The Standup Special Returns to Its Roots

louisck-comedystoreShortly after standup comedy burst free from the confines of Borscht Belt theaters and metropolitan nightclubs, cable television began its successful infiltration of the American living room, and the marriage between the evolving art and the expanding medium soon spawned a wholly new creation: the standup special. Many of these early performances were filmed on college campuses (Robert Klein at Haverford College, 1975; George Carlin at USC, 1977), evidence of the craft’s rapid transformation of character. Once relegated to a few shadowy corners of nightlife and the counterculture, standup had, by the mid-1970s, established itself unequivocally within the cultural firmament of the young, the intellectual, and the hip.

The airing of standup comedy on cable — most prominently on the nascent HBO network — was a happy development for audiences and performers alike. Comics no longer had to temper their material for broadcast network censors or hack it down to fit a five-minute spot on late-night television. For those unfortunate souls living a thousand miles from The Improv or The Comedy Store, there was now easy and intimate access to hour-long, unfiltered sets by the world’s most elite comedians. Although Carlin had already debuted his bit about “filthy words” on Class Clown, in 1978 he elaborated on that material in his second HBO special, and the performance doubtless shattered more than a few calcified suburban psyches that would have never actively sought out that content at the local mall. A venomous dose of irony now infused the bit’s original title: “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television.” READ MORE


Marc Maron Gets Personal (Again) in His New Book, 'Attempting Normal'

Marc Maron’s new book, Attempting Normal, comes to us at an interesting and pivotal moment in his life.  After two and a half decades of toiling in relative obscurity, the forty-nine year-old comic finally seems to be getting his due. His wildly popular and groundbreaking WTF podcast is closing in on its 400th episode and only getting better. This Friday sees the debut of the IFC series Maron, a show loosely based on the neurosis-fueled chaos that is his life. And now, at long last, after countless hours sweating it out on stage in half-filled B rooms and dive bars to frequently apathetic audiences, the comic who on his third album bitterly described himself as "a marginalized act" and "a little known thing" is drawing large and devoted crowds as a touring stand-up. For close to four years, the Maron resurrection has been materializing at an accelerated clip and he now seems poised on the verge of another breakthrough.

Doubtless there are few people on this planet who have spilled out as much of their autobiography as Maron has through his twice weekly podcast—and almost certainly no one who has so consistently scoured the trenches of their soul and psyche as deeply or with such raw articulateness. Since he began WTF in 2009, Maron has become renowned for excavating the lives of others, but something else significant has been happening during the millions of instances that his frenetic, caffeinated voice has been downloaded onto iPhones around the world. Listeners have grown to know Maron on an intensely—and sometimes uncomfortably—intimate level. They've borne witness in real time to the evolving life of a person they've never met, been present with him in triumph and defeat, had the privilege of knowing him at his best and experienced—borrowing a phrase from Norman Mailer—the pleasure of liking him at his worst. READ MORE


Watching Patrice O'Neal Surprise His Audience – and Himself – in 'Elephant in the Room'

Towards the end of his last television appearance before his death, the Comedy Central Roast of Charlie Sheen, Patrice O’Neal does something out of character. After scrapping prepared material in favor of slicing and shredding his way through the dais with a spontaneous and devastating verbal assault of a riff, the comedian finally arrives at the grand prize, Mr. Sheen himself. Even a comic with half the talent and experience of O’Neal would have perceived the tiger blood-fueled actor as a sitting duck, a veritable piñata of embarrassments just waiting to be bashed open. But when it comes time to deliver the final deathblow, the comedian suddenly changes tack. Looking his target straight in the eye, Patrice Lumumba Malcolm O’Neal, that hulking giant of a stand-up whose unique ability to dissect others’ most guarded vulnerabilities with searing accuracy made him at once loved, feared, respected, and resented by those who knew him, decides to show mercy.

“I wanted to say to your eyes, man, I love that you stood up to what you thought was wrong,” says O’Neal, after only mildly harassing the actor about the recent carnage he had brought to his career. “I’m impressed by you and I wanted to say that.” The two had never met before, but perhaps within the wild mania of Sheen’s public meltdown Patrice had seen the flash of a kindred spirit. READ MORE


Revisiting 'Shameless,' Louis CK's First Stand-up Special

For a stand-up comedian there is, it turns out, a fate worse than bombing. Though enduring the heckles and hostile silences of a belligerent audience while a sickening flop sweat shivers over your entire body is never a pleasant prospect, it must seem like somewhat mild torture when compared to the crushing futility of performing to no audience at all. And yet on many a hopeless night during the lean years of the early ‘90s, after the stand-up boom finally crashed, that’s exactly what Louis C.K. did. “There would literally be nobody in the audience and they’d make you do the show,” remembered the comedian about his time at the Comedy Cellar during that bleak era, “so you’d literally be on stage in an empty room and you had to do the jokes.” But it was this painful education in preparation and perseverance that Louis C.K. would draw from a decade later when his career hit the skids and he was once again forced to deliver the goods for a phantom audience.

