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Comedy and Community Theater Stray Notes November 21, 2021
On my wife's new play, seeing all the new SNL cast members live and one of the best shows in Astoria
• My wife Anna Paone is a friggin’ auteur. I’d always known it since she showed me her stylish, complex thesis film “The Leaders and the Rest” when we started dating. Later, it was confirmed when she completed her slyly funny time travel drama “Our Lady of the 80s.” However, now, she’s made her ultimate statement piece with her theatrical interpretation of Mervyn Peake’s 1950s classic “Gormenghast.”
When I read the script, I thought it was unproducible on a small budget- there were too many set pieces and too many characters for me to imagine. Lo and behold, I had no vision. I just couldn’t see it like an auteur like Anna might.
Staged at DuCret School for the Arts in Plainfield, NJ, Anna and her mom Catherine Lamoreaux reimagined the school’s basketball gym as a gothic castle to house the royal Groan family and their menagerie of chefs, servants, doctors and elders. The tragic story is a compression of multiple novels in the fantasy series telling the tale of the Groans, a clan rich with tradition disrupted by the sociopathic rapscallion Steerpike who sneaks into the house and lets his evil seep into all facets of the kingdom.
The dense script is lightened by Anna’s deft touch as a director- an orchestral score, moody lighting, inventive staging (the way the dead are whisked offstage wowed me), fleet of foot fight scenes, tasteful eroticism, characters with internal logics that all culminate in a surreal tone poem that’s equal parts Wes Anderson, Tim Burton, Amblin-era Spielberg, steampunk and Anna herself.
On top of all that, the director (Anna) played Fuchsia Groan, the play’s lead female role embodying her with a quiet sadness that served as the production’s soul.
Keep an eye out. My wife’s a star.
• As part of the annual New York Comedy Festival, the SNL newbies put on a show at Brooklyn’s Bell House. Wouldn’t have missed it for the world. SNL is known for criminally underusing their new talent so a showcase to see what the producers saw in these Not Ready For Prime Timers was a treat for a comedy nerd like myself.
The show, Punkie Johnson and Friends, was a 2.5-hour standing room only party with Johnson hosting fellow second-year cast member Andrew Dismukes, freshmen James Austin Johnson, Sarah Sherman and Aristotle Athari plus new writers Vannessa Jackson and Alex English performing stand up.
Punkie kicked it off saying, “We want you to see who we are beyond the costumes” and then introduced all the acts. Out of respect for working comics, I’ll keep my notes on their sets brief but here’s a synopsis of what each performed:
Vannessa Jackson: Strong punchline-heavy set about less than ideal roommates and modern dating. My favorite bit was a great chunk on the best places for couples to meet that would fit right in on the show.
Aristotle Athari: I’d just seen Aristotle perform at Carolines and this outing was similar to his last one with a few added flourishes. His joke about why men don’t want to have children is a crowd-pleasing delight though that was just as funny the second time around.
Sarah Sherman: One of the most effortless riffers I’ve ever seen. She entered with high energy deconstructing the room and then an extended bit about how her dad get anyone any type of job earned an extended applause break. Plus, her joke about the beach (not repeated here ‘cause I ain’t about spoiling material) was one of the smartest observations I’ve heard all year.
James Austin Johnson: Low-key, absurdist jokes were followed by his Trump impression where he had the former President recite Radiohead lyrics. He also brought a spot-on Bobby Flay loudly introducing Food Network shows after his own. It was workmanlike and wholly original at the same time.
Andrew Dismukes: Right up top, Dismukes launched into an extended interactive clapping opener where he yelled at an audience member for not following. He had quite a few funny moments- I loved when he bragged that he could call Mikey Day RIGHT NOW and a story about how he grew up with a goth brother.
Alex English: Been an Alex fan for a super long time and this set solidified that even more for me. A bit about girls that took gay guys to prom hit harder than anything else all night. Well, maybe his chunk on white people at BLM protests hit harder. What I’m trying to say is this was a monster set.
Then, Punkie and Alex proceeded to goof off onstage for a good 30 minutes telling inside baseball stories about an after-party with Taylor Swift (she was the musical guest the night before) and their philosophy when they write together. SNL is great but I’d watch a show that was just Punkie and Alex shooting the breeze. They have a completely natural chemistry. Look out for it in 2025. Calling it now.
Punkie Johnson: The host closed the show making fun of people not qualified for jobs saying “No one is a fast learner” and then compared it to her SNL experience. It was fascinating to hear her perspective on the first year and change on the show. Insightful and self-reflective, I’d watch a whole special just about her thoughts on working at 8H.
• Kristin Manna, Lauren Hope Krass and Gabe Mollica’s “The Laughter Times” at QED is the rare NYC show that’s TOO good. The kind of show where it’s a parade of comic after comic batting 1.000. Every joke lands and the crowd isn’t just chuckling- they’re full-on belly laughing. Maybe it was just the show I was at and the caliber of comics on the lineup (Justy Dodge, Igor Martinez, Caitlin Reese, Gastor Almonte and I⸺ yeah, even I did well) didn’t have a moment of silence in our sets. If this sounds hyperbolic, I genuinely mean what I’m saying. This week night crowd was onboard for everything. As for my set, I started super hot and stayed that way with all stuff written in 2021 (save for a seasonal opener that I use every autumn) up until my final bit when I wrapped it up with a tried and true closer. I stumbled, saying the joke out of order. Somehow, the crowd was so forgiving that when I repeated myself and said the joke correctly it STILL worked.
