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An Updated 'Live From New York' Goes Inside the Last 12 Years of 'SNL' History

stefon update charactersIf the update of Live from New York from journalist James Andrew Miller and TV critic Tom Shales succeeds in one thing, it’s disproving the perennial, cliched criticism that Saturday Night Live is no longer funny or relevant. The additional 200 pages added to this already-hefty volume are a revealing reminder that the most recent years of SNL have been just as memorable as the eras long past.

Covering the period from 2002 to the present, the update takes on the show’s engagement with recent politics, the rise of Lonely Island, and the internet’s effect on both the players and the general reception of the show. It features interviews from long-time SNL favorites such as Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Fred Armisen, Kristen Wiig, and Biller Hader, and briefly dives into chats with more recent cast additions Taran Killam, Cecily Strong, and Kate McKinnon, among others. And of course, it adds to the lore surrounding Lorne Michaels without coming closer to unwrapping his enduring enigma. Regardless of the storyteller, though, the majority of the interview excerpts remain press- and show- friendly, and outside of recounting the show’s more memorable recent moments (like Betty White’s popularly-requested hosting gig in 2012), there’s relatively few fireworks. READ MORE

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In 'Poking a Dead Frog', Comedians' Advice, Stories, and Neuroses Shine

pokingadeadfrog_smNerding out on comedy just got a lot easier with Mike Sacks’ new Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers. In his follow up to 2009’s excellent And Here’s the Kicker, Sacks has compiled an impressively diverse list of writers working within the humor genre, from both sitcom and feature writers to directors to cartoonists to radio writers, like The Best Show on WFMU’s Tom Sharpling and 97-year-old Peg Lynch, writer of the 1940s Ethel and Albert. Whether you’re a comedian or a fan, there’s something here to interest you and that’s no doubt by design. The table of contents alone is intimidatingly long in the best possible way.

In addition to interviews, Sacks includes “hardcore comedy advice” from the likes of Diablo Cody, Amy Poehler, and Patton Oswalt, as well as sections on “ultraspecific comedy knowledge” that reveal the writing process for Monty Python, Paul Feig’s series bible from Freaks & Geeks, and Bill Hader’s list of 200 essential movies every comedy writer should see. And that, frankly, is just the short list. READ MORE

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Breaking Down 'Silicon Valley's Flawed Characters and Promising Debut Season

silicon valley finale
Silicon Valley’s fourth episode, “Fiduciary Duties,” ends with Richard and Erlich as they leave Peter Gregory’s office, where they spy an old photo of Gregory with Pied Piper rival, Hooli CEO Gavin Belson. In the image, they’re about the same age as Richard and Erlich, who turn back to Gregory. “Is that you and Gavin Belson? Were you guys friends?” And the always-brief Gregory simply replies, “I thought so.”

When the show debuted at South by Southwest, creator Mike Judge described it as being about how in the tech world, "the most successful people are the ones least prepared to handle it." The show must be viewed through this lens, and that photo in Gregory’s office is the perfect illustration of how no one in Silicon Valley really understands how to navigate the terrain between other people and the stakes that come with outsized money mixed with ego. Friends and collaborators can easily find themselves on opposite ends of a bitter rivalry, thanks, surely, to the gargantuan success that comes to them. It also hints at the show’s underlying tension: even if Richard is successful, will he and his collaborators one day be arch enemies, as Peter Gregory and Gavin Belson now are? READ MORE

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Diving Into the Cult of Dan Harmon in 'Harmontown'

When introducing the documentary Harmontown at the South by Southwest Film Festival, director Neil Berkeley (Beauty is Embarrassing) described his film's thesis, saying, “The point of this film is not about whether Dan Harmon is a good person or a bad person, but to understand why people are in that room listening to him.” The film follows Harmon on tour with his Harmontown podcast shortly after the embattled show runner's firing from Community in early 2013. Berkeley's remarks make clear it's less a tour doc than a character study, in a similar vein to Rodman Flender's doc, Conan O'Brien Can't Stop, which premiered in 2011 also at SXSW. And it's understandable if Berkeley feels protective of his subject — as caught through Berkeley's lens, Harmon is shown as a genius that inspires and empowers strangers but is clearly not an easy man to love up close.

