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Comedy Stray Notes January 9, 2022
On a new kind of podcast, a lost SNL documentary and a truly great comedy special
Comedy Stray Notes
• The definition of what a podcast can be is constantly expanding. I used to associate the medium with funny interviews not realizing that there was room for the creation of a much larger universe in a .wav file posted on the internet.
My friend Clayton Porter’s “The Finals In Phoenix” is of those ambitious universe-builders.
The three-episode pod, adapted from a gripping short story of Clayton’s, tells the tale of a group of overly superstitious Phoenix Suns fans in July 2023 obsessed with the team’s fate. While grounded, this sports comedy soon veers into the supernatural. It’s also an homage to those obsessed with the belief that their actions can alter the course of a game they have no part in while also pointing out how futile their efforts really are. Well, except for one person who really can change the course of what’s happening on the court.
I’m getting ahead of myself though.
Incorporating real Suns history (Bo Outlaw, Shawn Marion and Tom Gugliotta references are a gift for any Suns die-hard) with near-future scenarios, the story rewards basketball fans by honoring the past and playfully imagining how the game evolves within the next year. One recurring bit about how corporate arenas’ names across the leagues gets increasingly loonier over the next 18 months stands out as a humorous yet scarily realistic prediction of what’s to come.
Featuring chameleon-like narration by Chet Gole who voices every single character with compassion and a smirk, “The Finals in Phoenix” is a funny, moving and exceptionally produced series that rewards listeners at every turn. This is an immersive, cinematic furthering of the form that goes far above and beyond the written word. It’s an experience.
Plus, there’s an impeccably placed “In the Air Tonight” drop that gave me goosebumps.
• I’ve said it 100 times and I’ll say it again: comedy is better when it’s connected by a unifying thread. A special or an act with a theme is always more engaging than a disparate string of jokes. Pete Stegtmeyer’s “Pete-T.S.D.” is a fascinating and often laugh out loud 47-minute YouTube special that not only threads all its material together, it also soberly examines life during and after time spent in the military.
To begin, Pete ambles onstage for what seems like an extended riff on the new hit show “Squid Game” before subtly tying it into his wartime experience. From there, clever P.O.W.’s (plays on words, not “prisoners of war,” heh heh) abound. I want to spoil one joke so badly about an audience of one but won’t because you deserve to get to hear it for the first time yourself.
In addition to the strong punchlines, Pete brings a lived-in humanity and humility to his anecdotes. One about sharing a plane ride with Dave Attell and Artie Lange that inspired him to start performing for the other troops led to the special’s best joke about a piece of crowd work he used to do with his fellow soldiers. By imbuing these stories with a level of truth that shows “Hey, I really lived this,” there’s an air of credibility to this special that’s typically missing from folks like me just doing make-’em-ups.
Bonus: There’s a story about Dustin Diamond AKA Screech from “Saved in the Bell” in here that is so perfect, you won’t believe it’s true.
• Food reaction videos rarely have anything to say. Every time I watch one, it’s just some schmo trying some new trendy thing and going, “Mmmm, that IS really good.” Yawn. There’s only one person who’s halfway decent at them and that’s Corey B who has turned watching other people make strange dishes into an art form. The TikTok sensation finds wild things to eat, recreates them showing folks that it doesn’t take a trained chef to make inventive foods and finally demonstrates how delicious it tastes with a surprised facial expression.
Corey B’s Toks are fast, filled with goofy jokes and teach a valuable lesson- you can turn anything that tastes good into something that tastes even better.
• Saw myself a bona fide Oscar contender, HBO series and a few other odds and ends this week. Here’s a too long recap of it all.
“CODA” (2021): This film was predicted to be a major player this awards season after taking home the U.S. Grand Jury Prize, U.S. Dramatic Audience Award, and a Special Jury Ensemble Cast Award (yes, I copied and pasted that from Wikipedia) and after catching it at home this week, it’s easy to see why.
“CODA,” or “Children of Deaf Adults” shines a spotlight on a mostly deaf family in Massachusetts. I say “mostly deaf” because in this family of four, only high school age daughter Ruby has the ability to hear. Both parents (Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin, both bringing a jubilant energy) and her brother rely on her to be their full-time interpreter. The only problem is Ruby imagines a life where she becomes a singer. Classic push-pull.
Yes, the screenplay follows every familiar beat of the hero’s journey but what separates this movie from the rest of the coming of age genre is its full-on embrace of the hard of hearing community. The film never looks down upon the disabled treating them with a reverence and warmth that allows them to be funny, fully-realized characters rather than victims.
Toward the end, I have to admit I felt the film’s first false note. When a montage appeared onscreen, I got discouraged that the movie was going to wrap up in a predictable, sappy way. Just then, it upended all my expectations. As the kids say, “Ya love to see it.” YOU CAN’T GO WRONG WITH THIS HEART-WRENCHING, SATISFYING AND SMART CROWD PLEASER (Streaming on Apple TV).
“How to with John Wilson” Season Two (2021): Last year, I wrote about Season One of this show saying it, “revels in catching mundane moments that are so mundane you never even considered them for comedic fodder” and “This is everything a comedy show should be: comfort food but also eye opening.”
Nothing has changed.
A year and six episodes later, “How To” and its New York City b-roll is just as delightful and maybe even better than it was in its first go-round.
Last time we watched, Anna Paone and I voraciously binged this show hungry for its new voice. Now that we’ve come to learn just how unique and life-affirming this hilarious program is, we spread episodes out for weeks to properly savor them.
