Discover more from Matt Levy's Comedy Stray Notes
Comedy Stray Notes February 8, 2021
On the evolution of remote comedy, the best movie of 2020, three sitcoms and a Will Ferrell short film
Comedy Stray Notes
• Pandemic era sketch comedy is evolving rapidly. My Instagram feed these past few months has morphed from front facing videos and photos to visually inventive quick hit sketches that continually raise the bar for quality. From Usama Siddiquee and Pranav Behari’s Mango Bae podcast highlights to Brent Pella’s on point unexpected angle on virtually every topical news story to Tori Piskin’s flashy, amazingly edited short form videos packed with surprises, scrolling social media is pretty much better than flipping channels now. This week, another one of my favorite content creators Rebecca Kaplan added to the algorithm with the release of her Ke$ha parody “When U Unblock Me.” It’s a hilarious 3.5-minute music video about getting the attention of a guy she doesn’t really like all that much and I happen to proudly play that guy (don’t worry, we’re pals).
To piggyback on what I was saying about the evolution of pandemic era sketch, I was especially impressed by how this was made and directed remotely by Rebecca. I’ll recap: Rebecca sent me a polite DM asking me to appear in the sketch; I politely accepted. She sent me generous directions on what to do with my performance (I love this remote approach) and had me transfer footage over Google Drive (never been a WeTransfer fan). That was...it. No traveling to shoot a sketch, no being on set for five hours for a few lines- nope; this was way more efficient and it turned out great.
• Speaking of new forms of content on the web, Anna Paone and I put another episode of our minute long Rizzle series “Minute Made” online this past week we’re rather fond of. This one is about Anna’s character (aptly named Anna) wishing she looked at her phone a little less and read books a little more. I may be a little biased but I think my wife gave one of her finest performances in her three(!) roles. Check it out and see her skills in action before she becomes too big to appear in short form web series.
• Major shout out to Amy Cardinale for showing up in a Super Bowl commercial. When I saw her, I pointed at the screen like Leo in "Once Upon A Time In Hollywood" and exclaimed to Anna, “I know her!” I would have bragged to more people, but, you know, socially distanced Super Bowl 2021. Either way, way to rep NY comedy, Cardinale.
• January and February have always been the ultimate hibernation time period for cinephiles; there’s no good reason to go outside when it’s so cold out. That makes it the best time to see everything you possibly can (at least that’s what I tell myself). Here’s everything I caught:
“Promising Young Woman” (2021): Movies like this are why I don’t make top ten lists for the year until I’ve seen absolutely everything; this just shot up to the number one on my list for 2020 easily. This film is as impressive a directorial debut for Emerald Fennell as “Get Out” was for Jordan Peele; the next generation of auteurs is shaping up nicely. In an effort to conceal the film’s brilliant story (go into this as blind as you can, it’s better to know nothing), I’ll keep my notes brief about this candy colored yet darkly comic (I call it countercoloring) Carey Mulligan star vehicle. First of all, the banter here pops offscreen harder than any punch in a Marvel film ever could. One scene at a coffee shop involving saliva was the most attention grabbing moment I’ve seen in film all year and it didn’t need a single special effect. On top of this, Fennell uses familiar, well known, likable comic actors and makes us see them in a whole new light. It’s a tough pill to swallow to see Sam Richardson, Alison Brie, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Bo Burnham and Max Greenfield as complicit or evil. Most impressive of all, this film was made by a British woman, stars a British woman and has more to say about America than any movie I’ve seen since “Get Out.” MAKE THIS A PRIORITY IF YOU’VE BEEN HOLDING OFF ON SEEING THIS ONE (Streaming on Amazon for $19.99; worth it).
