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The Dark Humor of Harry Nilsson

nilssonschmilssonThe cover of Harry Nilsson’s most critically acclaimed album, 1971’s Nilsson Schmilsson, shows a disheveled Nilsson wearing a robe, one hand in his pocket and the other holding a hash pipe. The album title and cover are perfect illustrations of the humor and apathy that encompassed Nilsson's musical career. Noel Murray of the A.V. Club wrote of Nilsson: "Nilsson became the musician’s musician, admired for his wild arrangements, his insistence on satisfying his own muse before making his record label happy, and his willingness to mock himself, the culture, and every notion of showbiz propriety."

Harry Nilsson liked nonsense. Though two of his most famous tracks, "Everybody's Talkin" and "Without You," are somber in tone, they aren’t emblematic of his career nor are they songs he wrote. It's not that Nilsson didn’t compose heartfelt songs, but so much of what actually represents Harry Nilsson is the nonsense, the humor, the randomness in his writing and performing.

Nilsson was famously close with John Lennon, Ringo Starr, The Monkees, and various other mainstream musicians of the '60s and '70s. But he never became the household name his contemporaries did—likely because of his erratic lifestyle (see his Lost Weekend with John Lennon) and increasing refusal to do something simply for commercial accessibility.

One constant in Nilsson's music was his humor — the subtle deadpan, blatant belligerence, and random wordplay in his records. His comedy may not have rivaled a Carlin or Pryor standup set, but for someone as proficient in music as Nilsson, it was a useful weapon in his arsenal. Musicians like Nilsson, Warren Zevon, and Randy Newman used satire and irony to assuage their somber side — like good comic relief in drama. READ MORE

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Inside the Job of a Showrunner with 'The Comedians' Ben Wexler

benwexlerFor the past decade television audiences have become increasingly aware of the showrunner, the individual responsible for the day-to-day operations of a television show. Ben Wexler has built his career working on shows like Community and Arrested Development, where the showrunners can stand out as much as the stars. Wexler is now the executive producer and co-creator of FX’s The Comedians. The show stars Billy Crystal and Josh Gad as slightly heightened versions of themselves, teamed up to create a new FX sketch show. I spoke with Wexler about creative freedoms, the many talents of his stars, and the importance of being a decisive showrunner. READ MORE

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Derrick Beckles and the Art of Weirdness

derickbecklesDerrick Beckles has made his career out of pursuing the subversive and strange. Growing up in Canada, Beckles was inspired by the absurdity of infomercials and paid programming, eventually creating TV Carnage, a compilation of bad clips from public access shows and infomercials. In addition to creating these compilations, Beckles has directed several music videos, helped shape the humor in VICE, and is currently working on a sitcom called The Hopes in which Courtney Love plays his wife. I spoke with Beckles about his eclectic jobs, being accessible to mainstream audiences, and his current stint as host of Hot Package. The second season of the show airs every Friday at 12:30 a.m. on Adult Swim.

It’s becoming more common to make comedy shows that are intentionally poor in quality, but you've been interested this type of programming for a while. What got you into this?

I was in my parent's basement in Canada and Canadian TV is especially interesting, in many cases mind-blowingly shitty, in ways that are magnificent. So I would start taping stuff with friends, putting them together on tapes when I was a kid. It just kind of blew up. I was doing them on my own and then I was making them for friends and they started trading them. I was doing it anonymously for years and then I started developing this editing style. These Canadian TV shows and public access shows were really weird or wrong, but they were so differently weird or wrong that I really became attracted to a specific kind of wrong that people were achieving. There’s the standard shit on TV, that popular bad TV. I completely stayed away from that stuff and sought out really weird specific stuff. I used to do it with a good friend of mine in Toronto. We would constantly search for specifically bad TV. And the more earnest the performances were, the more we were attracted to it. READ MORE

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Expose Yourself to the Dark Side of Life with Brett Gelman

gelman_dinner_with_familyFrom early in his life Brett Gelman knew he wanted to be a comedian. Heavily influenced by the Marx Brothers and Mel Brooks, Gelman worked his way up the comedy hierarchy — performing regularly at UCB and eventually landing recurring roles on shows including Married (FX) and Eagleheart (Adult Swim). Gelman has appeared in The Other Guys and 30 Minutes or Less and hosts his own podcast, Gelmania.

