NBC’s Parks and Recreation ended its seven-season run Tuesday night and will go down as undoubtedly my favorite sitcom of its era. Created as a spinoff of The Office by writers Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, the first season mostly mimicked that mockumentary style and even slotted in the characters in very familiar tropes created by the show from which it was spun. Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope was a Michael Scott-type — well-meaning but ultimately grating and not adored by her coworkers — and Aziz Ansari as Tom, Rashida Jones as Ann, and Nick Offerman as Ron slotted into the Jim, Pam, and Dwight roles cleanly enough, of course bringing their own personalities to the roles. The results… were fine. Looking back I actually quite enjoy those first six episodes of Parks, the primordial stew phase of Pawnee that would eventually evolve into a uniquely developed world, but there was a flatness not well served by the mean-spirited mockumentary style of The Office.
When the show returned for its second season, gone was Leslie’s contempt for the smalltown bumpkins she served in her work (and Ron’s ill-fitting suit) and in its place came a deep love, capability, and commitment to her work that Michael never brought the Scranton (and Ron’s signature tucked in polo). As Schur says in an interview with the AV Club, “we realized early on that Leslie is not performing for anyone. Leslie is completely authentic through and through, she doesn’t care what people think of her, necessarily, or whether she comes off as cool, or any of the stuff Michael Scott or David Brent cared about.” Thus, when Schur realized that Leslie did not need to be performing for a camera, the conceit that she was being filmed fell to the wayside. READ MORE
Sundance 2015, the unofficial film industry new year marker, has come and gone, leaving in its wake as usual a pile of must-see titles, underappreciated gems, and new talent. The quintessential “modern Sundance film” is a quirky indie comedy compiled from equal parts long, twee title, popular star doing something different, light laughs, and moments of dramatic resonance. Think Little Miss Sunshine or The Way Way Back. This is partially due to what historically sells big at Sundance, and partially due to the way films are presented up there in the mountains. Sundance audiences are very generous and love communal film watching experiences, they love to laugh or cry or feel something and then talk about it on the shuttle bus to their next stop. This year was no different, with a good portion of its US Competition slate and its Premiere section devoted to these same types of comedies. Four of the ten films I saw at the festival could be considered comedies or at least have comedic sensibilities in their filmmaking. Some quick thoughts on those below. READ MORE
I have been a big fan of Chris Rock’s since I was young. “No Sex (in the Champagne Room)” was one of the first comedy things I listened to in secrecy, so impressed by its humor and edge and so scared that my mother might find me listening to it. I'll admit to liking Down to Earth, Rock's very strange and broad Heaven Can Wait remake, and Head of State made every worthwhile joke to be made about the Obama presidency before he was even a twinkle in the Democratic National Convention’s eye.
Many comedians I respect have said that Top Five is Rock's masterpiece. That he had finally found a way to put his stage jokes on screen. That Louie was punching up the script with him. That said, high expectations are the downfall of this film. There are charming, likable, hilarious moments to be sure, but the film is weighted with such a blatant desire to be considered important, both internally and externally, that it is hard to figure out how to even engage with what Rock is trying to say. READ MORE
As this column wraps up its first full year, I present the 1st Annual 2014 Comedy Film School Awards. These awards are determined by a voting body of one and hold all the prestige and none of the starpower of the Hollywood Film Awards. The idea is not to rank or give out superlatives, but rather use these names to discuss some of the most interesting work of 2014, why, and what this could mean for a larger comedy landscape this year and going forward. READ MORE
With the release of three new episodes last week, High Maintenance went from the one web series you need to be watching to the one web series you still need to be watching. Long-trumpeted by critics of both traditional and new media as the pinnacle of what creators are accomplishing online, High Maintenance returned with three new episodes fully-financed by Vimeo and released under their new original content outfit, Vimeo On Demand.
And what they released was more of the same: character-driven, New York-quirky, sad/funny, length-agnostic short films drawn together by their cross-river view of Manhattan and “The Guy”, co-creator Ben Sinclair’s drug dealing vagabond who waltzes in and out of each episode at no regularly scheduled interval. Not that this is an issue, High Maintenance remains massively true to its form intended by Sinclair and his wife/co-creator Katja Blichfeld. The two, now famously, shirked a television deal in order to keep the same pace of production and creative control over their product.
