Discover more from Matt Levy's Comedy Stray Notes
Comedy Stray Notes February 15, 2021
On comedy life partners, Keegan Michael Key's essential sketch comedy podcast and actual comedy journalism
Comedy Stray Notes
• I think that all Valentines’ Days from here on out should fall on Sundays. Forget the randomness of February 14. For couples, you get to spend the laziest day of the week together and single people don’t have to be stuck online with co-workers asking them what they’re going to do. You can just avoid the world. For me, I’m lucky enough that I got to spend it with my beautiful wife and comedy life partner, Anna Paone. Just like Adam McKay has Will Ferrell, Judd Apatow has Seth Rogen, Paul Feig has Melissa McCarthy, Blake Edwards has Peter Sellers, I have my smashingly funny wife who is always game to act in any sketch or video we put out. I love her for a billion different reasons but I’ll be honest- number one is how damn witty she is. Old Levy (that’s me, I’m Old Levy) married the reincarnation of Dorothy Parker and I’m so fortunate to be with such a gifted, generous woman who is up for anything. As a little gift to you all, I’ve linked her acting reel here so you can hopefully cast her too. She’ll make whatever you’re working on from web series to films to voiceover work more emotionally resonant and, most importantly, funnier.
• Get yer content! Fresh content hot off Instagram and YouTube! The best part? My favorite things I saw this week are all free and curated for your viewing pleasure here:
“Somebody- A Smashing Comedy Short” by Nick Whitmer: There’s nothing that’s quite as all-consuming as a song getting stuck in your head. One second you’re listening to “Baby Shark” and next thing you know all of your thoughts are of “Mommy Shark.” Nick Whitmer’s exquisitely produced four-minute short “Somebody” takes an opposite approach asking, “What if a song played everywhere you went?” Full of inventive sight gags (I couldn’t believe the lengths his production designer went to in an elaborate record store scene), impressive world building and a perfect conclusion, this sketch is a perfect way to spend four minutes. Also, I’m not telling you what the song in the sketch is. You gotta watch to find out yourself.
“Roommates” by Andrew Harms: Back in pre-March 2020 days, I regularly made it appointment viewing to see what material one of my favorite writers Andrew Harms was working on. His jokes always have this idiosyncratic worldview that’s equal measures silly and wise. This week, I was especially excited to see a sketch of his show up in my Instagram feed that put that sensibility on full display. Clocking in at three minutes, Harms and his roommates flip the tired roommates sketch trope on its head as he and his two housemates get about as close as three roomies can be. If sincere silly is your comedic genre of choice, this is for you.
“All Days Off” podcast: Like all of us, I spend too much time scrolling. One trend I’m starting to really enjoy is snippets of video podcasts broadcast on the Gram. It’s a perfect sampling of a long form show’s tone and gives you a bit of visual variety not found in static auditory clips. I’ve found myself becoming particularly fond of Corey Yoskowitz and Alex Aronson’s “All Days Off;” it’s perfect for the scroll: light hearted (their discussion on Brita Filters made me snort), high stakes mundane arguments (“Tails never fails” clip is a standout) and an excellent showcase of two friends enjoying each other’s company. Add this pod to your rotation stat.
“Lord bless the partners of comedians” by Alex Dobrenko: I met Portland comedian Eliza Butler almost two years ago at a fire bar show. At the end of the set, I plugged my Twitter like any shameless comic might and we’ve been following each other ever since. I enjoy her Twitter quite a bit. In fact, follow her. Anyhow, she recently Tweeted something along the lines of “if you aren’t following Alex Dobrenko, you’re doing Twitter wrong.” I was curious. I searched. Well, she was right. It’s worth taking the plunge just for Dobrenko’s magical pinned Tweet that hits especially hard on Valentine’s Day. It’s just a minute long and a painfully realistic depiction of what being in a relationship with a “comic” is like. Give this guy a follow and enjoy the short. Then thank Eliza for the tip.
• My mission this week? Watch a bunch of movies, listen to podcasts and read articles in my spare time. I’m happy to report I succeeded once again. Here are the honest to goodness highlights.
Keegan Michael Key’s “The History of Sketch Comedy” podcast: When Jason Zinoman covers comedy in The New York Times, I make sure to seek out whatever new thing he’s introducing to the NYT’s sophisticated readership. He’s yet to disappoint. The most recent piece of media he shared and I consumed was an exquisite profile on Key’s new ten-part podcast. It’s exceptional. Just when you think you’re a true comedy buff, you realize you hardly know the half of it.
Through ten episodes (ranging from 25-40 minutes apiece), you hear Key riff live on why “Who’s On First” isn’t a sketch but crosstalk, the import of Dionysus (yes, he really goes that far back) and how a sketch where Eddie Murphy taught Stevie Wonder how to do a Stevie Wonder impression inspired him. That’s all just in episode one. The icing on the cake is Key actually plays EVERY single character in each sketch he acts out all the way through. Yes, he literally does everything from the “Argument Department Python sketch to Tom Hanks in “Black Jeopardy.”
What really makes the pod great though is when Key inserts himself into the narrative not only recognizing the greats but also his contributions to the form as well. Insider tips about how he and Peele formed game for their show are invaluable to budding comedy writers. Just as important are his sharing of the influences that made him the talent he is today such as The Second City, “Mr. Show,” “The Groove Tube” and “Top Secret.” Toward the end, Key chides his audience into making a list. Oh, I made a list. You should listen and do the same (Streaming on Audible via Amazon; the link to find it is in the comments).