In this season, the star and rarely seen narrator Wilson teaches audiences “How to invest in real estate,” “How to drink wine,” “How to find a spot,” “How to throw out your batteries,” “How to remember your dreams” and “How to be spontaneous.”
He never really gets to the bottom of any of these questions; more than anything, Wilson simply uses these prompts as an excuse to show off his poetic sense of humor observing the city, interviewing unexpected fringe members of society and casually dropping self-deprecating backstory. I had no idea Wilson made a feature film called “Jingle Berry” right out of high school or acted as a defendant on court TV; now I do.
For me though, the season’s undisputed highlight comes in its penultimate episode when Wilson visits a small but passionate “Avatar” convention. There, he meets a group of hardcore Na’vi devotees who get to the sad, yet surprisingly deep meaning about why the movie resonates with them in a way other motion pictures don’t. This short segment is just the right mixture of pathos and absurd; Wilson lovingly celebrates this group without ever forgetting that this is a comedy show. It’s a delicate balancing act and one that reminds you of what the juxtaposition of images can achieve all in a single frame.
Note: The show’s writer’s room includes aggro comic persona extraordinaire Connor O’Malley and Guggenheim Fellowship honoree Susan Orlean.
This warrants a watch based on that simple fact alone.
• A month or so ago, a nine-minute behind the scenes clip of Jason Sudeikis talking about his SNL tenure was making the rounds on YouTube. When I say “making the rounds,” I mean it kept showing up as my “What to watch next.” Finally, I gave in to the algorithmic powers that be and tuned in. For fans of the show or Sudeikis, it’s a heckuva watch.
In this short video, Sudeikis explains that he first attended the show when his uncle George Wendt hosted. More great, little comedy history footnotes follow. For example, I had no idea that Sudeikis wrote on “Punk’d,” auditioned to be a Weekend Update anchor while he was just a writer for SNL or got the job as a cast member after putting himself out there dancing in a Tom Brady sketch.
The video then closes on a bittersweet note detailing Sudeikis’ final appearance on the show. He didn’t get his goodbye sketch on the air- thanks to this video, we finally get to see what could have been.
“Smartless” with Jerry Seinfeld: Remember how I trashed podcasts for simply being funny conversations at the beginning of this newsletter? I might have said something about “not advancing the form?” Well, truth be told, sometimes I don’t mind. Especially when it’s Jason Bateman, Will Arnett and Sean Hayes talking shop with Jerry Seinfeld.
Here, the four of them share an easy rapport gabbing about how critic’s choice award mean more, how to say “No, thank you,” when fans ask for autographs and how Jerry gets to talk about career stuff with his family for just a few minutes at dinner before boring them to tears.
As always, Jerry gives his all to the conversation, sharing the priceless observation about how he prefers comedians to show him something he’s never seen before rather than having them try and change his mind about something. I’d argue that an observation we’ve never seen before might change our minds but I digress.
Best of all, Jerry goes into the weeds, explicitly sharing plot points and bits from his upcoming “Pop Tarts space race” Netflix movie. It’s almost like you’re in the studio where it’s being pitched. I’ll be the first to say it: the man who made “Seinfeld” and “Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee” has a knack for making his projects sound good.
Side note: I learned from this episode that comedy writer Spike and cue card God Wally Feresten are brothers.
Side note to the side note: “Jaws” composer John Williams’ son is the lead singer of Toto. Couldn’t help myself.
- My friend Tom Scudamore casually mentioned to me that there’s an A&E SNL documentary from 2002 floating around on YouTube. Now having seen it, I’d like to add that t’s a humdinger and a must-watch for all Lorne-aholics. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that this is the de facto documentary about the show.
Framed over the course of the week that Gwyneth Paltrow hosted in November 2001, the doc lets rarely heard from voices like bandleader Lenny Pickett (that guy that’s always sitting behind the host laughing during the monologue) and director James Signorelli have a moment in the sun instead of just Lorne (who is described as the show’s high school principal) and the cast (although there’s plenty from an anxious Ferrell who doesn’t want to overstay his welcome, a nervous Fey and cocky Kattan who “doesn’t want to be 60 and playing Mango”).
There’s footage from cut sketches that show an alternate history where maybe Dean Edwards would have gotten a better shot on the show had his pieces made it to air. There’s even a moment where disgraced members of the SNL family Al Franken and Horatio Sanz are seen back to back. There’s a little bit of everything is what I’m saying.
Perhaps the most interesting moment though comes from new writer Emily Spivey who “bluffs” a sketch idea for the Monday meeting with the host. It gets a laugh but the sketch doesn’t get further after that. Anyhow, that got me thinking. We really need a history of the great bluffs in Monday pitch meetings.
Someone at NBC: Please make this happen pronto for the 14 people in the world that would be excited by this idea..
• I am still a 33-year-old man active on TikTok. Please don’t shame me for the choices I’ve made in life.
Anyhow, I semi-recently posted a new mashup featuring a so-good-you-can’t-believe-it’s-not-the-real-thing version of Dean Martin’s excellent “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime” that I think is worthy of a listen. It starts with a crackly melancholy and morphs into a full-blown party banger. At least that’s what I think.
• RIP Bob Saget. RIP Sidney Poitier. RIP Peter Bodganovich. RIP Betty White. Rough couple weeks. Also, sorry if I’m breaking the news to you here.
Signing off for now