Discover more from Matt Levy's Comedy Stray Notes
Comedy Stray Notes June 28, 2022
On a last creative hurrah, roast battle tips, season 3 of "Barry," new "What We Do In the Shadows" content, Lena Dunham's upcoming movie and SO MUCH MORE (yes, there really is so much more)
• Experienced parents always tell you the same thing before you have a kid:
“Don’t expect to sleep very much.”
It’s kind of a terrifying thing to hear— you’re going to have to go through the most difficult, important task of your adult sleep while regularly not receiving enough rest?
That’s just wrong.
Anyhow, I figured while I’m up and exhausted, I selfishly wanted to have a big project that was filmed but not edited. That way, I could remain creatively satisfied pecking away at the Adobe Premiere timeline while physically and emotionally bankrupt.
So, on Sunday, June 5, I made that dream a reality and filmed an adaptation of my one-act play “Dungeons.”
This was my first time adapting from the stage to the screen and something I’d highly recommend. Having seen this script played out dozens of times, I knew where all the emotional beats were (thanks to my wife Anna who directed the play version of the script and blocked the heck out of it too), already punched up the jokes and watched the actors evolve their performances to a lived-in space where it wasn’t something that needed to be worried about on set.
To bridge the gap from page to stage to screen, I enlisted the help of the most talented folks I knew.
My first move was bringing back the star of the play, Manny Simmons, who breathed life into the script and everything he touches. Then, because our lead actress from the stage production was unavailable, I brought Mecca McDonald onboard who was off-book and ready to take on this two-hander with just two weeks' notice. Third up, I enlisted Dianna Fuller, one of my favorite NJ actresses, to play their mother.
Boom. Cast complete.
Next up, the crew.
I was excited to hire Arizona State’s all star camera squad nabbing both undisputed cinematography MVP Andy Hendrix and AC extraordinaire David Cano in one fell swoop.
Of course, I had to have Anna Paone— the OG stage director, my wife, my muse—helping in a creative capacity. So, she took over assistant/co-director duties assisting with blocking the scenes, making sure the screenplay was recited word perfect, giving notes and keeping us on a tight schedule.
Rounding out the team was the two Chrises. We had sound man Chris Condren who made sure every one of our 29 takes (we only rolled 29 times on a 12-hour shoot day but there are six hours of footage!) sounded absolutely pristine and D&D consultant Chris Gilbert who ensured that every move our dungeon master character in the film made rang true. He even painted a few of the scene’s pivotal props himself. Plus, he crewed out a whole second day for us getting the set right.
Finally, we couldn’t have made this movie without finding the right basement. I searched far and wide almost going all the way out to my friend’s Flemington, New Jersey home where I would have housed the cast and crew at a sketchy motel nearby before remembering that my comic pal Mary Martin had an apartment with the perfect, homey ‘80s basement vibe (I knew this because she once hosted a genius show from her apartment where she watched her favorite comics from her bed). I asked if we could use her spot and two weeks later, she was back on her bed watching us film.
As for the production itself, filming 18 pages and having 15-20 unique angles is a lot to cover in a day. It turns out it was a tad too much. With any shoot, the first shot always takes way too long to fire off and by the end of the allotted ten hours to film, you’re scrambling. As we were hurtling toward wrap time, I had to slash ideas and made some boneheaded mistakes in the process. Basically, the movie is about 93% of what I imagined it would be because of my own shortcomings.
Either way, I’m very proud of everything we did that day.
Now, I can’t wait to edit and hope my little friend (that’s code for baby) absorbs some of the fun I had that day on set in the quiet moments where we have nothing to do but sit around at home.
• Roasts are one of the oddest phenomena in mirth making. These shows are the only place where it’s not only socially acceptable to be a jerk but encouraged.
If this is something you’ve always wanted to partake in. I highly recommend looking into my friend Fluke Human’s brilliant oversimplification of all the steps needed to rule at insult contests.
My favorite of all was the facetious step one: “BE AFRAID. Your personal and professional life hinges on the outcome.”
That perfectly encapsulates how one feels before a roast. Like it’s the most important thing in the world but at the end of the day it means nothing.
• I’ve detailed relentlessly upbeat dialect coach Jordan Yanco’s gift for diverse sounding gab here before— the guy is a future whisperer for stars looking to perfect an accent they’ve yet to master.
Now, Jordan’s finally gotten the platform he deserves to take him to the next level. A few weeks back, he appeared on the “Today Show” to help the coarse acting anchors learn how to nail dialects, hone in on minute details zeroing in on specific words and bring a bit of authenticity to their roles in a goofy stage mystery dubbed “Murder at Studio One.”
Heck, Yanco’s so talented he even helped Al Roker breathe some life into his character.
A fun watch and nice to see the typically stiff talk show hosts break out of their shells with Yanco’s help.
Good stuff here.
• I’m still catching up on writing about all the TV, movies, videos and trailers I’ve seen over the past month.
