Discover more from Matt Levy's Comedy Stray Notes
Comedy Stray Notes July 4, 2022
On my wife's sweet movie she just starred in, an outrageous, crowd-pleasing play, "Eraserhead," "Marcel The Shell" and a surprise message all the way at the end PLUS SO MUCH MORE (it's kind of a lot)
• On paper, it doesn’t make sense.
Yet, on the second weekend in June, my eight-months pregnant wife Anna Paone, produced and starred in a truncated 25-page version of a feature film she wrote as her last pre-baby hurrah (she and I are into hurrahs).
The movie, titled “In Metuchen,” is one of her many magnum opuses. In it, she tells the story of a pregnant woman (obviously) on the run from her violent, drug dealing baby daddy (Anil Joseph owned this role; I assure you this is not based on me in any way, I swears it!). To get away from the stress-inducing hubbub, she and her friend (played with understated zeal by the great Georgie Exinord) takes refuge at her childhood home with her parents (portrayed by real-life mom Catherine Lamoreaux along with dad stand-in extraordinaire Bob Greenberg) and younger sister (Laura Paone, a hoot acting as a version of herself).
Over the course of the short, Anna meets up with a colorful cast of characters that breathe life into the film. They are the “always gives 150%” Matt Holbert, reliably hilarious Pete Burdette, unbelievably natural Angela Pinero, subtle Julia Stibich, striking Nainesh Patel and chill Joe Beestock who came in on a walk-on role.
Behind the camera, I helmed this three-day production. This was my first time directing a large project that wasn’t something I’d written and, my goodness, it’s much easier to be in charge of something you’re not incredibly precious about. I found myself to be much more flexible, low-maintenance and able to improvise.
As a result, we ideated more shots, threw out even more alternate lines to use in the cutting room than normal and allowed the actors to be more free to flesh out their already lived-in pre-written dialogue since everyone showed up off-book (the most important lesson for any set- make sure your actors know all their lines ahead of time).
I couldn’t have done any of this without the help of a sturdy crew though. Backing me up, I had the gifted cinematographer Michael Seebold (who refused to eat while we filmed), thorough sound man Chris Condren and PA whiz kid Michelle Tang. Although the crew was small, we were mighty and got everything we needed and more.
Movies are never easy to pull off— there are too many intangibles. Somehow, my wife, kicking baby in tow, made it happen. My hat’s off to you. ‘Tis legit, m’lady.
• Mid-week, middle school crony Dylan Graham reached out over text and asked if I’d listened to this week’s episode of “My First Million,” a podcast hosted by my brother Ben’s business partner Shaan Puuri. I hadn’t. He said to tune in around the 44-minute mark.
There, Shaan shouted out Ben who had just stayed at his place. On Ben’s last day, Shaan found Ben drawing at his home. My brother explained that he was taking part in our family’s age-old tradition of concocting birthday posters for each other. This inspired Shaan to talk about our family and how cool my dad Andy Levy is for a good ten minutes.
I’ve never heard someone speak about my family reverentially from an outsider perspective before. Really nice to have a stranger confirm that your parents are as great as you’ve known they were your whole life.
Great job, mom and dad. Someday, I hope to be such a good parent that people I don’t know talk about it on podcasts.
• All week, I’ve been raving to anyone and everyone that Bret Raybould and Cristian Duran’s “Race: The Movie: The Play” is a Broadway-bound crowd pleasing banger of a show in the tradition of “Book of Mormon.”
Last Tuesday, I attended a sold-out, laugh-filled performance that earned a full-on, well-deserved standing ovation at its conclusion with my pal Matt Storrs. From the last row, we saw the play’s reluctant hero, ignorant Wyatt Saveyer (played by Bret), an 1850s driver in the “Green Book” tradition, learn valuable lessons from his enlightened musician passenger Gene Yus (freaking Dean Edwards). Things obviously go haywire and this slapstick Mel Brooks homage spoofs overly preachy tropes from Oscar bait films like painfully obvious metaphors, moments of self realization, Tarantino, copyright law and Tyler Perry.
There are also a lot of jokes. So many jokes. The sheer amount of snarky highbrow bits mixed with shameless fart gags stuffed into their script blew me away. I didn’t know you could stuff that many punchlines into a play without losing sight of the story. Bravo.
Most impressively, the show expertly pulls off the high wire tightrope act of taking on hot-button issues without ever going over the line. As Bret told me, they know what they’re making fun of. It’s bold, gutsy, outrageous and self-aware, like all the best comedy should be.
That’s not even to mention the rest of the jaw-dropping cast.
Rounding out the ensemble are comedy all-stars including Ted Alexandro, Eagle Witt, Mia Faith Hammond, Andre Thompson, Derek Humphrey and Nick Whitmer to name just a few.
