Discover more from Matt Levy's Comedy Stray Notes
Comedy Stray Notes April 26, 2022
On bombing after an extended stand up hiatus, "The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent," my new favorite movie and SO MUCH MORE (Ok, yeah, there really is a lot more this time around)
• When I started writing this newsletter in January 2019, I was doing a lot of stand up. Every weekday, I’d leave work and scuttle from open mic to open mic honing the craft of turning thoughts and stories into fabricated punchline-laden bits.
Once March 2020 hit, I pivoted. As much as I love stand up comedy, it was never my end goal or real passion. I was always after a spot in a writer’s room or directing sketch comedy full-time. That’s why I moved to New York. The goal was to immerse myself in those scenes but somehow fell in with stand up and couldn’t ever leave.
Anyway, this is all a long way to say that I performed for the first time in two months yesterday and bombed.
Arizona friend and stand up stalwart Michael Palladino was visiting and hosting a storytelling show at Astoria’s QED. In my head, I had a game plan- tell the story of when I passed out and hit my head on the kitchen sink in the middle of the night.
Perfect for comedy. Well, not really but with a deft hand it could be funny. Anything can.
Rather than rehearsing like I used to swear by, I lazily read articles on the train and listened to Roxy Music (“Love Is the Drug” is my current jam) thinking I could skate by on charisma alone.
At 3 p.m., I ambled into the show/mic. The setlist was swimming in my head. I was thinking “Should I bring my phone onstage to read my bits?” No one else did. Dang. I don’t want to be the one guy that does then. So, I rehearse the set in my head rather than fully pay attention to the other comics.
I go up. Right out of the gate, I feel rusty and break the first rule of performing which is always go onstage smiling to make the crowd feel at ease.
As for the set, there were chuckles here and there. No real laughter but acknowledgement that the words I was saying were humorous at times.
Then, when I got to my big closer, a line that’s worked in many a conversation, it fell completely flat.
That’s one me. I garbled it.
Somehow, I let all of this bother me.
I shouldn’t. I rarely perform, I barely prepared, I don’t care all that much about stand up. I didn’t really do anything that would warrant a good set.
What did I learn from all of this?
You can’t feel sorry for yourself if you bomb and don’t put in the least bit of effort.
Who knows when I will go up again? All I know is that when I do- I won’t slack. Bombing makes you feel so bad that you’ll dwell on it for way too long.
The next set might suck but at least I’ll have tried.*
*Check back in two months when I bomb again and wonder why.
• Podcasts, like most long-form creative projects, have an interesting life cycle. I find that when people announce them, friends and family are super supportive. However, after a few episodes, the fanfare dies down. It’s a bummer to see the support fade out as folks find their voices. Therefore, I’d like to shout out three pods I’ve listened to recently that you should get into ASAP (By the way, I got them links I know you love in them comments).
1.) Micah Walsh’s brilliantly titled “I’ll Grieve You With This,” only five episodes deep, is a gentle, vulnerable gem of a series where he speaks with guests who have recently dealt with loss of loved ones. In the episode I caught, Micah and Ben Wasserman chat amicably about how the two of them have processed the respective passings of their dads. They treat the heavy subject matter with a light touch, taking time to share what their pops’ senses of humor was like while also exploring how grief can hit you all at once months after events had transpired. Plus, as a bonus, you can hear the material the two of them performed to help cope with their newfound situations. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s great. Can’t wait to hear more.
2.) Sometimes, bros just need to be bros. That’s definitely the case with Max Fine and Michael Rowland’s infectious “In The Minivan” podcast. The show is mostly just two best friends throwing out silly bits and using a looping recorder to create hypnotic goofy beats but what I found most compelling about the show was the co-host’s genuine enthusiasm for music. Their love of Danny Elfman’s Oingo Boingo and Isaiah Rashad felt pre-algorithmic. The two talk over songs explaining what they love about them and as a listener you fall in love with groups like Future Islands all over again.
