Discover more from Matt Levy's Comedy Stray Notes
Comedy Stray Notes March 21, 2021
On a new form of comedy special, handwritten letters, how constraints inform creativity, a Jason Segel podcast appearance and my most anticipated 2020 release. Plus, about five other things.
• The idea of a traditional comedy special makes very little sense. You might have the set of your life but if you don’t perform one of the jokes to the best of your ability in one of the maybe two tapings if you’re lucky, the best version of your bit is lost to the sands of time. Specials, simply put, are not a perfect time capsule of a comedian’s “A” material. My pal, the talented comic, director and editor Jeremy Schaftel recognized this fatal flaw and did something to quash this glitch in the system. His solution was to seamlessly cut together all of his best material from over the years to create a new kind of special. One that plays with the form and shows off his writing and editing prowess in the process. The 47-minute special “Thanks For Coming” begins with an inventive montage of hosts bringing Jeremy to the stage with a variety of credits he’s had over the years. When Jeremy ambles onstage, he proceeds to treat the audience to a supercut of all of his best opening lines for each venue. If you taped every great set and got a huge laugh off the top, might as well get credit for it rather than just for the one you got at your special taping. From there, we’re off and running.
The actual chunks that comprise the majority of “Thanks For Coming” are similarly excellent as well; my favorites were extended takes on student loans, nonspecific dating profiles and rabid sports fans. Best of all, Schaftel includes the spontaneous moments that happen in otherwise forgettable sets that you’d never see in a traditional special like audience members talking over your set, ruining it and winning the crowd back over. Jeremy’s written, directed and cut a great encapsulation of a comic operating at their highest level while also showcasing some of the odder, magic things that can happen while one is onstage making this a must-see for anyone interested in the day to day of a comic.
• Taking an extremely goofy idea seriously is the perfect recipe for sketch. “More Cowbell” doesn’t work if Will Ferrell doesn’t absolutely commit 150% to the idea of playing the hell out of that cowbell. That straight faced goofiness is beautifully replicated in Dejen Tesfagiorgis’ “Makin Choco-Chip Cookies TRAP Muzik, The best Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe” which starts simply enough with typical boasts from a mumble trap rapper like “No one thinking he was hungry enough.” Then, the game of the musical vid kicks into high gear when Dejen singtalks “They said I wouldn’t make it/but I made it from scratch.” From there, the catchiest, most serious banger track about making cookies of all time takes off. Dejen never winks at the camera and it’s a billion times goofier for it. Watch the ridiculous video and then add this jam/recipe instructions to your workout playlist. The song is as fire as the cookie he describes making.
• There isn’t a kinder comic in the entire comedy world than Matt Storrs. Years ago, in the salad days of 2013, I recall attending an outdoor show in downtown Phoenix and finding a batch of homemade cookies sitting on a back table. I did a double take. There is rarely that much love and care put into anything at a small show. Not when Storrs is there. He’s all about those personal touches to make everything with his imprint on it feel as if it was made just for you. Now, in 2021 fashion, he’s extending his old-fashioned friendliness to write letters to anyone that wants to correspond with him. I took the plunge and last week, received a note in the mail that began with a bit of friendly catch up and then turned on a dime morphing into a wistful comic riff on Storrs’ childhood toy collection. It was equal parts sentimental and self-deprecating and made my day in the process. I wrote back recalling all my Power Rangers from childhood which had me smiling all day. If this sounds like something you’re interested in participating in, he’s looking for a few more pen pals. Hit the man up and start a chat with the nicest guy in a notoriously cutthroat industry.
• I’m using this blog space to promote all ten episodes of Anna Paone’s and my Rizzle series “Minute Made.” Predictably, I hype them all up. I want you to see them. However, I want you to see this week’s edition more than any others. Episode Eight AKA “How to have one marketable skill” makes me laugh harder than any other episode we produced (including episodes nine and ten- if I say they’re better in coming weeks, please know I am lying- this week is the best). One of the major challenges of making these videos is editing them to EXACTLY one minute. However, given this creative constraint allows for a lot of editorial innovation and goofy choices are made as a result which ended up making this one so special. Sitcoms thrive due to the 22-minute format (just an opinion) and when web series are given similar guidelines, more interesting, weirder and better ideas blossom.
