Discover more from Matt Levy's Comedy Stray Notes
Comedy Stray Notes January 17, 2022
On 2021's comedy album of the year, SNL's return, a podcast hosted by Dana Carvey and David Spade plus 10 or so other things
• Comedy specials rarely find performers taking real risks.
Baring your soul and sharing vulnerable material is certainly brave but it’s not exactly a high wire tightrope act if the jokes have been rehearsed and fine-tuned for maximum effect. No, true riskiness is improvising an entire special during a show’s check spot.
That’s exactly what James Mattern did.
His frantic album, simply titled “The Check Spot” recently won the Interrobang’s Comedy Album of the Year and for good reason. For 33 minutes, James conducts a raucous Q&A with a wild crowd which is no easy feat. Asking a crowd to participate for that long is a dangerous proposition for a comic of any skill level. They can grow from unruly to restless or worst of all, disinterested.
That sort of happens here. James takes a big swing by forgoing material and asking the crowd to ask him questions for the entirety of “The Check Spot.” They throw “Who was your childhood crush” and “Can you sing Prince for us” his way and he shows off his years of experience by wringing laughs out of every topic pitched to him from all directions.
There are big laughs, applause breaks, he even gets booed. Can’t name another special where a comic full on gets a chorus of boos and wins the crowd back.
It’s ballsy, different, surprisingly personal in places and a great showcase for the skills one picks up after years of hosting club shows. James has seen it all, done it all and found a way to adapt the real NY experience for club acts.
This is the real warts and all comedy experience. This is risk taking.
My only complaint? When James is asked which celebrity he’d fight, he says, “43-year-old Billy Joel.”
Funny, yes. But bro, the Piano Man is my dude and I’d stand up for him any day.
• Speaking of award-winning, I spotted that Eliot Thompson was named the winner of 2021’s New York Comedy Club Stand Up Competition and having caught his 12-minute set that netted him that title, it’s no wonder why. He swaggers onstage, guns blazing with an extended chunk on his anti-vax doctor. Punchlines like “I don’t know if you know anti-vaxxers but they don’t usually keep that to themselves” cut deep and ripple throughout the buzzy crowd. That momentum is maintained for the entirety of the set with pointed observations about modern healthcare and recently deceased people’s social media accounts.
Eliot’s clearly been hard at work- these aren’t just good jokes; these are real truths that stick with you.
• Just this week, The Tonight Show had not one, but two New York comics swing by for late night sets. Both Raanan Hershberg and Matthew Broussard completely owned the star-making room. In his five-minute spot, Raanan built to a rousing crescendo telling a hilarious story about what his mother is incredulous about these days while Matt’s even-keeled explanation of how his girlfriend is the breadwinner and his comedy is a little “party trick” laid bare what joke telling really is at the end of the day.
The bookers at Fallon are on fire- they picked two of the best.
• When New York gets cold in January, I go into full hibernation mode. My New Year’s resolution is to go outside every day this year (one of the lamest sentences I’ve ever typed) and while I am batting 1.000 thus far, I’m still spending most of my time cozied up in the apartment. This has allowed for quite a bit of comedy/movie consumption. Here’s what I’ve seen this past week:
“Mentally Al” (2021): Every comedy community has an unsung hero, a comic’s comic that everyone admires for their brazenness, willingness to be different and originality. For some of the biggest names in comedy like Judd Apatow, Sarah Silverman and Kevin Nealon, that guy was a man named Al Lubel.
This documentary about former “Star Search” winner Lubel shines a light on what may have been a lost pocket of comedy history, had this gripping documentary not been produced. In it, we see every facet of the fiercely unique comic’s life- one moment he’s stewing about what could have been had he just woken up before 10 a.m. every day like Seinfeld preached; the next, he’s headlining The Borgata in Atlantic City and dividing the room in two.
What keeps the doc moving is not only Josh Edelman’s swift direction and retro score but also that Lubel has enough material and stray, raw observations about his life and career that nearly every moment of the film is compelling.
The line “I look homeless because I give all my money to rent- if I was homeless, I wouldn’t look homeless” is an excellent microcosm of his act and what to expect from Al; he starts with a stock premise and then twists a new punchline out of the setup in a way that feels like you’re hearing a joke for the first time.
My favorite moment of all though (and there are many great moments I’m omitting for brevity here) was when we see Lubel “owning” a heckler. Rather than move on and anoint Lubel as the victor, Edelman talks to him backstage about what transpired giving Al room to dwell. By locking into his guilt, we see a side of comics that never get shown in documentaries- the shame.
There’s so many other great bits (a cut from Al performing on The Tonight Show to the showroom at Flappers is worthy of honorable mention) that it’s more than worth seeking this prickly, very funny film out IF YOU LOVE COMEDY ODDBALLS (Streaming on YouTube for $3.99).
