At The Just For Laughs Festival in Comedy's First City

Reclamation of The Second City as Chicago’s once pejorative nickname happened long before I developed an interest in comedy. And as an avid comedy fan attending the 2012 Just For Laughs Chicago festival, it became clear that the interest in comedy of the city’s citizens must have had much to do with that connotative shift.

Most literally, this was evidenced by seminal Conan writer Brian Stack’s return to the eponymous Second City training center three days prior the start of the festival proper for the recording of the popular Improv Nerd podcast. Before his tenure at Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Stack was hired by Second City after being discovered in the Imporv Olympic group Jazz Freddy. Audience members were treated to this fondly recounted information and an expertly executed two-person improv scene by Stack and his old friend, Improv Nerd host Jimmy Carrane. It was all I could do not to audibly fangirl.

One of the most difficult things about loving comedy during Just For Laughs Chicago was deciding which shows to attend; while enjoying Brian Stack, I knew that across the city, friends of mine were being treated to a show by his coworker Deon Cole, a native of Chicago’s southside, at Jokes and Notes. It was an amazing problem to have: the dilemma of which Conan writer and homegrown comedy hero to see for free on a lazy Saturday evening… all before the Just For Laughs festival had even began. For both of these men whose work I hope to eventually emulate in any small way, Chicago was their first comedic city – as it is mine. READ MORE


Talking to Chris Lilley about Angry Boys, Summer Heights High, and We Can Be Heroes

Subtlety is probably not what you’d expect from a comedian who trades in fat suits and black face, but it’s the medium in which Australian funnyman Chris Lilley works. Instead of painting his wacky characters with broad strokes, in his past three shows —  We Can Be Heroes in 2005, Summer Heights High in 2008, and Angry Boys which premiered January 1st — and for the past six years, Chris Lilley has breathed specificity into characters who, without their invented idiosyncrasies, would be little more than tired stereotypes.

The laughs are in the details. As with Judd Apatow’s best characters (The 40-Year-Old virgin doesn’t just ride a bike, he uses hand signals), Chris Lilley’s are fully formed. We meet Angry Boys’ S.mouse, an American rapper of dubious origins — the progeny of gimmicky ring tone rappers like 2007’s Soulja Boy — and learn that he’s not just a phony, but had a Broadway phase and wore those horrible transitions lenses in high school. Juvenile prison warden, Gran, isn’t just a politically incorrect hard ass; she raises a colony of guinea pigs and distributes hand-sewn, off-brand superhero pajamas to her charges.

These people are ridiculous, but they could be real. Lilley’s characters — in all of his shows — are ambitious to a fault. They view common decency only through the lens of how it will bolster their own images, think or wish themselves more significant than they will ever be, believe their own self-generated hype, and only in his most recent show Angry Boys are these clowns forced to confront their absurdity. And that’s what makes this project so special.

I had the chance to talk with Chris Lilley about his work leading up to the creation of Angry Boys, what goes into writing these characters, and how he’s responded to criticisms of racial and cultural insensitivity. READ MORE


The Year's Best Humor Writing 2011

It's a good thing I enjoy humor because, if I had to estimate, I'd put the number of humor pieces I've read this year somewhere in the low thousands. As a fan — and as someone who's numb to the embarrassment that comes with laughing aloud while riding public transportation — I imagine I'd have read some fraction of these just for fun. But as someone who’s had the privilege of editing Splitsider's Humor Section for the past nine months and compiling the list below (who am I kidding? tl;dr), I’ve been overwhelmed in the best way possible by the volume and quality of the humorists populating the internet. So many good things exist! And here are more than a few:



Watching Stoner Movies as a Lifelong Non-Smoker

Never have I found myself defenseless against the undead, or an ex-pat African prince, a thirty-something careerist shopping for surrogates, in limbo, the possessor of superhuman senses or abilities, or with an aptitude for science if it’s not being explained to me by Bill Nye or Michio Kaku. Despite that, I love zombie movies, Coming to America, Baby Mama, Defending Your Life, and comic book and sci-fi films. It follows, then, that I, a person who’s never lit up, could count a few stoner flicks among movies I like, right? That said, watching certain stoner movies leaves me feeling like a sociologist.

I harbor no religious or ideological objections to drug use, but know that I don’t have the mental or emotional leeway to take that kind of risk. The occasional social drink is all the alteration I’ll allow my (long suspected, now medically confirmed!) only tenuously stable mind. Even something as benign as weed is off limits until I feel I’ve tipped the scales heavily enough in favor of sanity. And I’ve been told that, at the age of twenty-mumble, it’s never too late to start.

Still, I’ve watched plenty of stoner comedies with the diaphanous haze of pot smoke overhead. Whether or not I’ve had a second hand buzz is debatable; I’m sure I have, while others chalk it up to the placebo affect or mob mentality. Hive-minded highness or not, it can be tough being the only one not indulging in a room full of stoners watching movies made for them. They laugh at things that are beyond me. I laugh at things they’re too impaired to notice. The viewing experiences, while parallel, could not be more perpendicular. So it’s odd that I can tolerate most of the stoner comedies I’ve seen. Some I even enjoy, if you can believe it!  