So steeped are we now in the Age of Louie that it’s difficult to comprehend the fact of anyone, let alone whole audiences, snubbing his shows.  Almost as strange is the idea that, not so long ago, many people didn’t think of Louis C.K. foremost as a stand-up — if, that is, they even thought about him much at all. Though he never abandoned his stand-up roots, by the mid-90s Louie was drifting away from the ethos of the yeoman club comic sweating it out in front of rowdy crowds in Boston and New York toward other ventures as a television writer, show-runner, and filmmaker. Like many of his contemporaries he was using his time on stage, somewhat paradoxically, as a means of getting off it. A 1995 article in New York Magazine lamenting the sorry state of post-boom comedy introduces us to a twenty-seven year old Louis C.K. bluntly acknowledging the eroding enthusiasm for stand-up shared by the industry, audiences, and even the comics themselves:

Being a great comedian used to be an honorable thing. But ironically, what happened with the Boom is that it took the focus away from stand-up itself. People have always said to me thousands of time, whenever I had a success in stand-up, people say, ‘That’s great, you did the Letterman show, you killed, that means that soon you’ll get your own show and you won’t have to do this shit anymore.’

While Louie’s endeavors outside of stand-up solidified his reputation as a gifted and unique comic mind, a string of well-publicized failures — including the abruptly canceled The Dana Carvey Show, the much maligned Pootie Tang, and a scuttled pilot for CBS — served to hurl his value in the eyes of network and studio executives into a freefall. A few years into the new millennium Louie felt the walls closing in. “I had kind of fired every bullet in my gun,” he recalled, “and all I had left — which always saves my ass — was stand-up.” READ MORE


The Prescient Celebrity Obsession of 'Being John Malkovich'

I have been to the dark side and back! I have seen a world that no man should see!
—John Malkovich, Being John Malkovich

It’s been over a decade since Being John Malkovich wriggled through the existential wormhole that connects Charlie Kaufman’s brain with American cineplexes and still its electrifying inventiveness remains largely unrivaled. So original and bizarre was almost every facet of the Spike Jonze-helmed horror comedy that the existence of an office building with an appropriately proportioned 7th ½ floor registered as barely more than a footnote in its narrative. Hailed upon its release in 1999 as one of Hollywood’s most wickedly innovative triumphs, Being John Malkovich continues to dizzy audiences with a staggering array of mind-bending perplexities. And now, from the perch of the new millennium, we can look back and add yet another accolade to the film’s impressive list of achievements: It’s cunning prescience.

At the same moment in history that Kaufman’s screenplay was diabolically skewering the cult of celebrity in America, the nation was beginning its turbulent descent into the brave new world of celebutante worship we find ourselves in today. Reality television would establish itself as a ubiquitous network fixture after the smash ratings successes of Big Brother and Survivor during the 1999-2000 season, and the explosive popularity of social network services — with which we might tap into the intimate thoughts of most any person of notoriety — followed close behind. In short order the channels to achieving celebrity, our access to these celebrities, and the very idea of fame itself were overhauled and turned on their heads. READ MORE


The Before-Its-Time Raunchiness of 'Slap Shot'

We can do anything we want. We’re college students!

–Tagline for Animal House, 1978

So went the battle cry of the Deltas, the “worst” fraternity at Faber College and the anarchic scourge of its campus administration. When it was released in 1978, Animal House was a low-budget college movie with a cast of mostly unknowns that went on to bust box-office records, launch a few careers, and rocket the genre of gross-out comedies into the mainstream. By today’s standards Animal House now seems incredibly tame, almost endearingly so. But when it first hit theaters it was heralded as a subversive punch from the counterculture. This was less a reflection of the film’s politics than of its gleeful embrace of the obscene.

