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Comedy Stray Notes January 31, 2022
On cameo roles, acting onstage, "Succession," the unfair cancellation of "Mr. Corman" and a tweet so dumb you have to see it to believe it
• There is no greater acting role than the cameo. You get all the credit that the other performers who worked harder receive and somehow people remember you more because you were in the thing…less? Sign me up.
This past week, Barak Ziv and Carlos Garcia asked me to make a quick appearance in their hilarious four-minute short and once I learned I only had to show up and say three lines, I was in. No memorization AND all the glory is what I’m all about.
Barak and Carlos do the heavy lifting playing coworkers over Zoom waiting for the boss (spoiler: me) struggling to make small talk while I log in. The awkwardness is relatable and the perpetually escalating lying leads to surprising, uncomfortable conversation culminating with a quick moment with yours truly.
Full disclosure: it took me longer to write these three short paragraphs than it did to act in this short.
• All that being said, acting is not my strong suit. However, this week, I was asked in a pinch to play a small part in a new, upcoming play called “Royal Oak” with Anna Paone.
As you may recall, I love a good low stakes role, so I said I was in.
Soon after, I was sent eight (!) pages of dialogue. That seemed like quite a bit more than a cameo to me. Turns out “Royal Oak” is in the neighborhood of 150 pages making it a small part in the grand scheme of things for this play.
Rather than dropping out, I decided to dive in and run lines every chance I could with Anna to fine-tune my scene as a “creepy social worker.” With two weeks before the play, I felt like I got a decent grasp on the dialogue and headed to actual rehearsal with a bit of pep in my step.
When the director called me up for my scene, I wore a mask and did my best.
He called cut before it was over and said, “This scene is dead.”
For a second, I was pretty angry. I was asked to be in this play without having been seen for a rehearsal and repeatedly claiming, “I’m not a real actor.” Constructive criticism would have been helpful.
However, I think my fragile ego needed that hit. When my scene partner and I performed our creepy eight pages a second time, I came to life. Maybe I really was sleepwalking through the scene before. Not sure if I’ll ever be as good again as when my talent was called into question but if you want to see the play, you can buy tickets here. It runs Feb. 9 through 12 for five shows.
• Matt Vita quietly produces timely, banger comedy hip-hop crossovers that deserve way more attention. His latest, “COVO” featuring David Rey Martinez clocks in at less than 90 seconds and has the catchies, most 2022 chorus of all time with “I got antibodies, I got antibodies.” Keep an eye out for subtle background jokes like Vita and Martinez’s post-COVID checklist which includes both “Get more COVID tests” and “Order Domino’s.”
• The TikTok of the week this past seven-day period was a no-brainer for me. Bo Ballew’s mock interview at the unemployment center for an important job (you gotta discover what it is yourself- I’m not gonna ruin this amazing reveal) is laugh out loud funny, original and deceptively simple. Wish I had thought of this dynamite concept myself.
• Had a bit of a TV viewing victory lap and finished multiple shows that I’d been chipping away at for months yesterday. I’ll miss these shows but thankfully one is coming back and sadly the other was prematurely canceled.
“Succession” (2018 - ): Imagine if “The Office” had higher stakes or “Hamlet” was set at Fox News and you’ll get what might be the best modern corporate satire meets exploration of dysfunctional families of any show on television. In its three seasons, “Succession” has deftly made light of delusional wealthy people who have no real skills— my favorite scene in the series is when Logan Roy (a ferocious Brian Cox, in the patriarchal role), the leader of a major media conglomerate, asks for a printed out copy of an article rather than reading from his phone— use their high social standing in greedy, self-serving ways.
Logan’s children, or those who are in line to succeed him as the head of his company Waystar Royco, are acting powerhouses, Kendall (Jeremy Strong, I held off the entire series to read the infamous New Yorker profile about his method acting practices and it was 100% worth the wait), Shiv (Sarah Snook, master of finishing sentences with, “yeah?”), Roman (Kieran Culkin, if you don’t know the scene that inspired the meme where he’s embarrassed in a boardroom you’re missing out) and Connor (Alan Ruck, yes, Cameron from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” playing the out of the loop older brother), are the stars of the show. Their jockeying to be their pops’ favorite is certainly entertaining but the series is stolen by newly minted classic comic duo Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun- the latest in a long line of stammering nervous comic actors following Michael Cera and Jesse Eisenberg) and Tom Wambsgans (Matthew McFayden, somehow able to make us care about the world’s most insecure douche), the two family outsiders who know they’re more disposable than Logan’s direct descendants.