3.) Barak Ziv turned me on to Matthew Broussard and Laura Sogar’s excellent “She Does Stand Up Too” a while back and I’ve been steadily listening to episodes for months now where this comedy couple speak with Comedy Central development executives as well as share proper joke writing structure, secrets from the road and how to score at NACA. All valid but my favorite thing I heard on the podcast was actually their insight on improv where the two sung the value of onstage make ‘em ups saying that “once you’re comfortable onstage improvising, stand up is a breeze since you have material to fall back on.”
• You may recall that my sexy wife Anna Paone is very preggy. She’s due July 15. Word on the street is that once baby pops out, you don’t watch as many movies as you used to.
So, these past few weeks, I’ve gone on a bit of a “cinematic rumspringa” seeing everything that’s been on my to-watch list for too long. Since there’s so many here (six!) I’m going to do my best to keep it short.
I doubt I’ll succeed (Editor’s note: He doesn’t.) (Editor’s Editor’s note: Matt is the editor. Just in case you were wondering who this “Editor” was).
Now, get ready for overly critical reviews from a dude who ate it at a supportive storytelling mic this weekend.
“The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” (2022): I’m no huge Nicolas Cage-ophile. He’s an interesting, fearless actor who occasionally touches greatness but more often veers wildly into the “so bad it’s good” neighborhood.
Needless to say, I was pretty stoked for this.
I’ll cut to the chase here- I didn’t like this conventionally absurd movie which egregiously ripped off Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius title and meta “JVCD” concept starring Jean Claude Van Damme.
Sure, Cage is a blast and a half, but the New York Times review put it best- this is a one-joke movie that they keep playing over and over (Editor’s note: the rest of their review was generally positive).
What bothered me most was that the flick never fully went the absurd “embrace craziness” “Austin Powers” route or the super grounded, high stakes, slice of life direction. Instead, they stuck with a pointless middle ground that ironically felt weightless for a movie about “unbearable weight.”
“TUWoMT” practically smirks and mugs at the camera begging you to acknowledge how clever it is (“I hate when two characters in comedies just talk” the two characters in a comedy say at one point) with its billion references to previous Cage enterprises. Yes, I know that’s what I signed up for with this movie and while some jokes land super hard (let’s just say “Paddington 2 is the real star of the film), this moving picture really didn’t for me.
Verdict: Based on all the mid-budget movies that didn’t get theatrical releases due to the pandemic, I’ve gotten used to streaming comedies. This definitely felt more like a streamer than a movie worthy of the big screen.
STRAY, STRAY NOTE: Ike Barinholtz completely steals this movie. Every scene he’s in is straight up electric.
“Pig” (2021): To prep for “TMWoUT,” I checked out Cage’s latest super critically acclaimed “film.”
I’m starting to think that Nicolas Cage is like a restaurant or band that you keep hearing about how great it is and once you finally get around to experiencing it, the hype/expectations are so high that you’re left feeling empty.
Anyhow, ol’ cynical me found this neorealist take on “John Wick” about a former renowned chef turned drifter (Cage) who has completely unplugged following his wife’s untimely death to be fairly standard fare.
It’s drab, dreary and all about a sad man’s love of his missing pig until BAM Cage delivers a knockout monologue at a restaurant where he tells one of his former proteges that “he becomes a little less of himself that he doesn’t follow his dreams.”
For a brief moment, my high expectations were realized.
Soon after, it’s more pig negotiations with a troubled father and son.
Verdict: Hate to roast “Pig” but it felt undercooked (sorry, always wanted to write HAMMY movie critic puns) (Streaming on Hulu).
Stray, Stray Note: I could have paid more attention. I expect backlash here. Tell me I’m wrong! @ me! Do it!
“Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck In Time” (2021): In 2015, when people still donated to Kickstarters, I gave $15 to this movie that took filmmaker Bob Weide over 30 years to make.
Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions” radicalized me as a high school freshman and I had to pay my respects.
Cut to 2021, the movie is released theatrically and Kickstarter donors are sent screeners. Well, except for me. $15 didn’t qualify although an assistant did accidentally email me “Does this guy qualify for a screener” in an email meant for their boss.
So, I waited like everyone else for a streaming release.