“Red Oaks” (2014-17): I’ve never binged a 26-episode show so fast in my life. I watched this coming of age dramedy about a tennis instructor/aspiring filmmaker David (Craig Roberts) in 80s New Jersey like it was nothing. The show is essentially the dream indie project every pretentious film school kid wanted to make about their precious life while still getting in a bit of sneaky class commentary about those with money at the club (yes, the club is called Red Oaks) and those that work there feeding the rich. With an impressive list of producers attached (David Gordon Green and Steven Soderbergh; Amy Heckerling directed a few episodes too), this felt like comedy comfort food at its best with fantastic comic turns from an all-star team made up of Richard Kind as David’s stubborn, divorced father, Oliver Cooper (the loudmouth kid from Project X!) as his best friend, Paul Reiser as the sleazy country club owner/father of David’s love interest (plus, Gina Gershon as the wife) and Josh Meyers (Seth Meyers’ brother!) as the duplicitous photographer for the club. That’s not even to mention the performances by Freddie Roman, Tom Papa, John Hodgman, Beth Stelling, Greer Barnes, Jon Rudnitsky AND Selena Coppock. Seeing who would show up in a small scene stealing role almost became the most exciting part of the show. Yes, some episodes are overtly silly like the one where Richard Kind switches bodies with his son (have no idea how this made past the writer’s room) but overall, I loved it even the hints at these characters being future Trump supporters (some move to Mar a Lago and there are shots of club members reading Trump’s magazine). I’ll admit, I welled up and got butterflies at the series finale when it all ended. A HIDDEN GEM WORTHY OF RECOGNITION (Streaming on Amazon Prime; this one’s free).
“Schitt’s Creek” (2015-2020): I’ll admit I have mixed feelings about this beloved Emmy winner. Anna and I actually started watching at the outset of quarantine and finished all six seasons this week just in time to see Dan Levy’s SNL hosting gig (more on that in just a scroll; no, we’re not related; no, no one’s actually ever asked me that). At first, I didn’t get it. The jokes seemed soft; the editing and comic timing, poor; the sets, dull and unimaginative; the number of makeouts the show’s creator Daniel Levy engaged in, gratuitous. I liked the conceit of seeing a wealthy family having to completely reconfigure their lives to one where they lost everything that gave them self worth. As we went along, the characters and their quirks grew on me. Yes, at times, this felt a bit more like a soap opera full of love triangles than a quirky sitcom but somehow it really grows on you. Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara are comedy royalty for a reason; O’Hara mines every single syllable for maximum comedic potential and Eugene may be the best straight man to ever live. Annie Murphy and Daniel Levy make complete sense as their children and over the course of the series, the four of them begin to feel like your own family. There is nothing quite as satisfying as watching self centered characters learn compromise and grow. Even if they’re fictional. That’s not even to mention the show’s other MVP Chris Elliott as Roland Schitt. He walks into every scene and offers a blue collar sensibility that undercuts the show’s self importance and reminds us it’s a comedy. Sure, I had issues that persisted throughout the show like having only 20 or so people in the town having speaking roles with silent extras who somehow attend all their parties and events but seemingly never have anything to say or the Levys not casting their own family member in their family making Sarah Levy play waitress Twyla. I forgive it though. By the middle of the fifth season, the show found its footing and really matured. There were no longer storylines based on misunderstandings and the characters showed new shades of themselves; in fact, the best moment of the series takes place in Season Six Episode 11 when we get to see Annie Murphy’s Alexis in a whole new light at an escape room. That’s how you know when a show is good and worthy of critical love- you’re still learning new things about the characters up until the very end. IF YOU STOPPED WATCHING, GO BACK. IT GETS BETTER (Streaming on Netflix).
“F is for Family” (2015- ): Comedy recommender extraordinaire Sam Zelitch told me that I HAVE to see this show way back in 2019. This was back when I went to the gym and I regularly watched this Norman Lear-inspired animated family sitcom starring Bill Burr, Laura Dern, Justin Long, Sam Rockwell and so many others on the treadmill. Then, once the pandemic hit, I stopped going to the gym and started doing the dishes more often. So, I am not lying to you when I tell you I watched almost all four seasons of this show while doing the dishes and folding laundry for the past eleven months in ten to fifteen-minute bursts. I’m so glad I got to savor it like this; this show has been a part of me for over a year now and the dishes aren’t the same without it. This naturalistic, sometimes downright mean-spirited show is essentially an updated “All in the Family” but written from a modern perspective. In the earlier seasons, jokes seemed like cheap shots but, like “Schitt’s Creek” above, the writing and storylines became so much richer as the show aged into itself. The duality of the nice guy Vietnam vet who ends up not being the hero he presents himself as, the rise of Burr’s coworker Rosie into town alderman and his wife’s involvement in a pyramid scheme were a few choice arcs that felt far from the typical sitcom fodder. Most impressively, seasons tied up loose ends and all stories in their finales gracefully. In fact, the third season’s last episode, a character not being able to swim, ring toss and a political race came together without feeling telegraphed. My jaw hung open; I didn’t see any of this coming, yet, it was all well earned. Then, we get to the fourth season and the show recontextualizes a character we thought we knew all along. Allegedly, there’s one more season after this one which is great news because the show ended on quite a cliffhanger. Can’t wait to see where they go next. OUT OF THE THREE SITCOMS I WROTE ABOUT HERE, THIS WAS POUND FOR POUND, THE BEST AND FUNNIEST (Streaming on Netflix).
