that had the feel of nightmares and usually involved his character getting caught up in modern art or entertainment events.

After Morris ended Blue Jam — which, at 18 episodes, lasted three times as long as any of his TV series! — he reworked some of the material in the radio show for the TV series Jam. His own monologues were gone (except for one), the songs were obviously eliminated, but the weird, disturbing tone of the sketches was reproduced visually by Morris with the aid of several disjunctive film techniques, plus the odd device of having the actors in some instances lip synch to the original radio sketches to make things seem a little more distant and bizarre.

One helpful YT poster has again posted the entire series, but there are some clips I definitely can recommend as stand-alone samples of the show:

A couple ask their friend for a heavy favor:

A busy doctor answers his phone while tending to a patient:

Morris plays a man who has decided he’d rather live outside:

And a couple tries to get the cable man to deal with their “lizard problem”:

In 2001, Morris came back with a final Brass Eye episode, which qualifies as one of the most daring and funny TV shows of all time. If you’ve read this far in this entry and have the slightest interest in Morris’ trailblazing work, please take a little time and check out his really stunning creation “Paedogeddon!” on YouTube. It is a brutally accurate attack on news-media hypocrisy, and once you’ve watched it, everything else pales in comparison. The owners of the material, Ch. 4 in England, have deemed that it can’t be embedded on a blog, but you can click through and watch it.

“Paedogeddon!” became the subject of immense controversy over in England, where the tabloids were horribly offended by Morris “making fun of pedophila” — ignoring, of course, that what he was utterly decimating was the news coverage of presumed pedophilia. The show was a landmark in British TV history in terms of news coverage condemning it, but it remains a comedy masterwork, a piece of satire that delivers its point in numerous ways, all of them condemning the mainstream media for its insane mawkishness and hypocrisy.

To date, Morris' last excursion into TV was the sensory-assault sitcom Nathan Barley (2005). Co-created with Charlie Brooker from a character Brooker created for his website TV Go Home, the show follows a supremely obnoxious young trust-fund hipster who runs an "alternative" website (the issue of where Nathan gets his cash from was explored in the series’ source matter, but never addressed in the series itself). The nominal storyline involves the hipster's interactions with his journalist hero (Julian Barratt, from the comedy team "the Mighty Boosh") and the journalist's sister, a documentarian who is the only sympathetic character in the series. The show has the sublimely abrasive tone that drove Mike Leigh's early telefilms, and it also savages the annoying quirks of the modern hipster. As is so often the case, the entire series can be found on YT here

Two segments that give a feel for the show are the introductory reading of the article “The Rise of the Idiots” by Barratt’s character:

and the anti-incest music video “Bad Uncle”:

After having been an agent provocateur and master satirist on U.K. TV, Morris has now chosen to work in film. His first short, based on a Blue Jam monologue, had the unwieldy title My Wrongs #8245–8249 & 117. It is, like all of his other best work, a relentless mindfuck.

Morris' first feature, Four Lions, opened in May of this year and played to good reviews in England; it is set to open in the U.S. in November. I look forward to watching Morris operate on the "larger canvas" that is the movie screen, and am glad that his search for topics that you just can't joke about — the film concerns incompetent Muslim terrorists — continues apace….

Thursday, October 14, 2010

British humor 1: Stewart Lee

American comedy is in quite a neat little rut these days. There are a handful of standups and regular TV series that I think represent actual quality and innovation, but for the most part there are arena-filling standups (the “Blue Collar” comics, Dane Cook) and the “alternative” comedians, a few of whom are brilliant, but most of whom are looking toward a really lucrative movie deal, no matter what the script is (lookin’ at you, Zach Galifianakis). The pleasant but exceedingly dull Judd Apatow (Spielberg with vulgar teen jokes!) and the absolutely heinous Lorne Michaels (guilty at this point of several decades worth of horrendous TV and movie comedy) shape most of what passes for mainstream American comedy these days, so we really need to look elsewhere for something new….