• Finished a book, saw three prestigious 2020 movie releases and listened to a podcast this week. Here are my unwieldy, mostly overly positive mini recaps:
“You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman” written by Mike Thomas: I picked up this book back in June of last year and read the majority of it while pacing in a now defunct parking lot while trying to get 10,000 steps a day. While I wouldn’t classify this as essential reading for an SNL fan, the biography goes down smooth. In fact, the author made the book seem so effortless that I thought I would thrive as a biographer and pursued it for about a month this summer as a professional endeavor. This has not panned out yet. All of that aside, this is a well-paced recounting of the life of one of comedy’s hardest working character actors who was met with one of the most tragic endings of all time. The book’s first third is devoted to Phil’s Canadian turned American upbringing and rock and roll counterculture roots delving deep into his album artwork for America, Poco and Steely Dan. Later in life (AKA the second third), he became a Groundling alongside Paul Reubens (better known as Pee Wee Herman; Phil is credited as a screenwriter on “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure”) and Jon Lovitz before settling in as “the glue” on SNL. The final third is why the book takes so long to read- it’s painful to page through gory details of his untimely demise. Either way, if you’re a fan of the man behind so many great characters (he was Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer AND Troy McClure among so many others), you’ll walk away with so many Hartman tidbits that can’t be found on Wikipedia like how Phil was supposed to voice Zapp Brannigan on “Futurama” (OK, this actually is on Wikipedia), his failed variety show where he hired two writers who applied to SNL and didn’t get the gig to run his unproduced show that never took off and Hartman’s brother’s concept of “Freeze framing” at his funeral (the concept is: if you’re having a bad moment, stop. Think of a good moment in your life and smile. It works).
* This is the first SNL book I’ve read that quotes SNL makeup artist Norman Bryn’s “Makeup and Misery” biography. You read that right. Even the SNL makeup artists have tell-alls.
“Minari” (2020): Lee Isaac-Chung’s slice of life tale of an immigrant Korean family in 1980s Arkansas begins with the most A24 flourishes of an A24 film- warm colors, sweeping orchestral score, long takes. It’s pretty and certainly FEELS like a FILM but I was wondering what made this universally praised movie so special. Soon thereafter, we meet the characters and the film’s greatness becomes readily apparent. “Minari” is the tightest, lightest and most heartbreaking story I’ve seen about domestic strife I’ve seen all year. To start, we meet entrepreneurial Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) who has bigger dreams than sexing chicken (not exactly what that sounds like); he fancies himself a hotshot farmer with thriving crops. While Yi would like to spend his every waking minute tending to his farm, he also has a family to take care of which often takes a backseat to his aspirations leading to our central dramatic tension. However, the film’s true pulse can be found in the adversarial relationship between Yi’s son David (Alan Kim- just seven-years-old) and his maternal grandmother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung who is much older than seven but undeniably fantastic) who moves in with the family 30 or so minutes into the film’s two-hour runtime. Yuh-jung who deservedly netted an Oscar nomination fully embodies the entire elderly experience bouncing from an outspoken brashness earned by years of life experience to complete dependence on those she raised. There’s still so much more to like about this Best Picture favorite. An atmospheric score that would be right at home with any “chill music to study to” playlist, well earned payoffs to setups embedded early in the first act, remarkably lived in performances from racist and devoutly Christian Arkansas locals and all the fixins that come with living in AR (tornados, tobacco and many Mountain Dew jokes that I’m not going to spoil here). My only regret is I didn’t see this in a theater. I’m so happy movies like this are still being made; this is what film is all about. THIS IS A SUREFIRE CROWD PLEASER FULL OF PATHOS, TEARS AND JOY (Streaming on Amazon Prime for $19.99).
“Kajillionaire” (2020): At the outset of 2020, this was my most anticipated release of the year. I’m a big Miranda July guy (her short “Are you the favorite person of anybody” is so gutting and weird and sad that I watch it every year or so and marvel at its perfection) and every work of hers feels like an event to me. This one might be my favorite yet. “Kajillionaire” presents as an indie comedy but really is a much darker and sadder than expected--kind of like a lo-fi American “Dogtooth” all while being accompanied by the best score of the year (also, great “chill music study to” vibes here). With a style all of her own, July introduces us to a family of materialistic grifters with nothing to their name made up of a middle-aged couple Robert (a never funnier Richard Jenkins and I’m including “Step Brothers”), Theresa (an excellently distant Debra Winger) and their 26-year-old daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood fully transforming into a brainwashed monotone human being unlike anyone I’ve ever seen) who artfully pull off the world’s smallest cons and often fall flat on their faces with bigge jobs.