Seasons one and two are a blast putting twists on familiar TV tropes such as the surprise party, ailing elderly family member hospital visit, bachelor party, infidelity and large wedding making them feel completely new. Give your audience great characters like this show does and any scenario comes to life. Plus, excellently observed moments like Kendall logging into a conference call as “Little Lord F*ckleroy” or interim CEO Gerri getting caught screenshotting her name on a TV ticker, don’t hurt either. There’s a lot to like.
Season Three starts slowly though. The first few episodes felt like a pale imitation of the show that had blown me away. Most episodes seemed to blend together. Power struggle this, Logan Roy ailment that. Had these great characters run their course? Just when I started to lose faith, the show found its footing in the final three episodes. If you haven’t seen this show, just try Season Three Episode Seven “Too Much Birthday.” If that doesn’t do it for you, you might be a lost cause. ONE OF THE MOST COMPELLING 29 HOURS OF TELEVISION I’VE EVER SEEN (give or take a few episodes) (Streaming on HBO Max).
“Mr. Corman” (2021): To this show’s detriment, it starts very slowly. I watched the first three episodes about an anxious fifth grade teacher living in modern Los Angeles played by Joseph Gordon Levitt back in October and then sort of forgot about this quirky, drab show with musical interludes. Early this year, I started back up on a whim while doing the dishes and laundry. I’m so glad I did.
By being patient, I discovered a compassionate show with a penchant for standalone episodes about side characters like JGL’s roommate (Arturo Castro) who has a life outside of the sitcom’s protagonist (episode four) and another about all the different twists and turns JGL’s life could have taken (episode seven) in what I would call the most stunning half hour of TV I’ve seen all year. Reminds me why I got into film in the first place.
JGL wears his heart on his sleeve for this series paying homage to influences like Harry Nilsson’s underappreciated album “The Point” and creating a whimsical, painterly like imagery evoking the best of Michel Gondry.
At its core though, this show is the story of a man who is too tightly wound and needs to let go. In the rare moments when the lead character does break free from the inner trappings of his mind— a glossy, stylized parking lot fight set piece here, a quiet conversation where he reconnects with his father (underplayed by Hugo Weaving) and a scene demonstrating the simple pleasure of rummaging through his past creative work in a pandemic episode— the joy is palpable, earned, alive.
It’s a shame this show was canceled. I’d love to see what they did with another ten-episode order. Give it a try and make sure you stick around for longer than three episodes. YOU JUST MAY MAY DISCOVER YOUR NEW FAVORITE SHOW (Streaming on Apple TV).
*Interestingly, this show was filmed in New Zealand at the height of 2020 mania and was almost exclusively focused on the early days of the pandemic in the US with characters taking COVID super seriously. The irony was not lost on me.
“Fly on The Wall'' with Tina Fey: Any name-droppy show about former SNL cast members is going to score with me. There’s nothing I enjoy listening to more. I wish I had more intellectual pursuits but this is what pleases my ear canals most.
This episode was a gas- but that’s to be expected with Tina Fey at the wheel. Riffs about Kevin Hart having forgotten he was on a bodybuilding show, Adam Sandler telling Fey, “Nice hustle” after she bombed at a charity show in her early days of stardom and a story of how “Mom Jeans” came to be were exactly what I came for. Better yet, Fey got into the details of her husband Jeff Richmond’s job as a composer for comedy shows. It was fascinating to hear how he has to exercise patience with comedians who aren’t musically trained which led to a story from Spade about how Chris Farley didn’t have the wherewithal to do audio tracks on the set of “Black Sheep” way back when.
My favorite moment though was when the three all gush over current cast members James Austin Johnson and Bowen Yang; I don’t know why but it’s comforting to learn that comedy legends are also comedy nerds like they rest of us and keep up with the show even after they’ve left.
“Saturday Night Live” with Willem Dafoe and Katy Perry: Following last week’s high water mark Will Forte episode, I fully expected a comedown. It’s hard to produce back to back top notch 90-minute batches of comedy and I suspected right.
While there were a few quiet wins in this week’s Dafoe-helmed effort, this was mostly a standard, forgettable entry in the storied comedy show’s never-ending run.
