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Comedy Stray Notes February 1, 2021
On new sketches, new specials, new feature films and a few forgotten classics
Comedy Stray Notes
• This week, I put the finishing touches on my most meta sketch yet. It’s called “Long Post Club” and lampoons people that write posts that are way too long (judging by the “See More” on this post, yes, I am making fun of the very type of post you’ve just begun reading). Luckily, the sketch is short at just 98 seconds (cut down from EIGHTY MINUTES of footage) and breezy thanks to the comedic talents of Anna E. Paone, Ronnie Fleming, Danny Vega and Lucas Connolly who make the verbal sparring on the page whiz by. Stick around to the very end of the sketch for a brief “Whiplash” parody (all improvised; I can’t take any credit for it). I’m proud of this one and think you’ll enjoy it quite a bit. The link is in the comments as they often are in long posts.
• Every day we spend inside, my Instagram feed gets funnier, my Twitter algorithm is sharper and TikTok content is better than ever (I know this because everyone is reposting their TikTok vids to Instagram and Twitter). Anyhow, this week, I wanted to highlight two friends who put out longform pieces into the world. They are:
Jacob Williams’ “Unemotional Rollercoaster:” New York is known for nursing the talents of comedy’s best up and coming joke writers and Jacob falls squarely in that camp. In this hour special filmed at New York Comedy Club in a pre-COVID world, Williams goes hard for all 60 minutes with rapid fire jokes; there’s no stories here. It’s ALL jokes all the time which is not an easy feat for a five-minute set, let alone an entire hour. His material covers his breakup, self esteem issues and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. My favorite sections were when Williams makes light of his persona with jokes about performances that didn’t go well because of his trademark low energy as well as jokes about his tenure on “Wild ‘n Out.” My favorite moment of my favorite section was when he called out Nick Cannon. Or maybe it was the Q and A at the end. Or maybe it was ten other jokes. There’s a lot to like here and if you want to spend an hour lost in well-constructed jokes, this is the place to do it. The link can be found a mile away.
Lillian Tanner’s “The Superlatives:” The only true benefit to the quarantine is we can finally tackle our most ambitious projects; even if it’s just writing them, we’re getting one step closer to taking on that dream project we always wanted to produce. Some of us are taking it a step further. In this case, I’m talking about Lilian Tanner’s feature film she’s started a round of funding on. Her film, which she calls a mix between “Wet Hot American Summer” and “Election” is about a group of students vying for the all-important high school superlatives. It looks incredibly funny, features a number of New York comedy favorites and I can’t wait to see this puppy produced. If this movie sounds like your kind of thing too, I’ve linked the IndieGoGo below. I will say the donation perks are pretty legit- I know because I received one the day after I donated which is record speed for any donation I’ve ever made (looking at you, Kurt Vonnegut documentary I donated to in 2014 that still hasn’t come out).
• In typical quarantine fashion, I kept my eyes glued on books, computer screens, TV screens and my phone this week. Here’s a rehash just for you:
Michael Streeter’s “Nothing Lost Forever:” As much as I love the “Live” aspect of Saturday Night Live, I’ve always gravitated to the short films in the show more than anything else. From Albert Brooks’ work in the first season to the Digital Shorts to the “Good Neighbor Stuff” reimagined for the show (that’s Beck and Kyle’s old sketch group, check them out), it always provides a welcome break from the limitations of live performance. I would argue that, pound for pound, the greatest of the filmmakers to be employed at SNL is Tom Schiller. He’s well known for his “La Dolce Gilda,” and “Don’t Look Back in Anger” shorts from the first five years but he also had a quietly productive second wind with the show in the late 80s and early 90s that doesn’t get its due. This book, carefully crafted by author Michael Streeter details not only the shorts he produced for the show but also painstakingly recounts every last piece of information and story about Schiller’s excellent, semi-unreleased masterpiece “Nothing Lasts Forever” from the early 80s featuring Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Imogene Coca. I can’t imagine there’s any other book in the world that gets into how two high schoolers essentially ran the marketing campaign for this obscure film for its limited Seattle release. Beyond that, the book is a treasure trove full of comedy trivia not covered in any of the other major SNL books (or video that can even be hunted down online). Did you know about the unproduced screenplay “Nineteen Eighty Five” by Al Franken (sorry), Tom Davis and Jim Downey that was supposed to be a “1984” parody? Or are you familiar with the SNL short film “Dog baseball” or Todd Solondz’s “How I Became a Leading Artistic Figure in New York City's East Village Cultural Landscape?” I certainly didn’t. If this sounds like a missing piece of your comedy education, don’t worry, I’ve got you. There’s a link to Streeter’s site below.
San Francisco SketchFest’s Sketchpocalypse: In January 2012, I went to the San Francisco SketchFest by myself and stayed with my friend from high school, Carbon Therrien, sleeping on his couch. I believe there was an exotic bird in the room I stayed in. Anyway, it ended up being one of the most exhilarating comedy weekends of my life- I got to see Chris Elliott talk “Eagleheart,” Mindy Sterling (Frau from “Austin Powers!”) improvise and the guys from “Stella” live. The wildest thing that happened though was when I attended a Q and A with the UCB Four (Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh) and asked if they would watch my thesis film (shameless!). I brought the DVD onstage and the four of them proceeded to roast the short film saying, “Are executive producers Andy and Susan Levy your Mom and Dad?” Yes, yes, they are. For the past nine years, I’ve desperately wanted to go back (no matter how traumatic that roast was) but I’ve been roundly rejected each and every year I’ve applied to perform and couldn’t justify flying out again.