Harmon, of course, has an immense deal of self-awareness about this, and when he's not discussing it, he's getting meta about the story structure he's likely to be fit into. The film opens on shots of Harmon and girlfriend (now fiancee) Erin McGathy still in bed recovering at the end of the tour. Once he rouses, Harmons looks into the camera, disdainful. “Is this gonna be the beginning of the movie? Or are you gonna show clips of my friends saying awful things about me?”

Berkeley intelligently lets this commentary guide the film, immediately cutting to a series of famous faces discussing what it's like to work with Harmon. John Oliver describes him as “a human hand grenade with a predilection for pulling his own pin out,” but more jolting is Sarah Silverman's discussion of working with Harmon on The Sarah Silverman Program. She recounts walking on eggshells around him explaining, “he can be controlling.” She recalls the undeniable strength of Harmon's writing but concludes, “I'm his biggest fan and I fired him.” READ MORE

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'Silicon Valley's Skewering of the Tech Industry Feels Spot-On

A few weeks ago, South by Southwest offered an advance screening of the first two episodes of Mike Judge's new sitcom, Silicon Valley. It was shown as part of the festival's Episodic section, a new addition this year. Janet Pierson, Head of SXSW Film, stated the decision came after seeing how well the premiere of Lena Dunham’s Girls did in 2012, and she viewed it as a way to broaden the festival’s offerings — and stay vital — at a time when TV is offering so much interesting work. Judging from the reaction of the 600-plus film and tech nerds piled into the Austin Convention Center's Vimeo Theater, SXSW was the perfect place for the Silicon Valley premiere. In fact, it walked away with their category’s Audience Award.

Silicon Valley opens on a raucous Kid Rock concert — not exactly what you'd expect from a show about the tech world. But not to fear. Within seconds, it cuts to a wide shot of an empty backyard at a party that Rock has clearly been hired to play. Hiring and then effectively ignoring a rock star is the sort of gratuitous show of wealth that makes the real Silicon Valley ridiculous. And that's exactly what Judge is skewering here and throughout the HBO series.

Of course, the show’s heroes aren't the ones throwing the party. They're the ones cowering in the kitchen, afraid to talk to anyone new (in particular, it's pointed out, the women in attendance). Richard (Thomas Middleditch), “Big Head” (Josh Brener), Dinesh (Kumail Nanjani) and Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) live together with Erlich (T.J. Miller) in his hacker house: a nerd's frat house where the guys live rent-free, so long as Erlich gets an ownership stake in whatever app they create there.

When Richard's laughably redundant app for searching out music files turns out to have an algorithm that allows users to search on a compressed data space without quality loss — translation: it can download files to a device at a fraction of the current speed — a bidding war ensues. Richard quickly finds himself making the difficult decision between taking a huge pay day for his algorithm or comparably smaller funds to start his own company, one with billion-dollar potential. Richard goes the start-up route and hires his friends. Jared (Zach Woods) joins as their business manager in the second episode, and their company is haltingly running from there. READ MORE

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Highlights from Lena Dunham's Keynote Address at SXSW

Lena Dunham keynoted the South by Southwest Film Conference on Monday to a house packed with attendees, many of whom waited in line for over an hour to gain entry. Dunham took the stage joking she'd decided to write a speech in lieu of doing an interview in order to make up for her previous under-preparedness as a student. For much of her 40-minute speech, Dunham ran through her bio — information which her fans mostly already know — giving detailed anecdotes funny enough to compensate for the redundancy. She said the speech was an attempt to explain what helped begin her career, noting the huge role SXSW itself played in launching it.