Thus, my recent immersion into British humor, which has its own share of mainstream crap, but also has fostered an incredibly talented group of standups and humorists who are totally unknown over here. I detailed my discovery and deepening fascination with a few of these gents here, but I felt that a few personality profiles and clip “surveys” might be in order. Thus, I complement my recent “summer of British humor” on the Funhouse TV show with a trio of entries, which will undoubtedly be followed by more in the near future. I start off with the standup whom I’ve become the most fascinated by in the last year, Stewart Lee.

Lee began his career as a half of a writing-performing team with Richard Herring. The duo played their sardonically wiseass straight man (Lee)/smut-minded troublemaker (Herring) roles for more than a decade, to best effect in a radio and subsequent TV series called Fist of Fun. Thankfully, for all of those who weren’t in the U.K. in the Nineties, some devoted fans have posted pretty much the entire radio archives of Lee and Herring at

I highly recommend their sketch series Lionel Nimrod's Inexplicable World with L&H and Armando Iannucci (the producer-writer-performer who has been involved in a significant amount of influential BBC comedy shows, including I’m Alan Partridge) and Rebecca Front (a versatile actress who starred in Iannucci’s Thick of It series); also the Fist of Fun radio show. Lee and Herring also were also among the writers who scripted On the Hour, the trendsetting fake-news radio show starring Chris Morris and produced by Iannucci that spawned the Alan Partridge character (for whom L&H wrote some original segments).

A fan-favorite clip from the Fist of Fun radio show:

Lee’s official website also offers a busload of good material, including links to every episode of the two seasons of Lee and Herring’s Fist of Fun TV series and their subsequent TV show This Morning with Richard Not Judy

Here’s a great explanation of the “theory of relativity” from Fist of Fun:

Fist of Fun wasn’t a major hit when it was on, and it has never been issued on DVD or VHS in England, but it was very influential on the teens and twentysomethings who watched it. The Lee and Herring team did score one more BBC series, a two-season-long Sunday-afternoon mock chat show, This Morning with Richard Not Judy, that was mellower in is approach than Fist — in fact, I was surprised watching it how mellow (but still bitingly sarcastic) Lee became around this period. The show’s best bits were the duo’s deconstructive abuses of lazy journalistic clichés.

and also lazy comedy clichés:

Lee and Herring amiably severed their partnership in 1999, but Lee had already served something of an extended “apprenticeship” as a standup comic, performing both on his own and as the solo opening act at L&H gigs. His material was both sarcastic and slightly surreal, due to his deft use of repetition.

Lee has admitted that his very unique style is an outgrowth of his youthful fascination with “alternative” comedians who challenged and provoked their audience, foremost among them a guy named Ted Chippington, an “anti-comedian” who seemed intent on pissing his spectators off. Lee interviewed him a few years back for an arts TV show:

Lee’s standup was not catching on post-Lee and Herring, so he began going in other directions. He wrote a very good “road” novel called The Perfect Fool, about a bunch of disparate eccentrics looking for the Holy Grail in the modern era. The book has a wonderful overlay of “alt” pop-culture references, with one character being a Roky Erickson-ish burnt-out psychedelic musician, and the main character accumulating a full collection of Jack Chick comic “tracts” (dear to our heart in the Funhouse).

The most important project Lee worked on when he wasn’t doing standup was the experimental and downright strange musical Jerry Springer: The Opera, which got great reviews, won British theater awards, and attracted large audiences, but underwent constant protests from fundamentalist Christian groups because of its really provocative second act, in which Springer is dragged down to hell to moderate a debate between Lucifer and Jesus (and Mary — all singing!).

The Jerry Springer: the Opera experience inspired Lee to return to comedy with a vengeance in 2004, and at this point he became a “road warrior,” working on his material with constant gigs all over the U.K. Like Rodney Dangerfield and Jackie Mason over here, Lee has continued to do the sort of material he had done as a young man, but has found a bigger, more receptive audience as a (slightly) older person. Perhaps it’s because he looked like a sarcastic punk in his 20s, and has now acquired more of a “cranky uncle” look in middle age. Perhaps it’s also a result of his honing his work impeccably, and finding what I hear as almost musical refrains in his dogged repetitions and brilliant asides.