Gelman’s humor often blends insanity, confusion, and occasionally a psychological reflection of self, which, when combined with the former creates an eccentric elixir of comedy. I spoke with Gelman about Joan Rivers, frightening numbers, and his Late Night-themed Bar Mitzvah. His new special, Dinner With Family With Brett Gelman And Brett Gelman's Family, premieres this Friday at 12:30am on Adult Swim. READ MORE

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A Wild Year in Late Night

stewart_colbert2014 saw more changes in the world of late night than any other in recent memory. David Letterman, Craig Ferguson, and Stephen Colbert announced they would be leaving their long-running shows while Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, and John Oliver started new, widely popular ones. Let's break down all of these late night milestones that took place in 2014. READ MORE

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Inside A Special Thing and 'Never Not Funny' with Matt Belknap

pardo-belknapMatt Belknap has had many aspirations. As a teenager he hoped to make it in Hollywood after reading a Spike Lee book on screenwriting. After attempting to make films, he carved his own path by starting A Special Thing message board, originally designed as a place where Tenacious D fans could congregate. But AST morphed into an alternative comedy hub where fans and comedians alike could post and discuss comedy. Belknap soon started A Special Thing Podcast and since 2006, Belknap has been cohosting the weekly podcast, Never Not Funny, with one of his favorite comedians, Jimmy Pardo.

Along with his cohosting duties, Belknap cofounded A Special Thing Records, which produces artists including Marc Maron, Scott Aukerman, Paul F. Tompkins, and Jonah Ray. Belknap also began running See You Next Tuesday at UCB in 2005.

On Friday, Belknap and Pardo will be hosting Pardcast-a-thon '14, a podcast/telethon that runs from noon-midnight and has previously welcomed guests including Amy Poehler, Jon Hamm, Sarah Silverman, and Andy Richter.

I spoke with Belknap about trying standup, meeting Conan O’ Brien, and the benefits of procrastination. READ MORE

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Alan Tudyk and the Joy of Playing Idiots

NEWSREADERSAlan Tudyk is one of the more recognizable faces acting today, even if his name and voice hide behind his characters. Tudyk has been on Broadway, starred in a beloved TV show, and has done voice-over work for animated hits including Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph, and Disney’supcoming feature Big Hero 6. He was also Steve the Pirate in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. Tudyk once attempted standup, but after facing a threatening heckler, he joined an improv troupe, learning a skill that has aided his acting career.

He most recently signed on as the new host of Newsreaders as it begins its second season Thursday night at midnight on Adult Swim. He plays Regan Biscayne, a character Tudyk calls “an idiot.” READ MORE

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Burn It Down and Start Again: 4 Comics Who Threw Out Their Material and Reinvented Themselves

louisck-shamelessThrowing out material is a frightening prospect for any entertainer. For some performers it can take years to compile a half-hour show. Especially in comedy, recycled material can feel reheated quickly; it ends careers of comedians who refuse to change their once popular, soon hackneyed material.

Today with successes like Louis C.K. and John Mulaney, it’s hard for comedians not to feel pressure to accumulate new material annually.

Some comedians could ride on catchphrases for a few years, but the idea of starting fresh and reinventing oneself has existed in comedy for half a century. Throwing out material is daunting, but it’s a technique to get better and learn about what you want as a performer. Here are four comedians who realized they needed to start from zero, from nothing, in order to improve. READ MORE

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Leno Bashing, Partial Nudity, and an Uncomfortable Host: Howard Stern's 11 Most Memorable Appearances on Letterman

david-letterman-howard-sternFor 30 years Howard Stern has been a guest on Letterman's late night show. Whether it was on Late Night or Late Show, Stern’s common topics generally include therapy, sex, Paul Shaffer, and Jay Leno. Stern has been one of Letterman’s most engaging guests; he’s one of the few that overpowers Letterman and becomes the interviewer, usually making the host grimace. Stern is part of the elite group of guests that Letterman clearly likes having on — even if the conversation isn’t always to Letterman’s fondness. Letterman is like Stern's older brother who's disappointed yet always entertained. Stern has made over 20 appearances on Letterman’s shows and continues to be a regular on the Late Show — here are some of his most memorable appearances: READ MORE

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Carson, Letterman, and Stewart: Three Early Failures and the Lessons Learned From Them

In 1995 David Letterman was the king of late night. Johnny Carson had retired three years earlier, and while Jay Leno had higher ratings, Letterman won the Emmys and the respect of critics and viewers. Wearing a blazer and holding a lit cigar, Letterman sat next to Jon Stewart on the final episode of his cancelled MTV program: The Jon Stewart Show. They discussed Letterman’s career, Stewart’s future, and cancellation. Letterman told Stewart, “Cancellation should not be confused with failure.”

In the last 50 years, three of the most popular talk show hosts have had shows that were cancelled before they hit their stride. Carson, Letterman, and Stewart were given their own shows by networks who hoped viewers would see the talent these entertainers contained. But all three of them did not realize success until their first shows were taken off the air. READ MORE