Among the highlights: READ MORE

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'Girls' Season 2 Review: Things Get Dark

Over the course of its second season, Girls has solidified itself into the most analyzed show on the internet, with each episode bringing up a whole host of issues and a mountain of blog posts. While season two started out on upbeat notes with each of the titular girls going after new beginnings, the second half of the season took on darker material, turning the show from a comedy with satiric edge to more of an out-and-out drama with humorous elements.

Early in the season, Hannah and company played at adulthood, but mid-way they turned to actively coveting the lives of older, more successful people. Episode 5 was a bottle episode devoted entirely to Hannah's tryst with an older doctor on the verge of divorce. She spends two straight days with him, but seems primarily interested in the illusion of his well-decorated brownstone, a point driven home with the line, “I want to be happy. I want the bowl with the fruit and the fridge with the stuff.” This episode was book-ended by two others that showcased Marnie's non-relationship arc with Booth Jonathan, with whom Marnie is much too happy to help host an art party. When she later reveals that she thinks Booth is her boyfriend (and furthermore, that she's enamored with his career), her turn on Desperate Housewives: Art Star edition is cut short.

Even as the characters clamored for that coveted grownup status, they soon encountered actual adult difficulties and quickly regressed. Being a grown up, they discover, actually sucks. Encountering her divorce, Jessa visits her recovering addict father, where we learn her flightiness is the result of a serious abandonment complex. After spending much of the season in freefall, Marnie chases Charlie again upon learning he's sold an app and is suddenly flush with cash and running his own tech startup. She decides her true dream is to be a singer, and croons a cringe-worthy rendition of Kanye West's “Stronger” at Charlie's company party. And in a deliciously cringetastic moment, she presents this performance as if it's a gift. READ MORE

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'Girls' Season Two: Older and Not All That Much Wiser

This Sunday, the show the internet loves to argue about returns to HBO for its second season. That's Lena Dunham's Girls, of course, a half hour comedy that's been called everything from zeitgeisty to depraved to… god, I am not going to repeat that voice-of-a-generation quote that's always misinterpreted.

Many critical pixels have been posted about Girls, the recipient of extreme praise (to which I've certainly contributed) and much criticism, some totally fair, much some variety of pearl-clutching or
doesn't even address
the show's content.

Since the conversation about Girls often eclipsed the actual show, the new season offers a chance to dig beneath the polarization and look at what the show offers when it's not being held up to (ugh, screw it) “voice-of-a-generation” scrutiny. READ MORE

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Sibling Rivalry, Played Out Through Ridiculous Compeition in 'The Do Deca Pentathlon'

Mark Duplass has a rising profile as a comedic actor through his turns in The League and the soon-to-be released Safety Not Guaranteed, but his auteur directing background with brother Jay is further off the comedy radar. As directors, Jay and Mark Duplass have become better known in the mainstream world with their studio films, Cyrus and the recent Jeff, Who Lives at Home, but they began their careers thoroughly entrenched in the micro-budget indie world with their first features, The Puffy Chair and Baghead. Last month’s SXSW world premiere of The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, originally shot in 2008, is a return to that form.

When Mark (Steve Zissis) brings his family to his childhood home for his annual birthday visit, he’s under doctor’s orders to cut stress out of his life. But his brother, Jeremy (Mark Kelley), shows up uninvited with other plans. Twenty years prior, the brothers invented an Olympics of the Ordinary Man, consisting of 25 sporting events — that is, if you consider laser tag and holding your breath underwater to be feats of athletic ability — which they termed the Do-Deca-Pentathlon. The entire event was to decide “who was the better brother, once and for all.” READ MORE

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Frankie Go Boom Manages to Keep its Supreme Weirdness From Spinning Out of Control

Director Jordan Roberts' Frankie Go Boom, which debuted at SXSW last month, is an entertaining, charmingly madcap comedy with an indie sensibility. Half sibling rivalry, half love story, it follows Frankie (Charlie Hunnam of Sons of Anarchy), who grew up being tortured by his older brother, Bruce (Chris O'Dowd), an aspiring director who filmed the awful, funny childhood pranks he pulled on Frank.