He is a social commentator of the first order, whose work links him to Will Rogers and Mort Sahl, both of whom I’m sure he wouldn’t count as influences. But the material he’s doing is not observational, nor is it the deeply personal “open wound” dissections of self common among American “alternative” standups. Lee eviscerates political, religious, and show-biz figures, and openly mocks everyday truths in a quiet but lethal fashion. Here’s a great bit about Americans’ lack of curiosity:

One of the most entertaining, and I’m not going to say post-modern, aspects of Lee’s standup is his acknowledgement of the form itself. Most comedians will mention when a bit is bombing, but Lee discusses how he’s reusing and reworking older material. He also takes the chance of deflating a whole routine by footnoting it, or noting how it does or doesn’t fit with what he’s been talking about.

In his terrific Comedy Vehicle series, which is basically a half hour of standup punctuated by short silly sketches, he has also taken to “melting down” for comic effect. Unlike American comics who yell for emphasis, though (from Bobcat and Kinison to Lewis Black), he only does it once per show. The result is disjunctive, since Lee ordinarily speaks in such a deadpan manner, but the meltdowns are highlights of the Comedy Vehicle eps (with Stew most often riffing on the phrase, “what is it you want?”).

As a final, personal reflection, I should note that as a comedy fan I’ve always wound up becoming a camp follower of those whose work I’ve loved over the years. The way it used to be, years, and in some cases decades, passed before I had gotten ahold of all their recordings, films, or writings. As a teen, when I was following Carlin and Pryor (and later, Lenny Bruce), it took many years to acquire and thread through their work (admittedly, they were still making the recordings at that point). In this new digital/cyber era, a fan can literally acquire and absorb an entertainer’s body of work in a matter of a few months (or a few days, if they’ve just popped onto the scene).

Thus, I discovered Lee somewhere late in 2009, and in a year’s time have heard the bulk of his radio and CD recordings, watched literally hours of his standup and British TV appearances, and read his rockcrit journalism, his novel, and a passel of print interviews. Being around Lee’s age myself, I’m always dazzled by the ability to delve so deeply into someone’s work through their official site, fan sites, the invaluable YouTube, a few of the “off-road” download locations, and the vendor sites.

I look forward to Lee’s new material as it appears (a new book and CD have just appeared, for which I’ve put in orders, and a second season of Comedy Vehicle has been commissioned by the BBC for 2011). True to the bottomless well that is the Internet, and especially YouTube, I continue to discover “new” old material, and offer this blog post as a “101” for those who have never heard of this Stew fellow.

The single best intro to his work is the 41st Best Standup Ever concert DVD which has been uploaded to YouTube in its entirety by a fan. Pick any segment and you’ll be seeing prime material. The references may be specific to the U.K., but Americans don’t need to think too hard to find U.S. equivalents:

Another routine that has become a fan favorite is this item about comedy theft where Lee rifts about a comedian named Joe Pasquale:

The Comedy Vehicle TV series offers Lee holding forth on a number of topics, from the skewed reality offered in March of the Penguins

…to the atrocities of Andrew Lloyd Webber:

Most of the six Comedy Vehicle episodes from the show’s first season are up on YouTube in their entirety, but I would heartily recommend first and foremost the “Toilet Books” episode (which a certain YouTube poster put up alongside a bunch of horror movies and an Andrew Dice Clay concert vid — no comment):

And as final offering, the “Religion” episode which includes some beautiful slams on Pope Ratzinger, as well as an exploration of how one can (or can’t) tell jokes about Islam and a magnum reworking of a classic Lee routine:

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The media and people being rescued from holes: an extremely brief history

I watched a short bit of the minute-by-minute coverage of the Chilean miners being rescued this week, and began to wonder about the phenomenon of wall-to-wall cable news coverage of people who are stuck in holes in the ground. I mean, it is great the miners were rescued, but what was fascinating is that America “was holding its breath” for Chilean citizens, and we were watching every single move that was being made to save these gents — but none of the same coverage, or much of any TV news coverage at all, was given to Chile back in the Seventies when lots and lots of Chilean citizens were killed by Pinochet after the U.S. backed his military coup (a fate that's a bit worse than being stuck in the ground when your job is to be... stuck in the ground). Oh, I know, I know… that requires too much memory, too much perspective, and wouldn’t make a nice “reality show” moment on the air.

