Building a Comedy Scene in Austin with Sure Thing

surethingPopular Austin, Texas standup showcase, Sure Thing, packs the back-porch of the Austin Java coffeehouse every Saturday night, even in the January cold. I'd been warned that it filled up quickly after doors opened, but I hardly took that seriously. So when I arrived still a good 15 minutes before the show, I was surprised to find my saved seat was the only one left, with chair vultures circling ominously. Once I saw the show, it was understandable. Sure Thing delivers on its name, with terrific Austin comics like Casey Crawford, Katie Stone, and that night’s headliner, Brian Gutmann.

In recent years Austin’s comedy scene has absolutely exploded. It seems hard to go outside without tripping over a comedian, and harder still to choose between the dozens of offerings between improv, standup, and sketch. But in a city with tons of competition, Sure Thing’s founders and co-hosts Duncan Carson and Brendan K. O’Grady have done the unthinkable: built a popular weekly show whose only hook is the promise of a strong lineup and a good time. It’s done so well they stepped it up and started the record label Sure Thing Records. READ MORE


The Comedy Legends We Lost in 2014

robinwilliams_sctvWe lost several funny people of note in 2014, but the year was a real doozy for comedy legends in particular, including writer/directors, TV announcers, critical mentors, and legendary performers we grew up watching. Many of the people below had careers so vast and influential that they’re impossible to sum up in a single paragraph. But I’ll try. So let’s bum ourselves out and then lift our glasses in remembrance. They are sorely missed. READ MORE


Jon Stewart Finds Moments of Levity in a Horrifying Ordeal in 'Rosewater'

rosewaterIn early 2013, when Jon Stewart announced his first-ever hiatus from The Daily Show to direct a film about a journalist tortured in an Iranian prison, fans did a collective double take. Stewart’s directing? And it’s a drama? Though the move was unexpected, perhaps it shouldn’t have been. It wasn’t all that long ago that think piece after think piece was written about the hope of Stewart going serious. Much of this started after his famous appearance on Crossfire (ten whole years ago!) and lasted for years afterward. Directing Rosewater may not have been the turn toward seriousness that Stewart’s fans were demanding, but it’s a good fit for him. Because the same sense of human absurdity that made Stewart a salve during a time of depressing politics is exactly what makes him a good director.

Rosewater is an adaptation of Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari’s memoir And Then They Came For Me. In 2009, Bahari returned to his native Iran for a week to cover the country’s elections for Newsweek. When state-run news outlets reported Ahmadinejad had won re-election before the polls had even closed, widespread protest broke out. The state resorted to violence to quell the unrest, and Bahari was soon arrested on charges of being a foreign spy.

The Iranian government interrogated and tortured Bahari for 118 days, keeping him blindfolded throughout their questioning. (The film’s title comes from the rosewater cologne of Bahari’s interrogator, whom he never saw.) The evidence suggesting Bahari was a spy, of course, was dubious, and one especially ridiculous piece of proof they offered was an interview segment Bahari had done with Jason Jones on The Daily Show, in which Jones called himself as a spy. Missing the joke, Bahari’s interrogators took the interview at face value. READ MORE


Amy Poehler's 'Yes Please' Is the Best Non-Self-Help Self-Help Book Ever

yespleaseBefore I can start my thoughts on Amy Poehler’s Yes Please (Dey Street Press, out today), I have to put aside Professional Writer Voice and make a confession: I love self-help books. I’m not talking about the ones that promise if you just think positively piles of money will magically appear. I mean the ones that urge us to be better people, that gently tell us it’s slowly inch-by-inch going to be okay and that it helps our hearts to be kinder to others and to ourselves. I have an entire shelf of them. If there’s a Brene Brown book to be had, I own a dog-eared, heavily-underlined copy, and I’ve kept lists of self-help books quoted by other self-help books. All of them are by Pema Chodron.

I mention this because Poehler’s Yes Please reads like a self-help book, and I mean that very much as a compliment. Actually, Yes Please is better, because it’s funny and lacks self-helpy cheesiness. Throughout, Poehler reflects on her life, gives advice through the lessons she’s learned (particularly those learned through improv), and delivers enough comedic nonsense to keep it entertaining. I want to hug this book, and not just because Poehler also suggests reading Pema Chodron. This isn’t to suggest she gives advice the whole time, but that in describing her experiences, it’s easy to see how much further cultivating healthy habits and relationships can take us.

With section titles like “Say whatever you want,” and “Be whoever you are,” Yes Please is even structured like a self-help book, and throughout, Poehler offers stand alone pages of wisdom like, “Nobody looks stupid when they are having fun,” and “forget the facts and remember the feelings.” But it’s sharing her experience of the world that makes Yes Please relatable. In “Plain girl vs. the demon,” she describes her own difficulties with self criticism, i.e. the demon that resides in her brain, and offers a smart way of countering it. “When the demon starts to… say bad shit about me I turn around and say, ‘Hey, cool it. Amy is my friend. Don’t talk about her like that.’ Sticking up for ourselves in the same way we would one of our friends is a hard but satisfying thing to do.” READ MORE


Looking at the Dark and Absurd Sci-Fi Comedy of 'Space Station 76'

space_station_76The Jack Plotnick-directed Space Station 76 takes place in a 1970s vision of the future. You might ask what exactly that means, but it’s a fairly straightforward description: imagine the 1970s. Now imagine them in space. That’s what Space Station 76 looks like, with beautifully cold space station sets, throwback '70s costuming, and robots resembling R2D2. The second most-discussed film at South by Southwest, it’s flown relatively under-the-radar since, but as it comes out on VOD, DVD, and digital download next week, this quietly funny movie is worth your attention.

It’s tempting to view Space Station 76 as a straight sci-fi parody, an homage to the likes of Space:1999. But in order to get at the movie’s core, look to the opening voiceover. As the camera moves through a shot of an asteroid belt, Lieutenant Jessica Marlow (Liv Tyler) ruminates that “asteroids can fly in groups for millions of years and never touch each other, never connect,” then compares this lack of connection or collision to humans who can’t achieve such perfect orbits because they change. It’s clear from the start: Space Station 76 is a sci-fi comedy, definitely, but it’s a dark one undergirded by some deeply sad themes, all of them leaning toward loneliness and disaffection. READ MORE


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


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


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


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


'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


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


'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


'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


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