The new episodes, which can be watched totally cold without an issue but does feature a few characters seen in previous episodes, tend more towards to melancholy than the comedic. High Maintenance is funny in the way life is funny; the characters are quiet, it is not filled with bits or jokes, and it is often deeply sad or affecting in the moment but funny with any perspective or outsider-empathy. Sinclair and Blichfeld are adept at mixing perspective in their direction so the viewer can experience both the inner anxieties and the outer peculiarities of the featured characters. READ MORE
Adam McKay’s path to becoming a director began as a notoriously mischievous improvisor under the tutelage of guru Del Close in Chicago, then joining SNL as a writer, eventually ascending to head writer in the mid-nineties. It was there he began his collaboration with Will Ferrell that would come to define his feature directing career. The two have collaborated on Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Step Brothers, The Other Guys, and Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, establishing a formula of highly designed and actively structured plays on genre that have shaped the modern comedy landscape beyond their work alone.
Since Judd Apatow has become somewhat of a control to whom I have compared most other directors I’ve written about in this space (and even though this was not done on purpose I actually think it is instructive both because of his omnipotence in the comedy filmmaking landscape and his very easily explained visual technique), let’s indulge that process once more in regards to McKay. Here is where the two are similar: both directors rely heavily on improv in their films, both shoot massive amounts of footage to end up with their final product. McKay even shot enough footage on Anchorman to be able to cut together an entire second film, released as Wake Up, Ron Burgundy: The Lost Movie. However, the similarities end there, because the way they use improvisation to serve their goals as directors trend in opposite directions. READ MORE
Transparent, Amazon’s foray into the Netflix-infested waters of quality internet binge watching, is deservedly the most critically-lauded show of this Fall television season (and was just renewed for a second season). Created by writer/director Jill Soloway (writer/producer Six Feet Under and The United States of Tara, writer/director Afternoon Delight, which won a directing award at Sundance in 2013), the show centers around the Pfefferman family, an affluent Jewish LA clan whose patriarch Mort (Jeffrey Tambor) comes out as transgender and begins to live as Maura in her late 60s.
Directed mostly by Soloway herself, (with the exception of three, credited to Nisha Ganatra), the direction in the show is strong and incredibly consistent, marked by what Emily Nussbaum refers to in her piece on the show in The New Yorker as “mildly funky pacing” of the current era of indie film/TV direction stylistic crossovers we are seeing particularly in comedy, with shows like Girls and Louie. However, a key difference between Transparent and those other shows is that Soloway is not a character, neither in physical or representational form. Rather, Soloway knows all of her characters extremely well, she knows them like family, and in the way one knows family, she allows them to speak for themselves and expose their own flaws. She is not at all precious about her characters and at times early in the series she can be downright misanthropic, allowing the whole ensemble (minus the consistently heartbreaking, inspiring, astonishing Maura) to tread deeper and deeper toward the brink of unlikability.
In the reviews and recaps I’ve read on the show, the word “lingering” stood out to me in multiple instances as a way to describe Soloway’s democratically observational directorial style. “All the while Soloway’s direction manages to capture that careful empathy as her camera lingers over intimate moments…”, writes Eric Thurm in his review for The A/V Club. It is an accurate way to represent Soloway’s choices. The camera is often too far from or too close to its characters. It has a loose, ethereal quality to it that makes the viewer feel like it we are capturing small moments rather than staged hallmark events. The closeness allows the viewer into the mental space of the viewer and the distance allows the viewer to see the world of the characters rather than the world of the filmmaker. READ MORE
The Adam Sandler assembly line began production in 1995 with Billy Madison and has since churned out over 20 films under the Happy Madison Productions outfit starring Sandler in his well-versed comic persona of the well-meaning, flawed, likable schlub. Sandler’s brand is a veritable cottage industry, almost operating like a mini-studio, attaching him and his team of writers and producers to his projects and the smaller projects of his friends. Yet, despite the films orbiting around Sandler and having massive control over their image and tone, Sandler himself has never had a director credit on his own project or any other for that matter. That distinction has been credited to a revolving door of recurring directors throughout his career. Despite this, there is a consistency to the way Sandler’s films look and feel. It is almost as if Happy Madison operates like Sandler’s career is just one continuous television program and directors-for-hire are brought in to maintain consistency.
