Discover more from Matt Levy's Comedy Stray Notes
Comedy Stray Notes March 8, 2021
On updated creative New Years resolutions, an innovative web series about an ASL couple, an SNL director's debut film, the passing of a legendary NYC comedy booker, and, of course, Wandavision
• We’re two full months deep into 2021 and it still feels like 2020. The biggest difference between the two years? We all think quite a bit differently of Andrew Cuomo now. Otherwise, it feels the same. To combat this sameness, I told myself I would take on a dream project I’d been pussyfooting around with for most of last year as a New Year’s Resolution. To catch you up to speed, said project is my bildungsroman-esque feature length film “SHARK JUMPERS: THE MOVIE BASED ON THE STORY OF THE SHORT LIVED COLLEGE SKETCH SHOW.” Thus far, I’ve gotten to my third (!) draft, had an animated trailer edited because no one wants to read a whole screenplay (trailer coming in a few weeks to a comedy newsletter near you), received fairly low marks from a reader on The Blacklist, took their notes, crumpled them up, un-crumpled them, rewrote (well, barely) and now held a reading of my beloved screenplay.
Going to keep things under wraps for now but I will say that if you’re looking for actors I recommend all of the following that pitched in on a Saturday afternoon, gave hysterical performances and stayed afterwards for notes: CW Headley, Gayle Bass (reading on her birthday of all days!), Tom Scudamore, Anna Paone, Arthur Pugh, Justin Bulver, Justine D’Souza, Matt Vita, Jeremyah Schur, Will Purpura, Sam Zelitch, Shannon Dee, Dan Wickes and Christie Bahna.
• OK, I have a second self-congratulatory pat on the back for myself. Sorry. Just who I am. I’ve made way too many sketches over the past 14 years and decided to toss together a minute-long reel of some of the highlights. As the narcissist I am, it made me incredibly happy to see some of my favorite clips edited to some Danny Elfman and The Strokes (my dream concert).
• Final piece of Matt Levy content for the week then we can move to non-me things. Put up the sixth edition of “Minute Made” starring Anna Paone, Anna Paone and Anna Paone. This week, she does an impression of Emma Stone flawlessly but is led to believe that’s the only celebrity impression she can pull off with ease. Who else does she do?! I say watch it for two reasons a.) you won’t believe who her second impression is of and b.) how beautifully it’s executed. Seriously. It’s such a good impression.
• Now, that I’m done swooning over my stuff, I’d like to introduce you to all the fun content I ran into on various platforms this week by folks in and around the world of funny content:
- Matt Ott’s “Train Gone Sorry” and “Dumplings” are not what you expect “silent short films” to be. For me, I envision visual gags, pratfalls and pies in the face. Here, we get a nuanced character study of a modern deaf couple signing together at home and in public. Chock full with rapid fire jokes (I had to rewind to catch all of the bits), this show highlights just how much one can banter while speaking with American Sign Language. They’re just a bickering couple that happens to have excellent comedic timing. Better yet, the show doesn’t come across as preachy or heavy-handed; our lead characters just exist. Highlights include an episode at a barbershop with a hairdresser that can hear which leads to some excellent miscommunication and also the unofficial pilot short film that led to the series with an indelible twist. Keep an eye out for an essential Travis Carr cameo. Check the comments for the link, kids.
- It’s pretty much impossible to make a good Zoom sketch. The visual medium just isn’t very funny. So static. Yet, every so often, a premise is so good, so simple and so perfectly executed that it doesn’t matter. This is exactly how I felt about Ben Katzner’s “Mixed Company- An Ode to interracial Zoom Calls.” Clocking in at JUST a minute and featuring pitch perfect pile on bits from AJ Thompson, Shane Gayle, Tracy McClendon, Devin Harris and Gordon Baker-Bone, I could watch this one on a loop for hours. Link is in the comments. Scroll down and check it.
- One of the true secrets to satire is making sure that you’re capturing the look, tone and language of whatever it is you’re lampooning. In John Connor Hammond’s “Protest Photography,” he not only recreates the feel of an inspirational protest ad, he turns it on its head and dunks all over well-meaning protestors that participate solely for social clout. Big laughs are provided by Randall Otis and Matthew Broussard. This feels more than SNL ready- it feels like if it were to air in an episode, it’d be an instant classic. You’d be a fool to not click on the link. There are too many laughs at stake here for you to potentially miss.