*I started this weekly newsletter three years ago after I was inspired to write about a similar documentary “Hysterical.” That flick puts NY legends Alan Shain and Gawee front and center. It’s nice that now there’s a fantastic Los Angeles companion piece; these two films back to back would make for an excellent double feature.
**Special thanks to Liz Glazer for the stellar recommendation here; this really is one of the best comedy documentaries I’ve ever seen.
“The Green Knight” (2021): When your wife is a major Dev Patel fan, you end up seeing every movie the “Slumdog Millionaire” star is in. The most recent entry, released last year, is a bang up, off-kilter Arthurian hero’s journey that’s also kind of a Christmas movie. It begins with what Anna Paone assured me was the fairly well-known story of Gawain (Patel) who was tasked by King Arthur to slay the menacing, visiting Marvel-esque Green Knight. Only it comes with a catch- one year later, the Green Knight gets to return the favor and land a blow.
I would have preferred a movie about the existential dread Patel’s Gawain dealt with all year but his trek to find the Green Knight proved to be engaging in its own right; kind of like a mid-budget A24 game of Dungeons and Dragons with witches, thieves, beheadings and all.
This tale, passed down for centuries, finds new life in the film with flourishes like a puppet show re-enacting the battle for children and a frame that’s so obscene after a sex scene I had to do a double take to make sure what I really just saw had happened. It’s gross, unexpected and probably the only thing I’ll remember about this movie years from now.
Well, other than the unexpected ending that turns its back on your typical hero’s journey finale. I most likely wouldn’t have seen this movie if Dev Patel wasn’t in it but I’M GLAD HE WAS (Streaming on Amazon Prime for $4.99).
*I have no idea why the Green Knight was so evil. I mean, yeah, he’s a villain but no idea what he gets out of this strange arranged battle?
**Anna caught that there was a post-credits sequence. Should you see this movie, make sure you don’t turn it off right as soon as you see the Unit Production Manager’s name flash onscreen. There’s a goodie waiting for you 90ish seconds later.
SNL with Ariana Debose: I wasn’t sure if and when SNL was coming back a week or so ago. They took their sweet, sweet time with an announcement and bringing in Ariana Debose was a welcome if not unusual surprise. Debose, who ruled in both “West Side Story” and “Schmigadoon” this past year, is fairly low-profile when it comes to hosts.
Was her booking a result of Omicron-related fear from bigger names or did the show want to rally around a potential Oscar nominee?
We’ll never know.
Overall, the episode was good. I know that’s not much of a descriptor but this was one of those shows where nothing was truly spectacular nor did a clunker stink up the joint. Lots of singles and doubles is what I’m trying to say with a few home runs and triples sprinkled in. No strike outs though.
It’s been over a month since the last one but here’s my official baseball style rankings of all sketches on the air.
Eric Adams Press Conference: Chris Redd had what seemed like his biggest night at the show yet. Stepping in as the new Mayor-elect, he captured Adams’ voice: the emphasis on swag (he’s bringing us out of “New York’s swagless existence”), the bungling of sensitive topics (RE: unskilled workers, he says, “if you were better at life, you would have a desk”), the roasting of reporters and the over-reliance on his police experience (“I was a cop for over 222 years”). This was a true comic creation. Surprised that it made it to air though considering SNL usually avoids material that is “local.”
Weekend Update: At this point, Jost and Che are major celebrities based on crowd reaction alone. Weekend Update is regularly met with rowdy applause and this week, the two anchors earned it. Three jokes made me full-on LOL. To avoid giving away the best bits, I’ll just say my favorites were on Biden’s approval rating, Taco Bell subscriptions and eye patches. All worth seeking out. Interestingly, there was only a single correspondent this week; usually there’s two. The lone guest Elmo, in the news for a feud with pet rock Rocco, felt forced and hammy. It was an instance where they were making fun of something where the original was funnier. However, a cutaway to Rocco’s family of rocks saved the guest spot from completely sinking.
Message from the President Cold Open: James Austin Johnson always scores. His Biden blaming Omicron’s overexposure on everyone seeing “Spider-Man” at the same time really pops here; this sketch is trademark JAJ too- the guy is a true pop-culture nerd and infusing that into his political impressions brings a new dimension to the tropes we’ve seen played out for years. Also, of note, Pete Davidson got a standing ovation when he entered like he was Kramer or something.
NBA on TNT: Bowen Yang as a disinterested, literally above it all Yao Ming can come back to the show anytime. As for the actual game of the sketch, “the NBA is so depleted they’re using regular people,” it’s a fantasy of mine that I dreamed of for years. To see it played out in such painful fashion for us normies was the cherry on top I didn’t know I needed.
Sappho: I embarrassingly couldn’t point out where this sketch was going when it began. Anna asked me what I thought the joke was and I guessed that it would be Mikey Day correcting Debose and McKinnon’s characters poems about Lesbian love; nope. The actual bit that completes the translations of lost, ancient poems with modern Lesbian relationship complaints is much sharper. “We cannot get another dog. We are maxed out on dogs. That being said, I found a feral pregnant cat behind the grocery store” was a banger. By adding punchlines to poetry, this sketch found a formal lyricism that is rarely found when writing jokes.