So then what does it mean to direct an Adam Sandler film? Most of the works in his filmography are categorized by some range of Sandler’s character in the center, surrounded by wackier characters, a chaotic environment, and an ingenue who has her heart won by Sandler’s schlubby goof. In this formula, often written and/or produced by Sandler himself, he needs to stand out in the center as the object around which the world of the film orbits. The judgement of every other character is seen through the worldview of Sandler’s character. In Happy Gilmore, despite his anger issues, Happy sticks it to the uptight, overly competitive golf world by bringing in some working-class flare. The uptight other golfers, particularly Shooter McGavin, come off toolish and stiff in comparison, making Happy’s flaws seem likeable and appealing. This same formula of characterization holds true in Billy Madison, Big Daddy, The Waterboy, Mr. Deeds, Little Nicky, etc. The job of a Sandler director, therefore, is to manage the world around Sandler so Sandler’s comedy can stand out in contrast most clearly. The role of the Happy Madison director is to be a yes man. READ MORE
On Monday night, Gail Mancuso took home the Emmy for “Outstanding Direction for a Comedy Series” for her work the Modern Family season five episode “Las Vegas.” This was Mancuso’s second win in a row and the show’s fourth win in a row in this category. This year, Mancuso beat out Comedy Film School favorites Louis C.K. and Lena Dunham as well as seasoned film directors Jodie Foster (for Orange is the New Black) and Mike Judge (for Silicon Valley). Looking even further back, the last time a network show director, in which directing is historically more like house-painting than Picasso, lost to a cable director is in 2004, when Curb Your Enthusiasm took home the prize for HBO (however I will not besmirch the Emmy voters’ 2004 selection of Barry Sonnenfeld's Pushing Daisies pilot for ABC, which is one of the most visually inventive and exciting pieces of television I have ever seen). This all begs the question of what are Emmy voters looking for in comedy directing, and why, year after year, as television directing gets more and more interesting and “filmic”, are the voters rewarding merely proficient directing over shows with more artful or at least with the most directing? READ MORE
Richard Linklater is having what can probably be considered the most visible period of his career with the release of his highly anticipated and equally regarded Boyhood. This marks the first time that the box office success and critical success of one of his projects coalesced into a true major cultural moment, prompting numerous career retrospectives and think-pieces. Common take on Richard Linklater is that his filmography is defined by unpredictability, never bound to one particular label and always willing to try new things as a director. Just when you think you can track his Rohmer-influenced style through Slacker and the Before Trilogy, you realize his name is also on stylistically unique films like A Scanner Darkly or broader studio fare like Me and Orson Welles, and School of Rock.
For our purposes, Linklater has four films that could ostensibly be categorized as comedies — Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, Bad News Bears, and Bernie – and yet it is hard to track a structural or stylistic throughline between them in analyzing why this famously chameleon-like director was drawn to these stories or working on them within in the comedy genre. This could be because Linkater’s films of all genres are hardly ostentatious in their filmmaking. Of his contemporaries in the 90s independent film boom, Linklater is not an aesthete like Todd Haynes, nor is he as stylish as Soderbergh. Roger Ebert writes in his review of Dazed and Confused, “The film is art crossed with anthropology,” which aptly describes Linklater as a director as well. Known for lengthy and intense rehearsal periods, he is able to find a level of anthropological authenticity through a combination of his narrative and his actors’ lived experiences and present day worldviews. His works feel massively authentic and democratic, nostalgic without feeling glossy. The question then is: how does this unique skillset come into play when he has attempted comedy? READ MORE
Popularized by The Office in the early 2000s, the “mockumentary” format has become the common TV style choice to tell loose, location-based, low-concept, character-driven comedies. However, aside from the interview cutaways and the cheeky Jim Halpert camera looks, shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation never truly embrace the idea that their presentation format is documentary or that their characters are anything but fictional.
Nathan For You, created, written, and directed by Nathan Fielder and now in its second season, is much more dedicated to being a true parody of the documentary/reality form both visually and thematically. Set up like a workplace improvement show in the vein of Bar Rescue or Kitchen Nightmares, the basic premise of Nathan For You follows a semi-qualified, semi-fictionalized Nathan Fielder as he pitches and sets forth massively elaborate and mostly unhelpful marketing ploys to help struggling businesses. Nobody in the show other than Fielder is in on the joke, so he has to carefully tow the line between his comedy and keeping these real businesses on the line so he can actually set his plans in motion. Fielder is so good at mimicking these business advice shows both in style and in content, which helps both the viewer and the subjects believe that he is in fact trying to be one.
Of course, if Nathan For You was only about reeling in and pranking suckers, the show wouldn’t resonate beyond the way shows like Punk’d or Jackass do. Instead, the perfectly executed prank and set up allow Fielder to dive into the deeper themes he is actually trying to explore with the show. He is hiding a much more complicated piece of comedy in a very-well executed but much more basic genre parody. READ MORE
The prospect of writing about Woody Allen has loomed large over my writing since the inception of this column last year for many reasons. First, I hold the non-unique position in considering him the greatest comedic director to ever work. Second, the last year has not been particularly friendly to Mr. Allen press-wise and I had little interest in stepping in those murky waters. However, it remains important that Allen is one of the most influential comedic directors and probably the most respected by the academy and The Academy and given that his new (not particularly inspiring seeming) film is coming out later this month, it seemed high time to say something about the importance of his work within the comedy film canon.
