Discover more from Matt Levy's Comedy Stray Notes
Comedy Stray Notes May 16, 2021
On my favorite podcast I've listened to this year, a quick piece of acting from me and a tribute to the best sketch from this week's SNL
• In these “newsletters,” I often relegate podcast recommendations to the tail end. You may never have even gotten that far and I wouldn’t blame you. However, the Robert Smigel episode of WTF I listened to on Monday was so chock full of comedy nerd goodness that I can’t help but sing its praises up top; in fact, I may even go so far as to call it my favorite podcast episode I’ve ever listened to. Without spoiling every single detail, here’s a quick rundown of my favorite moments to whet your nerdy appetite:
The episode begins right after the Chauvin verdict was announced and kicks off on a somber tone. This melancholic atmosphere follows for a bit as Smigel goes into heartrending detail about how his family was directly affected by COVID. However, once he goes into his backstory, the conversation takes flight. Anecdotes about his famous dentist father who appeared on “The Mike Douglas Show” in the 70s segue to his comedy origin story and it’s a doozy. Apparently, on a whim, Smigel signed up for a stand up competition and played a character who ate his cotton candy beard. He placed in the top three and this tale’s eventual conclusion reflects on the highs and lows of performing comedy in New York with a vivid image of a young Smigel wandering the streets of New York with his cotton candy beard wondering what the hell he was doing. All too real.
Soon after, Smigel’s career gels as he joins an improv group in Chicago called All You Can Eat, because as a member of his team put it, they would show up first in the phone book when audience members were looking for entertainment. The troupe featured Jilly Talley (“Mr. Show”) and Dave Reynolds (“Finding Nemo” writer; you gotta love hearing about what happened to people from improv troupes 30 years later) and led to an eventual meeting with forgotten “SNL” icon Tim Kazurinsky that took him to Al Franken and Tom Davis who hired him to write for the infamous 1985-86 season. When Smigel showed up, he was such a fan of the show, he was already familiar with the entire crew. This hit pretty damn close to home. As did the story about his sketch in his fifth episode hitting very hard and he went home to watch it back on a loop. I’ve never related to anything harder. Also, apparently, Lorne told the staff, “You define yourself by what you don’t like,” and now that will stick in my head forever.
Side anecdotes about Bob Odenkirk being so funny in 80s Chicago that Smigel wanted to quit comedy and manage him as well as another about an actor named Doug Dale who was beat out for a spot in the “SNL” cast by Jon Lovitz are tales that don’t make oral histories but are what make podcasts like this so juicy and valuable.
There’s so many other fantastic nuggets (Sam Kinison’s comedic secret is revealed by Maron that you’ll have to listen to the podcast to hear; a lot of what Smigel writes is based on alienation), but I’m not going to ruin the entire pod. Discover it for yourself- you’ll get to hear all about his time running the first season of “Conan,” the creation of Triumph, the ill-fated “Dana Carvey Show,” and his current project “Let’s Be Real.” He’s one of the greatest living comedy writers and an incredibly engaging guest. Make this a must-listen.
• I’d like to give due praise to a few comics doing their thing in the virtual world. Here are three standouts from this week:
- Todd Montesi just dropped the trailer for Episode 22 of his legendary web series “PN & Friends “and it might have featured yours truly and my wife Anna Paone playing a well-meaning tourist couple who encounter the evil version of the titular PN in Union Square. You can see us at our goofiest in this cerebral, dark installment of the series at the 1:29 mark. Feel free to roast the way I run. I would.
- Cathy Humes is the rare comic that can move between being very silly to socially aware with relative ease; usually, you get one or the other; with Cathy, it’s a nice helping of both. Most importantly, her excellent Twitter broke my brain when I read this ultra-viral Tweet of her’s:
“Your regular reminder that the tax preparation industry is a scam & in other countries they just send you a bill or a check based on what they already have calculated. The fact that the government makes us calculate on our own & face penalties for mistakes is totally unnecessary.”
I had no idea and now I’m fired up. Full disclosure, I get fired up just scrolling her righteous account. You should do the same.
- Evan Williams does TikTok so well that oftentimes, I’ll run his videos back just to catch every single joke. This is never more evident in his “____ madlibs” where he inserts a director like Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson or Tim Burton into an equation and drafts a summary of their next film. It’s comedy crack. So fast, so funny and so clever. However, the acting in his most recent clip accurately captures how “every movie ends” so well that it had to be my choice for what I shared. Either way, you can’t go wrong checking out any of Evan’s stellar work. If you like to be delighted, this might be for you.
• I did a thing* (*watched a TV show’s first season, saw a movie, listened to two podcasts and caught SNL. There’s a little more about that below).
“Central Park” (2020): Ever since I’ve been a kid, something about Central Park seemed ripe for comedic fodder. It’s the parkiest of all the parks: endlessly large with ponds, a zoo, hot dog vendors, bikers, runners and is quintessentially New York. Coupled with the fact that this show was created by Loren Bouchard of “Bob’s Burgers,” I was double hyped to watch. I’m pleased to report that the show amiably does the park and NY culture justice. Featuring intermittent breaks into very funny songs (the absolute best one takes place in episode nine on the “Home Alone 2” Deleted Scene Tour), the show centers around the Tillerman-Hunter family that reside in the park because father Owen (Leslie Odom Jr) manages the behemoth of a public space. The rest of the family is made up of journalist wife Paige (Kathryn Hahn), imaginative daughter Molly (Kristen Bell) and precocious son Cole (Titus Burgess Jr). Occasionally, a narrator/busker (Josh Gad) narrates and comments on the role of a narrator in a refreshingly meta way (his cheering at a foreshadowing paying off and a duel with another narrator are perfect examples of this). Stories largely revolve around the family or wealthy villain Bitsy Brandenheim’s (Stanley Tucci, gender bending it) dastardly plans to mold the park into a more corporate vision. There’s a “Romeo and Juliet” thread that runs throughout the season, another involving a beloved pup and there’s an underappreciated secretary that provide endless material for this joke-every-three seconds series. Speaking of those jokes, they’re what really kept me coming back to this series. For example, when Kathryn Hahn’s matriarch character said, “You can be friends with anyone you want as long as they’re not murderers or magicians,” I was fully onboard. While not quite on the level of “Bob’s Burgers,” THIS IS SOLID, B-LEVEL “BOB’S BURGERS” (Streaming on Apple TV).