And yet a year before Animal House was celebrated for unleashing the Deltas upon the American zeitgeist, another comedy — this one with a high profile director and bona-fide movie star attached to it — was received with confusion and disdain for its similarly raunchy aesthetic. Directed by George Roy Hill and starring the venerable Paul Newman, Slap Shot was regarded upon its release in 1977 as a mere cultural oddity, and it was not until years later that its reputation was resuscitated into that of an enduring cult classic.



Tracking the Rise of Comedy as Something Worth Following with 'The Lowbrow Reader Reader'

In the hierarchy of artistic endeavors comedy occupies a hazy, confused space. The enthusiasm comedians are capable of generating among the general public is considerable but often fleeting; they seem unjustly deficient at inspiring the kind of long term devotion more commonly reserved for their peers in music and film. It was precisely this frustrating divide that drove Patton Oswalt to launch his Comedians of Comedy tour in 2004, a string of stand-up dates that circumvented the two-drink minimum drudgery of conventional comedy clubs in favor of smaller, hipper venues. “These are the kind of people that will support indie rock bands — for twenty years they’ll follow a band,” said Oswalt of the largely untapped fan base of younger, more enthusiastic audiences he was seeking out. “Very few people follow comedians and how they develop. It can be just as enriching and infuriating and fun.” Put simply, when it came to comedy, most people just weren’t all that invested.

Things have changed considerably in the time since The Comedians of Comedy helped forge the market for comedy nerds, but years before that demographic began edging toward the mainstream Jay Ruttenberg was already the kind of devotee that Patton Oswalt was hoping to create. By day the 25 year-old Ruttenberg worked as a New York City music critic, but by night he skulked along the streets of Manhattan dreaming up an outlet for his less exercised passion for comedy. Observing there was “a general dearth of writing about comedy, especially when compared with the fawning reporting on other corners of entertainment — most egregiously mainstream indie-rock,” Ruttenberg set about cobbling together a zine for likeminded enthusiasts. Not only would the publication attempt to improve upon the sorry state of comedy journalism, but it would also seek to hit back at a certain type of uptight, curmudgeonly newspaper reviewer — those crusty old men who exited Chris Farley movies shaking their heads in disgust and muttering about the decline of civilization. Launched in 2001, The Lowbrow Reader was both a labor of love and an act of protest. READ MORE


Gods of Rock (In Their Own Minds): The Early Days of Tenacious D

One night in 1996, Jack Black and Kyle Gass — the rambunctious, rotund frontmen for the mock rock outfit Tenacious D — stood on stage in a small cafe making demands. They were performing a bit in which they mapped out to a couple of Hollywood agents, played by Mr. Show’s David Cross and Bob Odenkirk, the route that would take them to stardom. “Number one we want a fucking record deal,” began Black, before ticking off further requests for a TV show and a movie. “That would be the pinnacle — if we had a movie.” At this point in their career Tenacious D were little known outside of certain small comedy circles in Los Angeles, so as he began to speak Black was unable to suppress an amused grin at the outrageous nature of their requests.

Yet within a decade Tenacious D would achieve, in bombastic fashion, all that they envisioned that night on stage. In short order they had under their loosely strapped belts a television show, a critically acclaimed record, and a feature film with the band’s name blazed prominently into the title. Although the rock opera Tenacious D In The Pick of Destiny turned out to be a surprise box-office bomb, earning a paltry eight million dollars, the duo’s prominence was still incontestable. On the journey upwards their 2001 album Tenacious D went platinum, they played Madison Square Garden as part of a world tour, and Jack Black emerged as a mega-star actor in his own right.

But it was that first jewel in Tenacious D’s crown that best captured the rowdy, freewheeling spirit of their act. Co-created along with Cross and Odenkirk — two of the band’s earliest champions — the television series followed the absurd exploits of a fictionalized version of The D as they quested after rock supremacy while only managing to reach, at best, low-end mediocrity. Consisting of six shorts packaged into three episodes, Tenacious D aired on HBO sporadically between 1997 and 2000. Despite the long gaps between episodes and the short-lived nature of the series, the duo’s exuberant presence on screen was uniquely compelling enough to attract a cult following that would later serve as the foundation for their world wide fan base. READ MORE


Kingpin: The Farrelly Brothers' Biggest Flop and Greatest Triumph

There are few locations in the landscape of American sports that evoke as distinct a sense of mediocrity as bowling alleys. As arenas of athletic contest they seem forever doomed to conjure up images of beer-bellied men competing in obscurity inside dingy, decrepit rooms. Bowling alleys have long been the natural environment of lowlifes, misfits, and losers. As such they serve as a perfect setting for the Farrelly brothers — who are always at their best when championing the crude underdogs of life — and in Kingpin the underlying joke running throughout is that anybody with some sense and a few prospects should in no way be investing a significant amount of themselves in bowling. But the directors aren’t simply lampooning this strange world; they’re also paying tribute to its unapologetic griminess. When Roy Munson, one time bowling wunderkind turned destitute conman, discovers that Lancaster Bowl no longer has a men’s room novelty machine for him to supply with florescent condoms, he’s shocked and offended. “And you call this a bowling alley,” he scolds the manager.