- All of the above is perfect short form stuff that’s easily digestible. Should you go looking for something a bit loopier, sillier and that’ll fill up nearly two hours, I might recommend Ari Rubin’s silly as hell Twitch show “Rubin on Wry.” In said show, Rubin brings on silly character guests who play impressively heightened games of their scene. In the episode I saw, my favorite bit was easily the IT guy helping Ari interrupted by another IT guy to help that IT guy and then another IT guy to help that guy. The more iT guys appeared, the more delightful it became. That’s not to say other bits didn’t crush just as hard. There was also NDA guy who worked on over a dozen projects but couldn’t release a single detail and an intermittent faster who loses all of his weight doing speed. Like a better “Comedy Bang Bang” (yes, I said it), this is a super quick two hours that will breeze on by. Link’s in the comments, cuzzo.
• I should be embarrassed by how much I read and watched this week but instead I’m proud and want to proudly tell you all about it like a kid blowing the light at show and tell. I think that’s who I am. Anyway, here’s everything I got into:
Chuck Klosterman’s “X” (2017): No one writes 400-page books that I read faster. I can’t help it. I love everything about Klosterman’s cultural criticism. He is a thoughtful nerd that actually likes stuff and when he doesn’t, his reasons aren’t arbitrary, he goes deep in the paint. In this extremely readable anthology of essays, interviews and profiles written over the past decade or so, he moves effortlessly from a perfect tale of a basketball team that won despite only having three players on the floor, how Danger Mouse created Gnarls Barkley to try and make an album like a late 60s Beatles imitator, a Tom Brady interview where he awkwardly refused to acknowledge Deflategate, philosophy on sprinters and Usain Bolt, an NBA player who fought for mental health, a retread of his interview from “Shut Up and Play The Hits” with LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy (for which he discloses he was paid $5000 to do the interview on camera- love that transparency). Then, there’s so much more (every chapter gets its own preface AND footnotes) and I’m leaving a lot out but I loved the quickie about seeing Creed and Nickelback on the same night in New York City, uncomfortable chats with Jonathan Franzen and Jimmy Page and warm ones with Taylor Swift and Stephen Malkmus (depending on your definition of “warm”). Plus, so much KISS love. The last 30 or so pages are a collection of obituaries. The first is a lovely tribute to how much of a jerk Lou Reed is, then one dedicated to his father that ends up being about Eminem and finally closing with an observation about the proliferation of celebrities within our culture means there will be more famous corpses than ever. If any of this sounds like something you’d like, I’ve left so much out and you’ll gobble it up. Chuck’s the best.
Also of note: His book “The Visible Man” is one of the most underrated novels of all time. However, the audiobook is the worst audiobook I’ve ever heard.
“Enter The Dragon” (1973): I have a scratch off poster in my bathroom of “100 Movies You Have To See Before You Die.” This movie has been taunting me since I hung that poster up right next to the toilet. The New York Times pointed out this week it was leaving Netflix at the end of this month; I made it essential viewing and refused to see anything else. Man, am I glad I did. This badass, lively movie, which strangely feels more like a precursor to The Room more than anything else with its stilted dialogue, almost non-existent, threadbare plot and nutso acting choices rules so hard. It’s the ultimate vanity project and for a worthy subject in Lee- the ultimate philosophy-spouting fighter who can flip and roundhouse kick effortlessly while also screeching at the top of his lungs. Seriously, whoever did the sound effects for this film deserves multiple Soundy awards. They’re laugh out loud funny and fairly believable. In the film, I got a huge laugh out of the idea that 60 guards will come and fight Bruce Lee and after he mows down 50 guys down they still decide to try and fight him. Makes NO sense. Comedy perfection. My major gripe is that this movie isn’t all Bruce Lee all the time. Instead, there’s an inane plot where he’s sent to an island to battle in a tournament against other kung fu fighters to take down the evil Han and restore honor for his family. As wild as that sounds, it’s mundane and over the top with meaningless dialogue and not enough fight scenes but somehow ends up being the ultimate good bad midnight movie. When they’re fighting, you forget about the movie’s weaker elements and your jaw drops at flips so cool, you rewind ten times. Wild POV shots abound and there’s visual poetry in the final showdown in a room surrounded by mirrors. Although there have been quite a few films famously set in mirrored rooms, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone quite pull off what they do here. My favorite part though? Early in the film, there’s a close up of two praying mantis’ fighting. Felt straight out of National Geographic. More insects fighting on film, please! SEE IT BEFORE IT LEAVES NETFLIX (Streaming on...Netflix. You’re welcome, Sarandos).
