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Comedy Stray Notes March 6, 2022
On two Q&As with SNL writers, "White Lotus," "Nightmare Alley" and the weirdest, best sketch of the week
Comedy Stray Notes
• Last Sunday, I tuned into former SNL and Mad TV writer Rich Talarico’s “Sketchy Q and A” with the Sketchy School. The conversation began with Talarico’s origin story. In the early ‘00s, he was hired by SNL as a writer, turned it down so he could act at Second City and then opted to go back into writing sketch comedy, accepting a job at Mad TV instead (and eventually SNL).
I appreciated Talarico’s improv strategy (the first person should enter with “scene object work” while the next person builds on it) and thoughts on failure (good writers “bat .300.” You just have to write a lot so that you have enough good stuff that’s in that .300).
The most quintessential piece of advice he shared though may have been his simplest. In regards to comedy writing, Talarico preached, “Live life as a normal participant and find things that annoy you.”
That’s exactly it. If you do so, your comedy will come from a real place that will resonate with others.
• On Monday evening, Anna and I stayed in and watched a Q and A with Bob Odenkirk from our couch.
Moderated by Rolling Stone’s Alan Sepinwall, Odenkirk spilled details from his forthcoming memoir “Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama” about meeting Del Close by chance in the early ‘80s, trashing SNL when he interviewed for a staff writing position with Lorne Michaels (“I bet that guy gets his ass kissed a lot” was his rationale), his time on “The Ben Stiller Show” and “Mr. Show” in the ‘90s and then later his experiences in the “Breaking Bad” cinematic universe.
The event was essentially an unbroken monologue as Odenkirk effortlessly shared seemingly off the cuff aphorisms like, “if you’re damaged, might as well make some coin from it” (I’m really paraphrasing here) and anecdotes about how he was cut from “Waiting For Guffman.” He even ran a bit where he had audience members ask canned pre-written questions he’d clearly prepared.
All of that is to say, I may have been feeling cynical that night but the recurring theme of the evening seemed to be that Odenkirk failed upwards quite a bit. Others seemed to see great things in him even when he wasn’t necessarily ready for opportunities (like SNL), but he had the right attitude and that took him to the next level.
That being said, Odenkirk is undeniably very talented. I hung on to his every word for over an hour and was moved at the end when he went into painstaking detail about the events that transpired when he had a heart attack on the set of “Better Call Saul.” He was saved by his fitness regimen from his time training for “Nobody.”
Movies really can save your life.
”White Lotus” (2021): Mike White’s hit HBO six-episode series (just picked up for a second season) is the show I’d always dreamed of making about the American family vacation but didn’t have the talent or chutzpah to put together.
Featuring a sprawling ensemble cast made up of the best character actors of today like Jennifer Coolidge, Steve Zahn, Jake Lacy, Alexandra Daddario, Connie Britton, Murray Bartlett, Sydney Sweeney, Jon Gries, Molly Shannon, Natasha Rothwell and a score of others, the show expertly mixes drama, suspense, social satire and dark humor to create an essential commentary on class and race in our modern day.
Set at a tropical resort in Hawaii, we first meet Shane (Lacy) skulking alone at the airport at the show’s end in a bit of foreshadowing to begin the series. A body bag is being lifted onto the plane he’s about to take and he lashes out at fellow tourists whom he tells to mind their own business when they ask probing questions about his experience at The White Lotus.
Then, we cut to the beginning of the series. Lacy is a newlywed; Coolidge, a grieving daughter who came to spread her mother’s ashes and Britton and Zahn, the upper class heads of a two-child home along with a friend their daughter brought for the week.
Once they arrive at the resort, they’re greeted by a staff that’s instructed to “be present and anticipate the guest’s needs before they even know what they want.” Guests and employees intertwine lives and White continually plays with audience expectations. He makes the wealthy characters obnoxiously self-centered but the kind “invisible help” aren’t behaved all that much better.
At times, it may seem like not all that much is happening in the series but that’s part of the series’ allure mimicking the real life rhythms of time spent in overly nice hotels.
TV keeps getting better and better.
“Nightmare Alley” (2021): There’s a fantastic con-man movie hiding in this Oscar-nominated film. However, as a whole, “Nightmare Alley” simply isn’t it.
This early 1940s throwback directed by horror auteur Guillermo Del Toro starts promisingly with stark, surreal imagery of its star Bradley Cooper in a burning home that he appears to have set on fire. Soon after, the quiet Cooper finds himself working at a carnival alongside ringleader Willem Dafoe, strongman Ron Perlman and femme fatale Rooney Mara. There’s a caged “Geek” that’s tricked into his role with opium tincture laced into his drinks. Toni Collette and David Strathairn teach Cooper tarot card tricks.
At this point, the movie is a blast; a peek behind the carnie curtain if you will. Sure, some of the imagery is far too graphic and disturbing for a mainstream release but the behind the scenes look at how psychics trick regular folk into believing and how stunts like the electric chair are endlessly compelling.