“Family Matters” reboot: This would have been a full-on home run. Gritty Urkel is 100x funnier than his hammy sitcom character. Only reason I’m knocking points off is this sketch went three beats too far losing the playfulness in the process. First minute is perfection though.
Winter Formal: The “two characters” talk to the camera about their business formula is a bit played out to me but this sketch put a new spin on their pitch by having Pete Davidson (doing what seems like a Sandler impression) and Sarah Sherman roast their son who “wouldn’t even know where to start” that would be taking young ladies to the winter formal. The jokes here punch down on a specific type of nerd and soon veer into gross-out territory. Will give credit where it’s due though- I appreciate that they subverted the “parents that are TOO proud of their kid” stereotype.
New Governess: This “Sound of Music” parody was what they call in improv “crazy town.” Here, the Von Trapps’ neighbor children’s new head of household belts non-sequitur parodies in the place of actual “Sound of Music” standards. It’s goofy and makes an astute point- some of the lyrics in “Do Re Mi” make absolutely no sense even if the new, anachronistically inaccurate ones about Homer Simpson and Jamie Foxx in “Ray” aren’t much better.
Ariana Debose monologue: Debose singing with McKinnon is good, clean fun (even when the two of them are hinting at innuendos) but it’s hard to rate a performance piece on the show that’s not pure comedy on a comedy scale so a single will have to do.
Kitchen Staff: This exercise in odd voices and costumes was a classically bold 5-to-1 sketch. Supremely weird, bordering on funny and absurd and then oddly sentimental at its end. I admire its willingness to be so freaking strange even if it's at the expense of actual laughs.
Also of note: “All On Me,” the cut sketch might have been the true best Chris Redd sketch of the night. His rapper character stuck footing an enormous bill that keeps ballooning perfectly captures money anxiety all over a hook-y beat. Definitely worth your three minutes if you haven’t seen it yet.
Next week, Will Forte hosts. Can’t freaking wait. I love the pandemic-induced random host roulette.
Fly on the Wall with Dana Carvey and David Spade: Former SNLers doing a podcast about SNL? Yo, sign me right up. To debut the new pod, the funnymen dropped two episodes with guests Rob Lowe and Chris Rock. They’re both essential.
Lowe and Carvey swap Lorne impressions (apparently Lorne said, “Only 900 of us are funny on the planet”) and tell behind the scenes stories like how the “Bohemian Rhapsody” scene in “Wayne’s World” absolutely blew the roof off of a test screening. Best of all though was Lowe’s anecdote about wearing fat suit prosthetics around town while shooting a film (outside of the SNL world) and living like the “other half.” It’s always fascinating to hear celebrities shamelessly acknowledge their fame in a somewhat tactless way. Great listen.
Somehow, the Rock episode was even better. I laughed heartily at the line about how he didn’t stay at the after-parties with the cast way back when because “Jackie Robinson wasn’t hanging out with Pee Wee Reese.” He’s a Hall of Fame level podcast guest. A quick story about his audition for the show where Dana Gould crushed in front of Lorne lets us in on a piece of lost SNL history- Gould could have theoretically been Adam Sandler had the show chosen him instead. Toward the end of the podcast, Rock shared his most profound thought of all, “People need humans to talk. In ancient Greece and Rome, they had philosophers. Then religion. Now, stand up. We’re the last of the speakers.” Not sure how true it is, but when it came out, it sounded beautiful.
There’s so much more. If you’re a fan of any of the names mentioned above, I highly recommend listening.
WTF with Bob Saget: When a celebrity passes, Maron generously re-posts the episode with a bit of commentary memorializing the recently deceased. It’s a nice tradition and honestly, I can’t think of a better way to mourn the dead than listening to them on a podcast they probably forgot they appeared on; you get to hear them at their truest, goofiest self. After somber strings play in place of the typical show theme, the actual interviews from 2010, 2014 and 2017 begin and Saget and Maron are hysterical together. Saget jokes about his dad’s nose being as big as one from Mount Rushmore, his favorite episode of “Full House” being “the last one” and how “Jews will always tell you what they ate.”
Some of the three-part episode doesn’t age well- there’s a lot of Louis CK and Woody Allen praise (Saget won the student Academy Award and didn’t accept the award just like Woody which is admittedly pretty punk). Plus, there are many ironic jokes about Saget’s death. Seems like this happens every time you listen to an old episode from someone who is now gone. I guess it’s inevitable but it doesn’t make it any less sad.
Saget, you brought us joy for so many years, and this podcast appearance did so again posthumously. You are certainly missed.
Also, fun fact, he kept all the “Full House” tapes in his garage.
• Expect a small little comedy thing from me next week.
Until then, please keep enjoying your swagless existence