The Farrellys gave birth to Kingpin — the most peculiar member of their brood — in 1996, between their breakout hit Dumb and Dumber and their crowning achievement There’s Something About Mary. Fittingly, the movie is like a strong-headed, wayward middle child vying for a share of the attention heaped on its more celebrated siblings. Upon release it flopped at the box-office (Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary combined made over 300 million dollars; Kingpin made just 25 millions dollars) and baffled even critics who had taken a shine to the directors’ previous effort. In fact the movie was such a commercial failure that it prompted the brothers to get as outrageous as they possible could with There’s Something About Mary in the belief that their careers in movies might soon expire. But over the years Kingpin's reputation has flourished, and though it has emerged as a cult favorite it merits recognition as on par with the Farrellys’ best. READ MORE


The Perfect Misanthropy of The Foot Fist Way

It’s a rare phenomenon that a film so completely decimates an audience’s understanding of civility that it forces them to recalibrate their entire moral compass. Before Danny McBride swindled us into liking Kenny Powers, the bullying, ultra-arrogant former major league pitcher in Eastbound & Down, he forced on us a protagonist far more brutal and amoral. Fred Simmons, strip mall Taekwondo instructor and small town psychopath, intruded upon the public consciousness in 2006 with Jody Hill’s The Foot Fist Way, leaving audiences stunned and struggling to regain their internal equilibrium, as if they had been suddenly dropped into higher altitudes.

Fred Simmons’s savage presence loomed so large over the movie that some critics, despite their admiration for the film itself, couldn’t overcome their distaste for its protagonist. “The hero of The Foot Fist Way is loathsome and reprehensible and isn’t a villain in any traditional sense. Five minutes spent in his company and my jaw was dropping,” wrote a horrified Robert Ebert. “I cannot recommend this movie,” he concluded, “but I can describe it, and then it’s up to you. If it sounds like a movie you would loathe, you are correct.” It’s worth noting that Ebert still gave the film a 2-star review, presumably out of deference to the filmmakers’ effectiveness at bringing their unsettling vision to life. READ MORE


Zach Galifianakis Shows the Rawness of Standup at the Purple Onion

About a third of the way through The Comedians of Comedy, the 2005 documentary chronicling the indie band-style stand-up tour Patton Oswalt threw together to bring alternative comedy to the masses, Zach Galifianakis makes a peculiar, unexpected entrance. The other three comics on the tour — Oswalt, Maria Bamford, and Brian Posehn — have arrived in Portland in advance of Galifianakis and are planning to connect with him later on that night. In the interim, the filmmakers accompany Oswalt and Posehn to a comic book shop and, after being informed that their camera isn’t allowed inside, go wait in an alley around the corner. With the camera still recording, they set it on the ground…and suddenly into the frame glides Galifianakis, as if he had just materialized out of the thin, Pacific Northwest air. “How’d you just appear there?” the filmmakers ask him. Galifianakis hesitates for a moment, seeming to calculate the exact degree of sincerity with which he should respond, then grins cryptically. “I read it on Patton’s blog,” he replies, before disappearing off down the street, prancing at full speed like some sort of deranged short-distance runner.

In retrospect this entrance is perfectly fitting for the comedian who was flitting in and out of the public consciousness for a decade before breaking it huge in 2009 with The Hangover, and who now manages to so bombastically capture the spotlight while remaining in many ways inscrutable behind a full, scruffy beard and enigmatic smile. Prior to The Comedians of Comedy, Galifianakis had been cultivating a cult following in New York and Los Angeles with his live performances while also participating in a slew of short-lived projects that either failed to nourish his weird brilliance or were too frail to effectively contain it. Most notable of these was his own VH1 chat show, Late World with Zach, in which Galifianakis made a consistent point to focus on the program’s poor ratings and the fact that nobody watching it seemed to know who he was. The show ran for nine episodes in 2002 before its cancelation. “I just had that feeling, like I was a wash-up pretty early,” Galifianakis confided in a 2009 interview with the New York Times. Banished from VH1 and with no clear path forward, he returned to his roots.