In wide shots, we see the threesome evade their pushover landlord with some of the funniest limbo walking I’ve ever seen committed to celluloid. Things kick into high gear at the end of Act One, on an airplane mid-con job, when the family encounters the much more well-adjusted to reality Gina Rodriguez sitting in coach next to them. Rodriguez joins forces with them for a series of misguided grifts on unconventional characters that don’t look like people you see or hear in film. People on the outskirts of the society. This feeling of otherness is echoed in the story’s central relationships where Old Dolio is never really at home with her parents; she wrestles with the feeling of being replaced by Rodriguez who her family instantly favors. In the film’s greatest scene, the family play acts like “normal people” and we see a life they certainly could have lived had they chosen a more conventional route. Perhaps the best scene in any film all year. Or maybe the best scene of the year is when the family makes a wild, hysterical impulse purchase. There’s too much to like here. UNDERRATED, UNDER THE RADAR CULT CLASSIC IN THE MAKING (Streaming on Amazon Prime for $5.99; I shilled out this week).
“In and Of Itself” (2020): Danny Braff repeatedly recommended that Anna and I see Derek DelGaudio’s live show in Union Square back in fall 2018. Knowing very little about it (it’s one of those things you need to go into knowing next to nothing about), we begrudgingly took his impassioned rec to heart and I’m so glad we took the plunge. What we saw that night, in one of his 552 performances of his one-man show, was one of the most unforgettable live experiences I’ve ever laid eyes upon. Surprisingly, the filmed, streaming version of the show is just as good, if not superior with its cinematic touches that employ montage, animation and crowd reaction for added effect. For those unfamiliar with the show, I’ll tell you this much since it’s worth going in blind. DelGaudio, a world-renowned magician, plays with the greatest illusion of all- our own identities (perhaps the most pretentious sentence I’ve ever written). Through anecdote, sleight of hand, foreshadowing and neat marketing tricks (the show after the show as well as a guarantee that an audience member returns for an encore performance are truly brilliant gimmicks), there isn’t a minute where you’re not completely riveted by what will come next. Audience members burst into tears (the major detriment to seeing the filmed version of the show is you miss out on a lot of emotion of what it’s like to see it live) and are “seen” for who they truly are. Plus, if you keep an open eye, you may spot W. Kamau Bell, Bill Gates, David Wain AND NYC comic Dom Fogarty in the audience. If you keep both your eyes open, you may even catch the “elephant in the room” (full disclosure, Anna pointed it out to me). LIKE DANNY YEARS AGO, I CAN’T RECOMMEND THIS ENOUGH (Streaming on Hulu).
“You Made It Weird” with Jason Segel: Segel is one of those guys that was EVERYWHERE from 2008-13 or so. Kinda like Jonah Hill. Then, they backed away from the limelight. They’re around but they’re not front and center like they were during Apatow’s unprecedented run of hit studio comedies. Pete Holmes was just as excited as me to figure out what the man behind “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “I Love You, Man” has been doing. This is what podcasts are all about!
In short, Segel is working on smaller projects and focusing on being a more well-rounded person not devoted to just making movies.
However, this was still a riveting two-hour conversation about a number of odd topics like breaking up “requiring more digital removal these days than simply throwing away physical things” like 15 years ago, “does doing a podcast count as a hang,” “the difference between an A and an A- on a movie or TV show is not something anyone cares about except the creator so you don’t need to make a costume designer stay up and age costumes to look perfectly period appropriate” and the Bruce Springsteen quote, “You don’t remember the album going platinum, you remember the hot fudge sundae you ate after it went platinum.” Best of all, Segel shared a story about not living in the moment of the set of the “Muppets” film. He remembered tap dancing with Kermit on his birthday and instead of BEING THERE, he was anxious about trying to find a way to top it. Extremely relatable. This led to Holmes detailing his similar troubles with immediately worrying about coming up with “A” material for an open mic after burning all of his new stuff and planning on coming back the following week. Forgot all about that white hot fear that burned deep within me for years.
In addition to all of the above, there’s a great riff to be found about Eminem being an amateur rapper at the beginning of his career that made me laugh out loud, a short story about how the best line of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” came to be and a name drop toward the end that has an obvious punchline but is undeniably very funny. A bit meandering but never boring, this is a quality pod to pass the time.
• I haven’t had much of anything going on comedy-wise in a MINUTE (as evidenced by all the movies and books I read like a nerd). Somehow, I buck the trend this week with a virtual show this Wednesday on Elani Nichelle and Elliot Bromberg’s “Witty Wednesdays” and on Friday, my short “At Home With A Guy From Anonymous” plays the Toronto SketchFest at 10 PM EST. Clickin’ that link will take you to the ticket page if you’re jonesing for a helping of late night sketch this coming Friday.
We’re international now, baby