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Comedy Stray Notes March 1, 2021
On crowd work albums, Tonight Show sets in 2021 and bit part actors in that new "Sonic the Hedgehog" movie
• As much as we all miss live comedy, I’m selfishly going to miss this new, golden age of comics developing and enhancing their comedic voices online. Yeah, jokes onstage in person are fun but I’m enjoying watching folks embrace the DIY and making do with their limited resources whether it be as large as a release of a pre-COVID special, a Tonight Show set (that is technically live, in person comedy but I saw it online so I’ll count it) or visually inventive sketches. Here’s the best of the best of what I peeped this week:
Jake Silberman’s “The Crowd Work Album”: Ah, yes. I remember crowd work. That thing we used to do to start a set to warm up the room and show you had actual chops. Some people did the bare minimum- “What do you do for work?” “You a couple?” and some truly made the off the cuff their specialty. Portland comic Jake Silberman defiantly sits in the latter camp. In his aspirational 51-minute pre-COVID all crowd work special, he leaves no prisoners and keeps the laughs coming for the entirety of its runtime. Every audience member near the stage gets delightfully picked upon- when you’re in the splash zone you’re going to get dissected. In a particularly fun moment, a man in the front row said he didn’t want to be made the subject of Jake’s jokes. Like an old pro, Jake said, “Get here early next time.” From there, he effortlessly moves from a conversation with a failed playwright to platonic friends who met at Santacon to drumline buddies (making up the perfect cross section of Portlanders) all the while making it look easy. The laughs never let up as he weaves in callbacks to audience members who didn’t approve of a couple not living together and rowdy Montana folks in the crowd. This is comedy at its purest; this is what audiences think every show will be; a rollicking, raucous, spontaneous time.
Kenice Mobley on “The Tonight Show”: OK, this is the real, live comedy happening now that I mentioned earlier. I had the biggest smile on my face watching the always funny Kenice have the set of her life on network television. There really is nothing better than watching a peer take the leap from New York City favorite to the national stage. It was especially interesting to see how Fallon has decided to showcase comics outside of the studio. In Kenice’s case, they had Jimmy introduce her in-studio and then cut to her set on a rooftop in front of a socially distanced crowd. After that bit of inventive TV magic, Kenice goes right into her tight five and man, did it feel good to hear well crafted TV-ready jokes. The tight five is still alive! Kenice hasn’t missed a step and was just as sharp as she’s always been. It brought me back to what New York comedy was. Be sure to check Kenice out now- you’re catching her right as she’s on the precipice of superstardom.
Joe Nehme’s TikTok: It’s not quite as easy as to go viral on TikTok as folks say. You really have to bring something special and new to the conversation in order to stick out. In Nehme’s case, he struck gold with a silent bit of visual comedy that cut through the noise of GameStop stock jokes and found an audience. This one is super short, super funny and super worth your time. If you haven’t already caught it at the top of your TikTok algorithm, make it a priority.
James Creelman’s “Dollar Tree Rap”: This was a shot in the arm of pure comedic joy. Creelman was the type of comic that would never, ever phone in an open mic set and it really shows in this throwback to hip hop of yesteryear. Not only are the lyrics laugh out loud funny (“You go to the store/you don’t know how much things cost/not gonna have that problem at The Dollar Tree) but every single shot has something funny going on it. Seriously, blink and you’ll miss Creelman literally rolling on the ground while rapping and being kicked by the indispensable RA Bartlett. That has to be a first. Plus, the beat is fire. Watch it and then play this on repeat in the background forever. The song is that good. Don’t blink and check that link (my attempt at rhyming).
Tom Scudamore’s “It Matters”: SNL sketches speak a certain language. There’s an economy of words that are unique to the show; writers are paid to write one thing a week and it shows. Not a word is wasted. That’s exactly how I felt about Tom Scudamore’s biting commercial parody here starring all my comedy favorites like Anna E. Paone, Ronnie Fleming, Will Purpura and Shauni Ramai. In this quick, snappily edited sketch, we see would be daters air their unflattering opinions to a Siri-like voice rather than scaring off future potential mates. It’s a great concept executed exceptionally well- Siri herself even gets big laughs. Watch this one twice for maximum laughs.
Jack Finnegan’s “Chair”: Sometimes all you need is a perfectly realized observation. In this case, Jack has a moment of clarity where he decides he’s ready for a couch of his own and not just a chair. From there, jokes about communal couches and chairs flow freely (“No one can smoke real quick on my chair” is an instantly classic line) making me realize how much comedic potential can be found in the utilitarian piece of furniture I’m literally sitting on as I write this. Bravo for seeing something so mundane in a completely new way. This is a slam dunk way to spend a minute.
Episode Five of “Minute Made”: If I can’t plug my own ten-part web series here, I don’t know where else to do it. Once again, Anna crushes it in her patented triple roles. This time around, she frets over her Instagram follower ratio until she’s given a convenient solution. As we learn, any problem can be solved in just a minute.
• All of the above is excellent short form material that you’ll breeze right through. If you’re looking for slightly longer options, I’ve got a few tailor made for you.