In the meantime, let us recall the first-ever person-falling-into-a-big-hole American news story: cave explorer W. Floyd Collins’ burial in a cave in central Kentucky back in 1925. Collins died after fourteen days, but the Louisville reporter covering his story, William Burke Miller, won the Pulitzer Prize for his stirring coverage of the story.

Then there was the first big-time TV person-in-hole rescue attempt (which was adapted by Woody Allen for his Radio Days): on April 8, 1949, little three-year-old Kathy Fiscus fell in a well in San Marino, California, and the rescue attempts — which were carried live on KTLA in what is described on Wikipedia as a “watershed” in TV news coverage — didn’t succeed. The little girl fell in on a Friday afternoon, was taken out of the hole by Sunday night, but was declared to have most likely died soon after she fell in. Now that kind of dramaturgy would be a massive downer for a cable-news story.

I wasn’t around for the Fiscus rescue, but I do remember the heavy-duty TV coverage of the “rescue of Baby Jessica” story in October 1987. In that case, an 18-month-old kid named Jessica McClure fell in a Midland, Texas, well, and she was retrieved alive two days later (now there’s your reality show happy ending!). I remember being amazed by how much time and emotion people were devoting to the story of one kid who was admittedly in a terrible situation — although folks around the world were also starving, being persecuted, and dying every day. I guess the Freudian notion that this one kid could indeed be saved (who wants to take the time to think about an entire populace that is pretty damned doomed?) was the kicker in terms of TV news.

As a film buff, though, what immediately sprang to mind during the endless coverage of the rescue of the Chilean miners was Billy Wilder’s cynical masterpiece Ace in the Hole (1951). The film follows Kirk Douglas as a New York reporter whose misbehavior has exiled him from NYC to New Mexico. He soon finds the ultimate story that he can build a path back to Manhattan on: a local man getting trapped when a cave collapses. The movie is a brilliant, prescient view of the “big carnival” (the film’s other, happier title) that surrounds the cave-in as the media comes to town to cover the rescue attempt. The film is jaded, nasty, and never really ages, in terms of its view of how absolutely phony “sympathetic” media coverage really is:

This doesn’t contain my single favorite line in the movie (From Jan Sterling: “I don’t go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons.”), but it does contain another winner at the opening. The movie was Wilder’s biggest flop, but it’s now recognized as one of his most perceptive — albeit thoroughly, wonderfully nasty.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A cynic among the dreamers: Deceased Artiste Claude Chabrol

In the last few years, I’ve spoken on the Funhouse TV show about the sustained brilliance of the eight or so filmmakers who comprised the “French New Wave.” They have continued to make exquisite films well into their 70s and 80s, and remind us that artists can remain vital and inventive as they grow older. 

With the death of Eric Rohmer, the “eldest brother” of the Cahiers quintet who are considered the core of la nouvelle vague, the group finally began to diminish (to that point, only Truffaut had died). And now the most commercial filmmaker of the group, Claude Chabrol, has died at 80. 

Chabrol was the most remarkably prolific member of the group (as relates to full-length theatrical features) and was also by far the most uneven in terms of quality. His meager project-for-hire films are without question the most unabashedly “commercial” movies ever made by an New Waver (although, true to form for this group, even these were mighty strange and slower-paced affairs), but his masterpieces are far more despairing in tone than anything produced by even the resolutely serious Alain Resnais and the masterfully paranoid Jacques Rivette. 