“Percy Versus Goliath” (2021): Christopher Walken does not scream scrappy, blue collar farmer to me. However, somehow, he really sings in the role of one in this charming, low key, message movie based on the true story of a Canadian farmer (Percy) who accidentally used Monsanto’s GMOs and when they came after him, he fought back. Plus, you get Zach Braff as his plucky attorney and Christina Ricci playing a feisty activist who joins his case. I loved this movie for a lot of reasons but most of all because it felt like an earnest love letter to farming and the altruistic spirit of calling out big businesses that bully the powerless. THE ONLY MOVIE TO EVER GET ME INTERESTED IN FARMING (Streaming on Amazon Prime for $5.99).
“You Made It Weird” with Julio Torres: One of the few sure things I’ve ever witnessed at New York open mics was Julio. The first time I saw him at Pine Box way back when in 2013, I knew he was destined for greatness. While those mics were stacked with heavy hitters, it was Julio’s proudly oddball, soulful three-minute sets that stood out most. These days, it’s always a joy to hear him on podcasts and be just as funny as he was way back when. On this relatively short pod with Pete (clocking in just over 80 minutes), the two of them riff about the 2020 phenomenon that was the Zoom rave (this era already seems like a billion years ago) and how Skype dropped the ball on pandemic telecommunications. The conversation gets a bit headier as the two of them talk about how they wonder if scenes in movies are based on “things that actually happened to the writer or was it just stuff they had seen in other movies” (I felt exposed!) and a graphic dissection of why both of them practice veganism (the image Julio chooses to describe eating meat will never be erased from my brain and I’ll spare you the details). However, best of all, is an anecdote toward the end about a kooky encounter Torres had on a plane years ago. My only complaint is that I wish this episode was twice as long.
“SNL Stats” with Don Roy King: Comedy pal Tom Scudamore directed my attention to this enlightening episode of a podcast with the man who rarely gets a voice at “Saturday Night Live-” its director. I knew very little about the man so I consumed this episode hungrily and got more than my fair share of meaty behind-the-scenes details like King had plans to put on last year’s remote “SNL At Home” shows with audience members that had already gotten COVID because they couldn’t get any sicker(!). Other stories were a bit more practical about the current show’s logistics. King generously shares how in the new system the cast, crew and band all can’t be on set at the same time and gave sage wisdom about why he accepted the role of Director at “SNL” which was, “I did it because I’d regret not trying more than trying and failing.” This is a guy who directed episodes of “The Mike Douglas Show” (second mention in this newsletter!) and morning TV for decades before being handed the reins at the show. As is customary, DRK, shares Lorne quotes such as, “The moment ‘SNL’ becomes a nostalgia show it’s time to hang it up” and “Every episode needs to be as incisive and cutting as it was 46 years ago.” You have to respect that spirit coming from two guys in their 70s. Ironically, Don went on to discuss how he tries to emulate the freewheeling feel of the 70s (which makes it sort of a nostalgia show) but made sure to add that he humbly doesn’t want to put his stamp on the camerawork or blocking so the performers shine. Toward the podcast’s close, King admitted that he wished the hosts would go talk to the director (i.e. himself) like they did back in the first few years of the show and that he never laughs at the live show since he’s already seen the material probably ten times at this point. That’s why I keep coming back to “SNL” stories- every cast and crew member had a totally different experience.
“SNL” with Keegan Michael Key: Speaking of “SNL,” this follow-up to the historic half-trainwreck, half baller dunk on Elon Musk, the show rebounded with an episode that featured a few instant classic sketches, a few very good ones like a Cold Open where Doctor Fauci leads roleplaying different masking and non-masking scenarios poking fun at the CDC’s announcement this week, the return of Cecily Strong’s Gemma and “The Prom Show” which brought “Dorks Who Bang” to the world. Let’s talk about those instant classics though.
They came in quick succession. The first was an extended scene from last year’s “The Last Dance” (once again, feels like a millennium ago) starring an uncanny Key as Michael Jordan and Heidi Gardner as John, the elderly head of security. The two play quarters against the wall and when John accidentally mocks MJ, the scene mercilessly satirizes the “Space Jam” star’s desire to win at all costs. The heightens where John has to give up his gun, glasses that make him go cross eyed and a night with his wife are visual, surprising and a pitch-perfect parody of the series capturing the look and feel so closely you feel like you’re watching the 10-part documentary again but it’s funnier and somehow better.
However, the true standout classic of classics came right after. What at first seemed like an endearing tribute to The Muppets (a different, more “adult” type of Muppet appeared regularly on the show’s first season back in 1975) with guest Lily Tomlin (who gave Lorne his big break!) felt like a perfect throwback to a simpler time. However, Key and Kenan Thompson breathed new life into the Muppet universe playing security guards who handle Statler and Waldorf. This was a breathtaking comedic conceit- simple, complex and seemed destined for future “Best Of” installments for years to come. The puppet violence alone was the visual gag of the year. Major props to Steven Castillo for writing- I’ll be pointing this out as example of the show at the height of its powers when people ask.
Thank you for reading, my fellow kid