Make this show a priority hang- the hosts are great, the crowd is hot. The Laughter Times really lived up to its name.
• The more stand-up I do getting back into the swing of things, the less I’m writing about mics here as they become more commonplace and blend together. However, I’m making a special expectation for the midtown curio Yara. Nestled on the east side of 53rd Street in the basement of an upscale Mediterranean restaurant, this is not your average dive bar turned downstairs amateur comedy hour. It’s classy. The mic itself is no slouch either. Run professionally with an air of authority and friendliness by Brett Singer, it went down quick and easy like any good comedy scrimmage should. Special props to my pal Phill Causey for his chunk on the housing lottery- I’d written a bit about the subject months ago but couldn’t quite crack the nut. He found what was truly funny about the absurd NYC real estate practice that I was scratching the surface on. Book the guy to see it yourself.
• Andrew Schiavone has a can’t miss Instagram. His blend of clips and jokes often jumps to the top of my algorithm and for good reason- I like everything he writes. This week, his quick joke about Day Two of a “No Sugar Diet” made me do a spit take. He perfectly captures what no one talks about- the comedown after the initial pride one feels 24 hours into eating healthily. This is quick, smart and most of all lol worthy. Highly recommend checking out this clip and then following Schiavone because more goods are on the way.
• After last week’s ho-hum outing, SNL came back swinging this week with host Simu Liu at the helm. Even a recurring sketch that makes me groan (more on that later) took it to the next level. There was a lot to like here and I’ll run down the hits in order of quality here:
Republican or Not: This is something I never say- I wouldn’t mind this brilliant, ambiguous game show coming back three or four times a season. The maybe Republicans say blanket statements like “Facebook is evil” and the contestants have to guess whether this is a Liberal or Conservative statement. Satire at its finest.
Simu and Bowen: A fantastic friendly competition between the host and cast member for “First Asian ___” that starts realistically and is funny enough on its own before going in an absurd direction that’s so goofy you can’t help but love it.
Jeanine Pirro Cold Open: The show stepped it up after a messy hodgepodge of a cold open last week taking on the heavy Kyle Rittenhouse case where his attorney tried to downplay his murder calling it a “gadoinking” from a teen who was “just defending a parking lot in a town that wasn’t his.” Then, James Austin Johnson comes in as Trump and puts a variation on his already iconic 60-second rundown of topics by inputting what he wanted to talk about in a word search. While I hate to see the Fox News bumper onscreen, the show hit the station and their POV hard this go-round.
Dog Head Man: The loopiest, silliest sketch of the night starts as straight-faced as it can before its big reveal that the new military invention to revolutionize combat is a man...with a dog head. Questions abound and the actual golden retriever with the human body predictably misbehaved. Love when the show takes advantage of its live status.
Weekend Update: Jost and Che got groans from jokes that went a bit too far for this sensitive crowd; I loved the line about the social media platform “Gettr” which is what their users say when women walk alone. Kyle Mooney as Baby Yoda started slowly but the reveal that he was dating the mom from the Berenstain Bears was a sly reference to Pete Davidson dating Kim K. Aidy as Mother Earth took a minute to kick in as well but the cry to arms that people and corporations start taking the environment seriously is something I don’t mind the show making earnest proclamations about even if they’re preaching to the choir.
Simu Liu monologue: A winning origin story that felt like a great human interest introduction to the Marvel star. Not sure if he really tweeted at Marvel years before he got cast but I didn’t mind- it was a winning tale about his days as a struggling actor working as a birthday party entertainer which I dabbled in as a college freshman. I’m a new fan of Liu’s.
Target Thanksgiving Ad: These holiday-themed “ads” about the pitfalls of family getting together are becoming a tried and true SNL staple; this one was was especially well-done. The price of products ruined by kids was especially smart as were the noise cancelling headphones for when the grandfather starts spouting off political opinions and football for the uncle that takes the game way too seriously. The only reason this wasn’t a true home run is because they do this so often- it’s just a well-oiled machine.
Thanksgiving Baking Championship: The recurring sketch that I thought I was tired of but the three cakes on display were so weird and not focused on genitalia that I loved this one. Letting the perfectly designed cake lose and not be the focus of the game here was a smart touch.
Walking in Staten: A parody of “Walkin’ In Memphis” for Staten Island feels like something a local radio station would do but getting Marc Cohn and Method Man push this into such an
enjoyable level that I elevate it to a double just based on the odd grouping alone.
911: A textbook off-the-wall five-to-one bit where flat-talking intellectuals call into 911 believing they’re dead after taking edibles. Relatable, dumb and just brief enough to not wear out its welcome. The heighten with Kenan hiding under the table believing he was dead sold this quiet premise beautifully.
Karaoke All-Stars: This sketch started out as a train wreck nightmare parodying Southern karaoke singers before it became a bit more universal and closed super strong with the classic “I don’t want to sing” person who ends up knocking “I Will Always Love You” out of the park. Although it evoked the Kristen Wiig “Don’t make me sing” character, I’ll give it a pass for being a showstopping finale to the award show format rather than the sketch’s only joke.
As my boy Porky Pig might say, that’s all folks.
Hope you have a happy early turkey, pie and “so how’s comedy going for you” day for all those who celebrate this coming Thursday