Discover more from Matt Levy's Comedy Stray Notes
Comedy Stray Notes February 20, 2022
On my new podcast, going stupid viral, getting called first at an open mic, an insane movie you have to see and all the best comedy film trailers of the week plus so much more (not that much more)
• Everyone has a dream project they never made.
For some, it exists as a PDF on a desktop, for others, it’s just an idea that exists in your head.
For me, it was a feature film about my first week of college called “Shark Jumpers: The Movie Based on the Story of the Short-Lived College Sketch Show.” I had a screenplay, trailer, website, the whole nines. The dream of dreams was to get all of the materials to Keegan-Michael Key to direct because a) there’s no one else as passionate about sketch and b) I always thought he’d want to compete with Peele in the filmmaking game.
Thing is, no one wants to read a 105-page screenplay though. It’s homework.
So, after a year of waiting and trying to move this project forward, I remembered I had a recording of a reading of the podcast I did on Zoom over the pandemic. It wasn’t quite the finished draft of the screenplay but the actors (CW Headley, Gayle Bass, Tom Scudamore, Matt Vita, Anna Paone, Will Purpura, Christie Bahna, Jeremyah Schur, Sam Zelitch, Justine D’Souza, Dan Wickes, Arthur Pugh, Shannon Dee and Justin Bulver) were all very funny and hit the emotional beats with ease.
So, I thought rather than waiting around forever, I’d adapt the reading into a podcast so the project could exist in some capacity rather than just in my head.
I spent a good three weeks editing the dialogue, adding sound effects, a score and soundtrack. If I couldn’t see the movie I always dreamed of, I’d at least make the one I want to hear.
When all was said and done, I named the podcast, “Untitled Dream Projects.” It came out to around 65 minutes and is a pretty damn good compromise. It’s not exactly the original vision I had nor is Key attached but it exists in a way that I am proud of.
I bet you’d like it. Give it a try.
• Before work, I like to send out a tweet into the world and ride the social media dopamine hit throughout the day. This week, I wrote the half baked, “Always love this part of the pandemic where it slows down for like two months before it ramps back up.”
The thought had been rattling around in my head for awhile and I figured I might as well share.
It quickly racked up likes. There’s a certain speed a tweet’s popularity reaches where you know it has some degree of virality. If you get to 50 likes really fast, there’s a snowball effect that typically means it will be seen by a wider audience. 50 turns into 150, 150 turns into 300. That’s a typical plateau.
Sometimes though, they just keep growing. This one did. Every time I looked at my phone, it had jumped 5K likes. For three days, it wouldn’t stop and finally peaked at 256K. Truth be told and as annoying as it may sound, this becomes more annoying than fun. People fight in the comments. Others poke holes in your writing. It becomes a whole to-do.
All that being said, there were some fun, new highs this time around though. Rather than grossly promoting this newsletter as I typically do, I switched it up and grossly promoted the podcast that I grossly promoted above.
I never thought that anyone posting a link to a podcast on Twitter would do any kind of numbers but it did lead to 44 people listening to “Unmade Dream Projects.” So, that was cool.
Also, I finally had one of those companies that sell lamps and light kits that are under every viral tweet reach out to me. They told me if I posted three links, they’d send me $20. I don’t know if that’s a standard amount or not but I figured, “Why not?” and did it. They sent the money right away and even threw me an extra $5.
Not bad for a half baked thought.
• The day the tweet went stupid viral, I went to a QED mic in the evening. First time going up in two months.
On the way there, I had planned on writing a few jokes to try out. Like an idiot, I spent the whole ride enjoying being continually bombarded by twitter notifications.
When I arrived, I put my name in the bucket and hoped that I would get called in the third or fourth group so I could settle in and write some material by candlelight.
Of course, I was called first. The nightmare scenario. A total lack of preparedness mixed with one of the best spots at a mic (although going first is technically “the bullet spot” it’s not bad at a mic just because you can get in and out) hit the anxiety Venn Diagram in the bullseye.
So, I just went up and talked about going viral. How my boss saw the tweet and thought it was dumb. How I spent a long time trying to come up with a promotional tweet to go under the actual viral tweet. How I didn’t even want to be onstage and would rather have been looking at the tweet’s stats itself.
As self-indulgent as all this sounds, it went over surprisingly well. I don’t know if this was just a good mic or the material actually worked but there were genuine laughs.
OK, I swear that’s the last you’ll hear about that tweet here.
• This was yet another great week for superb internet content. Here’s a small sampling of the web’s most exceptional offerings:
- I’ll admit that my writing in this newsletter is a tiny bit spineless. I only write about things I like. I rarely if ever include negative reviews or thoughts in order to keep things light but I do wish I had the chutzpah to tear someone’s project to pieces. You know, like Roger Ebert at his best.
Even if I did do it, I wouldn’t be 10% as good as Michael Margetis, the man behind the excellent Margetis Movie Reviews which he affectionately refers to as “just one, fat smelly opinion.”