It’s a daunting, Sisyphean task but one I’m here for, for no other reason than I like to punish myself.
So, here goes nothing (it gets long).
“Barry” Season Three (2022): After a brutally lengthy hiatus, Bill Hader’s singular action comedy drama series that I would call a sad epic about mental illness returned for an eight-episode order and concluded just a few weeks back.
It was a trip. “Barry” is tenser, funnier, stranger and more well shot (one long motorcycle sequence will leave even the most cynical cinephile breathless) than almost anything else on TV and made me wonder on multiple occasions “Is that actor good or just weird?”
Plus, a scene with a literal “bomb app’s” customer service team was pound for pound one of the smartes, wackiest t scenes I’ve seen on any show this calendar year.
Over the course of eight episodes, we see a depressed, all over the place Barry (Hader) continue to take out innocent folks whom he was hired to kill even if he’s not really present. Reality is simply too overwhelming. He breaks down, tries to piece everything back together and then finally accepts his fate. Friends will try to end him. New characters are added (somewhat arbitrarily if I’m being honest) to attempt the same Herculean task of taking our titular character out with no luck. Where he ends up at the end of the season is both appropriately surprising and inevitable- a great arc for our antihero.
Meanwhile, most of our B and C stories concern Barry’s soon to be ex girlfriend Sally (played by a steely nerved Sally Goldberg) and rattled former acting coach Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler showing depths I’ve never seen from the former Fonz before).
At the top of the season, Sally is helming a bland, autobiographical television series called “Joplin” which I believe is supposed to mirror all the stresses Hader experiences as a showrunner/writer/director/star of a show. She partakes in vapid press junkets which Hader has confirmed is based on a time he was promoting a movie and an interviewer asked out of nowhere, ‘What do you think of Ben Affleck as the new Batman?” just because they needed a pull quote.
Her show meets an unfortunate demise at the hand of “taste clusters,” which is a real thing at Netflix it turns out.
Meanwhile, Gene’s aim is to take down former/current hitman Barry before realizing he’s ill-equipped. This leads to one of the season’s best moments when Gene tries to kill Barry but fails when his bullets fall before they can be fired. Top notch easing of tension. Ironically, the acting coach didn’t prepare.
Thankfully, Barry wants to repay Gene for his past transgressions and goes to great lengths to get him a single line on a fictional procedural. What makes this difficult? Well, the incredibly likable Winkler is supposedly the most hated person in Tinsel Town. Apparently, he brought a gun to the set of “Full House.”
We’re barely scratching the surface here too.
Final verdict: There was a lot to like and nary a sympathetic character this season. The more I stew, the more I loved this season (Streaming on HBO Max).
*Allison Jones makes an appearance as Allison Jones. Joe Mantegna plays Joe Mantegna. Laura San Giacomo and Vanessa Bayer destroy in small parts. There’s a lot to like for meta showbiz fans like myself.
“Abbott Elementary” (2022): Right out of the gate, this Philadelphia-based ABC series set in an elementary school established itself as the next successor to “The Office’s” mockumentary throne (it should be noted that most episodes are directed by “Office” helmer Randall Einhorn).
In the pilot, “AE” steals moves from the NBC show’s playbook introducing us to our Pam (Janine, played by showrunner/creator Quinta Brunson), her Roy (rapper/comic Zack Fox who doesn’t phone in a single rhyme), her meet cute with our Jim (Gregory played by “Everybody Hates Chris” star Tyler James Williams) and the Michael (Ava, played by the unshakably confident Janelle James who failed up to get the principal gig).
Other archetypes rounded out the core cast: hardcore union loving Philly teacher (“The Parent Trap’s” Lisa Ann Walter absolutely chewing the heck out of any and all scenery), nerdy, woke, can’t stop quote Cornel West, white liberal Jacob (Chris Perfetti- wish we got Eisenberg or Cera but this is a nice compromise) and religious, model teacher Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph, a true comic find).
One could make the argument that they all pass for Dwight.
Then, there’s the Creed stand-in (William Stanford Davis, playing the janitor). You gotta have a Creed.
Although the show hits many similar beats that “The Office” did over the course of its run, “AE” finds its own voice throughout its freshman season. In the very first episode, we meet a teacher who is run out of the school after full-on fighting a child. It was at that moment, I started believing in what this program had to offer.
“AE” scores when it fleshes its characters out like when they demonstrate Janine’s selflessness by having her give her food to her students and boyfriend.
Or when they pay off story beats in surprising ways like having the guest art teacher gussy up “Peter Rabbit” in an inventive scene.
Or when we find out Gregory has been the school’s secret garden whisperer all along.
Or the noir-y “desking” episode which was just fine television all around.
However, I have some complaints. 1) “AE” doesn’t need the mockumentary format. 2) There’s also way too many movie references. 3) They lay the lessons on a bit thick even for a network series. 4) There are a lot of easy metaphor jokes.
I’ll let them all slide though; this show has a lot of mojo and may have single handedly revived appointment viewing sitcom for America. For that alone, it gets a pass.