Although I felt slighted by the film’s creators for not letting me see the movie ahead of time because $15 wasn’t enough of a contribution (although it’s more than the price of a movie ticket in many major markets), I have finally seen the movie on Hulu like the masses.
Transcendent in places to be sure though. Simple insights about Kurt’s writing like his style was inspired by a) Laurel and Hardy making him laugh during the Great Depression and b) writing for the high school newspaper where he got instant reactions from his peers gave me a much greater understanding of why his work is so digestible. His style is economical and he never buries the lede (yep, it’s spelled that way, not “lead”).
Found footage here breaks your heart. As a lifelong fan, it was rewarding to see his elusive siblings I’ve read so much about over the years plus his children and adopted nephews I didn’t know so much about. Then, there’s the sullen father who could barely make ends meet. His two wives, both of whom he sadly didn’t treat all that well too. Also, a scene where he interacts with classmates at a 50th year high school anniversary. It’s a bit of sensory overload.
However, the documentary’s raison d’etre (and worth all $15) is the brief section where Kurt reads an excerpt from the aforementioned “Breakfast of Champions.”
“This is a very bad book you’re writing,” I said to myself.
“I know,” I said.
“You’re afraid you’ll kill yourself the way your mother did,” I said.
“I know,” I said.
How this deceased man from Indiana has the ability to write something that feels more personal to me than my own writing still mesmerizes me to this day.
Why is this doc uneven?
The movie centers heavily on Weide’s ongoing relationship with Kurt that obstructs the sanctity of telling Vonnegut’s story cleanly.
I like Weide (despite my not getting to screen the film early) but what makes Kurt special is every reader has their own history with him. By inserting your story into his, the viewer’s memories with Kurt melts away.
As a superfan, I was a bit offended. Kurt’s for everyone but it always felt like he was writing for just me. I’m sure Weide felt the same. As did everyone else.
Verdict: Essential viewing for all Vonnegut fans. Don’t know who Kurt is? This is a great place to start too (Streaming on Hulu).
“Everything Everywhere All At Once” (2022): Even though we’re all glued to our social media and more connected than ever, rarely does a movie break through the noise in 2022. TV shows, sure. We all talked about “Severance,” “Succession” and “Euphoria” as a collective. Movies though? Nah.
Somehow, miraculously, the chatter surrounding this curio exploded on the internet in early April. Many were prematurely pronouncing “EEAAO” their favorite movie ever.
I was worried that these glowing reviews would cloud my perception of this Michelle Yeoh starrer.
Surely it couldn’t live up to the hype?
Yes. Yes it did. This might be my favorite movie ever now too.
To keep it brief, an exhausted laundromat owner (Yeoh) is overwhelmed by life. Mounting taxes, a visiting father and a strained relationship with her daughter all weigh heavily on her. Sounds like a great jumping off point for an A24 indie.
Nope. This movie is not that.
Well, it is that.
But we’ll get back to that.
“Everything Everywhere All At Once,” like the everything bagel it so frequently refers to, is a lot. It’s a kitchen sink of slapstick comedy, jaw dropping kung fu training montages and fight sequences, philosophy, ‘80s worship (Que Huy Quan AKA Data in “The Goonies” has still got it- this is how you pay respect to a film icon, “Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” creators), Marvel parody, gross out humor, a goofy Pixar homage, Luis Bunel absurdism, and unfiltered, raw “It’s A Wonderful Life” like sentimentality that’ll make you bawl.
Plus, it parodies “profound” A24 films along the way too. Told you we’d get back to that.
The film’s “try anything” strategy ends up taking audiences to the strangest places imaginable like a multiverse where people have hot dogs for hands and somehow imbue this bizarre reality with dramatic heft rather than just out and out silliness because The Daniels (the co-directing team) recognize that, at the end of the day, it’s all about characters and everything else is noise and window dressing.
It’s messy and imperfect too. An editor who didn’t want to tie up all the loose ends could trim this 2.5 hour bad boy down to a more manageable and possibly more enjoyable 1 hour and 45 minutes. There’s even a beautiful stopping point about an hour before the movie ends and then it just keeps chugging along.