Chabrol’s two heroes were Hitchcock (about whom he wrote Hitchcock: The First Forty-Four Films with Rohmer) and Lang, and, like those masters, he doted on the cruel side of human nature. In his best films, Chabrol showed how random violence can be, and how it is cruelest when it comes with a betrayal of trust. One article that can be found online clearly defines the five “periods” of his work, the weirdest being the time in the Sixties when he made colorful but low-budget spy thrillers for a few years to keep his hand in as a studio-backed craftsman.

Thankfully that and his other oddest period, which found him making a slew of mediocre international coproductions, were “broken” by brilliantly conceived features — Les Biches (1968) in the former case and Violette (1978) in the latter. Chabrol was thus akin to Dylan and Brando — every few years (usually following absolutely dreadful work), the artist emerges with a masterwork, as if to say, “I bet you thought I had lost it, didn’t ya…?” 

The most analyzed period of Chabrol’s career is 1968-’73, when he made a brilliant series of thrillers that critiqued bourgeois society, showing us the comforts and rituals of that strata of society, as well as (you guessed it) their petty cruelties. 

I have decided to dedicate this blog entry to his first four films, however, since they show the genesis of his style and display that style in its rawest form. The resulting pictures still have the power to disturb the viewer and are incredibly memorable — my least favorite movies from Chabrol’s last twenty years of work were the ones that one could barely remember as one exited the theater. 

The first four features are also most interesting because two have been MIA on American DVD and VHS; the other two are currently available on disc in pristine condition from Kino Lorber. Chabrol swore in later years that “films with a message make me laugh,” but he definitely had something to say about the sudden, swift cruelty that is an intrinsic part of daily life. 

His first feature, Le Beau Serge (1958), is an extremely downbeat tale of a young man (Jean-Claude Brialy) who returns to his provincial hometown to recover from an illness, only to find that his old friend (Gerard Blain) is now a far-gone alcoholic. Brialy falls for a young woman in town, played by the wonderfully sexy Bernadette Lafont (The Mother and the Whore).


The film revolves around the fact that Brialy is shocked by the mean behavior in his hometown — perhaps the film’s nastiest twist comes when a scummy old man finds out that his daughter is not biologically his, so he rapes her. The act occurs offscreen but the emotional violation is forefront of the narrative. Here the father character threatens Brialy:


Beau Serge provides a good introduction to Chabrol’s elegant, fluid camerawork as well as his blending of “light” material with the ramifications of harsh acts of violence. With his second film, Les Cousins (1959), a collaborator entered the scene who received important mention in the better-researched Chabrol obits: screenwriter Paul Gégauff. 

Works on the New Wave that mention Gégauff note that he behaved like a fascist in public around his Cahiers/nouvelle vague friends and was a flagrant womanizer. His professional side was exemplary: he cowrote the classic René Clément film Purple Noon (1960) and collaborated with Chabrol on fourteen movies (thirteen features and a short), including some of the filmmaker’s finest.

The story about Gégauff that is most often repeated is how he wore a Nazi uniform to a screening of a British war film in 1950s Paris to shock members of the audience. He is most often depicted as a sort of macho inspiration for Chabrol and Godard (who supposedly modeled all of their early womanizing antiheroes after him); he has been called Chabrol’s “model of cynicism and amorality.” 

Chabrol was a self-professed Communist who hung around this provocative character (whom he said “posed as a fascist”) for quite a while, and definitely Gégauff helped mold Chabrol’s filmic worldview, as he collaborated on six of the first eight Chabrol features. In one interview, Chabrol praises Gégauff as having “extraordinarily courageous” ideas, but he also noted that: “He fascinated me by pushing at the limits of self-destruction, by his taste for extraordinary paradoxes and his real elegance. But he also showed me just how far this could take him into self-destruction.” 

This penchant lead to his end — Gégauff was stabbed to death by his second, Norwegian wife in 1983. Rohmer said in an interview: “Gégauff influenced all of the New Wave, with the exception of Truffaut. Or we, at least, all employed ‘Gégauffian’ characters.” The most fondly remembered characters in early Chabrol are definitely “Gégauffian,” particularly the “dandies” played by Jean-Claude Brialy. 

