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Comedy Stray Notes April 18, 2021
On the trailer for my feature film (!), how great "About Schmidt" is and a pair of podcast recommendations
• I’ve been holding onto this one for awhile.
As mentioned in past installments of “CSN,” my big 2021 goal was to make major strides toward making a feature-length film. The movie was to be called “Shark Jumpers: The Movie Based On The Story Of The Short Lived College Sketch Show” and would be a fairly faithful re-telling of my first week at Arizona State University when I made a 22-minute pilot for a sketch show with the help of my newfound friends from the dorm. It was an exhilarating time when anything felt possible; there was a mini DV camera, an ancient version of Final Cut Pro and what we had in our rooms for props. Those were the ingredients. I didn’t know what a tripod was. The show itself was nothing special but the experience is something that I’ve wanted to bring to the big screen forever.
However, I figured that telling people about the movie wouldn’t quite do the tone, score, characters and jokes justice but a trailer would. Plus, no one wants to read a screenplay. For weeks, I scoured the ends of the internet for an animator since making a full-fledged live-action trailer seemed too daunting at the time. I lucked out and found the incredibly talented David Fuchs through a friend who was able to bring my vision to glorious cartoon life. Then, I did a voice recording session with the movie’s star C.W. Headley and Andrew Casertano back in January to get the lines just right. Finally, my friend Jordan Chiolis’ band K. Sofia provided the title track “The Fool” and now a trailer for my dream movie exists.
Next step: making the actual thing. If you want to be a part of this production in any capacity, let me know. I’m trying to take baby steps to fund it and make this thing a reality. Fingers crossed that we film two summers from now.
Now, send that link to all your indie producer friends that love low budget comedies.
• Two quick things I saw this week that knocked my socks off:
- My favorite form of comedy that’s blown up since the pandemic’s inception was the newsletter (in fact, you’re sort of reading one right now). A personalized email from a writer you enjoy is an intimate break from the onslaught of infinite scrolling. This week, I found myself moved by Adam Sokol’s bleak and darkly comic “That Spike Went In My Vein.” I LOL’d right off at the bat at this excerpt:
“Pretty surreal but last week I went and decided to get myself a vaccine. Went with one against covid. Seemed like the smart choice. Already have a bunch of other vaccinations figured I’d get this one and round out my collection.”
From there, Adam dives into how we’re all expected to live post-pandemic as if nothing ever happened. It’s not easy to just transition back and as he brilliantly put it, “I settled into doing pandemic.”
This is a brief, wry piece that is very much worth your time as you try to dip your toe back into the old way of living.
- I’ve been participating in a fantastic, monthly SNL packet writing group and have met quite a few brilliant sketch practitioners as a result. It’s been a treat to become familiar with each of these emerging writer’s voices and one of my favorites is Sophia Kinne. This week, she released the subversive and aggressively funny faux infomercial “Raising Your Girls,” a 3:23 piece that goes into “what to tell your daughters about what it means to be a woman.” Lessons like “Barbie Dolls: That’s What You Should Look Like” and “Ignore women’s soccer” evoke the sharp satire reminiscent of Tina Fey. Fingers crossed that Sophia gets a platform like Fey someday to show off her outrageous talents.
• I caught five movies (in a perfect world, I would have seen 40) and listened to two podcasts this week. I call it...research. Probably going to use “research” as an excuse forever.
“About Schmidt” (2002): When I was 22, I was in an “Acting for TV and Film” class. At the end of the semester, the class was tasked with performing a monologue from a movie. Somehow, after a fairly lazy Google search, I thought I could handle Jack Nicholson’s monologue from the end of this film. I practiced and rehearsed and ran it 30 times but it never quite clicked. Plus, I’d never seen the movie. It always rattled in my brain even though it never made that much sense to me. I must have had “About Schmidt” on at least ten “Movies To See” lists I’d made over the years. When I saw the poster with Nicholson’s weathered mug on Prime, I decided to finally kick it off the “To See” list and move it over to the “Movies I’ve Seen” list.