SNL with Daniel Levy: The show is coming off what I thought was the best week of the season with the John Krasinki-hosted episode. Honestly, it’s rare that there are two killer episodes back to back. This one was close but not quite there. The Cold Open featuring a score of NFL commentators at first felt bloated and unfocused; somehow it blossomed into a razor sharp commentary on “commercials with a message.” The surprise Cheez Its ad got an actual lol in our apartment. Levy’s monologue (where I learned he pronounces it “Leh-vee,” I come from the clan that go with “Lee-vee”) was a mixed bag; the Eugene trapped in plexiglass cameo was certainly welcome but it was short on laughs as Dan toured the studio showing off its COVID precautions to near silence. It’s nice that the show has the applause sign to save the day when a bit ends on a perplexing note. As for the actual sketches, the true standout is the steamy Zillow ad. You know something is zeitgeist-y when multiple folks text you and tell you that they felt attacked by the show. If you haven’t seen it, drop what you’re doing. Other highlights include the “why I should be able to take my mask off at this Super Bowl” excuse party and the “It Gets Better” show capper featuring a rapidly growing iguana. Get that iguana a TV show. Final props to Kenan and Chris Redd for their silly heightening of the Twinsthenewtrend Weekend Update segment for making something funny even funnier (the rare hat on a hat that works), Dan Levy’s disturbing “Back to the Future” theory shared in the tour guide sketch and the biggest laugh of the night which was Phoebe Bridgers trying really hard to break her guitar. It was punk and funny (Streaming on Hulu...and YouTube...and Peacock...and Instagram. It’s hard to miss).
“David:” I came across this excellent eleven-minute short film while browsing Matt Starr’s Instagram story. Written and directed by Zach Woods (yes, the guy from “The Office” and “Silicon Valley”) with Brandon Garner, it’s a beautifully executed variation on the “what happens when your work and personal life collide.” In this case, the short stars Will Ferrell (!) as a grizzled therapist sitting with a depressed patient David (played by William Jackson Harper) who really needs him. That is, until Ferrell’s son interrupts the session to remind his dad of a wrestling meet he promised he would attend. A simple reminder that it’s not easy to please everyone. Life happens.
George Wallace on WTF: There’s not many comics that are quite as fun as the effervescent Wallace; I couldn’t wait to hear him dish this week. Before we get to Maron’s chat with Wallace though, Marc goes into great detail in his twice-weekly monologue about how we’re all going to be dealing with COVID PTSD for years and he’s right. I hadn’t thought about how much it’s completely changed us (outside of the evolution of sketch that I detailed at the beginning of this newsletter). Luckily, things lighten up when Wallace joins the chat. He’s humble and not sure what he can even add to the conversation as everyone feels when they step into the podcast hot seat but before you know it we hear him defending fart jokes (this stems from a great story about his COVID vaccination), telling stories about owning property in 17 places, sharing his love for traveling (I’ve never heard someone get so excited talking about being on a plane), what it’s like to be Jerry Seinfeld’s best friend, his days at Catch a Rising Star in the 70s with Pat Benatar and opening for Diana Ross and Tom Jones. My favorite part of all though was Wallace saying that he’d heard other comics say he had “never bombed.” He admitted he had many awful sets and has no shame telling stories about bad gigs from his past. Always nice to hear that so-called “perfect track record” comics don’t always crush.
Slow week coming up. Hmu if you trying to do some comedy stuff. I’m down!
Damn, that sounded desperate. I still meant it