Comedy has thankfully evolved from its universally beloved origins as Milton Berle one-liners and saucy harlequins. Broadly put, comedy at its best is a patient, pointed examination and calling out of the absurdity of human existence. Narrative comedy, from Shakespeare to M*A*S*H, takes that conceit and adds “making the best of it” to the mix.
As our social mores and collective existential despair change, so does the style of comedy we produce and consume. In the ‘80s, the Reagan-fronted superficiality and “America is perfect” attitude meant the dominant comedy of the day was gentle, listless sitcoms about upper class families. The Nietzschean depair of post-9/11 gave way to a “who gives a fuck, nothing makes sense” nihilistic comedy, in things like Jackass and Bam Margera torturing his stepfather on the toilet. In the afterglow of the first election of Barack Obama, a “nice comedy” movement development, as exampled by shows like Parks and Recreation.
In 2012 (ish), a lot of the comedy people got together and decided that the broad cultural idea they were going to reflect in their work was going to be (because that’s how it works) People Who Are Young, But Already Broken Trying to Heal. READ MORE
Not Elliott's first autobiography, and not Elliot's first fake nonfiction book written in his unctuous, smarmy, faux-snobbish persona. But there’s lots of self-analyzation from the point of view of the laudatory, starstruck biographer (Elliott himself, of course, but timely shades of Petraeus) about the slow acceptance of Elliott’s brand of challenging, meta, and highly influential anti-comedy. While the reader gets some sense of Elliott’s rise (the situations and life events are real, if not quite the execution), this book is more another fine Elliott product than it is an Elliott inventory.
After Dratch was unceremoniously demoted from Jenna to recurring player to nothing on 30 Rock, a show run by her close friend and old scene partner, I’ve wanted to read a Rachel Dratch biography. Girl Walks Into a Bar deals a lot with something that arts and entertainment books don’t touch on much — disappointment and the abrupt end of the fame train. Life doesn’t go where you think it’s going to go, which is another theme of this book, which ultimately becomes a sweet, cinematic story about second chances and unexpected joy (Dratch meets a guy and has an unplanned baby late in her child-bearing years). READ MORE
The Middle debuted in 2009 in a timeslot right after what ABC thought was going to be a huge hit: Hank, a cynical mess about a laid off rich guy that used the words “bailout” and “recovery” a lot. It went after a middle American, working class audience while also making fun of that same audience. The Middle seemed like it might have been that kind of thing, too: a modern-day take on Roseanne, centered on a family of slobs from a state nobody in the writers’ room had ever met who can’t make ends meet and are gross and lazy but God love ‘em because they love each other and are real Americans, right real Americans sitting on your reinforced couches? Actually, at first, The Middle was exactly that. It was pretty bad, but so were Parks and Recreation, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Newhart. The show found its footing and has since evolved into a sharp comedy that is darkly satirical of a listless America, but is also Cosby sweater-warm and family suitable.
The Heck family lives in Orson, Indiana, the prototypical blue collar midwestern town. The show is essentially a vehicle for former Everybody Loves Raymond star Patricia Heaton, who narrates and stars as Frankie Heck. Frankie is a perpetually tired mother, vaguely disappointed but accepting of her life because she doesn’t know any better, a refreshing and familiar alternative to the seemingly coked up, far too wealthy, perpetually displeased Claire on Modern Family. But here’s why you should watch The Middle instead of whatever it is you’re watching on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. (probably Whitney, am I right? No.) READ MORE
Often crude, at least vaguely drug-influenced comic music performed by two guys devoted to each other. Before Tenacious D and Flight of the Conchords, there was Ween. But Mickey “Dean Ween” Melchiondo and Aaron “Gene Ween” Freeman are not a comedy duo, as they don’t do parody songs and they don’t go for the broad laughs and obvious punchlines. They parody not songs, but specific styles or bands, and from deep within. If “Weird Al” Yankovic is a mainstream stand-up comic like Brian Regan, Ween is UCB, character work, Andy Kaufman. They fully inhabit the world of a song, then ably mock it.
The duo started making homemade, low-tech music together in Pennsylvania in the mid-‘80s, when both were about 15 (as such “Ween” is a portmanteau of “wussy” and “peen”). While we all mess around with a tape recorder when we’re 15, making sketches, fake radio shows, or prank calls, Melchiando and Freeman kept going and got really good, evolving from a punk/DIY sound on its early releases to a musical proficiency and ability to play in most any genre. Except that the 15-ness never left. The music remained juvenile, puerile, profane, dumb, druggy, and hilarious. Some “high” lights (get it? Because drugs?): READ MORE
This was a curious promotional thing in the '90s and slightly beyond, back when music videos were a relevant cultural force. A funny performance or funny song from a comedy movie would be repackaged as a music video and released to the music channels, maybe even radio, as a way to promote the movie. Because how else would you know it was a comedy without the funny song? It was a strange time; we were all of us hopped up on Fruitopia for most of it.