Well, this year, the Festival streamed an abridged version over the course of one night. It wasn’t quite the same (we’re still a year away from virtual being just as good as live I think but it’s catching up fast) but still had innumerable highlights. This year, they brought in all the big guns. I’m talking about The State. Kids in the Hall. Mr. Show. Other than Monty Python, that’s kind of the sketch nerd holy trinity. All three did brand new sketches that, while not perfect, were incredibly edifying for superfans. Other standouts were a handful of SNL cameos (Tim Meadows and Fred Armisen are the best scene stealers around), a sketch about ad wizards with John Michael Higgins, Christopher Guest stories about Fred Willard (apparently, no one can get a word in while improvising with him), any time that Paul F. Tompkins was onscreen, Joel Kim Booster debating Ron Funches about whether breakfast or dinner was better while an amused Todd Barry watched on, Danny Pudi (Abed!) improvising, a hysterical name dropping Improvised Shakespeare, two of the UCB Four bringing back their famous “Ass Pennies,” Jonathan Couton performing a cover of “A Birdhouse In Your Soul,” Maria Bamford complaining about having to do 19 takes to get her bits right, a scary looking, jacked Kumail Nanjiani, Patton Oswalt speaking directly to the camera all bummed out about not being able to be at the Fest live, the return of the very silly Slipnutz, Doug Loves Movies, the emerging sketch group White Women (bonus points to them for actually producing a sketch) and finally, props to the purest laugh of the night when Jon Hamm learned that “The Sixth Sense” in Taiwan is titled “He’s a ghost” which completely spoils the twist. If you want to see all four hours of this fest (I left a LOT out), there’s a link below. Disclaimer: I believe it’s $20.00 to watch this. I’d say it’s worth it.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Blues” (2020): With our elongated Oscar season (I believe movies being released are STILL eligible), it’s tough to catch up on everything with buzz. However, seeing this movie that was on every Best Picture shortlist was a no brainer to check out. I’m sad to report that it wasn’t really for me. Adapted from August Wilson’s stage play about the real life Ma Rainey and her band, the talk-y, stage-y movie is essentially a dramatic day in the life of the band and their interpersonal struggles as well as their troubles with record executives. There was just something missing for me though. Perhaps I wanted to see these characters exist outside of the rehearsal and recording rooms? I’m not sure but something felt limited about the whole movie. In any event, the movie is a phenomenal showcase for Chadwick Boseman in his final onscreen appearance. Every scene of his pops as he jumps from playful to seductive to vengeful showing the many sides to his young, smiley performer, Levee. Trigger warning though- Boseman does perform many scenes about death that come across as tragically ironic now. Other highlights include a scene where Viola Davis’ Ma Rainey demands that her stuttering nephew introduce her and the band as well as her insistence that the producers bring her a Coke. She’s a star. It shouldn’t be this hard for her to get a Coke. NOT A CLASSIC BUT SEE IT FOR CHADWICK (Streaming on Netflix).
“First Cow” (2020): This movie about a cow is oddly enough a dark horse (see what I did there) for the Oscars this year. It’s another one that shows up on every major critic’s Best of 2020 year end list. This simple tale, taking place in the early 19th century, is certainly worthy of all the praise heaped upon it. The film starts at a slow moving clip, with our unassuming hero Cookie (John Magaro, one of the gentlest starring roles in film history) who is supposed to feed fur trappers on the ride out west. It’s basically if “The Revenant'' was a slice of life low stakes comedy of errors. The film picks up steam halfway through when Cookie teams up with Chinese immigrant King-Lu (Orion Lee) to steal milk from a prized cow that allows them to bake biscuits effectively shocking the community with how much better they are than anything they’ve ever eaten; it’s like when we were all collectively blown away by cronuts. That’s basically the gist of it. As novel as this story is, this is a film all about men with modest dreams and what they’ll do to attain them. Major props to Toby Jones for his nuanced turn as the villain of sorts. There isn’t a false step here- THIS FEELS LIKE A GREAT SHORT STORY COME TO LIFE (Streaming on Amazon Prime for $3.99).
“The Insider” (1999): I first heard about this crackling, message movie about the importance of truth in journalism while reading Brian Raftery’s superb “Best Movie Year Ever” and couldn’t let it escape my mind. When it was scheduled to leave Prime this week (if you’re reading this, it’s no longer free, sorry), I made it appointment viewing and I’m so glad I did. This is a 157-minute EPIC about a single segment on “60 Minutes” in the mid-90s. It’s about more than that, but that’s kind of it when you really boil it down. Directed by Michael Mann, the thrust of the true story is about producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) who is determined to tell Jeffrey Wigand’s (Russell Crowe) side of the story about the addictive nature of nicotine which ends up disintegrating Wigand’s life into something unrecognizable for a successful family and company man. It’s a stodgy premise brought to life by these two actors and a host of other greats you’ll recognize like Christopher Plummer, Philip Baker Hall and Rip Torn. Plus, Gina Gershon. THE KIND OF MOVIE YOU’D SEE IN SCHOOL AND FEEL EMPOWERED AFTER YOU SAW IT (Formerly streaming for free on Amazon Prime; not sure what’s going on with it now).