But this is a damn movie called “Everything Everywhere All At Once.” There is no restraint and nor should there be.
Rather than give away too much (although you should know that Jamie Lee Curtis, Jenny Slate and James Hong all steal the show multiple times), I simply implore you to take this journey.
Final verdict: I make the bed in the morning to Son Lux’s “John Williams meets video games” score from the film. I recommend this movie to everyone I talk to. I frequently think about how the bar for movies has officially been raised thanks to this movie. Yup, this one’s an all-time classic that has to be seen in theaters. Go support it now so we can get more from The Daniels soon.
“Matinee” (1993): I’m a longtime Nathan Rabin fanboy. He’s easily in the pantheon of greatest/most readable internet scribes and to this day he continues to unleash trenchant film criticism on his site nathanrabin.com.
Around a month ago, he wrote about “Matinee,” a 1993 Joe Dante flick I’d had on my “to-watch” list for years.
So, I figured this was the perfect time to drop $3.99 on Amazon Prime and live my film rumspringa truth.
While I recommend you read Rabin’s loving, comprehensive review, I’ll give you some quick takeaways about this fantastic love letter to ‘60s moviegoing.
“Matinee” is a deceptively simple story about an army brat family that lands in Fort Lauderdale at the height of Cuban Missile Crisis paranoia. Our youngish teen hero is placed at a school reminiscent of “Freaks and Geeks” and “Sandlot” baked in Americana nostalgia (the filmmakers even wedge in great throwaway jokes about the era like “Food groups are meats. “Bacon for breakfast, burger or pork sandwich for lunch”) but the kid dreams of the multiplex.
At the nearby movie palace, sensationalist filmmaker Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman evoking Bill Veeck-like showmanship for movies) is preparing an immersive motion picture experience unlike any before it. The build up and subsequent execution of his body horror “Mant” film within a film are what truly make “Matinee” stick out. Dante goes to great pains to spell out what he loves about the movies via Goodman monologues that wax poetic about the magic of the concession stands and how “movies are meant to scare the living daylights out of you and then lull you back into a sense of security” and then BOOM! He has his cake and eats it too, showing us what his dream film is (“Mant”) and how he’d imagine a crowd would react to it.
Fantasy and reality collide in a way that got me thinking.
This interactive, exciting experience is exactly what would get people regularly going back to the theaters in 2022. By reaching back into the past in 1993, Dante may have come up with a template for how to keep the film industry alive.
Final verdict: A film about our collective love affair with film and how they warp our psyche from a young age? Yeah, it for me (Streaming on Amazon Prime for $3.99).
“Crazy People” (1990): I believe Matt Ruby wrote about this film a year or so ago. Took note, threw the title in a Google Drive doc and told myself I’d see it someday. All the fun stuff lives in the Google drive docs, right? If I did half of the things I said I wanted to do in my to-do lists, that’d be grand.
This dated Dudley Moore satire that tries to be a crossover “Network” / “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” hybrid unfortunately succeeds at being neither as it gets wrapped up in the trappings of a formulaic 80s comedy.
To keep things simple, I’ll get the plot out of the way. Moore plays an ad exec with out of the box ideas that are so “honest,” he gets committed to a mental hospital. There, he…hooks up with Darryl Hannah (like one does once they’re in a hospital of course) and then the ad company exploits the patients to use their “caaa-raaazy ideas.” Some of their ads were admittedly funny. I liked the snappy “Volvos: We’re boxy but good.”
However, the best laugh of all comes at the very end of the credits. A disclaimer reads, “Mental health is very serious. Get help when needed.” Then, an image of the patients making goofy “caaa-raaazy” faces flashes onscreen. They really saved the best joke for last.
Final verdict: Only for Dudley Moore completists (Available on YouTube for $3.99).
• My film professor Joe Fortunato has been on the edge of his seat waiting for my review of last week’s SNL episode with Lizzo.
Joe, this one’s for you, amigo.
I’ll rate each sketch “professor style” in Joe’s honor.