Final verdict: Excellent comfort food TV that’s fun for the whole family. Sure, some of the show is a bit on the nose but I would argue that’s an intentional choice. It’s hard to dislike something so upbeat, watchable and good natured (Streaming on Hulu).
“Walking and Talking” (1996): Nicole Holofcener’s directorial debut is often hailed as a major comic achievement of ‘90s indie cinema and I can now confirm this claim. Her refreshingly naturalistic low-stakes film about a woman who flails through failed relationship after failed relationship still rings true more than 25 years later.
Featuring all your favorite character actors like Catherine Keener, Anne Heche, Liev Schrieber, Kevin Corrigan (doing his best irritating film school bro) and Vince Pastore (who you might know from “The Sopranos), Holofcener shows off her knack for noticing the funny, small moments in life that might not register as comedy had she not shone a spotlight on them like when a patient wants to leave a therapist and the therapist replies, “Let’s pick a time to help you stop.”
Final verdict: This is the rare semi-plotless slice of life film that actually works. Populated with awkward conversation, “Walking and Talking” is like if “Seinfeld” peeked into the interior life of JUST Elaine Benes and skipped all the Jerry, George and Kramer stuff. Essentially, “WaT” is what every student film dreams of making but never even comes close to (Streaming on Amazon Prime for $3.99).
“Something Wild” (1986): So, this is the movie that gave Ray Liotta his start.
And what a start.
Thing is, he doesn’t show up until a good hour into this Manic Pixie Dream Girl romp.
“SW” starts in a diner where a straitlaced Jeff Daniels makes eyes at bad girl Melanie Griffith. She busts him for skipping out on his bill. Suddenly, the family man and wild child are improbably on the road together for the adventure of a lifetime where they make love, fight and run out on more bills.
The two head to Griffith’s hometown and that’s when we find out the story’s true engine— Griffith is using Daniels. She wants to show mom that she married an upstanding citizen. Turns out he’s the Manic Pixie Dream Man.
Then, she hopes to continue the charade into her high school reunion complete with a groovy ‘80s house band.
That’s where Liotta’s chaotic, punk, ex-prisoner ex boyfriend to Griffith finally shows. Hilarity, real scares and clever screenplay turns abound. Just when you think Daniels is out, they twist us to bring him right back in.
Final verdict: Daniels, serving as the audience surrogate, guides us on a truly wild, unpredictable ride that never once wears out its welcome (Streaming on Criterion).
• Lastly, let’s get into the tidbits. The scraps. The stray pieces of internet glory I caught this week and then we’ll call it.
LATE NIGHT SETS
DJ Demers absolutely wrecked on Fallon. The hard of hearing comic was allegedly the first deaf comedian to do late night and made a meal out of his five minutes. To kick things off, Demers had an interpreter do all of his jokes and then nailed bits about how he was in the middle of a very quiet beef between the deaf and hard of hearing. Even his stuff where he wasn’t leaning into his deaf identity was particularly memorable and he closed on a well-executed callback. A fantastic TV debut.
Erik John’s modern Forrest Gump made me laugh until I cried. This timely take sees America’s favorite dim witted yokel traveling to Epstein’s island and storming the Capitol. A real “I wish I thought of that” slice o’ brilliance.
The Sidequestz channel repeatedly made me laugh over the past few days. This TikToker poses as a D&D NPC, security guard and knight on the street and stays in character with oblivious passersby for our amusement. Some strangers write him off completely, others take him seriously. Both reactions are equally funny. Just when you thought you’d seen everything on the web, TikTok makes you rethink what comedy can be all over again. Good, good stuff.
“What We Do In The Shadows” is already back? It’s a beautiful thing. Can’t believe we’re going to meet Nandor’s 37 wives and baby Colin Robinson so soon in (checks notes) season four. This funny, fast paced trailer gives me hope that this upcoming run will be just as flawless as the three seasons that preceded it.
One gripe- wish they’d have cooled it with all the spoilers for the upcoming season in this 90-second preview but I’ll allow it since I’m so excited to see where the gang goes next.
Lena Dunham’s “Sharp Stick” looks much better than the negative reviews let on. This portrayal of the aftermath, messiness and manipulation of a misguided affair between a married man (Jon Bernthal) and his virginal babysitter appears to be handled with sensitivity and wit. Plus, Bernthal crawling back to his wife and frank and funny discussions of sex had me rolling here. Hopefully, “Sharp Stick” delivers on that promise and gives us the gut busting thriller this trailer offers and doesn’t slog like the critics suggest.
Finally, I didn’t know I needed a modern “Election”/”Rushmore” mashup but “Honor Society” taught me otherwise. This sly nod to the past with a bit of modern technical flair updates the classics with its own charms. Also, you got McLovin as a school counselor. And kung fu. Sign me up.
• Lots, lots more to come next week. Too much. I’m already stressed about it.
See ya then, bubster