“Moonbase 8” (2020): If your show is headlined by John C. Reilly (my favorite living actor), Tim Heidecker and Fred Armisen AND Jonathan Krisel is directing, I’m going to watch your show. This wonderfully silly six-episode series about three inept would-be astronauts stuck on an Arizona moonbase mimicking moon-like conditions on Earth is the perfect comic setting. Basically, imagine “Bio Dome” but with three of the world’s greatest improvisers. In the pilot, the three work alongside...Super Bowl champion Travis Kelce and John C. Reilly’s subservient relationship with him kicks the show into its unique, lived in and low key tone. As the show progresses, we learn of Heidecker’s past as a “Phish head turned super Christian” that can barely say grace and Armisen’s family legacy with his mentally abusive NASA father. Speaking of NASA, literally all three of these NASA employees have no idea what the acronym stands for in one of the show’s best bits. The show’s true standout moment though belongs to Reilly in a throwaway reaction shot when the crew loses a test mouse and he delivers a new one. Not going to spoil it here; it’s absolute comedy perfection. (Streaming on Showtime- get that free month!).
“Ramy” (2019-): Out of all the one-name “creator has complete creative control” sitcoms out there, “Ramy” is easily one of the best of the best. The show centers around Ramy, a lost 20-something that has finally decided to take his Muslim roots seriously. Sounds like a terrifically dull indie film. Not at all. In this show, Ramy forgoes all the traditional storylines you’d expect from a show like this and takes time to have episodes devoted to his Mom’s tumultuous stint as a microaggression spouting Lyft driver, his Father coping with losing his job, his sister losing her hair, and his uncle’s sexuality. Plus, Mahershala Ali plays his Sheikh. Two-time Oscar winner. In a sitcom. He isn’t given a wealth of comedic material but plays a great straight man to Ramy’s bumbling “trying his best to be religious” character. At the end of Season One, Ramy heads to Egypt to find himself and ends up having a wash of an experience. However, it’s not the story here that sings- it’s the little details that separate this show. We see Ramy’s cousins eat pigeon and advise him on the dangers of drinking Egypt’s tap water. Even more importantly, they play on Ramy’s willful American ignorance of the Egyptian experience- he repeatedly asks about the revolution without realizing how painful it was for all those that lived it. The show doesn’t resolve things easily- the stakes feel decidedly real and messy. There are consequences as opposed to other sitcoms where conflicts are wrapped in a bow in 22 minutes. Having said all that, my favorite episode was the Atlanta-like standalone where he goes to meet an eccentric millionaire to help finance the Sufi Center he’s been praying at. If you’re familiar with the Donald Glover show, you’re going to get real Teddy Perkins vibes. Plus, Mia Khalifa makes a truly inspired cameo. Watch and you’ll see why this show is awards bait (Streaming on Hulu).
“Aunty Donna’s House” (2020): I feel like Netflix made an algorithm of all the things I love (Stella! Comedy songs! Fast cutting!) and this show is what came out. As a result, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with this show. No matter how much I wanted to like it, it felt like a retread of things I already love which made it feel false. If the existence of this show is news to you, all you have to know is that there are three Australian dudes living in a house and there really is not much logic to what happens within their world. They oscillate between very silly, meta and introspective material that at times genuinely wowed me. I absolutely loved the idea of a dream sequence within a dream sequence with a dream sequence and a studio audience that’s present for the entire series but never laughs. Hell, the song about becoming an organ donor to everyone except one jerk named Steve worked for me quite a bit too. However, the show is backed by two of my least favorite successful comedy enterprises (controversial opinion alert!): Comedy Bang Bang and Ed Helms. Their inconsequential brand of absurdity grates on me like none other. Really, if more of the show was grounded in reality rather than outsized overacting, this show could have been something really special rather than an odd mismash of tones. Maybe I’m overanalyzing and this is really for 12-year-olds but smart self-referential sketches about the guilt over selling out your race for a stereotype make me wish the show had the chutzpah to stick to its guns and not try to appeal to the lowest common denominator at times (Streaming on Netflix).
“Sword of Trust” (2019): What a premise for a film! A well-meaning woman (Jillian Bell!) and her partner (Michaela Watkins!) discover that they are the heir to an important Civil War sword. The major wrinkle here is that said sword has ties to the South. Immediately they try to pawn off their newfound family heirloom to....Marc Maron. Maron plays Maron extremely well here (although it might be a bit TOO much Maron) and as the three of them find themselves more entwined in the twisted world of modern Confederates, they realize they’ve bitten off a bit more than they can chew. Unfortunately, the premise is a bit richer than the movie itself. Directed lightly by the late Lynn Shelton (who also appears in an extended cameo), the movie has some keenly observed scenes like Maron’s assistant Jon Bass (this guy is a star in the making) doing next to nothing around the pawn shop but ultimately it all feels a bit too slight and doesn’t have a ton to say after delivering such a rich premise. There is a scene where Maron essentially delivers an Oscar speech about his past that feels out of place; this is not the movie where one swings for the fences emotionally but there it is stuck right in the middle of this goofy flick. Also, it should be noted that the always underrated and always Dan Bakkendahl lightens things up at the end with his rousing Southern huckster character our lovable lot gets mixed up with. A SLIGHTLY BELOW AVERAGE COMEDY THAT YOU’LL LIKE MORE THAN YOU DISLIKE (Streaming on Showtime).