As always, here’s my semi-lazy, baseball-themed rundown of how each sketch fared.
N/A although the dancing mushrooms in Katy Perry’s musical guest performances did make me laugh quite hard.
Now I’m Up: A jam in its own right, this ode to getting up in the middle of the night and staying up certainly rang true. After playing that beat for nearly two minutes, Dafoe appears as a crazed late-night infomercial pitch man. For just a second, the show was operating on all cylinders. Maybe the highlight of the night.
Please Don’t Destroy: The studio audience didn’t react much to the group’s offering this week where Martin befriends a tween much to his pals’ dismay but it really worked for me. PDD’s formula where one of the group members does something weird while the other two riff and overcorrect hits hard again.
Nugenix: This one-note boner joke commercial featuring spokespersons Frank Thomas, Doug Flutie and Willem Dafoe gets points for its willingness to veer into left field and go much stranger than your average erectile dysfunction parody. Heck, the sound effects and facial expressions alone bump it up from a double to a stand up triple.
Office Song: With two minutes left to go in the show, SNL surprised audiences with a super late, “two to one” sketch rather than relegating it to “Cut For Time” land. By putting Dafoe in the surprising position as a temp trying to impress a group of musically in sync office workers, the show finally found his comedic strength as the outsider who can’t get into the rhythm just as the clock ran out. Dafoe’s portrayal of a dweeb here gave me real John Malkovich “Calculator” vibes (if you know, you know).
Weekend Update: OK, I called Dafoe in “Now I’m Up” the highlight of the night but Peyton Manning surprisingly gushing over “Emily In Paris” and Aidy Bryant and Bowen Yang’s cultural critics are a close second and third. Otherwise, it was a fairly standard issue Weekend Update with somewhat easy Biden bits. I have to give credit where it’s due though- Jost and Che’s recurring “Mitch McConnell seen here” bit rocked again.
Beauty and the Beast: A cleverly observed moment from a 30-year-old Disney movie finds the mismatched pair spying via mirror on Belle’s dad finally getting a moment to himself and indulging himself in his alone time. Once the sketch telegraphs that he’ll be doing weird stuff at his place, Dafoe gamely gets as delightfully weird as one could hope for but that’s the gist of it here.
Russia Cold Open: Timely cold opens rarely age well and this one felt a little too disconnected from the cultural zeitgeist to fully connect, especially the soft, random heighten with a middle school consultant. I wish we got a Neil Young/Joe Rogan standoff instead but I’ll settle and give James Austin Johnson well-deserved credit where it’s due- his “I’m going to flame those guys in the comments” in response to a choreographed TikTok was inspired.
Willem Dafoe monologue: Willem D. is one of my favorite character actors and he was serviceable in this opening here playing on his humble Wisconsin roots (who knew?) and explaining his early days in acting admitting he’s “not one of those subtle actors like Nicolas Cage or Al Pacino.” Chuckle-worthy, easy single, base hit.
Tenant Meeting: It’s great to see the whole cast get a chance to shine in these walk-on-a-thon sketches but they’re often such scattered mixed bags that the high highs (Aristotle’s confused middle aged man who uses Google Translate to communicate and Chris Redd’s Robert who is always mistakenly called “Jamarcus”) are evened out by the lows (the NYU students who “lost their baking soda”).
Dog Show: The “let’s describe these cute dogs with offbeat traits” sketches always have nice, small moments (“dog’s fears include the Netflix start up sound”) but rarely surprise anymore. Maybe I’m a sour non-dog owner but this is oft-tread ground on the show.
Good Morning, Columbus: Once again, another sketch that follows a classic formula. Here, it’s the double entendre game. Juvenile, silly and fun, there’s nothing particularly special about Good Morning, Columbus but you may laugh in spite of yourself.
• Earlier this week, fellow comedy consumer extraordinaire Michael Sullivan sent me the excellent four-minute “Comedian Destroys Heckler” short. If you think you’ve seen every variation, settle down. You haven’t. This one goes weirder, deeper and more cinematic than any other entry I’ve seen. Just stay for the whole thing and enjoy this delightfully bizarre piece all the way to its natural conclusion.
• Now, folks, your moment of zen: this review of “Knives Out” is so brilliantly, loopily dumb in its misguided logic it has to be seen to be believed.
• Last week, I promised something really cool in this newsletter. It should be here next week with a full explanation for the delay.
Your patience is appreciated, fam