“Zeroville” (2019): Like any self-respecting film nerd, I occasionally check on actors’ IMDb pages to see what projects are in development. This one was sitting on Will Ferrell and Seth Rogen’s profiles forever listed as “In Development” and I was immensely curious since the since-cancelled James Franco directed. I had no idea it received a proper release until I scrolled Showtime and was shocked to see the poster I’d seen on IMDb so many times without thinking it existed for public consumption. I clicked. It’s a weird, little, alternate world “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” with a killer cast. Jacki Weaver, Megan Fox and Craig Robinson in a movie together is a dream come true. And I’ll be honest, I liked this oddball flick about an excommunicated seminarian (sounds about right for a cancelled actor) played by Franco who rises the ranks of late 60s filmmaking and ends up with the femme fatale. There’s self referential nods to George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, the filmmaking process and the art of editing. It’s basically if Peter Biskind’s book “Easy Riders and Raging Bulls” was adapted into a film; ironically, it’s based on another novel (the film’s namesake). This might be the ultimate navel gazing love letter to the movies but if you stick around, you’ll see Will Ferrell play true rage sans irony (once again, proving why he’s so great) and a robbery performed by Craig Robinson that turns into a compliment gabfest devoted to “Raging Bull.” There’s also a guy that plays a convincing Iggy Pop. I SECRETLY LOVED IT EVEN IF ALL THE CRITICS DIDN’T (Streaming on Showtime- get a 30-day trial!).
“Extra Ordinary” (2019): One of the best NYC stand up shows pre-pandemic was on Monday nights at Littlefield hosted by scene darlings Jo Firestone, Aparna Nanchernla and Maeve Higgins. I was very familiar with Jo and Aparna but Maeve was kind of an unknown quantity to me when I started attending shows. She quickly wowed me with her silliness, honesty and quickness with her on the fly riffs in between showcase comics. She’s even better as the lead in this feature she stars in that I’d classify as a supernatural Irish “Napoleon Dynamite.” The zippy film excellently showcases her talents building a story around her as a driving instructor who can see ghosts that cheekily nods to “Ghostbusters.” This leads her to a widowed man whose wife haunts him (this is one of the most perfect plays on the Cyrano De Bergerac love triangle I’ve ever seen) and his daughter who needs to be exorcised. Will Forte (speaking like a full-blown D&D character) is here too as a one-hit wonder rocker that needs to sacrifice a virgin. It should be noted that this bit is paid off beautifully in a bonkers third act that ramps up the comedy 100 times over in maybe my new, all-time favorite sex scene. However, it’s the little moments where Maeve defines herself as a singular comedic presence. From intimate sequences where she sits on an exercise ball eating leftovers and listening to voicemails to using her “cool voice” to a bemused response to the widow yelling, “Get your shit together, woman,” she proves she’s poised to break out. If you want to see a singular talent flex all their chops in one place before they become a household name, you can’t do better than this. PERFECT GOOFY, DUMB FUN WITH HEART AND A FEW JUMP SCARES (Streaming on Showtime).
“Big Brother Volcano” (2017): You might not realize it but SNL’s short films are directed by a stable of visionaries who have just as much comedic voice as the writers and actors they partner with. I’m particularly fond of Paul Briganti’s videos; he has a knack for shining a light on small, human moments. I honestly think “Friendos” with Donald Glover is one of the finest shorts the show has done this decade; jumping from energetic hip hop to therapy with each character having individual revelations is joyous, deep and also features a great hip hop track to boot. So, I did my research and found Briganti directed a feature that’s just as fun as his work on the show and feels like a lost SNL film. In this perfect debut, we meet newly single Alan on a destination vacation with his brother-in-law Mike (George Basil of “Crashing!”). Mike’s a free spirit who inspires Alan to come out of his shell; however, this movie eschews stereotype and we get to see Alan find himself and try to develop with a relationship with resort owner Barbara (Aya Cash from “The Boys!”) while Mike shrinks and is exposed for the freeloader he is. So good. There are silly bits about prescription glasses theft and a deeper meditation on realizing you can’t just give up your life and move to the fantasy vacation town you’ve spent a week in. All that said, this is an excellent movie about what being on vacation is like, a complex bromance and should be in the canon of excellent postmodern comedies of the 10s. BREEZY, ATMOSPHERIC AND HYSTERICAL (Streaming on Amazon Prime).
