Discover more from Matt Levy's Comedy Stray Notes
Comedy Stray Notes December 27, 2020
On Sam Tallent's excellent "Running The Light," a link to a short sketch and a recap of an SNL episode from December 1979
• There are a shocking amount of books written about stand up comedy. Searching “stand up comedy book” on Amazon yielded 843 results. From memoirs to oral histories to showbiz satires to entire tomes comprised of interviews with comedians to “how to write joke” guides, you’d think the “talking funny into a microphone” genre of literature would have nothing left to add to the canon. That’s until Sam Tallent’s darkly comic novel “Running The Light” was released this year and shocked new life into the form.
Basically, “Running The Light” is like if “The Wrestler” centered on a broken down piece of meat that happened to be a comic playing the road in the Southwest instead of, well, a wrestler. In 287 gripping pages, Tallent tells the story of washed up former great/former convict Billy Ray Schaefer’s week on the road playing thankless gigs (one such gig had Schaefer literally following a duck in the book’s most acerbic comic set piece), committing minor and major crimes, giving into vices and despite all of the above, still having the chops to work any room at all. As great as this book is at touching on minor details about performing that feel like secrets only a comic would know, it’s a much richer experience than a superficial story about what it’s like to do gigs on the road. Oftentimes, I couldn’t believe what I was reading since the writing was so intimate and chock full of details about what life on the road is REALLY like from all the characters you meet along the way to all the lonely thoughts that accompany this chosen life of solitude.
This book is a lot of things. It’s poetry, it’s a fully realized inner monologue, it’s a nuanced character study of a jaded 50-year-old, it’s funny as hell, it’s dark as hell, it’s dirty as hell, it’s beautifully written, it’s the best portrayal of the highs of performing comedy and the lows of addiction. This is the most important cautionary tale about what a life in comedy with minor successes could evolve into for anyone who aspires to be a joke slinging troubadour. There’s a stretch around page 150-160 about what it’s like to be on top of the world as a performer where I couldn’t put the book down. I’ve read many books this year but my ADD often wouldn’t allow me to read passages straight through like this; I always lost focus and took a look at my phone or became distracted. Not here. I couldn’t wait to see what Tallent was going to write next. Hell, I loved a section where he explained all the minute details of the walls at a local bbq joint Billy Ray dines at. I counted three separate meanings the title had (not going to spoil any of them either; I’d love to hear what interpretation you come up with yourself). Not a page went by that wasn’t completely engrossing and Tallent literally made my jaw drop when he inserted my friend Kevin O’Brien into the story halfway through. I’ve never known a person that was the inspiration for a character in a major work of literature before but now I do.
This is easily one of the best books about stand up comedy I’ve ever read (sorry “Born Standing Up” by Steve Martin) and I was incredibly sad when I had gotten all the way through it. Luckily, the day after I finished, Sam serendipitously showed up on WTF. His interview detailing the Denver comedy scene, his experience as an unrepped new face at JFL and self publishing his debut novel was informative, funny and a nice companion piece or epilogue of sorts to such a grand story.
With all that said, you must read this book. Even if you’re not “a reader,” this book defies odds and will completely sweep you away. I can’t recommend it enough. It feels like “The Great American Novel.” The link to Sam’s website and his WTF interview can be found in the comments; I implore you to click.
• My wife Anna E. Paone and I wrote, filmed and finished a 49-second video called “Post-Credits Scene” which imagines a post-credits scene for a movie that previously had none. I spent way too long trying to come up with the gag for this sketch; a post-credits sequence can literally go anywhere since it doesn’t have to be a true extension of the story. Here, we take “Wizard of Oz” to a place that you might not expect. I think checking it out is a worthwhile use of your 49 ticks on a clock. It can be found a long scroll away.
• A few quick shout outs to folks that put things on the web that made me laugh and/or impressed me this week:
- Alex Falcone published a fantastic piece of satire in The Hard Times this week titled “Forlorn Man Sends $18.50 to Ticketmaster Just To Feel Something Again” that almost transcended comedy in how a.) real this feels and b.) how corrupt these fee services are. The link can be found below and make sure to read until the end to get to Falcone’s perfect, final capper of a joke.
- It seems like there’s been an exceptional output of Grinch parodies this holiday season but none hit harder for me than Dan Yang’s “The Grinch Stops by Joe Rogan” Instagram video. Intercutting real audio of Rogan with Yang dutifully underplaying the part of The Grinch, it’s a fine skewering of Rogan’s inability to truly listen to his guests and a showcase of what a 2020 Grinch might sound like.