SNL hosted by John Krasinski: We now have a frontrunner for best episode of the all over the place season thus far. There’s a lot to discuss here, so I’ll keep my thoughts brief. The “What Still Works?” Cold Open covering every major event didn’t quite “work” for me; I wasn’t a fan of the overstuffed nature of the show cramming every major event of the past two months into a single piece rather than letting them all breathe (ironically, I’m cramming here). The monologue, where Krasinski addressed audience questions about his tenure as Jim on “The Office” since that’s all anyone’s been watching for the past few months felt intentionally timely in the best way possible. The biggest laugh for me though came when Krasinski tried to muster applause for his Jack Ryan character and got nothing. There was a Pete Davidson kiss to close things out. At this point, I thought the episode would be fine at best.
Then, SNL pulled a complete 360 and completely turned itself around. That’s why I love this show; it reinvents itself every few minutes. You never know what you’re going to get. The sneaky satire “Blue Georgia” about the state in a post Warnock and Ossoff world worked so well; I loved seeing all these genteel Southerners embrace Wokeness. Other highlights included, “Now That’s What I Call Theme Songs” where lead characters belted silly lyrics to their instrumental themes hit me right in the comedy sweet spot as did the Krasinski news correspondent who had twin children that kept popping up in the background of his frame with increasingly bizarre abstract art. Simple game, excellent heightening.
Finally, Kyle Mooney as Martin Scorsese to Bowen Yang’s Fran Leibovitz cut right to the heart of what makes these irresistible New Yorkers great and also insufferable at times.
Oh! And Cathy Anne! Plus, the bizarro Subway sketch about the ad men that crafted the narrative for the Jared story.
There’s so much to like here (other than, you know, the cast not wearing masks). See the whole episode.
• I spend a lot of time reading comedy journalism. It’s a bit compulsive. I just want to keep my finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the world. That’s what I’m so thankful for Luke Kelly Clyne and Graham Techler’s Vulture series ‘Funny Videos Of The Month.” Every month, they highlight all the best sketches released in the past month and this installment is a perfect lunch break read/watch. My favorite sketches they highlighted this time around were Amy Zimmerman’s “Scrunchies” and a clip of Niles Abston’s stand up. Yes, I linked it. I always do.
• This past week, “HARSH WRITING ADVICE” was a trending topic on Twitter. There were many great pieces of advice but my favorite of all was shared by Seth Rogen. The hilarious Becky Braunstein prompted him with a question in his thread that really got to the core of what to do when you have an idea but you’re not sure whether or not you want to commit to the project for the next couple years. The Tweet is linked pretty close by for you!
• A major meme account “The Funny Introvert” has been incredibly generous with me sharing my Tweets and videos boosting them up to larger audiences than they’ve ever seen with his 2.6 million followers. This week, he surprised me and shared a dumb Tweet I wrote that I came up in casual conversation with Matt Vita. The tweet was, “Going to become the first Matthew that doesn’t go by ‘Matt.’ Call me ‘Thew.’” Nothing special. Somehow, a billion Matts messaged me letting me know they already did this. Then, it ended up on a few other Instagram pages (they didn’t even reach out and ask for permission- I thought we did away with that, no?) as well as the subreddit “white people tweets” and friends from high school and college reached out to me to let me know they’d seen it. Wild. All because that dude shared it.
If you’re so inclined, feel free to check out the video The Funny Introvert shared of mine as well. It’s the second episode of my ten-part Rizzle series “Minute Made.” In this one, Anna dreams of being “Made” into 11-year-old Hermione. Does she pull it off? The answer WILL SURPRISE YOU (you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the link is in the comments though).
• Also! If you’d prefer to read this newsletter in your email, feel free to sign up for the Substack. This is the link https://mattlevyscomedystraynotes.substack.com and of course, I put it in the comments for good measure as well.
That’s it for this week.
Wow. It’s February now.
That really was a long post lol
01.) Long Post Club:
02.) Jacob Williams’ Unemotional Rollercoaster:
04.) “Nothing Lost Forever” by Michael Streeter: http://mstreeter.com/
05.) SF SketchFest’s Sketchpocalyspe: https://www.sfsketchfest.com/?utm_source=SF%20Sketchfest&utm_campaign=ed78318750-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2019_11_17_10_53_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_c593bf768a-ed78318750-5584979
06.) Luke Kelly Clyne and Graham Techler’s Vulture series: https://www.vulture.com/article/funny-videos-of-the-month.html
07.) Becky Braunstein on Seth Rogen Twitter thread:
08.) “Thew” Tweet:
09.) Rizzle episode two:
10.) My Substack: https://mattlevyscomedystraynotes.substack.com