It was in the mid-90s that Galifianakis began his comedy career, haunting stand-up open mics in the backs of Times Square hamburger joints and sports bars where “you were literally yelling over the sound of the game, trying to get people’s attention.” The exposure from The Comedians of Comedy marked a revival of sorts for him, and the following year he re-teamed with its director, Michael Blieden (Super High Me, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon) to release his own stand-up special. Divided into three distinct, intertwined segments — performance, road documentary, and interview (with Zach playing the part here of his twin brother, Seth) — Zach Galifianakis: Live at the Purple Onion provides us with captivating access to the raucous, unpredictable atmosphere of stand-up that audiences at home rarely get a chance to see. READ MORE


Revisiting 'Funny People'

“You cannot make friends with the rock stars.”
— Lester Bangs to William Miller, Almost Famous

It’s difficult for me to think about the career of Judd Apatow without being startled by its eerie similarity to Cameron Crowe’s.  While they came of age in distinctly different cultural milieus — Crowe in the hard-rock haze of early ‘70s Southern California and Apatow in the boozy New York comedy clubs of the ‘80s stand-up boom — they both transformed their earnest, ambitious fandom into established Hollywood brands. As teens they took it upon themselves to document the worlds that held their fascination: Crowe went on the road with Led Zeppelin to cover them for Rolling Stone; Apatow recorded interviews with Jerry Seinfeld and Gary Shandling which he broadcasted over his high school’s 10-watt radio station. By their early twenties both were full-fledged professional wunderkinds, with Crowe penning the screenplay for Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Apatow becoming co-creator of the celebrated The Ben Stiller Show. And then, finally, with their careers in the ascendant, both men made great films that looked back upon their improbable journey.

Here the trajectories diverge. Almost Famous was universally embraced and won Crowe an Oscar for his screenplay. Funny People performed middling at the box office and, though it snared its fair share of admirers, critical reception was mixed. That some audiences seemed not quite sure what to make of Apatow’s third and most ambitious film is understandable; it’s a tough, sometimes dark move that requires a measure of commitment from the viewer. But the fact that some reviews were so violently dismissive of such a complex and honest work reveals a near total misunderstanding by many critics of not just the movie itself, but also Apatow’s entire career. READ MORE


Inside Darrell Hammond's Dark Days at 'SNL'

Look for Darrell Hammond at the curtain call of a Saturday Night Live show, when the cast gathers on stage to say goodbye while the band roars and the credits scrawl. Chances are you won’t find him. Often times — even for years at a stretch — he had already left the studio, departing as soon as his final sketch was over. Backstage animosity at SNL is well chronicled, but it wasn’t bitterness or spite that kept him from taking that final bow with his peers. It was that, once out of character, he felt he simply didn’t belong up there with them.

Though peculiar, this disappearing act seems fitting for the cast member who was in a way the show’s least visible all-star. And Hammond is certainly an all-star. He’s something like SNL’s Iron Man, the Cal Ripken, Jr. of sketch comedy. As the show’s longest tenured player (1995-2009) he’s appeared in more episodes than any other cast member and portrayed several of its most iconic characters. And yet he’s always been obscured. We’ve seen him only beneath pounds of makeup, an assortment of wigs, and a prosthetic nose or two. We know him only through the filter of larger personalities like Bill Clinton, Sean Connery, or Dick Cheney. Paradoxically, SNL’s most ubiquitous member is also its most inscrutable and least understood.

Unfortunately, Hammond’s new memoir, God, If You’re Not Up there, I’m Fucked, doesn’t go far enough in bridging that divide. As the title suggests, it focuses mostly on the sordid despair that engulfed much of the comic’s life from childhood up until he left a rehab clinic in 2010 where he was residing under a false name. We’re taken through a series of wretched locales that range from Bahamian jail cells to Hell’s Kitchen mobster hangouts to Harlem crack houses. We’re given access to a lot of Hammond’s decidedly grim personal history. However, most of the information we receive is unaccompanied by much insight or depth, so that although we’re sympathetic toward the author’s struggle (and sufficiently shocked), we’re still left with only a somewhat superficial understanding of what he went through and how he persevered. READ MORE