- Not a true comedy shout out but my friend Jordan Chilois’ band K Sofia is on such heavy rotation for when I write that I can’t help but recommend them. You can find them in a number of places like Spotify or Bandcamp but I actually recommend their YouTube channel the most; there you'll find imaginative videos that accompany songs that bring you back to a time in your life you didn’t know you missed.
• I know you’ve got things to do but I did want to share a few streaming oddities and blockbuster releases I caught this week while sitting on a couch:
“The People Vs. Larry Flynt” (1996): “Man on the Moon” is my all-time favorite biopic. No question. I saw it in theaters when I was in fifth grade by myself (honestly not sure how logistically I got into an R-rated movie all alone but this did happen) and used the narrative as the framework for my expository speech sophomore year of high school in speech and debate. I love everything about the movie but especially its offbeat screenplay with colorful flourishes, and tight direction that never allows the material to get too joke-y or serious. For years, I’d always wanted to see director Milos Forman and screenwriters’ Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander’s previous collaboration “The People Vs. Larry Flynt” and finally did this week. It’s actually a bit similar to their latter work as the biopics about forward thinking eccentrics share a number of bit actors, expert pacing and star turns from Courtney Love. That’s where the comparisons end. As titillating as this movie is and for all it has to say about freedom of speech, it’s a bit of a standard courtroom drama with the Flynt character fighting desperately to keep his Hustler Magazine afloat. Don’t get me wrong, scenes with Larry Flynt (played by Woody Harrelson doing his best Woody Harrelson) guiding his kind, naive parents through his mansion are comic gold. However, these truly inspired moments are scattered throughout. SEE “MAN ON THE MOON” FIRST (Streaming on Amazon Prime).
“The Comedy Store” (2020): Clocking in at nearly five hours, director Mike Binder set out to make the definitive love letter to one of stand up’s most well-respected institutions (although I’d love to see one of these docs made about The Cellar or a joke one made about a place like The Village Lantern) and he mostly succeeded except that this fairly paint by numbers doc easily could have been three hours instead of five (watching Annie Lederman do man on the street segments toward the end had absolutely nothing to do with The Store). Rather than dwelling on an unnecessary fourth and fifth episode about “modern day Comedy Store” culture with Joe Rogan (whom you get to see cry here) and Joey Diaz (also, speaking of cancelled comics, they give Louis CK a lot of screen time which is barely commented upon), let’s talk about all the good here. Man, there is a lot of good. Tales of Freddie Prinze’s quick rise to stardom and retaliation against John Travolta for taking his crown as the modern “it” celebrity in 1975 are so good, I could hear them repeatedly and never tire of them. Same goes for JJ Walker recruiting Byron Allen, archive footage of Michael Keaton doing silly bits, Jim Carrey hiding in a piano for three hours during a show just to pay off a gag, debaucherous tales of the wild Sam Kinison, doormen having to work for free for stage time and the stories we’ve all heard about loyalty to Mitzi Shore who famously refused to pay her comics while also sleeping with some of them. Especially bizarre was hearing that tale recounted by her son, who you might know as Pauly Shore. Still, my favorite part of this engrossing series (minus its flaws and flagrant centering of director Binder who inserts himself into the story a bit too much) is the light it shines on cult comics that were beloved at the Store but never became household names. My two favorites were Tim Thomerson and Brian Holtzman. Had no idea they existed and am now a fan of both. Also, there’s a great Tatenda Mbudzi cameo. COME FOR THE STARS, STAY FOR THE HIDDEN GEMS (Streaming on Amazon Prime for $8.99 for the five-part series).
“Soul” (2020): Pixar continues its hot streak of churning out brainy, endlessly entertaining thought experiments disguised as highly visual children’s films. I didn’t love “Soul” the way I loved “Inside Out” or “Wall E” or even “Onward” but I have nothing but mostly good things to say about this film (I have one minor critique coming at the end of this long paragraph). For starters, its story about a jazz teacher (Jamie Foxx) who finally is given the creative opportunity of a lifetime to play alongside a legend starts inspiringly enough; when he meets an untimely demise, he’ll do anything he can to get back to Earth even if that means disrupting the entire afterlife universe and ending up with in the “Great Before” with souls not yet attached to a person. All for a gig. Eventually, the movie comes to be more than about “a gig” which is the true lesson. This movie has a lot to say about what makes life worth living and finding your true purpose. And death. A montage about all of the best moments of the protagonist’s life made me tear up as most Pixar movies do when they remind us of how precious our time on Earth is. Moving away from the heady, emotional core of the film, co-writers and co-directors Pete Docter and Kemp Powers keep things light with Foxx’s character mixing it up with Tina Fey who inhabits his body for an amusing stretch taking place all over New York City and perhaps the greatest Knicks joke ever committed to celluloid. Plus, a perfect scene taking place in a barbershop. And! The meshing of surreal, simplistic images for the afterlife contrasted to the photorealistic everyday waking life keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat; up until the last frame, there isn’t a wasted frame of visual language. Yes, a few of the story devices about “getting the right soul in the right body” drag a bit but you need an artificial conflict in order to keep the stakes high. ANOTHER HEAVY, UPLIFTING TRIUMPH IN THE PIXAR CANON (Streaming on Disney+).
