Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What is America to Me? The annual viewing of Robert Vaughn and Macy's clowns

Every year around this time I start thinking about one clip that I caught by chance back in 1986 because I am an avid fan of star-filled pointlessness, like… the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade! The clip in question really does sum up the finer points of the U.S. in one neat little package. Formerly famous (you’ll never hear me saying “has-been”) TV actor gets the gig to read the U.S. Constitution to commemorate its 200th anniversary. Said actor doesn’t know the lines without cue cards — and then the clowns come over….

I have watched this clip countless times, and believe its effect intensifies the more you watch it in sequence. I can think of no better way to sum up what America means to me than to offer up Robert Vaughn being mocked by Macy’s employees dressed as clowns (watch them flock!) as he reads the Constitution to a befuddled and bored TV audience. The fact that host Pat Sajak tries to save his bacon by doing an impromptu intro to the segment (after Vaughn says on-mic, “you have the cards?"), and the fact that the director then tries to save Napoleon Solo once again by putting him in a little circle (in which you can still the bobbing clown heads) only makes this moment more of a patriotic godsend. I can offer no better treasure from my coffer of weird VHS moments to celebrate the “discovery” of this wonderful land.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Neil Innes on George Harrison and Graham Chapman: the Funhouse interview

I’m happy to share two more clips from my interview with founding Bonzo Dog Band member, king of the Rutles, "Seventh Python," and all-around brilliant humorist and musician Neil Innes. The first concerns George Harrison’s reaction to the idea of a second Rutles album:

The second involves a few memories of his friend and writing collaborator Graham Chapman. Right after he told this anecdote Mr. Innes confessed with a laugh, “We didn’t get much writing done!”

Thursday, November 18, 2010

When his monkey die...: Deceased Artiste Dino De Laurentiis

One of the last of the great over-the-top, impresario-style movie producers, Dino De Laurentiis died last week at the age of 91. He had his name on some brilliant masterworks of cinema and some absolute garbage, but he kept busy until just a few years ago, and always tried to create a “spectacle” around his productions, especially his more ridiculous American movies.

De Laurentiis is perhaps best known among movie fans over here for a phrase he may or may not have actually said — if anyone has confirmation that he uttered it, please do pass it on. The phrase in question, referring to the 1976 remake of King Kong that he produced, was, “When my monkey die, everybody gonna cry!” Now, it’s certain that John Belushi spoke a phrase similar to that one in a Saturday Night Live sketch in which he played Dino, but I can’t verify exactly where or when De Laurentiis himself made the original remark. In any case, it stuck and has become part of the legend surrounding the movie, which was somehow perceived as a flop, but actually made quite a lot of money at the box office. Here is the trailer:

Here is a bonus: Funhouse friend Akira Fitton’s home-movie footage from the night that some 30,000 folks showed up at the World Trade Center to watch the shooting of the “death of Kong” scene. Check out the monkey-face etched in office lights on the side of one of the buildings:

King Kong was just one of many, many movies Dino D. produced from 1946 to 2007. He started out selling spaghetti (no joke) but acquired an international reputation when his production Bitter Rice (1949) with the “buxotic” Silvana Mangano (whom he married) became a worldwide hit. The film is corny but still has a nice seething sexuality that is displayed when Ms. Mangano dances:

Or when its female cast wades in the water to perform their labors:

The film includes a muddy group catfight. This version of that scene demonstrates a rather annoying characteristic of films dubbed for the Russian market (I believe it’s Russian being spoken): instead of doing an actual dubbing job, they retain one gentleman to simply recite the dialogue in Russian *over* the original soundtrack!

De Laurentiis opened a studio a studio he called “Dinocitta” (after “Cinecitta”) as he produced a number of films that became critical and popular favorites around the world, with and without his producing partner Carlo Ponti. Among the biggest hits were Fellini’s La Strada and the Sophia Loren starrer Gold of Naples (both 1954). One of my personal faves (yes, even more than La Strada) was Nights of Cabiria (1957), which has one of the finest Fellini finales (and an excellent Nino Rota score):

Other Sixties De Laurentiis hits included the comedy Mafioso (1962) and the impressively flashy Mario Bava picture Danger: Diabolik (1968). Check out the Telly Savalas-narrated trailer (“He robs from the rich to give to the girls!”):

One of the most notable De Laurentiis pics during the Sixties was the campy-but-not-as-perfectly-kinky-or-funny-as-it-should-be Barbarella (1968):