“The Climb” (2020): Short films getting adapted into feature films rarely work. It’s just not easy to expand something compact into something much more sprawling. The writer/director/star Michael Covino made it look easy here. In the short, two friends of varying athletic ability bike on a remote mountain. One stoically confesses to the other that he slept with his friend’s bride to be. A humorous chase ensues. That’s the short and this film’s first scene. What happens next is the film sees this premise through showing the years that follow and the repercussions from this event going in surprisingly dark and cinematic territory. It’s the rare artsy, sophisticated comedy that feels more European mining death and falling into a fishing hole (!) for laughs. As terrifying and visceral said fall into an icy fishing hole appears, the tracking shot that follows is something Wes Anderson would be jealous of stylistically and comedically. Covino really puts himself out there getting punched in the face, falling headfirst into a table, putting on an unflattering amount of weight and taking part in a car accident. If you’re put off by the lack of familiar names here, be aware that George Wendt (Norm!) and Todd Barry make appearances if you need something to hang on here. Also, the sequence in which Covino hijacks his good buddy, a debate with his fellow hijacker over who gets to use the “Batman voice” ensues. It’s one of the best comic set pieces of 2020. THIS IS A MASTER CLASS IN HOW YOU STRETCH A SHORT INTO A FEATURE (Streaming on Amazon for $4.99).
“Black Bear” (2020): Cryptic, glowing reviews sprouted up for this film in November or so everywhere. You know, Vulture, AVClub, Slashfilm, New York Times, stuff like that. They all alluded to a twist at the midpoint but didn’t give anything else away about the movie’s “mind games.” Well, you don’t tease me with a promise of twists without me seeing your movie. I excitedly went into this dreamlike, meta feature and instantly enjoyed its sparse storytelling. A crumbling relationship between a bickering couple (Christopher Abbot playing a musician who has made just 53 cents in royalties in the past year; relatable! and Sarah Gadon, an idealistic dreamer) at their lake house bed and breakfast are met by visiting filmmaker (Aubrey Plaza) trying to find inspiration to put pen to paper. Instead, a tense relationship triangle forms. Plaza pokes the proverbial bear probing into Abbott and Gadon until it implodes. Then, the movie resets at its first shot. What follows is a complete recontextualization of what came before. I’ll be honest. I’m not sure I 100% GOT what this movie was going for but I sure as hell admired what they did in the second half. It’s self-referential and an extended riff on what can happen when gaslighting goes too far. NOT GOING TO GASLIGHT YOU INTO THIS ONE, IF IT SOUNDS LIKE IT’S FOR YOU, IT’S FOR YOU. IF NOT, STAY AWAY (Streaming on Amazon for $5.99).
The Tim Ferriss podcast with Jerry Seinfeld: If you have Jerry on your pod, I’m going to listen. He’s a live wire that says whatever he wants on podcasts even when he’s making the publicity rounds. Seinfeld is so big, he doesn’t have to stick to the script. It doesn’t really matter if he sells book or not. So, instead, he shares great stories like the origin of Comedians in Cars being that Jerry noticed coffee gets people talking. I love it.
Ferriss is a strong interviewer who isn’t here to talk shop about comedy; he asks practical questions about how to work effectively and gets insightful answers from Jerry. I was impressed by his delicate observation that comedians need to “experience everything very sensitively,” the differences between “simple and easy” and “the mind and the brain” and if you’re ever going to write, make sure to “wait 24 hours to tell anyone about any writing you’ve done.” Outside of writing, Jerry offered the piece of wisdom that “pain is knowledge rushing in at great speed to fill a void.” Toward the end, Jerry defined “survival as the new success.” He continued, saying, “We’re done at 43 and then it’s on you to keep going and stay relevant.” Even with all that said, the best part was when Ferriss brought up tech and Jerry was out of his element. For a second, he wasn’t the self confident, all knowing comic. He was a mere mortal that didn’t understand coding. That may have been the most relatable moment of all. Thanks to Christie Bahna for the rec; this is a must-listen.
SNL with Regina King: You’d think after SNL has done consecutive weeks of shows, they’d be depleted of all their creative juice. Sometimes though, that’s when true comedic inspiration kicks in and the show kicks into high gear. This was one of those rare weeks where old, potentially tossed off ideas shone. Standouts included “Pelotaunt” a bit of Peloton sponcon where the trainers mock users who don’t respond well to positive reinforcement (the bit where the trainer reduced the distance the biker had gone felt especially relatable to someone who has experienced endless frustration with treadmills), “Birthday gifts” with its takedown of goofy alcohol-friendly signage going to a much more confrontational place where friends give realistic quotes and this week’s instant classic “The Negotiator” where a cop accidentally takes a weed gummy at the exact wrong moment. There were interesting misfires where a nearly silent crowd stone faced the sketch “70s green room” which felt more like a 30s screwball throwback with zippy dialogue. Felt like a cult hit in the making. Can’t wait to see what they do in their fourth show in a row next weekend.
“The Comedy Industry Has A Big Alt-Right Problem” by Seth Simons: Love him or hate him, Seth Simons is reporting on comedy in a way no one else is at the moment. He looks at the industry with an incredibly critical eye and exposes the problematic players who have reprehensible motives that may have flown under the radar since they’re “gatekeepers.” In this particularly damning piece, he takes on Gavin McInness’ ties to the scene using respectable comics as leverage for credibility and certain clubs’ intentions to spread “cringe humor” that supports freedom of speech in all the wrong ways. It’s a quick and important read for anyone that’s been a part of the comedy world in New York City in the past decade. We all need to take a good, hard look at who we’re working with and what they’re trying to achieve in this “business.” Mind before you grind.
Well, I think I’m going to bed at this point. It’s 1:25 and I’ve been writing for 3.5 hours. My chair broke mid-writing session and Anna helped me fix it (she suggested gorilla glue). That seems like a sign to call it for the week.
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