Ted Knight hosting SNL: I was barely familiar with Ted Knight until Thanksgiving. I just thought he was an angry guy in “Caddyshack” not knowing of his tenure on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” This all changed when Anna’s family introduced me to “TMTMS” and I witnessed firsthand what an incredible comedic talent he was; essentially, Knight was the original Ron Burgundy. When I found out he hosted a Christmas episode of SNL in 1979, I knew I had to watch it with the Paones on Christmas Day. There’s nothing better than going back to a completely random, not considered “classic” episode of a show to see forgotten sketches you may have missed. Here, we get a lot of not quite as well known versions of well known recurring characters like the Nerds performing a Nativity scene (which was easily the episode’s highlight), Roseanne Roseannadanna on Weekend Update and Andy Kaufman wrestling a woman alongside Bob Zmuda. All had slightly stagnant pacing and while Knight tried his damndest, it mostly felt like he was hamming it up for the entirety of the episode rather than disappearing into his roles. His monologue where he imitated Steve Martin and then revealed he was his father was more surreal than truly funny. Further, there are a few oddities lost to history in this episode like a sketch about Knight as sexual harasser in the workplace or another where he’s an overzealous grandfather with a penchant for holiday decorations that are not regarded as classics for a reason. What will stick out most to me was a pre-taped sketch about a building addiction to coffee starring Peter Aykroyd (Dan’s brother) that didn’t have many laughs but was the most fully realized. Also, the many, many recurring Gary Coleman jokes in between sketches. They surprised and delighted every time. I wish the show never stopped doing running gags throughout.
• Two last internet recommendations and that will be all for me for the week:
- The Instagram account @thefunnyintrovert curates Tweets and shares them with 2.6 million followers. It sounds like this person is taking others’ work and then sharing it for their own gain. That’s not exactly the case. This week, this person asked if he could share a Tweet of mine and then introduced my writing to 2.6 million strangers. It’s honestly pretty generous to use this massive platform to share jokes you’re into with so many. Basically, he’s like if any of these meme accounts had a soul. Give this person a follow. Reach out to them and they just might share your writing for you too. You can find a direct URL to them in the comments.
- I like 90s rock just as much as the next average person. I smile at the nostalgia of hearing a song from my childhood but rarely think about the clever folks that created this ear candy that’s been lodged in my unconscious mind for years. This past week, my friend Sam Zelitch (one of the best recommenders I know; I recommend his recommendations) suggested I check out Eve6’s exploding Twitter account. What I found was a hilarious recounting of the writing of their hit “Inside Out,” jocular beefs with other 90s bands like Third Eye Blind and a perfect running gag where they reach out to Radiohead to open for them at Sal’s Oyster Pub. If jokes about 90s rock get you going, there isn’t a funnier resource for you right now then this account. It’s linked below.
That’s all for this week and this year.
See you in 2021!
Comedy Stray Notes Links:
01. ) Sam’s website: https://www.samtallent.com/ and his WTF interview: http://www.wtfpod.com/podcast/episode-1186-sam-tallent
02.) Anna Paone in “Lost Wizard of Oz Post Credits Scene” sketch:
03.) Alex Falcone’s Hard Times piece: https://thehardtimes.net/culture/forlorn-man-sends-18-50-to-ticketmaster-just-to-feel-something-again/?fbclid=IwAR00tDTpdkS8yIAoeTlPVRqGY7A9xFmZ0z9YGCZN4uCkW-xOBM-r9iqEBxQ
04.) Dan Yang’s “Joe Rogan Interviews The Grinch” sketch:
05.) Jordan Chiolis’ K Sofia YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCVkzKlR_gDzrH5Yq_GLdNaw
06.) Thefunnyintrovert’s Instagram account: https://www.instagram.com/thefunnyintrovert/
07.) eve6’s Twitter account: https://twitter.com/Eve6