“Sonic The Hedgehog” (2020): Minority Report is one of my four all-time favorite movies (the other three on my cinematic Mount Rushmore are A Night at the Roxbury, Truman Show and The Goonies). There’s a guy in the movie with an instantly recognizable look and seemed to be everywhere in the early 2000s. Then, he disappeared. Well, he’s in this movie! Just for a second but it was strange to see him so many years later (his name is Neal McDonough). Anyway, that was my big takeaway from this movie. I didn’t necessarily hate this movie; it has its charms. Jokes about Sonic going to tourist stops incredibly quickly are inspired and well earned. However, this overly earnest movie with force fed messages mostly felt like something the studio felt obligated to release rather than a labor of love. They try to make it work with indie comedy stalwart Ben Schwartz voicing Sonic (similar to Ryan Reynolds in Detective Pikachu) and here it just feels jarring. There’s a requisite backstory about why Sonic is a fish out of water living in modern day America alongside James Marsden whom he refers to as “Donut Lord” because he eats donuts and then an easily resolved conflict with Jim Carrey’s supervillain who never feels like a true threat. He does have a scene set to the hypnotic lost classic rock track “Where Evil Grows” by The Poppy Family I can’t get out of my head a week later though. Credit is due to unsung comedy cameos from Adam Pally as Marsden’s bumbling co-worker and Nicole Byer as his flustered sister-in-law. Both are so well-assured, it feels like they’re operating in a different movie. As is my dude Neal McDonough. Finally, it should be known that this is one of those movies where the end credits are the most fun part of the whole shebang. FOR KIDS, SONIC SUPERFANS AND PEOPLE WHO RECOGNIZE ACTORS FROM MINORITY REPORT (Streaming on Hulu).
“Waves” (2019): I read festival reviews out of TIFF and Sundance as soon as they’re released. Seriously, I refresh review sites seeing what the foremost critics have to say about movies before anyone else in the world has seen them. A year and change ago, Waves was considered a visionary film that was a cut above the rest. It didn’t make much noise come awards season and like a wave, faded into the shore. Now, it’s hidden on streaming and is a heavy, heavy gem. Kelvin Harrison Jr. plays a high school wrestler that has it all. Lives in a massive mansion, a happy relationship and impeccable music taste (this kid seriously only listens to Animal Collective- seriously feels like “Merriweather Post Pavilion” come to life which I salute). However, through a series of unfortunate events, life has its way with him and things take a very dark turn. Really, this is a tale about what happens to youth when they get everything they want and it’s not pretty. His overbearing father played by Sterling K. Brown shares more than tense scenes with him that buzz with alpha ferocity. As deep, dark and upsetting as this story is, what’s most impressive is the director Troy Edward Shults’ vision. There’s bonkers camera work with 360 degree shots in cars, forced perspective and a brilliant fireworks display with lights melting in ways you’ve never seen. The rapturous reviews are well earned even if the intense character drama becomes a traumatic and triggering sob fest. Lucas Hedges shows up halfway through as he does in Oscar Bait films and that’s when I knew it was getting a bit long. THIS IS THE MOVIE BEFORE THE MOVIE WHERE THE DIRECTOR HITS IT BIG (Streaming on Showtime- making the most out of that subscription).
SNL hosted by Nick Jonas: Well, I think the show has run out of gas. Not in general, just five consecutive weeks of 90-minute shows is an impossible feat that no one should subject themselves to. This past Saturday’s edition wasn’t bad; just merely middle of the road. With a fairly low-profile NBC approved host and musical guest in Nick Jonas (the best part was they made his freaking brother sit in the cheap seats), things felt less important than they usually do. Like they knew this one had lower stakes. Also, I would personally be embarrassed to be the host and musical guest. That’s just too much of a person. Feels self indulgent in a bad way. There were quite a few recurring characters (Pete as Cuomo and Aidy as Ted Cruz returned for the second straight week and Ego reprised her Dionne Warwick from earlier this season) and a few oddities like a sketch where Jonas’ Prince Charming had bestial relations with a...rat. Still, I’m being a bit harsh. This was week five and there were some major bangers. The “Bachelor Party” pre-taped singalong was a classic. The production value that went into Kenan as Lamelo Ball’s chocolate shoe as well as the waterlog ride set in the “fifth wheel” sketch were beyond impressive. Not gonna lie, I was very excited to see two ideas that were similar to mine rear their head into the show (taking a tip out of the tip jar in the show’s ten to one is something I used to do in my standup and “What to do when your significant other leaves the apartment” is a sketch I just produced- only difference is my sketch was about sudoku; theirs was murder shows). All that being said, SNL cut the best sketch of the night. Four minutes of pure comic gold lampooning bachelor pads in a makeover show format. I’m genuinely a little angry it didn’t make it on air. It’s easily one of the best things the show has done all season.
Well, it’s March now. You made it through the roughest part of the year and deserve a pat on the back. Keep chuggin’.
Like a rock