In the Seventies, De Laurentiis produced a few “naturalistic” American dramas, among them the great Sidney Lumet film Serpico (1973):

Among other good Seventies De Laurenttiis productions was Crazy Joe (1974) with the always superb (and king of all Joes) Peter Boyle, and Altman’s very underrated box-office flop Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976). Here is an extremely short trailer for the latter:

The Seventies was also a time of pure schlock for De Laurentiis, with Mandingo (1975), Orca (1977), Flash Gordon (1980), and the wonderfully sleazy rape thriller Lipstick (1976) starring Margaux and Mariel Hemingway. The whole film is up on YouTube (or the majority of the film — the rape scene most obviously keeps being taken down):

One of the interesting latter-day “art” productions from De Laurentiis was the uneven but still very evocative The Serpent’s Egg (1978) from Bergman:

The Eighties and Nineties found De Laurentiis producing a bunch of big-budget, over-the-top pics, including Conan the Destroyer, David Lynch’s Dune (both 1984), Michael Cimino’s bombastic Year of the Dragon (1985) and pointless Desperate Hours (1990), as well as the Silence of the Lambs sequel and prequel Hannibal (2001) and Red Dragon (2002), as well as the pre-prequel Hannibal Rising (2007). The finest thing he was associated with in the latter part of his career was undoubtedly Blue Velvet (1986), which was shot at his DEG studios.

I will forego musing about whether or not “everybody cry” when Dino D. died.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Schmaltz in "new" show-biz: the "inartful" Stewart-Colbert rally (part two), and the Maddow-Stewart interview

NOTE: I wrote this piece a week ago, but decided not to post the second half of it since the story was still “developing.” Last Friday Rachel Maddow delivered the single most eloquent rebuttal to Jon Stewart and company's method of equating right-wing extremism in the media (read: Fox News) with left-wing “extremism” (read: MSNBC and certain activists in public settings). The result was Stewart reacting to Rachel’s editorial on The Daily Show and then appearing as a guest on her show for a full hour tonight. I include my reflections on the Maddow-Stewart interview below, after the piece I initially wrote.


The next step in tying the “new” show business in with the “old” was taken at the Stewart/Colbert rally. Yes, there hasn’t been anything like it in American history — an exceedingly well-attended mock rally, endowed with a "real message," run by two comedians (one in character, one not) that actually qualified as a mildly political variety show done on location in Washington, D.C. — sort of a “Capitol Steps” show held on the capitol steps.

The event began as a swipe at the Glen Beck rally, which sounded like a great idea, but as it grew in proportion and journalists began to speculate on the “message” of restoring sanity, it was clear that something was slightly “off." Ordinarily rallies and protests are held to convey strong political messages — here was one that was asking everyone to just calm down and stop being so strident. The fact that the sentiment that goes along with that goal — again, “let me go back to bed,” the first-person variant of Bill Hicks’ “go back to bed, America!” — was just fine with everybody, since basically everyone is disappointed with the country the way it is (but the message of the rally, “let’s all be reasonable,” seemed to oddly parallel President Obama’s never-ending courting of the Republicans, who want nothing whatsoever to do with him — curious, huh?). And yet there is still a blind, unswerving patriotism in this country that causes the lunkheads among us (and Colbert audience members — but they’re “cheering ironically,” mind ya….) to shout out “U-S-A, NUMBER ONE!” when most of those cheering haven’t ever visited anywhere else in the world.

So, we have a rally that registers as not much more than a promotional stunt for two TV comedy shows, and yet journalists and attendees started taking it seriously as some sort of statement, although the politics behind that statement were murky, and almost dangerously naïve. I hope it was fun for the attendees — those I’ve spoken to or corresponded with said they had a great time, but couldn’t clearly see or hear the show.

Let’s talk about the comedy that was on display, though, since I want to return to my thesis that today’s cutting-edge comics will quickly reach back to the schmaltz and hokum of the past (with a dollop of snark on top); that hokum being best embodied by Bob Hope’s specials, barely watchable then, but now a source of camp and kitsch fascination for nostalgia buffs like myself (but, again, let me stress, they had the corniest comedy writing in existence — they were bad entertainment!).