It’s once we leave this carnival setting so Cooper and Mara can try their own two-person act on the road with Cate Blanchett does the film slow down to such a snail’s pace that I could barely stay awake for the remainder of its sluggish 2.5-hour run time.
All of the dynamism and visual skill that Del Toro has been gifted with go out the window as the movie essentially turns into a filmed podcast as Cooper and Blanchett plot how to trick local politicians into believing he can speak with their dead family members for large sums of money.
An Oscar nomination here is unearned Del Toro fan service more than anything else. I love the guy but this is no “Shape of Water” (Streaming on Hulu).
SNL with Oscar Isaac: A week after a reliably solid outing hosted by John Mulaney, the long-running variety show opted to shake things up this week and go in an odder, more aggressively experimental direction than they have all season.
As someone who loves to see SNL futz with the form, I thought this episode did some really fun stuff. Here’s my baseball (fingers crossed we get MLB action this season) rankings of this week’s sketches.
Meatball: FINALLY, we get to see Sarah Sherman let her freak flag fly. Deceptively starting as a traditional date night sketch until Sherman unveils an Oompa-Loompa-like “singing meatball” under a green ribbon, this weirdo four-minute pretaped piece keeps heightening in ways that are so left field that you can’t but sit back and admire that this was on network television. Plus, the song the meatballs sing is too catchy for its own good.
Cold Open: This smart (if toothless) piece of political satire centers around Fox News “raising money for the oligarchs.” Trump (James Austin Johnson) takes calls in the background speaking in non-sequitur tangents centering around everything from his support from “the whales” to his love of “burger.” Bowen Yang is there as Steven Seagal, Mikey Day and Cecily sing “Shallow.” It’s a bit overstuffed but Trump telling Putin “You is smart, you is kind, you is important” was so silly and spot-on that it redeemed the sketch for me.
Oscar Isaac monologue: Issac’s charming homage to an homemade action movie he made at ten complete with a running commentary is hard to hate on. The capper that his friend’s dad cleaning the pool in the background had no idea he was going to show up on SNL this week was the perfect cherry on top.
Fiction workshop: Every so often, Anna will ask what I think the “game of the sketch” will be when the players are working out the premise. This time around, when Isaac’s janitor character enters a creative writer’s group, I guessed the story he’d bring to the table would either be “extraordinary” or “really bad.” I was wrong. Anna correctly guessed “dirty.” Isaac’s gloriously odd ode to Dua Lipa that followed shortly after was so perfectly creepy and amateurish that it was impossible not to laugh at.
Workplace harassment: Cecily Strong has a gift for committing to insane logic. This time around, she and Isaac play HR representatives giving increasingly unhinged examples of poor workplace behavior that no one engages in except for themselves and maybe Kenan’s mischievous Kevin character. When the cast nearly breaks at the sketch’s halfway mark, it’s one of the episode’s best moments.
Paw Patrol: The breakdown of the kid’s show “Paw Patrol” is a fun concept similar to last week’s “Monkey Judge” where SNL breaks down how nuts it is that animals have real human jobs. Coming from the perspective of a concerned city councilman and citizens is a nice touch but after a while, the smart concept runs its course.
Weekend Update: A lot of home run jokes here (“Ron DeSantis seen here learning someone’s pronouns” and “Tuesday was National Pig Day and when I told that to a pig, he handcuffed me” were unforgettable) and a few so-so desk pieces from McKinnon and Nwodim places this perfectly in the double range.
Home repair show: Notable for being Kenan’s 1500th sketch appearance, this talk show where Kenan’s host character interviews overzealous home decorators had the vibe of a bloated early ‘90s sketch until his wife (Ego Nwodim) jumps in at the end and rightly puts him in his place with the cutting comment that “his own home is falling apart.” If this beat made up the bones of “home repair show” it would have been a banger.
Aidy’s Dream: The off-kilter pre-taped opening where Aidy brags about her exploits on the show with attractive hosts is paid off when we cut to a live sketch featuring an invented on-the-spot, fake, over-sexualized recurring character. It’s a fun, fourth-wall breaking commentary on Aidy’s tenure but doesn't offer much in the way of surprise once we get the bit that this is “Aidy’s dream.”
Inventing Chloe: Similar to “Aidy’s Dream,” “Inventing Chloe” is a forced, imagining of what would happen if Chloe Fineman started acting like Anna Delvey around 30 Rock. Something about this sketch felt too on the nose but it was certainly redeemed by Fineman’s character tossing a MetroCard like it was a Mastercard at an NBC page (sidenote: the page had a ton of lines but isn’t a cast member. Baffling).
Cut for time
Inflatable toilet: This title is about as self-explanatory as it gets. McKinnon and Isaac throw a house party and to make up for a lack of toilets, blow up a few for their guests. Clever visual gags (an inflatable People Magazine got me) and a surprising yet inevitable conclusion make this another confusing entry in the cut for time canon. “Inflatable toilet” is more than worthy of airtime.
Well, dat’s all