Gégauff’s first script for Chabrol, Les Cousins, is an utterly tormented (but curiously glamorous) affair about a young man from the country (Gerard Blain) who visits his cousin (the very decadent Brialy) in the city; both are students studying for their final exams. The film is filled with “debauchery,” or what was categorized as such in 1959 — and that includes wild parties (where Mozart and Wagner are played!), sexual liberation, and an un-fucking-believeable bachelor pad (see below).


The film is a masterwork of the French New Wave, and shows Chabrol to truly be the most cynical of the group. Rivette’s impeccable debut feature, Paris Nous Appartient (1961) offers an incredibly paranoid, existential vision of Paris at the turn of the Sixties, but Rivette’s approach is that of the “disappointed idealist” whose characters continue to dream even as they are circled by unknown forces.

Chabrol’s early work is severely bleak and the characters are amoral, thus offering a look at Paris “from the outside in,” where if we do identify with anyone (Blain in Les Cousins, the shop girls in Les Bonne Femmes), they are bound to be victimized — in Les Cousins, a gun that Brialy owns is shown more than once earlier in the film, so one awaits its use in the third act. But, in the meantime, everyone parties!

Chabrol was in fact very fascinated by hanging around right-wing types, and reportedly based the party scenes in the film on his experiences fraternizing with them between 1947 and ’49 (he was the “token” left-winger among them, perhaps because he was such a pleasant type…. or perhaps because he was a decadent sot himself?). Among the partiers he knew was the womanizing, binge-drinking French National Front party leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who lost his position as head of the law students when he interrupted a church service.

Chabrol was annoyed by critics who labeled Les Cousins a “fascist” film, since he felt the message was that fascists were still alive and well in France. He said, “at the time people didn’t believe that there were Fascists in France. It was as stupid as that. So they thought I was a Fascist, because they didn’t want to think that the characters on screen were.”

It should be noted, however, that while Blain is a thoroughly virtuous character, Brialy is the one most viewers remember best (if only for his decadent lifestyle). 

The contribution of another Chabrol collaborator, cinematographer Henri Decaë, also can’t be overstated. Decaë worked on many of Melville’s finest (Le Samouraï, Le Cercle Rouge). This sequence from the latter part of Les Cousins shows his subtle lighting in the bachelor pad, as Blain attempts to kill his debauched cousin. (This is the anti-climax, not the film's finale.)


The deceitful and treacherous go unpunished in Les Cousins, and Chabrol continued this theme in Á Double Tour (1959), his first color feature and first thriller. The film, which is available in the U.S. from Kino Lorber, offers more incredibly cruel dialogue from Gégauff:


It also is an unusually constructed work that springs its flashbacks on us with no telegraphed “memory” introductions. The rich family at the core of the film is empty and shallow, and so we begin to “attach” to the family’s sexy maid (Bernadette Lafont), the father’s foreign mistress (Antonella Lualdi), and her Hungarian friend, played by a scene-stealing Jean Paul Belmondo, who appeared in Á Double Tour around the time he made Breathless (the film was released right before Godard’s film made him a star).


Chabrol later said he regretted devoting so much of the film to Belmondo’s character (I notice he didn’t regret showcasing the ladies’ physiques), but when Belmondo isn’t on screen, Decaë’s exquisite imagery is commanding our attention. The plotline isn’t very involving as a result, but when one has Belmondo, Lafont, and Lualdi to watch, who really requires a compelling and logical plotline? 