Of course, another factor in my decision to hold off on writing about Allen for so long is his intimidatingly complete body of work. Pinpointing an access point into his style is a daunting task. Does one attempt a career overview of an over 50-film catalogue? Should I focus on one period in his career, such as his early slapstick period, his 70s New York period, or his current European adventure period? Ultimately, I believe the best place to begin with Woody is with Annie Hall, his most well-regarded work, the film of his I first saw, and what can be considered the pivot point between Woody Allen the comedian and Woody Allen the filmmaker.
For it’s massive popularity and highly accessible and iconic central performance from Diane Keaton, Annie Hall, is surprisingly experimental in its film style. Allen makes no bones about his biggest inspirations — Ingmar Bergman and other European art filmmakers — which seems like an odd style reference for an American comic but in fact gives his work a stylistic freedom unparalleled by his peers. From the very first shot, Allen breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the viewer, a choice that is both alienating in that it establishes a non-linear narrative structure and welcoming in that it implicates the viewer in the choices the main character makes. From there, Allen makes a series of extradiagetic style choices that includes text on screen, an elaborate analog split screen set-up, and even animation to add a personal, whimsical, fun form of expression to what is both a fairly traditional and prototypically neurotic love story at its core. READ MORE
There are many ways to go about parodying a form, however from Mel Brooks’ smug send-ups to Nathan Fielder’s biting critique of the types of non-fiction programming available on modern TV, most of these attempts hardly come from a place of love. With Brooks and his ilk such as the Zucker/Abraham team, nothing is treated as too sacred to be made a mockery of with a oft-insensitive joke. Fielder is so mean-spirited in his treatment of the laymen he claims to attempt to be helping that my tricks-averse girlfriend cringed her way through one episode of Nathan For You with me before shooting me a look of severe disapproval and shuttling off to watch an episode of Parks and Recreation on her iPad.
An exception to this is David Wain, whose newest feature, They Came Together, starring Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd, is a sharp and specific spoof of the very worst type of romantic comedy. As I watched this film from the balcony of a packed house at BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn, the word that kept coming to mind in reference to Wain’s direction and storytelling was exuberance. David Wain’s parody is a parody of exuberance. He is relentlessly positive and stays out of the dark and the smug in a way that gives his films an accessibility and therefore a propensity to cultishness, that his peers in parody lack.
Wain has made a career as the directorial vessel through which the comedic ideas of famed early 90s sketch group The State flows. Beginning with that show, Wain, along with collaborators Michael Showalter, Michael Ian Black, Ken Marino, Joe Lo Trugio, Thomas Lennon, and more have made established a style of comedy performance that treads in enthusiasm rather than tongue-in-cheek. In his move to feature film direction, Wain has always created a structure that allows him to stick to the type of joke-telling and pacing in which he is clearly most comfortable — sketch. READ MORE
Many of those with whom I interact on the internet have sent me this fantastic video essay by Tony Zhou in which he eviscerates the experience of watching many popular and successful American comedies for their lack of visual inventiveness. He then goes on to perfectly show why Edgar Wright (dir. Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, World’s End, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) is an exemplar of comedy direction due to his focus on actually framing exciting, active, and funny frames.
Zhou goes on to break down the tenets of Edgar Wright’s frame that to him, allow for increased visual comedy. Those are: 1) Entering the frame in funny ways 2) Leaving the frame in funny ways 3) Cutting from a character, to a comedic reveal, back to a character 4) Matching transitions 5) The perfectly placed sound effect 6) Matching action to the soundtrack 7) Dramatic lighting cues. He also mentioned the use of zooms, pans, cranes, and cuts in Wright’s and other’s work as a way to demonstrate how movement within the frame builds excitement or sets up a joke in a much stronger way than framing two characters in close-up and “lightly editing improv.” While he doesn’t namecheck him directly, Zhou is quite clearly burning Judd Apatow, and while I don’t fully share in the opinion that Apatow is disinterested in his visuals, he does serve as a strong foil for at least the type of visual comedy Zhou is getting at in his piece.
Part of me feels like my work here is done and Zhou has officially written the book on the analysis of visual comedy, but instead I am going to shamelessly steal Zhou analysis and see if the most inherently visual comedies — silent films — hold up under its scrutiny. Of course, since they lacked a full one-half of the toolkit afforded to comedy filmmakers today, silent filmmakers had to be both visual storytellers and overly visual performers. The hyper-performative style of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton look dated and hacky to those not used to it today, but they are also the most instructive performers to look at in terms of what is simply visually funny. With language stripped away, each movement, set piece, cut, etc. need to be part of the construction of a joke. READ MORE