The godawful “Chris Rock/Tracy Morgan do Simon and Garfunkel” bit that embodied the Bob Hope corniness of the “Night of Too Many Stars” had its equivalent at the “Rally to Restore Sanity” in a lengthy musical bit. For those who didn’t see the bit, it found Yusuf Islam, the former Cat Stevens, doing his anthemic “Peace Train,” only to be interrupted by Stephen Colbert, who brought out Ozzy Obsourne to perform “Crazy Train.” Jon Stewart became the proponent of Yusuf/Cat, and Stephen continued to want to hear Ozzy — until finally the whole issue was solved by having the O’Jays come out and sing “Love Train.”

Besides the fact that all three songs appeal primarily to people my age or older (not much acknowledgment of the youth demo in this “reasonable” political mock-movement), the bit is very much of a piece with sketches on the old Hope specials. It was friendly, cute, innocuous, and had nothing common with the satire that has made up the best of the Stewart and Colbert TV series (the laser-sharp montages showing politicians contradicting themselves on Stewart; “the Word” segments on Colbert).

It was, in short, pretty mild stuff that yielded only one surprise. That surprise occurred when Colbert interrupted Yusuf/Cat’s song and the audience booed him — and then realized it was Stephen doing the thing they disapproved of, and the boos stopped immediately (it was as if a noise of condemnation just suddenly disappeared).

At that point, it became pretty evident yet again that Americans need to love their wrong-headed comic characters, and that under no circumstances is the character to appear “villainous” or unpleasant — he or she must be cute and cuddly! The “Archie Bunker effect,” as I’ve called it, rules American comedy, and Colbert’s character is a perfect example. Consider this for a moment: what remains the single best moment for the character and Colbert himself as a comic performer? His genius turn in character before the Washington Correspondents’ Dinner several years back, with then-President Bush in attendance. There he was, not getting laughs, in “enemy territory,” and he stayed in the character, much like a “heel” wrestler or punk rocker would, taking his lumps and delivering the single best monologue of his career.

It would admittedly be hard to find as unsympathetic an audience for him as was found there, but provocative comedy, and certainly genuine political satire, needs that kind of friction to make it successful (and brilliant), and not just cute, cuddly mainstream entertainment (which admittedly will make you lots of money if your name is Ferrell or Sandler, but you’re not doing good work, you’re making absolute LCD crap comedy). Granted, a good portion of the American public might not be able to comprehend the notion of a character who can be booed and still laughed at (although that notion seems to work well enough in every wrestling arena in the country), but it’s contingent on the creators of comedy to sorta step out there on the edge, and not just surrender to “creeping Bob Hope-ism.” It’s just so much easier to chant ironically “U-S-A, NUMBER ONE!”

And I am aware that Colbert openly evoked Hope when he entertained the troops in the Middle East (golf club over the shoulder, big radio-style microphone). It was a wonderfully gracious gesture to entertain troops imbroiled in a totally futile political gesture intended to solidify America's hold over Middle East oil, but on an entertainment level, those live shows were schmaltz pure and simple, the sort of toothless “comedy” that I was sorta hoping had been eradicated by the smarter, sharper political humor that developed post-Lenny/National Lampoon/Carlin/Pryor/Klein/Hicks (and of course has been reduced to the impersonation-and-nothing-more formula by the rancid corpse that is SNL).

Colbert’s single best evocation of the past was indeed his tongue-in-cheek Xmas special, which was extra-good precisely because there was no audience to cheer it on — the jokes either worked or they didn’t, no “guide” for the home viewer was necessary (we’re adults, we can handle it — in fact, HBO and FX comedies have proven it’s possible).

Back to the rally: never has a politically-themed gathering been a “call to IN-action,” but that’s what this event was. The fact that the right-wing belief system is more emphatic, violent, and leans on emotion and opinion rather than facts, whereas left-wingers have to be (as my Marxist teacher at H.S. taught me years ago) literally steeped in factual information to be able to defend their positions, didn’t factor into the rally's hazy philosophy of "reasonableness" first and foremost.

Proving that Lefties are more susceptible to nudges than the Right, two days after the rally, Keith Olbermann suspended his “Worst Persons in the World” segment, in order to make an effort to be more “reasonable.” Keith seems genuinely thrilled to be mentioned on The Daily Show (and in fact makes segments from The Daily Show and SNL into news “stories”). Keith seems offended when they critique him, yet he hasn’t been on the Stewart show once as a guest in the years I’ve been watching him. On the other hand, Jon had a super-chummy (and lengthy) chat with Chris Wallace in the week after the rally, and has had on O’Reilly repeatedly to hawk his books (and appeared on the “Factor” as a guest). I may not be alone in finding it kinda cringe-inducing hearing Jon do the gigglelaugh at the Fox hosts’ bon mots.