While I love to read his juicy takedowns, my favorite thing Margetis puts out is his annual “Ten Worst Movies of the Year '' where he trashes the most wretched films with eloquence and humor.
For 2021’s edition, he did not disappoint, dunking on “Home Sweet Home Alone,” “Nightmare Alley” and many more. My favorite excerpt came from his review of the seventh worst movie of the year (by his estimation) “Fear Street.” He wrote:
“It makes no sense to me, but I guess if you’re a dumb adult my age with a borderline unhealthy nostalgia habit for the 90s, you’ll enjoy the painfully unclever needle drops and one-dimensional teenagers.”
Margetis does the homework for us and writes about the movies we saw or missed in a way that’s often more entertaining than the flicks themselves. There just might be a new Ebert in town.
- There’s no one in comedy closer in to approaching the wit, whimsy and wonder of the legendary Jack Handey than Joe Rumrill. I’ve long been an admirer of his stand up and was ecstatic when I heard that Audible had picked up a ten-episode series written by Joe called “Lem Can Help” starring Fred Armisen as the titular Lem on advice podcast.
Over the course of this week, I devoured all ten 15-minute episodes in quick succession laughing heartily as Armisen doled out priceless bits of advice like, “the perfect five-year anniversary gift is confetti. Year six should be something with clay,” “There needs to be an Uncle’s holiday that revolves around a lunch that takes place from 11:30-1” and “It’s not littering if you put the trash on a surface high up” but what I loved best of all was his conversation with a “post-sitcom credits animation artist” played by Maria Bamford in the final episode.
In it, she explains that her turtle falling on its back isn’t supposed to be fun— it was a meditation on death. I snorted when I heard that line. She had crossed over from the light tone Lem had established with guests in previous episodes like Reggie Watts, Tim Heidecker, Vanessa Bayer, Patti Harrison, Meg Stalter, Beck Bennett and Drew Tarver into something primal and dark. A truly surprising left-field turn.
Other highlights include Bayer’s character who is so proud of her packing skills that she puts a water bottle in her suitcase just so the TSA has to see how neatly she folded her clothes and recurring character quirks from Armisen. Each episode he had an excuse for why he needed to leave early that day and found a fresh way to complain about the music that closed the episode each time around. It’s like if Ira Glass was slightly more complain-y.
Overall, this is a perfect distillation of Rumrill’s madcap, lo-fi sensibility and hope this is far from the last we see of Lem.
• On Wednesday evening, after I performed at the QED mic, I slummed it in Astoria for the rest of the evening waiting to catch the “Late Night Writers Workshop” show advertised on their outdoor marquee.
The show was a gas. Put on by former “Trump Comedy Nerd” twitter account creator Matt Koff and warmly hosted by Lauren Hope Krass who pitched it as an “open mic for famous people,” they delivered seven seasoned, staffed comics. Each brought inspired, new material to the stage demonstrating why they write for the funniest shows on the air like “Full Frontal with Sam Bee” and “The Daily Show.”
Honestly, this is the reason I moved to New York- to see the best of the best work out on a random Wednesday for shekels.
For a brief moment, New York felt like the New York of old.
- Every so often, I stumble upon a fantastic sketch on the ‘Gram. “Book Heckler” starring the magnetic Glo Tavarez, which I caught this week, is another installment in that storied tradition of fantastic content I caught thanks to the algorithm knowing what I like before I do.
In the four-minute clip, Tavarez plays an agent who shows up at a book reading and does everything in her power to convince the author to adapt his soulful sci-fi novel into a movie with Pitbull on the soundtrack. Commentary on the soulless nature of the entertainment industry’s pump and dump relationship with literature abounds.
Relatable, silly, smart and goofy all at once. This is the total package.
- For months, I’ve been shouting from the rooftops that Brent Forrester’s comedy classes are the best writing funny resource I’ve ever come across. Having just completed his class a second time, I am happy to report that my claim holds true.
This time around, in five weeks, he preached the secrets of sitcom writing that separate the bad scripts from the good scripts from the ones that get people staffed.
Without giving away too many of the ingredients that make up his secret sauce, my main takeaways from the class were 1) stories are about two people and 2) characters need “core comic contradictions.” Don’t know what that means? Think Michael Scott. He tries to appear worldly but ends up showing off how much of a buffoon he really is. That’s it. The difference between who the characters think they are versus who they really are.
Honestly, kind of a little sad that all of the great comic characters are delusional BUT a great hack if you’re having trouble writing characters— just go back to this well and the jokes will be waiting for you.
• Saw two movies this week. Warning! I wrote a lot about them.
“Strawberry Mansion” (2022): Kentucker Audley, the Bob Dylan of modern independent cinema, just made his dream movie.
He doesn’t let movies become podcasts that are called “Unmade Dream Projects;” he sees his visions through.