“About Schmidt” is a moving, quiet bildungsroman (that’s a pretentious way to say coming of age) where the lead that comes into his own happens to be in his late 60s. To kick things off, the eponymous lead Warren Schmidt (Nicholson) retires from accounting to hit the road with his chatty wife Helen (June Squibb). When he returns home from an errand to find her dead, he suddenly has no idea what to do with his life. Doesn’t exactly sound funny on paper but somehow the film finds humor and warmth in Schmidt going cross country in an RV corresponding with his sponsored African penpal Ndugu sharing all of his troubles and worries with a young stranger. Better yet, the third act takes us to Denver where Schmidt’s daughter (Hope Davis) is set to wed Randall (a hilariously mulleted Dermot Mulroney), son of the never funnier, prickly and sensual Kathy Bates. Her expired Percodan and hot tub scene she shares with Schmidt alone are worth the price of admission. Finally, Nicholson delivers the speech I performed to my class way back in 2009. I’ll admit it. He’s a bit more right for the role than I was. IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR A FILM THAT UNINTENTIONALLY CAPTURES THE LISTLESSNESS OF QUARANTINE, HERE IT IS (Streaming on Amazon Prime for $2.99).
“Shimmer Lake” (2017): Just learned about this movie this week from my pal Ethan Lazar who had played a hand in its creation as a producer. I entered the title into the Netflix search bar and my jaw dropped when I saw its all-star cast of comedy ringers. Rainn Wilson, Adam Pally, Ron Livingston, Robb Corddry and John Michael Higgins? Plus, it’s a mystery told in reverse? Completely sold. The film begins on a Friday with Rainn Wilson on the run in a basement and takes us back to Tuesday giving hints and clues about how the robbery on that fateful day unfolded and brought him to the basement on Friday. Jokes are paid off in surprising ways (a bit where a cop played by Pally plays out is one of the most impressively structured concepts I’ve ever seen) and the ending took both Anna and me by surprise. Having seen a billion and one movies, we like to think we can spot how the third act will play out ten minutes into the film. Not here. AN UNDER THE RADAR PUZZLE WORTH SOLVING (Streaming on Netflix).
“Thunder Force” (2021): I wanted to like this. I really did. The trailer promised a fresh take on the superhero genre where Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer are given superhuman powers and fight crime. I thought, “This might be the McCarthy/Ben Falcone collaboration that bucks the trend of their ho-hum comedies.” Nah, this ain’t the one. The plot is, as promised, about lifelong comrades McCarthy and Spencer. In a flashback sequence, McCarthy is the bully with a heart of gold and Spencer, the nerd incapable of standing up for herself. The present day takes us where you might expect- McCarthy is hapless and Octavia owns a tech company with eyes on taking down the film’s baddies labeled “Miscreants.” Through a series of mishaps at the lab, McCarthy ends up with powers and Spencer begrudgingly follows suit to supervise her reckless friend. Cue training montage, first fight with minor henchmen (a half man/half crab played by standout Jason Bateman and reminds the audience what a comedy is supposed to feel like), battle with a major villain, etc. You know these things, you’ve seen Marvel movies.
That’s not to say that there are a few well-played gags thrown in; Bobby Cannavale’s corrupt politician meddling with his henchmen is a welcome detour from obvious plot points. David Storrs’ Andrew gives us a detailed explanation on how he sometimes goes by Andy, sometimes Drew, occasionally Andrew and by the time he gets to his Mom’s nickname, the movie had me. Also, McCarthy bonding with Octavia’s daughter over Fortnite felt very authentic and appropriately goofy. This is the kind of inspired lunacy I wanted the whole movie rather than soft, fairly obvious bits. THE NUMBER ONE MOVIE ON NETFLIX AS OF LAST WEEK ISN’T THE BEST MOVIE ON THE PLATFORM (Streaming on Netflix).