As the close of the rally Stewart made a heartfelt speech as himself. The fact that this serious speech followed frivolous sketches made little sense (making it seem in certain ways like those “Final Thoughts” that Jerry Springer shares with his audience), but Jon’s tone did, yet again, bring the enlightened nostalgia buff back to the schmaltz of the variety show era — or the moments at the ends of Borscht Belt acts where a brassy comic like Buddy Hackettt or Jack Carter would suddenly turn serious and sing “Sunrise, Sunset.” The performer I was put in mind of was Red Skelton (who used to, in his final years, talk proudly and endlessly about the American flag in his live act, after playing “Clem Kadiddlehopper”). As I listened to Jon talk sincerely about how proud he was of America, I kept thinking that the event was going to end with him saying, “goodnight... and gawd bless!!!”

That sort of variety show fare makes for fascinating viewing a few decades on, as a time piece and a curio of an era now gone. As contemporary political satire, to paraphrase an old Jack Paar book title, its saber is bent.


EPILOGUE: The Stewart appearance on Maddow was informative and enlightening, in terms of seeing the relative seriousness and knowledge both broadcasters bring to the table. Maddow is a razor-sharp commentator who has facts at her command, and is one of the brightest hosts on television at this moment. Jon Stewart is a standup comedian, a talented one, and an amiable host. He ain’t Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, or Marshall McLuhan — I personally don’t believe he has any profundities to convey to us, although he is a very pleasant comedic host. And, in his hour with Rachel, as in the serious moments during the rally, it did indeed seem like he now fully believes his own press and feels qualified to speak out on political issues and the media.

And since this blog frequently discusses Godard and his conceptual take on cinema, including the power of montage, I really have to take exception to the very lame defense Jon has offered, to the effect that his show and rally had an “inartful” presentation of the left-right equation. Apparently he can’t/won’t acknowledge the power of montage (Eisenstein's Film Form is on the way, Jon!), which is one of the key joys of his show. Montages do put equal signs between the images and sounds. It can’t be ignored, and to claim the messages of the Daily Show and rally montages were muddled is to acknowledge unwittingly that there’s no clear agenda behind the comedy. To be an effective political satirist, you have to paint heroes and villains — and then if one of the insulted parties says, “hey, you made me out to be the bad guy,” you can’t claim “inartful” editing. Especially when your show is immaculately edited.

The final part of the interview where Jon discussed humor was actually the only effective part of the conversation since, again, I would only turn to Jon for opinions on humor, not his personal take on politics or media. Interestingly, though, he informed Rachel that the “tea bag” label used by the Left to describe the tea party movement was “funny for a day” — this came, oddly, from a comedian who frequently punches his lines up with Adam Sandler-style high voices and dropping the f-bomb (not forgetting the “wiseguy” Jersey voice). We’re not talking Will Rogers, Mort Sahl, Groucho Marx, Steve Allen, or Bill Hicks (in fact Jon revealed his own comic model to be Jerry Seinfeld — anodyne observational comedy as the model for a political-satire show?); we’re talking a very amiable TV comic with an extremely talented writing staff and immaculate video editors.

The Rachel-Jon interview was extremely friendly (yes, it was truly "reasonable"), and provided further evidence that Maddow is a class act. As for Jon, it seems that his feelings are hurt that his rally has been subjected to some criticism. If the rally had indeed had any political message other than a call to inaction, I think I could’ve sympathized with him.

Really not that unmarried: Deceased Artiste Jill Clayburgh

Jill Clayburgh, who died this week at 66 after a reported 21-year battle with leukemia, was one of the poster girls of Hollywood’s late-Seventies feminism. This period found several great films released in a a matter of a few years, all with superb female lead performances. Then, as it always has, the industry pretty much dispensed with those actresses (who were left to return to the stage, or play mothers and girlfriends again), unless of course they were critical super-darlings (Meryl Streep) or the kind of performer who could semi-retire every few years because she didn’t really need to work for a living (the aerobics instructor Ms. Fonda).