Comedy fans, keep an eye out. It doesn’t matter whether this project becomes a movie, play or both, I can guarantee it’ll be huge and you’ll want to get in on the ground floor.
• Quintessential NYC comic Samantha Ruddy appeared on Fallon last week and predictably slayed. In her tight five set, she turned a simple premise about picking up a video game at Game Stop with her mom into a joke that zagged so many times where I expected it to zag, she left me breathless. If you want to see a set that’s a masterclass in misdirects, look no further. This is pure stand up comedy goodness.
• Now for something completely different.
Should you be in the market for an act that defies expectations in a wholly unique way, try out Ryan Dee’s Mr. Pants shtick. Seen most recently on “America’s Got Talent” wowing the judges, Dee owns the stage with charming, inoffensive pant-based wordplay that you can’t help but love. Hell, it even melted Simon Cowell’s sick and twisted heart.
Ryan’s long been a champ at twisting comedy into an unusual package. Can’t wait to see how far this Mr. Pants journey takes him.
• As Anna and I settle into the home stretch of parenthood, we’re staying in more than ever to keep things light.
That means there’s been quite a bit of TV and movie time.
Here’s yet another sampling of everything I’ve completed these past few weeks as we slog through “Sopranos.”
“Reservation Dogs” (2021): This eight-episode series kicked off with a BANG. I’d argue that “Dogs’” pilot is the best I’ve ever seen, making me both genuinely laugh out loud and cry within a 30-minute span. No easy feat.
The rest of the series from Taiki Waititi and Sterlin Harjo does not match these high highs but maintains a leisurely pace that occasionally skews toward fairly heavy subject matter.
Taking place in Oklahoma, the show follows a group of four mischief-making Indigenous teens who steal trucks full of chips, battle other mini-gangs with paintball guns, reconnect with their elders and dream of moving to California.
Without ever getting too preachy, “Reservation Dogs” traffics in contemporary Native American issues like land ownership, what happens when you sell out your community by becoming a cop and honoring your past with sensitivity, warmth and humor.
Featuring quiet cameos from Bill Burr (doing his best to hide the Boston accent), Bobby Lee and stand out stars Lil Mike and Funny Bone, rapping twin brothers who steal the entire series, “RD” is uniquely its own thing occupying an untapped space in the TV world.
Real talk, Lil Mike and Funny Bone deserve a series all of their own.
Final verdict: Not a perfect season but one with a lot of heart, occasional randomness and willingness to be sincere over funny, it’s a winner (Streaming on Hulu; just picked up for a second season as well).
“Severance” (2022): A few months back, Kumail Nanjiani went viral hyperbolically tweeting “The season finale of Severance is one of the best episodes of television I’ve ever seen. I can’t love anything more.”
I sighed. Damn. Now, I HAD to see this series.
Over the course of ten episodes, this Ben Stiller-directed series starring Adam Scott, Britt Lower, Patricia Arquette, Zach Cherry, John Turturro and Christopher Walken (Turturro and Walken have the most unpredictable onscreen relationship I’ve seen…ever) serves as one of the most insightful commentaries on our present reality where we can’t distinguish life from work that I’ve ever seen.
In “Severance’s” reality, employees at a mysterious corporation called Lumon are “severed” from their home lives meaning their work selves don’t know anything about their time spent off the clock and vice versa. Trust me, they explain it many, many times.
Rather than focus on what the work is, the show pecks away at the various mechanisms companies employ to control the minds of their workers. Eventually, our curious subordinates decide to rage against the machine and break the system.
And yes. The finale really is something to behold as advertised.
Trigger warning though: some of “Severance” is truly disorienting, violent and upsetting.
Final verdict: Rarely funny but often surprising, stylish and humane, “Severance” is must-see TV for anyone that’s ever wanted to stick it to the man. Ironically, it’s on Apple TV, which just happens to be one of the world’s largest corporations. I see what they did there. (Streaming on Apple TV, as you may have noticed I just wrote in the last sentence).
Now, let’s all go to the movies.
“Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” (2022): A simple yet complex film that somehow makes you feel closer to the people (or shells) in your life. I’ll admit it, I welled up multiple times watching this emotionally resonant tale of a shell (voiced by Jenny Slate) separated from his shell family.
However, this movie, adapted from a viral web series that had a receptive audience made up of kids and adults in the AMC theater I saw it in, has a lot to say. Observations about people new to film sets, how filmmaking is a type of avoidance for creators, friendships with the elderly, fandom of unusual shows like “60 Minutes” all rang true. The line “Why do I smile? Because it’s worth it” might be the best lesson anyone can take away from any film in history.
Also, the fact that they continually roast documentaries for not being “real filmmaking” is in the running for my favorite running joke in any movie I’ve seen this year.