And what a vision. “Strawberry Mansion” is the lush, candy colored kid’s movie made strictly for adults you didn’t know you always wanted to see. The story is high concept yet deceptively simple. Taking place in 2035 (although it looks like 1985), James Preble (Audley), a dream auditor, takes inventory of a vivacious, elderly woman’s (Penny Fuller) past dreams and taxes her visions until he develops a relationship with her younger, imagined self. It falls apart when the woman’s evil son (Reed Birney, who I swear was sitting in the aisle across from me and Anna at the Quad Cinema) tries to prevent our protagonist from accessing his mom’s thoughts, flipping the movie’s charms on its head turning it into a literal nightmare.
A simple yet gentle, cross generational love story would have sufficed.
Anyhow, when the movie works, it really soars.
With an onslaught of mind-melding visuals like a saxophone-playing frog waiter, a futuristic, glitchy detective in the forefront of a retro 1930s backdrop and sexy close ups of buttered bread and a strawberry ice cream cone being licked, Audley and his co-director Albert Birney discover something special- they can make the magic, indefinable fuzzy feel of dreams become very real.
They’re certainly helped by a gorgeous, melancholy synth score by the master Dan Deacon.
By my estimation, it’s equal parts Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry in scope, attention to detail, inventiveness and obsession with a handmade, DIY aesthetic that indie audiences crave.
I’d say this was DIY AF FTW (Currently playing in theaters. Run to see this oddball movie on the big screen before it leaves).
“Power of the Dog” (2021): Every prognosticator in the game is positing this as this year’s Best Picture frontrunner at the Academy Awards. Having now seen what all the fuss is about, I get the hype. Fastidious director Jane Campion has created a cinematic world that resembles great literature just as much as it does cinema.
Set 110 years before “Strawberry Mansion” in 1925 Montana (we know this because of odd colloquialisms lost to the sands of time like “Open your talker” and “plain sailing”) and filmed in New Zealand, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons play enterprising bachelor brothers with an adversarial relationship (the surly, hateable Cumberbatch repeatedly calls Plemons “fatso”). The two share a home and a life together until Plemons weds recently widowed Kirsten Dunst after helping out at her restaurant for maybe three minutes. The bar was low in 1925 Montana. Any small act of kindness could net you a wife that’s out of your league (to be fair, Dunst and Plemons are married in real life).
Dunst doesn’t come alone though. In the package deal for the new wife is her sensitive son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who understandably can’t stand the ruthlessly mean Cumberbatch.
Their uncle-nephew relationship, more so than the tragic Dunst/Plemons marriage, becomes the central focus of the film. The elder man is filled with boastful, evil bravado, the younger, a quiet, soulfulness. They make an odd yet compelling pair that gives the narrative a beating heart.
More self-contained and well-told than “Belfast,” sort of like a lesser “There Will Be Blood,” “Power of the Dog” is a fine film. Elegantly crafted, exquisitely performed and quietly, well, powerful.
This may end up being the least watched, least talked about (Anna wisely pointed out that there’s hardly any Twitter discourse surrounding “PotD”) best picture winner of all time but if it does take home the trophy, IT WOULD BE WORTHY (Streaming on Netflix, but you probably already knew that).
• Comedian Dan Chamberlain wrote a tweet this week that excited me so much I had to share it here. It reads:
“what's your pop culture white whale? i mean unreleased/unrealized stuff like "the day the clown cried" - mine is the rumored jay-z blueprint 3 track "crispy benjamins" which supposedly sampled regina spektor's ‘chemo limo.’”
I couldn’t help myself. Nerded out and carefully used my 280 characters to reply:
“The 1990 ‘SNL Movie.’ Reviews of the script are mixed but I’ve heard the George Meyer ‘tipping’ segment is fantastic.
The ‘Da Bears’ movie. ‘Hans and Franz.’ All Smigel stuff really.
‘1985’ by Tom Davis.
The lost writer’s strike episode hosted by Michael Cera at UCB.”
If you scroll the thread, there are so many interesting responses like a Modest Mouse/Big Boi album that never happened and the Mike Myers-starring “Sprockets” film (someone shared the screenplay in this tweet’s thread), that it’s worth reading just to discover all the great “what if’s” in pop culture history.
Honestly, sounds like a great episode of “Unmade Dream Projects.”
• Good week for comedy trailers.
Coming soon are the meta, mixed-animation Lonely Island/Disney collab “Rescue Rangers” starring Mulaney, Samberg and Rogen; Amy Schumer and Michael Cera in the unsettling yet hysterical show “Life and Beth;” a biographical Larry David documentary that’s sure to be a hoot (my first time ever writing “hoot;” it feels wrong) and the satirical “King Knight” about a cult leader whose boring past undoes him.
Not bad, old chaps. Not bad at all.
• Signing off for the week.
Picture me doing a salute or something here ‘cause this thing’s over