I was a young teen when Clayburgh had her string of starring roles and was such a familiar face she was called on to host Saturday Night Live. At that time, my allegiance was to the winsome brunettes who pretty much all got similar roles (Brooke Adams, Karen Allen, Jessica Harper, Kathleen Quinlan, to a lesser extent Amy Irving), but I did see pretty much all of Clayburgh’s starring features in a theater (ah, for the days of “bargain matinees”) and thought she had a compelling presence on screen. (As for my blog-entry header, she was married to playwright from 1979 until her death.)

What’s interesting to reflect upon is the fact that the argument about women not getting quality lead roles continues to this day. The sad truth is that Hollywood is not interested in performances by humans in general, so the gender divide isn’t as important as it once was. Great work is still being done by talented actresses young and old, but the films in question are rarely going to make a dent in the weekend box-office report. And that’s okay — because we know the films that do were all made with the 14–25 market in mind, so they ain’t the kinds of things to take seriously.

I’ll say farewell to Ms. Clayburgh with a mini-survey of her career up to the early Eighties. She made her film debut in Brian De Palma’s The Wedding Party (1968) (both she and De Palma had gone to Sarah Lawrence; costar Robert De Niro had not). I really love the extremely tacky big-screen adaptation of Portnoy’s Complaint (1972) that she appears in as the Israeli soldier-girl fucked by Richard Benjamin (although that film’s truly tackiest moments feature Mama Lee Grant).

Her first credited TV role was with then-boyfriend Al Pacino in the Jack Warden cop series (and damn, did it move quickly — a half-hour for a show that would run one hour minimum these days) NYPD (1968). Here is the opening:

Other memorable TV appearances include a supporting role on the super-silly old-lady detective show (“hey, if Miss Marple works, why not *two* of them?”), The Snoop Sisters, and the TV movie Griffin and Phoenix with the always wonderful Peter Falk:

The Michael Ritchie satire about football and various ridiculous oh-so-Seventies forms of therapy (EST, “rolfing,” etc.) Semi-Tough (1977) featured Jill Clayburgh with her future Starting Over costar Burt Reynolds (when he was seriously being hailed as a new-model Cary Grant, a few years before the Bandit films came along….). But her biggest success was Paul Mazursky’s time piece An Unmarried Woman (1978). This is a fondly remembered scene where she begins dancing in her apartment for no reason other than sheer joy:

She followed that film with Bertolucci’s incest saga Luna (1979). This is a very strange film, in that Fred Gwynne plays her hubby, who has to die to set the story in motion. Once it’s going, you find that she’s quite a hot young mom who decides to help her son through his heroin-withdrawal suffering by getting him off (did I forget to mention she’s also an opera diva?). I saw this on an “arthouse” incest double-bill with Malle’s Murmur of the Heart at the Cinema Village back around 1980. Ah, for the days when you could have themed double features that had bizarro themes….

After Starting Over — which got uniformly great reviews but didn’t seemingly transform Burt Reynolds into the “next Cary Grant” — she starred in what would now definitely be labeled a “chick flick,” the big-budget follow-up by director Claudia Weill to her terrific low-budget Girlfriends, called It’s My Turn (1980). It was cute and pleasant, but not as memorable as Unmarried Woman. I have no recollection of a single moment of the film but you can see the whole film here, uploaded by a poster who loves Ms. Clayburgh, and also digs Faye Dunaway, Glenda Jackson, and my faves Sandy Dennis and the utterly sublime Barbara Harris.

The same poster has put up a film I have not caught up to (despite having had a prerecord VHS of it now for about a decade), Costa-Gavras’ tale of an American Israeli lawyer defending a Palestinian, Hanna K. (1983), written by Battle of Algiers scripter Franco Solinas.

Another semi-pseudo arthouse release starring Ms. Clayburgh that I never caught up to is also available in its entirety on YT. It is Shy People (1987), co-scripted by the always awesome Gerard Brach, and directed and conscripted by Andrei Konchalovsky. It can be found

Jill Clayburgh kept working steadily until her death in both the movies and on TV, but will be best remembered as the “Unmarried Woman” who got to have an affair with the cool British artist guy (Alan Bates) and still remain independent. And able to dance around the apartment for absolutely no reason at all.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Chris Morris: the Funhouse interview

The “hidden” man of British comedy is hidden no more. I was very happy to speak yesterday with Chris Morris — whose career I surveyed on this blog here — in conjunction with the NYC opening of his debut as a feature filmmaker, Four Lions.