As an adult, Frank lives in Death Valley writing unpublished novels in front of a handwritten sign reminding him, "Your family is poison. Stay away.” When his mother convinces him to come home for Bruce's graduation from rehab, he goes against his better judgment. The brothers haven't spoken in three years, and while it’d be easy to assume Bruce's alcohol and drug addictions are the culprit, it's really due to Bruce’s stronger addiction to filming his brother’s most humiliating moments and uploading them to a downscale version of Funny or Die (where “5 boners” equals “5 stars”). Thanks to Bruce, Frank is an unwillingly famous viral video star. READ MORE

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The Awkward Honesty of Girls

Last month at SXSW, HBO screened the first three episodes of Lena Dunham’s new show, Girls, to a packed house. For SXSW, it was an opportunity to showcase more television writing, but it also marked the return of festival progeny, as Dunham had premiered her first two features there, winning the narrative jury prize in 2010 for her film, Tiny Furniture.

The buzz around Tiny Furniture attracted HBO and the attention of one Judd Apatow, who signed on to executive produce Dunham’s premium cable series. Fast forward two years and Dunham is standing on Austin’s Paramount Theater stage, doing some combination of glowing and blushing after the warm, excited audience response to the show. Girls is, at heart, a character-driven comedy about four college friends making a go at adulthood in Brooklyn. The set up may sound like an updated Sex and the City, but it ends there. The girls in Girls are far less glamorous and significantly more realistic than Carrie and co., and their story is told with a dexterity and precision that makes it wholly specific and yet infinitely relatable. READ MORE

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Talking to Seth Morris About Funny or Die, UCB, and First Dates with Toby Harris

We told you last week about  Yahoo’s new web comedy push. Part of that effort is a partnership with Funny or Die with the web series First Dates with Toby Harris, starring comedian and Funny or Die writer, Seth Morris.

Morris is the former artistic director of the Upright Citizens Brigade LA, and a member of the New York sketch comedy team, Naked Babies, with Rob Corddry, Brian Huskey and John Ross Bowie. In First Dates with Toby Harris, Morris plays an impossibly difficult single guy who can’t stop himself from committing a plethora first date wrongs.

I had a chance to sit down with Morris during the SXSW Interactive and Film Festival to talk about the show, writing for Funny or Die, and his support of funny women. READ MORE

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Why Conan O'Brien Can't Stop

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop premiered at this year’s SXSW in the 1200-seat Paramount Theater to a capacity crowd who hung on every quip and sarcastic remark that flowed from O’Brien. From its first moments, when Conan shouts out his car window at an L.A. celebrity homes tour, the crowd immediately roared and never looked back, with their laughter sometimes drowning out the following dialogue in the Rodman Flender-directed tour doc. From beginning to end, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is a portrait of the backstage Conan, whose offhand jibes work just as well as his jokes on our TV screens, albeit with a lot more bite.

A longtime friend of O’Brien’s from their days on the Harvard Lampoon, Flender followed Conan from the conception of the “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television” tour through its completion, shooting 149 total hours of video. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop isn’t a concert film by any means (though Flender does provide some concert and rehearsal footage), so if you missed the tour and were hoping for a rehash, you’ll have to settle for small glimpses.  Flender explained at the premiere’s Q & A that when taking on the documentary, he was specific with O’Brien that he was making an honest portrait and not a vanity project or concert film.  Instead, the movie documents the tour’s production process, O’Brien’s grueling tour schedule, and his interactions with fans.  It dispenses with a quick rundown of last spring’s NBC-Leno-Conan showdown with a news animation from Taiwan’s Apple TV, and Flender wastes little time getting to the meat of the story: watching Conan get over his TV-breakup by cathartically throwing himself into the tour, showing his vulnerable, self-deprecating, and often cranky sides. Flender includes interviews conducted with O’Brien immediately following the Tonight debacle when his anger was still palpable, and his genuine disappointment and hurt show through. READ MORE