The Mask: “Cuban Pete” (1994)
The Mask really tried to force 1930s nightclub culture down our throats for some reason. (The soundtrack also featured a rock song from Harry Connick Jr., which is just weird.) That fad was not meant to be, but here remains this relic of Jim Carrey doing a mildly racist “Latin singer” act in this, his cover of an old Desi Arnaz song. READ MORE
Funny or “novelty” music is nothing new — Spike Jonze, Stan Freberg and Tom Lehrer were doing their funny musical shtick way back in the ’50s. The most famous funny musician of all-time, however, is undoubtedly “Weird Al” Yankovic, whose 30-year career has made him one of the most durable musicians of any kind, parodist or not. But Yankovic primarily covers Top 40 and mainstream rock, leaving the door wide open for acts in other genres to step up and be the “Weird Al” of their own particular style of music—or at least that’s their hope.
2 Live Jews (Rap)
There’s a lot of fake rap out there. White people just love to pretend to act gangsta while talking about decidedly non-gangsta topics, and have done so since the 80s, in youth-targeted commercials, not to mention the humorous rap of recent acts such as the Lonely Island and mc chris. But as far as a straight-up parody rap groups — in which an act specifically makes parodies of specific songs — there’s little competition beyond 2 Live Jews, consisting (not surprisingly) of two live Jews: Eric Lambert and Joe Stone. Although they later expanded to originals and parodying other acts, their 1990 debut As Kosher as They Wanna Be was a full-court press on the flash-in-the-pan controversial rappers 2 Live Crew and their filthy 1989 double-platinum album As Nasty As They Wanna Be. Here’s their “Me So Horny” parody, “Oy, It’s So Humid.” READ MORE
Usually the most famous people in the world do not have a very good sense of humor about themselves, or a capacity for self-effacement. Angelina Jolie and Bob Dylan, for example, look to be joyless chores of boring and seriousness. Fortunately the Beatles, the biggest celebrities who have ever dared to walk amongst us and change the weather with their moods, were perhaps too famous to ever not be completely weirded out by fame, and thus had a pretty witty attitude about the whole thing. What I’m saying is that unlike Jolie or Dylan, John, Paul, George, and Ringo, have been consistently funny and game over the years. (I’m not counting the innately funny Beatles projects like A Hard Day’s Night or Help! — strictly solo stuff here.) READ MORE
For me, Zach Galifiankis getting big is akin to when you like an indie band before they become huge. It’s also a little weird seeing a bizarre comic like Galifiankis starring in The Hangover because I knew him from three things: the time a friend of mine met him and got him to tell me on my voice mail that my parents didn’t love me, his piano-based standup I’d seen a decade prior on Conan O’Brien’s old show, and his first major mainstream exposure (except for Bubble Boy and Out Cold) the genre-mocking/convention-shattering/short-lived (of course) 2002 VH1 talk show Late World With Zach.
VH1 has changed its format many times, from music channel for yuppies in its early days to trashy “celebreality” database of today, but at this particular junction in its history, VH1 was into irony and pop culture snark, with with I Love the ‘80s and such. Attempting a late night talk show for the first time, someone at the network knew that Galifiankis fit in with the tone, and a possible future star, and tried to wrestle him into a talk show format. Late World was cancelled after nine weeks of Galifiankis acting aloof and fucking around on television with this hybrid between a real talk show and a fake talk show, a format he’d recreate with success on his web series Between Two Ferns.
The show’s theme song was “Los Angeles” by Frank Black, subtlely pointing out that life in L.A., and the entertainment industry, and perhaps the grind of a talk show, is a hellish affair everyone wants to get away from, even the host. This is a subtle clue into the tone of this very bewildering show. READ MORE
There was a lot of sketch comedy on TV in the '90s. Emerging cable networks, particularly Comedy Central, had lots of airtime to fill, as did other networks, particularly if they were youth-oriented, like MTV, Fox, or The WB. And what did the kids in the '90s like? Inventive comedy. Scenes were thriving in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Toronto, and Austin, among other places, where TV talent was rapidly being developed. In the late '80s, non-Saturday Night Live shows, such as the Canadian import The Kids in the Hall, which aired late nights on CBS, showed that there was a big market and interest in the U.S. for non-SNL sketch comedy.
But other than The State, Mr. Show, and The Ben Stiller Show, what shows from this era are left out of the conversation about TV sketch comedy of years hence? Rightfully or wrongfully, what have we forgotten? READ MORE
The Princess Bride is best known as a classic, perfect movie from 1987, but the original novel by William Goldman published in 1973 should be checked out, have you never done so. All the great fairy tale stuff and smart humor from the movie is there, but so is a large amount of inconceivable (see what I did there?) dark comedy, meta storytelling, and just overall gleeful fucking with the readerness.
Most of this occurs within Goldman’s framing device. The movie is presented as a story being told by an old man (Columbo) to his sick grandson (Kevin Arnold). The book was told in a far more clever, far funnier way, too impossible to film. While in the movie Grandpa mentions that his story is “The Princess Bride, by S. Morgenstern,” Goldman’s book really explores that notion. The full title of the novel is The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure. Goldman, he writes of himself in the book’s lengthy preamble, didn’t write The Princess Bride; S. Morgenstern did. He’s a legendary Florinese author, and his original take on the story was an epic tale, the published, long out-of-print version of which gigantic and extremely long, from which Goldman edited to present his book, or as he calls it “the good parts.” Goldman also details how he hoped the gift of the Morgenstern volume would please his loathsome son.