Morris has spent a hell of a lot of his career as a radio and TV humorist decimating the interview process, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when I interviewed him about Four Lions and some of his past work. I found that he was more than willing to discuss the different facets of his career, but as notions of process and approach arose, he laughed or made jokes that appeared to sidestep my questions — but then wound up answering them in beautifully eloquent detail.

Four Lions follows a group of dimwitted Islamic terrorists in England as they plan an attack on a charity marathon in London. Morris has taken great care in other interviews to discuss the fact that while the film is entirely fictitious, it was inspired by numerous accounts he had researched of moronic — yet obviously lethal — terrorists. I discussed the film’s characters with him and its distinctly dark comic tone. He noted that it wasn’t his intention to make a dark comedy, but that “the real elements in the data that’s out there undermines the metallic, cast-iron image of these people.” The tone didn’t guide the creation of the jokes, therefore, but rather the subject itself dictated the humor.

As for the characters, the film’s protagonist Omar (Riz Ahmed) is a family man whom the audience can relate to on certain levels, while marveling at his wrong-headed and dangerous philosophy — this split in the character is best exemplified by the pleasant-seeming conversations he has with his wife and son about how he intends to die for the cause. His counterpart is Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a temperamental working-class Englishman who follows his own Al-Qaeda-inspired values without question.

“Omar does have a conscience, he believes in right and wrong, while Barry just believes in wrong,” says Morris. “We had a sequence that was cut, in which the characters were playing their subtext cards too openly. Omar tries to argue that sometimes to do the right thing you have to do the wrong thing…. Barry laughs at him because Omar is tangled up in a confused conscience. Barry is happily doing the wrong thing.”

I found that Barry relates to many of Morris’ past comic creations, in that he speaks nonsense with an absolute air of certainty.

Four Lions benefits from a documentary-like visual style that, at points, reports the truth of a situation, and in some others slightly misleads the viewer for comic purposes. Discussing the use of documentary techniques to study a terrorist cell in a fiction film, Morris says: “It’s a long-established technique from at least Battle of Algiers, and probably before…. It’s sometimes good if the camera is left on the table and forgotten. In that way, the camera’s not quite seeing everything it should. When we shot, I worked out the orthodox camera positions and then banned them, and then used what was left.” The result, he says, is that “it’s as if you’re never quite in the right place,” in order to bring the viewer into the action.

Like Morris’ TV series Brass Eye and Nathan Barley, the film also includes wonderfully ridiculous scenes where its characters interact with new media, including chat rooms, handicams, and cellphone SIM cards. Reflecting on the characters’ repeated attempts to make video manifestos, Morris remarks on a court transcript he read that included MI-5 surveillance on would-be terrorists who argued with each other about whether a video camera should be used to record images, and whether Bin Laden did it.

“So they’re taking elements of Islamic law, and there’s this sort of confused conversation” that winds up with the one gent deciding that Bin Laden must shoot his videos in a mirror, because that would be okay.” Morris adds that he wouldn’t be surprised to find a real-life cell that was making its own video documentary, “because that would excite them, allow them to say, ‘yeah, that’s how we are.’ Unfortunately, I suspect it would show all to clearly that’s how they are….”

Until that particular “idiots’ manifesto” comes out, we can make do with Four Lions, which has Morris again finding the humor in an extremely taboo topic.

As a bonus in this entry, I will note that I also discussed Morris’ past work with him. Segments from that part of the interview will appear in this blog and on the Funhouse TV show in the weeks to come. One of his most direct and enlightening answers came to my question about his radio “feedback reports” (man on the street interviews) which, of course, were later modified to include show-biz celebrities and politicians on Brass Eye. As is indicated by his answer here, Morris’ humor is indeed well thought-out but, most importantly, it’s very, very funny.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Schmaltz in the "new" show-biz: Stewart and Colbert live (part one)

I think and write a lot about the comedians of yesteryear, and have often talked on the Funhouse TV show and in this blog about watching variety shows in the Sixties/Seventies — the idea of all those stars interacting on one stage used to make my little head explode, but now when I rewatch the shows from that era, all I can think about is the mixture of “old” and “new” acts that made those programs semi-surreal and very entertaining (and, let’s be a little serious here, often just terrible — that’s what makes the fun moments more fun). Time can make things that were awful seem more palatable.