“Frances Ferguson” (2019): Another rec by the way of fellow cinephile Camden Pollio. Over text, he called it “almost like a female Lebowski.” I clicked. At only 71 minutes, our title character, Frances Ferguson (Kaley Wheless, bone dry deadpan) exits a loveless marriage to take part in a tryst with a minor from the school she teaches at. Once again, not exactly fodder for a comedy film. Somehow, director Bob Byington makes an uncaring sex offender sympathetic because everyone in this movie is gleefully unlikeable which in turns doesn’t make Frances seem that bad?
In a weird way, all the actors in the film almost seem halfway indifferent to the film which gives it a really unique flavor. Por ejemplo, Ferguson’s Mom visits her in prison and asks, “Did you even think about your daughter?” and our antihero doesn’t even react. That’s a zag when you think the movie will zig right into societal expectations of Mothers. It’s refreshing to see a movie with an imperfect, uncompromising female lead. Also, meta narration by Nick Offerman that comments on the story (“this is the last time we’ll see this character”) plus cameos from Martin Starr as a romantic suitor and David Krumholtz playing a group counselor don’t hurt. THIS MOVIE IS THE DEFINITION OF DROLL (Streaming on Amazon Prime).
“Life” (1999): Over a year ago, I asked people on Twitter what the “best underrated comedy of all time” was. Got a lot of “Hot Rod” and “Cabin Boy.” However, an Eddie Murphy comedy kept getting mentioned. I hadn’t really heard of it. I looked up the cast and saw the three leads were Eddie, Martin and...Bernie Mac. Went straight to the never ending “movies to see” queue. I’m so thankful for that thread now; this really is an “underrated comedy.” Set way back in the Prohibition era, Eddie is a fast-talking con man always on the wrong side of the law and Martin is the sensible one. Due to a chance encounter, the twosome find themselves unfairly imprisoned for...LIFE. Once again, pretty heavy subject matter for comedy. However, Eddie and Martin make it work. You have Bernie Mac wilding out in prison as the insane Jangle Leg (helluva character name), old-timey baseball games, and so sad they’re funny scenes where Murphy reads letters to fellow illiterate prisoners about the tragedy that’s befallen their families. First act setups are paid off satisfyingly in the end and I teared up at the film’s conclusion. YUP, THIS IS SUPER UNDERRATED (Streaming on YouTube for $2.99).
“Working It Out” with Fred Armisen: The subject line for this episode was “The Secret Comedy Rules of Portlandia and SNL.” I made it a priority immediately. Armisen makes for an engaging, humble interview subject happy to talk about what it was like putting on wigs and prosthetics at SNL, how he auditioned for the show with a Vin Diesel and Sam Waterston impression, the name “Portlandia” was suggested by an assistant, his Ira Glass impersonation was cut from SNL because not enough people knew who the “This American Life” host was and the best nugget of all: he only plays characters he could be or would like in real life. Amen to that. Kudos to Birbiglia for two great stories he added to the discourse. Number one was about NPR where producers are proud to “kill off” stories because that means the show is so good that getting rid of something quality is a badge of honor. The second was about seeing “Portlandia” live and learning there was a higher ceiling for laughter from a live audience than he knew. This is a breezy 48-minute listen that I could see myself coming back to learn from on an annual basis.
This American Life’s “What Lies Beneath” episode: Speaking of Ira Glass’ show, I listened for the first time in ages this week. The show, split into segments, often covers a topic from a number of angles. Heavy, light, eccentric and sometimes there might even be poetry. No matter what though, it’s always a true slice of life though. With “What Lies Beneath,” I was floored by the first act of the pod. Through an interview with an elementary school teacher, we learn of a young class that mythologizes a drawing of a “Despicable Me” Minion dubbed “Bobssister.” I won’t spoil anything else but what comes next is surprising and worthy of a feature film. It brought me back to the pure naivete of being a child.
The episode concludes with Chris Gethard talking to his Dad rather frankly about his depression. His poor pops didn’t know about that side of him. It’s gently moving and a bit funny.
I’ve got a few things in the pipeline this coming week. You’ll see.
Nos vemos el próximo domingo*
*Yeah, I’m 174 days into Duolingo; if I’m being honest I used Google Translate for this. It simply says, “See you next Sunday”