Lizzo’s monologue: One of the most high energy, fun hosts of the season immediately brought a real sense of fun to the proceedings right out of the gate. Loved that she wanted to set a record for most times saying “B*tch” in an episode and immediately shouted out her mom afterwards. Heck, don’t let Lizzo become a quick five-timer; make her a cast member.
Trivia Game Show: At first, I was upset when I saw the crew setting up a game show set. Yet, as soon as they got into the “game” of the “game show sketch” (see why they use this format so often? So easy to play “games” this way), I changed my tune. Lizzo breaking down everything that sucks about game shows is…a perfect game. Would put this in a “Best Of SNL Game Show” compilation in a heartbeat.
TikTok: These quick hit replications of the TikTok experience are fun. Everyone can do their own weird thing a la “SNL At Home” in April-May 2020. Building callbacks and a narrative into this recurring bit was a nice touch too. Also, this sketch is proof once again that James Austin Johnson should be in everything, not just trotting out Trump.
Black Eyed Peas: It’s well known that breaking down rap lyrics in stand up is considered hacky. However, when you have talented voice actors recreating the song it elevates the parody. Cecily Strong singing dumb lyrics as Fergie? Way better than a dude like me saying, “Boom Boom Pow makes no sense and here’s the reasons why.”
Please Don’t Destroy’s Writer’s Block: As much as I champion these bros, I’m getting a bit tired of their quickly edited writer’s room shtick. Having them brainstorm dumb songs with Lizzo was fine but I think they’re going to need some kind of reinvention (I’m sure I’ll bite my tongue on this one next episode). Points for John Higgins’ spontaneous made up song though.
Weekend Update: As usual, I don’t remember many or any of the Jost or Che jokes. My loss. However, I’ll never forget Melissa Villasenor’s Uber driver character attempting comedy and subsequently crossing a personal line making jokes at her nephew’s expense. The whole spiel reminded me of Fred Armisen’s “bad stand up” anti-comedy correspondents back in the day but this one had genuine kindness in its heart that made it feel special.
Twerking flute: As soon as I saw the orchestra, I predicted the game immediately: Lizzo’s gonna turn up with these stodgy musicians. She certainly did. This was fun but not exactly funny.
Beanie Baby Sale: The 10-1 where Andrew Dismukes freaks when he finds out his Beanie Babies have no value started fine and then quickly took a sharp left turn into Tim Robinson appropriation. I swear Dismukes was straight up impersonating him. Either this sketch was left over from Robinson’s years at the show or he’s a huge fan.
Six Flags: Something about this sketch really rubbed me the wrong way. It was too referential, too dumb and then too sentimental to really do anything for me. It felt like I was watching something straight out of the maligned 1980-81 season.
Throne Room: At a certain point, I tuned out. The elaborate world building and set were impressive; they were just trying waaaay too many things here. I love ensemble pieces but “Throne Room” was mad clunky and even a bit icky.
Cold open: Opening with the Easter Bunny, then throwing to Fauci, followed by Mikey Day as Musk (pre-owning Twitter) was once again a case of the “too much’s.” Cohesiveness and focus is what fans crave; as wild as the TikTok sketch and “Everything Everywhere All At Once” are, both are far more unified than these political sketches that feel like checklists where the writers tick off all the current events of the week they want to comment on. Save that for Weekend Update.
All that being said, yes, James Austin Johnson as Trump was very funny once again.
Overall thoughts: Nearly every sketch ended with sentimental beats this go-round. Head writers, stop using this crutch. This is a crutch I use and I’ve never gotten paid to write a make ‘em up.
Also, no one’s talking about it but I think this is Moffatt’s last season. The guy looks lost out there and doesn’t have much of a purpose in a post-Eric Trump world.
Cut for time:
Costco meeting: Some of the crowd’s laughs seemed forced but once the three singers (Bowen, Aidy, Lizzo) started trashing the competition via song, the sketch really set sail.
Food and YouTube: A low-key ode to eating food and watching YouTube that decides to go down a well-earned left-field rabbit hole mid-sketch? Genuinely bummed this weird, smart music vid was cut.
• Well, that’s another way, way, way too long Stray Notes in the books.
Hope you enjoyed reading this on the toilet, fam