A Guide to Comedians in Commercials: "Hey, It's That Guy!"

Comedians in commercials are definitely a thing. I’m no good at trivia, but I can always impress my (non-comedy nerd) friends and family members by knowing the names of actors in commercials because so many of them are stand up and improv comics. From a 2009 episode of The Comedy Nerds Podcast called Comedians in Commercials comes this: “It’s a great way to make money and also to get seen. For many comedians, they’re good actors, and have good comedic timing and good comedic abilities and it’s hard to get someone to actually pay for that in the stand up comedy world. The path of least resistance is probably commercials. … For those people who are talented enough to do it, it’s a good way to survive between better paying gigs or no paying gigs. … It also becomes a good vehicle.” And that explains it! Though, in the same podcast episode, commercial acting is jokingly referred to as the “whoring out of talent for commercial purposes.” Fair enough.

But as a comedy fan, because there aren’t many remaining outlets on television showcasing up and coming comedic talent — late night shows, John Oliver’s New York Stand Up Show, and Live At Gotham come to mind, it’s always a nice treat to see a comedian whose work I enjoy pop up on screen.

Let's look at some examples, shall we? READ MORE


Your Wildest Dreams, Within Reason: The Intersection of Fantasy and Harsh Reality

“Like blurbs, an author’s choice of title is very important… Take Gravity’s Rainbow. That is a terrific title. Why? Because it tells you what the book is about.”

Those words, written by aspiring author Rhon Penny (silent h) in an audacious solicitation letter to novelist Thomas Pynchon, are obviously not true. But coming from Penny, a man who insinuates himself into the lives and careers of authors to whom he considers himself an equal, the statement is typical. Rhon is one of the many blithely delusional protagonists in Mike Sacks’ new humor collection, Your Wildest Dreams Within Reason, out today from Tin House Books. So much so that the fellow on the book’s cover could easily be Penny himself, and the title very much tells you what Penny and many of the other schlemiels of Sacks’ imagining are about. Like in the cover photograph, Sacks, author of And Here’s The Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft and co-author of Sex: Our Bodies, Our Junk, gets every detail right in his humorous shorts. The creases and puckers in the ill-fitting, off-the-rack Captain America costume tell the story of a man occupying a space where his wildest dreams collide with the real world. His body is almost too average, and though he may think himself super, he lives in a condo and will probably redeem the pizza coupon peaking out of his mailbox. READ MORE


The Onion News Network's Spot-On Evisceration of Cable News

Most people tuning into Friday’s premiere of The Onion News Network on IFC probably knew what to expect. For over 20 years, The Onion’s brand of print humor has made us laugh — and since 2006, we’ve enjoyed The Onion News Network’s online videos. In its newest incarnation, The ONN makes the leap to television and hits all the right strides. 

Several of the show’s segments were released and well-received online before ONN’s premiere, but any sense of inertia viewers may have felt was allayed by the addition of the Factzone’s great cast. Suzanne Sena plays ONN’s Stepford anchor, Brooke Alvarez, an icy blond megalomaniac whose polished newscaster cadence and inflection seem almost too convincing. This comes as no surprise: Sena is a former on-air Fox News personality. Alvarez begrudgingly shares the spotlight and her only-barely-ostentatious set with touch screen operator Tucker Hope (a nod to CNN’s John King), the First Responders (the rag tag panel of talking heads from ONN online who make Brooke “look attractive by comparison”), and a coterie of  faux field reporters, political analysts, and pop culture experts — none of whom Brooke can abide. Here, the news format itself is the main topic of parody.

ONN’s more indelicate jokes work for two reasons: as always, The Onion knows exactly where to place the laugh — and there’s very little wink wink from the show’s cast. Not one among them betrays any hint that they might think the things they’re saying are ridiculous. When reporting that, during the trial of Detroit high school student Hannah Stevenson, accused of stabbing a classmate to death with a screwdriver, a judge had decided that the young, attractive white teenager would be tried as a black adult, Brooke Alvarez shows only stoic journalistic detachment. The segment’s actors convincingly deliver lines like this between sobs: “This is America. No one deserves to be treated like a black man.” And because ONN doesn’t condescend to its viewers, we take for granted that the joke is on the prejudices of the legal system. I can imagine a lesser show handling the same topic more clumsily.


The Year's Best Humor Writing

Save the occasional illustration, picture, or creative departure from form, print and web humorists are charged with making us laugh without the benefit of many bells and whistles. From original conceits to clever and consistent executions, everything has to be on the page (or screen). One would think that because humor in print has existed as long as the written word itself (probably! That seems true!) and even before — surely oral tradition must have included some knee slappers — every conceivable topic would have been explored by now and the well would be long dry. 2010 has proven that humorists’ fodder won’t soon be in short supply.