Of course, none of this is true. Goldman wrote the only Princess Bride there ever was. Morgenstern isn’t real, Florin isn’t real, and Goldman never even had a son. READ MORE
TV is usually a tightly-controlled, highly-regulated corporate appendage, except during the loose, early days of a new network, when everybody involved is still trying to find both and audience and an identity, and are left largely or somewhat to their own devices, to experiment on air, to throw stuff to the wall and see what sticks. For example, Nickelodeon. Now a perpetual glitter lip gloss commercial, the channel began in the late ‘70s as an extension of, and at first consisted primarily of, an Ohio-based puppet show called Pinwheel, along with a lot of weird European cartoons and Canadian short films.
And then there’s Comedy Central, the comedy nerd’s favorite, because it has the word comedy right there in its name. Today, it’s a multimedia, highly-influential, highly-profitable international entertainment behemoth due to The Daily Show, South Park, Chappelle’s Show, Reno 911, Tosh.0, and Jeff, the Non-Ironically Racist Puppetmaster, and other stuff that likely wouldn’t have found a home on TV in another era. But, like Nickelodeon, Comedy Central’s beginnings were auspicious and inventive, which led to some programming that was transcendent and before its time, as well as some in the school of awkward, wacky, telling you its comedy as relentlessly as a Fozzie Bear routine. READ MORE
“Weird Al” Yankovic is untouchable. He’s given us so much, beginning with song parodies like “Amish Paradise” and “Fat” that are still funny upon multiple repeat listens many years later, as well as musically sound original works (“Dare to Be Stupid,” “One More Minute”), and screen entertainments such as the classic UHF and underrated Al-TV specials. Most novelty song performers end up dated, corny, and obscure, but Yankovic has been around now for more than 30 years, longer than most non-funny musicians. Today, he’s basically a part of the L.A. alt comedy community out of appreciation, nostalgia, and the fact that he’s widely regarded as one of the nicest people in entertainment. He won’t even officially release a song parody unless the original artist approves it. This isn’t a legal requirement; it’s a gesture of goodwill.
Those parodies are, as such, usually innocuous, and concern themselves more with wordplay or topics like food or crappy television. But Yankovic is human, and as such, he’s got a mean streak that occasionally, and fascinatingly, rears its curly head. It’s led to some truly cutting, brutally funny stuff. READ MORE
It’s a lazy, trite comedy trope to make fun of Canada, at worst presenting it as an icy, bland, over-polite backwater, and at best, presenting it as a slightly dulled-down America Lite. Yes, they have Mounties and socialism and we share English and team sports and gravy-based foodstuffs, but Canada’s best offering, as far as the greater Splitsider community is concerned, is its plentiful offerings of sketch comedy and sketch comedians. They’ve given us so much: SCTV, The Kids in the Hall, and most everyone from Saturday Night Live ever. (And Will Arnett.) We could project this and assume, then, that if we dig a little deeper into Canadian comedy, we'd find even more excellent sketch comedy, like that really, good, weird obscure stuff only the comedy nerds would enjoy and appreciate it, just waiting for us to salivate over it and desperate scour for on YouTube.
I’m sorry, but Canada does not have any old, obscure, and awesome sketch comedy for us. We’ve seen all the best stuff. The sketches heretofore overlooked and/or forgotten are the comedy stylings of Wayne & Shuster. READ MORE
Maria Bamford has a great bit about how she wants to have a TV sitcom someday called Me, My Mom, and a Monster, in which she, her mother, and a friendly but disgusting monster all live in the same house, where one can presume wackiness would ensue. Had Bamford been an up-and-coming comic in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s (which she wouldn’t have been, because she would not have gotten any club dates in that culture of jokes about airplanes and the myriad difference between New York and Los Angeles), she might have actually gotten the greenlight, and Me, My Mom, and a Monster would have wound up as a Saturday morning cartoon.
In the stand-up comedy boom of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, lots of comics translated their act and persona into network sitcoms. Others, bizarrely, and in what was almost universally ill-conceived, wound up with Saturday morning cartoons based on themselves and their routines. This could never happen in 2011, mainly because there’s not much Saturday morning TV for kids left (other than third-rate syndicated animal facts shows and reruns of Busytown) and comedians are too cool and too edgy to be asked to participate in such an endeavor. Bill Cosby and Fat Albert is definitely the pioneer here, but comedians and comic actors are stereotypically (if not usually) tortured, idiosyncratic, and dark-sided. Only the squeakiest of squeaky-clean comics (like Cosby) or shtickiest of shticky (like Jeff Foxworthy) even register on a kid’s radar. Marketing-wise, it doesn’t make sense. Plus it’s impossible to think that some network executive thought it would be a good idea to pitch Louie Anderson to children. READ MORE
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