“The Rental” (2020): A second movie directed by a Franco brother? Yep. James’ little brother Dave directed a surprisingly effective horror that was released at the height of the drive-in era of the pandemic and now it’s streaming. Reviews were mixed but I liked this horror film that’s more a chamber drama about two doomed couples than anything else. The domestic quibblers are stale married couple Dan Stevens and Alison Brie who travel to a beautiful AirBnB with Stevens’ brother and girlfriend (who happens to be Stevens’ business partner in the film as well- crucial plot point!). The racist jerk that runs the rental is exactly the one-dimensional jerk you expect him to be but there are enough twists and turns and small character moments that you don’t mind. This really is a smarter screenplay than it gets credit for with many Chekhov’s guns planted and twists and turns galore without all that much gore. My only gripe is the ending was a major letdown. It felt more like an out of leftfield non-ending. GREAT FLICK FOR 90% OF THE RUNTIME AND THEN, EH (Streaming on Showtime; get that trial for real).
“Judas and the Black Messiah” (2021): Weekly Oscar contender viewing. I hate to be that guy but I wasn’t as high up on this film as everyone else. For anyone looking for a brief synopsis, this is the true story based on Bill O’Neill (LaKeith Stanfield) infiltrating the Black Panthers for the CIA as payback for a crime he committed. Yes, Daniel Kaluuya is electric as Fred Hampton (even if it’s crazy he’s playing a 21-year-old). Dominique Fishback is vulnerable and sweetly moving as the mother to his child; the scene where the two meet and flirt is the best meet cute of the year. Jesse Plemons is menacing as all hell as LaKeith’s intermediary. You even get Lil Rel (his “Twilight Zone” like scene gave me goosebumps) and Jermaine Fowler in cameos. Director Shaka King also took the care to shoot this film in a uniquely cinematic way separating it from your typical period piece doing things as simple as putting extras in the foreground of standard dialogue scenes. Early in the film, LaKeith’s car is swiped into with a knife and it made me hop out of my seat on the couch. However, the film does suffer from pacing issues. There are a number of unnecessary establishing shots (the most pretentious gripe of all time) and occasionally drifts into typical historical drama fare. However, it won me back with its shocking conclusion. It’s a truly tragic tale energetically told with visual flair and vitality. WORTHY OSCAR CONTENDER YOU GOTTA CATCH BEFORE IT LEAVES HBO NEXT WEEK (Streaming on HBO MAX).
“Wandavision” (2021): The pilot of this nine-episode series put me in a stupor. The idea of two superheroes (Wanda and...Vision) transplanted into a 50s sitcom set with perfect period detail was somehow deliciously vital for two well-worn genres. Even Lynchian. Yet, wholesome? It felt exactly like the sitcom but something was just slightly off. Toward the end of the episode, Vision’s boss (Fred Melamed), chokes at a dinner thrown last minute by Wanda. Our two heroes don’t know what to do and the intensity ratchets up to a million; scenes like this simply don’t exist on Disney+ or sitcoms. It felt like a watershed, genre re-defining moment. I thought to myself, “Hate on superheroes all you want but this is cinema.” Cut to episode two.
The second episode, taking place a decade later was fun and a top-notch sendup of talent shows and smart world building but I wasn’t quite as wowed as we moved slightly further away from the sitcom conventions and more toward the characters’ places within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. From there, I continued watching and was occasionally slack jawed at the zags they took at expected zigs but the show slowly moved toward a slightly more conventional fan service to the fans of the ever expanding series. There’s odd touches but the show never got back to the magical sweet spot it clicked into in the pilot. Kathryn Hahn soars as a villainous witch making the show her own (you may have seen her in the wildly viral meme with her winking mug) and the penultimate episode serves as a backstory that feels almost like “Eternal Sunshine” while also serving as an homage to all sitcom lovers out there (made me smile to see a “Malcolm in the Middle” DVD). By the end, I tuned out a bit when characters were shooting lasers out of their head at each other and side characters spouted interesting lines like, “We have the same nightmares as you, Wanda” which is a great idea but never shown visually or explored at all. So bummed we didn’t get to see that- it sounds rad. If only every episode felt like the perfect pilot. IMAGINE HOW GOOD THIS WOULD HAVE BEEN IF IT DIDN’T HAVE TO BE PART OF THE MCU (Streaming on Disney+).
• Finally, my condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of legendary Comic Strip booker Richie Tienken. I feel a lot of comics based their opinions on whether or not he passed you at audition night at his club; many liked him because he gave them opportunities. Others maligned him because he saw through your inabilities or shortcomings. I auditioned for him four times and each time he had a valid reason for why I didn’t move forward. He kept me humble and was always in the back of my mind. No doubt, he had no idea who I was and instantly forgot me but he made an indelible impression and I’ll never forget what he said to me in 2014: “You need to talk to your Mother more.”
We all do.