Below are a some of my (and several other people’s, including Jack Stuef (Wonkette, The Onion), Summer Block Kumar (McSweeney’s, The Rumpus), Todd Hanson — sort of (The Onion), stand up comedian Dan Telfer, comedian Eliot Glazer (Urlesque, My Parents Were Awesome), Ted Travelstead (Vanity Fair, Sex: Our Bodies, Our Junk), and Mike Sacks (And Here’s The Kicker, Sex: Our Bodies, Our Junk) favorite humor pieces of the year. READ MORE


The Depressive's Guide to Comedy: Laughing to Keep From Crying

I often joke about being depressed and uninsured* because laughter is literally the best medicine I can afford right now –- and I’ve shopped around. In my group therapy sessions, each attendee tries to out-sad the last, and one-downers are much worse than one-uppers. Shrugging off that absurdity seems a small price to pay to get the help I need. And lately, I’ve been complimented on my hair and skin while in the same breath asked if I’m having a rough day, which is ironic because the vitamins and herbal supplements I take to help me feel better are doing everything but. Experimenting with free and cheap mental health treatments, as I have for all of 2010, would have probably been unbearable without a sense of humor.

It makes sense, then, that I’d find the most comfort in comedy, which I’ve loved for as long as I can remember. My experience with depression (and my family’s reaction to my diagnosis) has been more accurately reflected in pieces like The Onion’s “Son, We'd All Like To Lie Around All Day Being 'Clinically Depressed’”, than in any medically sanctioned literature. And I relate more to The Maria Bamford Show and Louie than I have to anyone in group therapy. Witnessing a person publicly and hilariously articulate my more prohibitive neuroses in perfectly witty aphorisms -– and in a way that doesn’t involve swearing at pigeons (which I’ve seen happen outside of group therapy) and won’t make anyone want to call the police (which I’ve seen happen inside of group therapy) –- has been more valuable to me than anything else I’ve tried this year. READ MORE


Where Have All the Humorists Gone?, Part 2: Conversations with Modern Comedy Writers

Be sure to check out Part 1 of Where Have All the Humorists Gone?, Robert Benchley, S.J. Perelman and the Decline of Modern Humor Writing.

Even established comedy writers condescend to dabbling in print, to great effect –- Allison Silverman’s (The Colbert Report) “Et Tu, Brooklyn?” being a recent favorite. That’s not the only example — in his review of Elliot Allagash, Seth Meyers reveals that Simon Rich was hired at Saturday Night Live “because of his amazing short fiction.” Before Amy Ozols ever wrote “Let Us Play With Your Look” for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, she wrote “A Mass Email” and “Looking Your Best” for The New Yorker. Aisha Muharrar contributed the hilarious “After Organizing an Emergency Eight-and-Three-Fourths Year Reunion, A Late Bloomer Shares Some Important News with Her Class” to McSweeney’s and was Vice President of The Harvard Lampoon years before she ever penned a word for the characters of Parks and Recreation.

And the New Yorker’s recent Shouts & Murmurs contributors list reads like a who’s who of contemporary comedy writers: Woody Allen, Steve Martin, Larry Doyle (The Simpsons), Sarah Paley (SNL), Tim Long (The Simpsons, Late Night with David Letterman), Nora Ephron, Patricia Marx (Saturday Night Live), Billy Kimball (The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn, The Simpsons), Zev Borrow (Chuck), and Noah Baumbach, to name a few.

Countless television and film comedy writers began in print and continue to return to it. In part two of Where Have All The Humorists Gone?, Mike Sacks (Vanity Fair, And Here’s The Kicker, Sex: Our Bodies, Our Junk), Rob Kutner (The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien, The Daily Show, Apocalypse How), and Scott Jacobson (The Daily Show, Sex: Our Bodies, Our Junk), along with Hudson Hongo discuss their goals, beginnings in print humor, inspirations, and transition from print to writing for film television and other mediums. READ MORE


Where Have All the Humorists Gone?, Part 1: Robert Benchley, S.J. Perelman and the Decline of Modern Humor Writing

Among aspiring comedy writers, the would-be print humorist seems rare. Though The Onion, McSweeney’s, and The New Yorker are high-profile exceptions, it seems everyone wants to write for sitcoms, late night shows, and film. What's not rare is to hear Woody Allen named among the influences of comedians and comedy writers. In fact, Woody Allen’s impact over the genre of comedy writing is so vast that it almost seems redundant to name him as an influence. But when Allen is named, it's not just because of his stand up or his films. His humor collections (including one of my favorites, Without Feathers) and decades of contributions to The New Yorker have cemented Allen’s legacy as a print humorist as much as his movies have affirmed his status as a visionary filmmaker.

Of course, the tradition of humor in print goes back further still. Allen, and many of today's professional comedy writers, have made no secret of seminal humorists Robert Benchley and S.J. Perelman's influence on their work. In the 1930s and 1940s, there was hardly a local circular that didn't run Benchley or Perelman's humorous shorts in syndication, yet today, their work – and, though I hate to think it, the tradition and viability of humor in print – is largely overlooked by young comedy fans and aspiring comedy writers. READ MORE