Before I attempt to discuss the Stewart/Colbert rally and the “Night of Too Many Stars” broadcast, let me first say I regularly watch and do enjoy The Daily Show and Colbert’s program. I find the latter to be a bit edgier (and more confounding, in terms of audience reaction — more on this later), but both shows are, on the whole, quite funny.

I’ve noticed that older pop culture is kept at arm’s length on both shows — and then, used only as a punchline that can then be commented upon by Stewart (it’s usually Jon who does this), noting that the audience is too young for the reference. Those millions of us watching at home don’t really care what’s happening in the studio audience, but that activity is indeed the focus of these programs; I’ve attended a Colbert taping, and yes, they want you to “scream” — in the manner of Pee-Wee Herman — “real loud!” I like these shows, but comedy that is screamed for? That can easily turn into Dane Cook or the “Diceman.” Gimme laughter every time….

So the past is the past, and it has no place on these two programs, right? Well, not really. Both “The Night of Too Many Stars” and the recent rally TV show (which was the rally itself, and the rally was merely the variety show — as the Singing Detective would say, am I right or am I right?) both seemed to me to not only be the modern equivalents of old Bob Hope specials, but actually were structured comedically in the manner of those old shows. Sure, the hosts and guests delivered their jokes with the degree of snark/sillines that has come to symbolize what Stewart and Colbert do best. But both programs definitely felt like the Sixties all over again — not in the “we can change the world!” sense, but more the American leisure-culture “let me go back to bed” mindset (or, in the Nineties translation, “here we are now, entertain us”).

“The Night of Too Many Stars” raised money for a wonderful cause, and anyone reading this blog knows what the model for a TV show raising money for charity is: the Jerry Lewis telethon. The “Night” show cut between segments shot live at the Beacon Theater featuring a specific pool of talent (which is made up primarily of “comic actors who make really abysmal movies for the multiplex”) and (theoretically) live studio segments with a variety of “name” performers pretending to answer phones.

The Beacon segments had a self-congratulatory tone indicating that you were watching cutting-edge comedy; telethon viewers will recognize this attitude from the Lewis tagline, “You miss a little, you miss a lot!” That cutting-edge included the closing routine/sketch/whateveritwas, wherein Tracey Morgan and Chris Rock (a brilliantly funny standup) did a bit where they sang badly as Simon and Garfunkel and were interrupted by the meanest singer/songwriter in the biz (oops, I forgot Lou Reed is still alive), Paul Simon, who then performed a Snoop Doggy Dogg rap. It was, to coin, a phrase, fucking awful:

All I can compare this awkwardly awful bit of comedy to is the moment where George Burns and Jack Benny came out as hippies on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in ’67 or ’68. The “old meets the new” is at its most sublime as a concept when it is unintentionally funny; when it is scripted, it is just plain terrible. The Morgan/Rock bit was straight out of — you guessed it — a Bob Hope special. And let me clarify for those who are too young to know: the Smother Brothers’ show was always fun, but really only hit its stride in its third season, when the Smothers hired an amazing team of comedy writers. Bob Hope’s specials (random related image above) were pretty much uniformly hokey, schmaltzy, and “old” in their outlook.

I did not see every minute of the “Night” special (life is too short), but the big portion I did see had the same structure as the Jerry telethon: a bank of phones, “please call in now… we need your pledge!”; enlightening video documentaries about the charity itself and care facilities; and goofy stunts performed in both the Beacon and phone-bank segments to raise money. (Jerry Lewis swore he’d take off his pants if a certain amount was hit one year, and so he did; Will Arnett had his “dress” torn off by sexygirl correspondent Olivia Munn).

I’m sure the notion of the team creating the special was to spoof telethons in the phone-banks segments (a la the brilliant SCTV and the very first sketch spoofing the Lewis telethon, done by Steve Allen in the late Sixties), but when they cut to the real video documentary footage, I came to the conclusion that there really is only one way of raising money for a charity on TV, at least if you’re going to try and reach the broadest possible cross-section of the American public (which wouldn’t recognize subtlety if you labeled it as such). The answer is schmaltz, and Jerry’s been doing it now for 45 years straight — and Stewart and the guests on “Too Many Stars” were doing it, too. There may have been a veneer of hipness and “we’re just spoofing telethons,” but it was still Jerry-style all the way, and there was something very familiar about something that was presenting itself as cutting-edge.

A mediation on the “Rally to Restore Sanity” and its similarity to (take a guess) a Bob Hope special will come in part two….