Plus, “MtSwSO’ is a showcase of what can be done with handcrafted miniatures and stop motion. Each frame is lovingly rendered and somehow makes vomit both hysterical and cute.
Somehow, they even made the annoying story beat where “a character goes viral to solve all of their problems” not make me vomit. That’s a feat in and of itself.
I have minor quibbles with the film— I’d have preferred more interaction with the outside world and a slightly shorter runtime (TV has ruined me)— but it’s hard to complain about something so dang loveable.
Final verdict: Oftentimes, I think this beautiful film was just a pastiche of Slate riffs. That might be what makes “Marcel” so special. It felt like childhood wonder which is really what all movies should aspire to (now in theaters).
“Eraserhead” (1977): You know how you have a ton of movies that you’ve seen eight minutes of, turn off and never finish? That was “Eraserhead” for me for years.
The first ten minutes are a chore to get through.
This time, I told myself I’d power through and I’m very glad I made the push. David Lynch’s debut, which took six years to complete, was as effed up and weird and advertised.
I liked it quite a bit.
Lynch’s movie accomplishes a lot with a little. At times, “Eraserhead” is a fun house version of the queasy jump from aimlessness to adulthood. Our afro-wearing protagonist goes from a space-y, thoughtless existence to meeting his girlfriend’s overbearing parents who serve a chicken with a beating heart to becoming a father in mere minutes.
From there, this 90-minute surreal experimental horror morphs into a scary treatise on parenthood itself as an ill-equipped couple had to take care of a crying baby (well, the infant looks more like the prototype for E.T. than anything else) that couldn’t quiet down for even a minute.
This all leads to “Eraserhead’s” climax which was so disturbing, raw and mean-spirited it made me shake.
Still, jeez, what a movie.
Final verdict: Visceral and just as original as when it was released 45 years ago, this movie isn’t for the faint of heart but definitely as essential as it’s been made out to be. Consider this the anti-”Marcel the Shell” (Streaming on Criterion).
“Withnail and I” (1987): Another classic I watched ten minutes of years ago and couldn’t quite finish.
Having now completed this slow burn, I understand why I couldn’t get all the way through. It’s not all that funny.
There, I said it!
One gag with absurdly salacious headlines at the top of the film made me laugh but that was it.
Known as a cult classic beloved by pretty much everyone who’s anyone in comedy, this two-hander mostly just made me feel uncomfortable. A pair of narcissistic actor buddies go to the countryside to take advantage of one of their uncle’s cottages was tough to sit through. Our two insufferable heroes are preyed upon by a predatory uncle and do everything they can to escape.
That’s exactly how I felt, dudes.
Final verdict: Maybe I’ll get it someday but this movie, which I sat through in its entirety, never did it for me. Feel free to explain to me while I’m wrong. I’d love to know what I missed (Streaming on Criterion).
• Now, for some smaller hits from the week.
- “The Resort,” from the guys who brought you “Palm Springs” and “Mr. Robot” dropped an advert this week and the miniseries looks darker, moodier and funnier than it has any right to. A disintegrating marriage and an unconventional, time traveling murder mystery has perfect binge material potential (Streaming on Peacock).
-Peacock also dropped the teaser for “Shrink,” a series about an amateur therapist this week. Laughed multiple times at the inept analyst and how his patients questioned his every move. Lots of excitement from this camp for this one (Yes, streaming on Peacock).
- Michael Sullivan turned me on to “Shrinkers Pizza,” a short where a pizza place shrinks your kids and…I’m not about to spoil the great joke here. This funny concept is boosted by the plain, cheesy delivery of horrifying truths shared by good natured folks. Made me exclaim, “Holy Shnikees,” I laughed so hard. Highly recommend this 2.5-minute mini masterpiece.
- Social media was flooded this week with tributes to the late, great Nick Nemeroff. I’d never crossed paths with the guy but did pay my respects by checking out his Conan set from 2018. Nick’s superb deadpan and clever one-liners are great but it’s the last three minutes of his tight five where he deconstructs the vapidity of comedy made me an instant fan. I could watch it on a loop and never tire of its meta brilliance. It’s next level stuff.
RIP, Nick. You were a real gem.
• Finally, it’s my bday on Tuesday, July 12. I’ll be 34, meaning I have just one year left in the coveted 18-34 demo.
To celebrate, on Sunday, July 10, I’m going to be doing a reading of the “lost” 1990 “Saturday Night Live: The Movie” screenplay written by Lorne Michael, Robert Smigel, Conan O’Brien and other people you know and love. How did I get my hands on this script? Long story.
Either way, if you’d like to take part, please DM me by Thursday and I’ll add you to the list.
See you then, fam