Chabrol’s brilliant and disturbing fourth film, Les Bonnes Femmes (1960), also available from Kino Lorber, is arguably his best, and was the one that he referred to as his favorite. The film’s plot is very simple: four young shop girls deal with the rigors and pleasures of daily life in Paris. Chabrol and Gegauff create charming and sympathetic portraits of the ladies but, as the film moves on, we become aware of how the men around them control their every move. It first becomes apparent in comic scenes:


 And time capsules like this one where exotic dancer “Dolly Bell” performs:


The film’s tone changes as it moves along, from a seemingly innocuous and infectiously lively portrait of Parisian nightlife at the turn of the Sixties to a far grimmer drama about a young woman whose trust is tragically misplaced. Scenes like this one reflect the change in tone:


Like Hitchcock, Chabrol was known to make darkly humorous comments in interviews. On the subject of men dominating women, he said in one seminal interview conducted by Dan Yakir:
If there are men, women are the victims. This I admit quite willingly given what the poor things have to bear… Women in a modest milieu suffer terribly. It’s not amusing at all. It’s a cliché, but if they work all day in a factory and at night have to cook and wash — it’s terrible! We men are monsters [laughs uncontrollably] It’s funny… If women don’t laugh, I understand, but I find it funny….
On the other hand, he talked about Les Bonnes Femmes in some depth in another interview that can be found here:
I wanted to make a film about stupid people that was very vulgar and deeply stupid…. I don't think that it's a pessimistic film. I'm not pessimistic about people in general, but only about the way they live. When we wrote the film the people were, for Gégauff, fools. It was a film about fools. But at the same time we could see little by little that if they were foolish, it was mainly because they were unable to express themselves, establish contact with each other. The result of naïvety, or a too great vulgarity. People have said that I didn't like the people I was showing, because they believe that you have to ennoble them to like them. That's not true. Quite the opposite: only the types who don't like their fellows have to ennoble them.
He added that “the girls aren't shown as idiots. They're just brutalized by the way they live.” The question of whether Chabrol and Gégauff were sketching realistic characters in order to show their eventual entrapment, or simply observing victims-to-be for the sheer thrill of watching the final trap spring shut, brings one back to the eternal question surrounding Hitchcock’s work: is it sadistic, sympathetic, or both? 

The lead quartet in Les Bonnes Femmes undergo numerous things that qualify the film as either a thoroughly sexist vision or a thoroughly feminist one — depending upon which lens you’re using. One can definitely see the sympathetic side in this scene beautifully depicting the boredom of the work day:


In the two films that followed FemmesLes Godelureaux (1961) and L’Oeil de Malin (1962) — one is presented with an array of completely unsympathetic characters; thus, one is certain that Chabrol/Gégauff are showing society as filled with deceptive, unpleasant types (in articles of the time that condemned Chabrol, he was most often compared to Billy Wilder and obviously liked the comparison, as he used Wilder’s trademark tune “Fascination” in more than one picture). 

Les Bonnes Femmes does paint a sympathetic portrait of the shop girls, as in this scene, which does much to change the tone of the film. It is lengthy and uncomfortable to watch:


Watching some of Chabrol’s later films, I often felt that he should’ve veered sharply away from the influence of Hitchcock — much as I think some singer-songwriters desperately need to break their Dylan records and rely on their own original talent. 

However, early on, Chabrol used his fan-obsessions with Hitchcock and Lang to brilliant effect. In Les Bonnes Femmes one could argue that the camera takes an omniscient viewpoint on events, and the filmmaker is taking a certain glee in showing how arbitrarily cruel the world can be to the clueless innocent. 

Instead, Chabrol follows the film’s final outburst of violence — which I will not spoil here, and I urge readers not to watch the scene on YouTube if you haven’t seen the whole film — with a memorable scene involving a new young woman, not yet seen in the film, who just might end up like our unlucky shop girl. Or she might find companionship and love in the very cool, and very cold, world that is Paris. Hope continues to exist in this colorful but sad universe. 

Chabrol was indeed a diehard cynic when compared with his dreamer-friends Godard and Truffaut (and the “Left Bank” New Wavers Resnais, Varda, and Marker), but in his finest works he also offered sympathy for those trapped in situations that were definitely a good deal more menacing than anything found in the average whodunit. 

Thanks to the Claude Chabrol Project and Paul Gallagher for the Chabrol interviews.