Discover more from Matt Levy's Comedy Stray Notes
Comedy Stray Notes May 16, 2022
On the beguiling '90s cult classic "Clifford," a podcast about the fringes of U.S. comedy, a tough review of this season's worst episode of "SNL" PLUS SO MUCH MORE (not that much more)
• My wife Anna and I were married in an interfaith Jewish-Catholic ceremony back in 2019. There was a rabbi, priest and mild confusion from both parties about the other one’s customs.
This week, I participated in a reading of Arnie Reyes’ eye-opening and zeitgeist-y pilot “Mi Casa Meshuga,” where he tells a similar interfaith story about a first-generation Mexican-American immigrant man and his Jewish wife. In said reading, your boy played both a) the lead’s wise cracking but out of touch coworker AND b) his 12-year-old son studying to be bar mitzvahed.
Yeah, your boy’s got range.
The script, full of high-wire familial tensions, cultural differences and a loveable grandma who steals the show from the leads, is a crackling, lively piece of entertainment that would easily fit into ABC’s current sitcom lineup. That’s what makes these readings so great— you might be part of something huge in just a year or two.
• For the past month and change, I’ve been writing with the New Jersey-based sketch group Late Night Hump run by the formidable trio made up of Reena Ezra, Jordan Fried and Brendan O’Brien (h/t to Stan Talouis for turning my on to this excellent team).
Once I became more and more involved, I did a bit of research (research to me means typing “Late Night Hump” into a YouTube search bar) and found out the crew had made a feature-length movie. They humbly never mentioned it to me before.
So, I never told them that I checked it out.
Now, I’m ready to spill the dirt.
It’s great. Really. This 72-minute mockumentary “Beware The Horn: A Cult Classic” about an obsessive yet clueless filmmaker (Fried) who will stop at nothing to expose a cult masquerading as an improv troupe that he can’t even get into after auditioning is a blast. What makes this hidden gem so special is that it’s got that perfect ‘Simpsons’ high and lowbrow humor working in tandem. Our lead may be oblivious but like Homer will indirectly comment on his surroundings with an out of character self awareness.
If you’re looking for a sophisticated satire of improv culture and recent film grads, this is the movie for you. Most impressively, it looks like the team made this picture as a pure labor of love.
• As a budding stand up comic, the dream is always to play the road. Sure, you want to move to New York or Los Angeles to see if your stuff is up to snuff with all the tastemakers but the real end goal is performing for audiences all over the good U.S. of A.
For years, I wanted a taste of the road and only ever got a sample via festivals. I never opened or featured or hosted anywhere outside of New York City (or my hometown Phoenix). However, I always pined to travel and visit states I’d never been to and see the sights but mostly see if I could make the locals laugh.
Since that never really happened, the next best way to make that dream a reality I’ve found is by listening to Zach Peterson’s “No Coast Comedy” podcast where he spotlights a local scene that isn’t NYC or LA. It’s like “Diners, Drive Ins and Dives” but for local comedy scenes.
In the three episodes I listened to, Peterson chatted with Houstonians (Andrew Youngblood and Zahid Dewji), Albuquerqueans (Sarah Kennedy) and Alaskans (Kass Smiley who runs the B4UDie Festival that I always kick myself for not going to years ago because of logistics with my day job). Each comic profiled has a true entrepreneurial spirit— they all started their own comedy festivals or clubs.
Therefore, not only do each of these comics act as historians and share scene secrets, they also have valuable producing tips like “Light your showroom or bar red because green makes you look sick, blue is depressing. Everyone looks good in red.”
When all is said and done, Peterson asks the question that’s on all our minds: “What’s the best place to eat in your city?” After each guest’s mouthwatering answers, the show has somewhat morphed into actual “Diners, Drive Ins and Dives” and I’m totally cool with that.
Comics want to travel and don’t know where to start? Zach did the homework for you. Tune in.
• I remember meeting Luke Mones at a bad feedback mic in 2013 in midtown Manhattan. Even back then, in the worst of circumstances for comedy (a feedback mic), it was obvious that Luke had something special. He seemed to tap into the mundane with a gleeful abandon, a quality that’s still present in his act to this day. I befriended the guy and became a fan as well.
Now, almost a decade later, Luke just performed at the Netflix Is A Joke Festival in Los Angeles and tore the roof off the place. In just four minutes, he makes fun of Southern grandparent nicknames and the conundrum that planes are just never ready for their passengers with a bemused deadpan blended with a genuine enthusiasm.
Can’t wait for the next set whether it be late night or a special- all I know is that it’s coming soon.
• Making stand up cinematic is hard. There’s nothing inherently dramatic or kinetic about a person telling jokes into a microphone. However, Tyler Matthews’ short film “The Open Micer” seems to have cracked the code. His five-minute atmospheric, noir short pays homage to the shady underbelly of paid open mics (yes, this is a real thing for the uninitiated) complete with femme fatales, heavies and a smartly realized callback at the end of the film that left me gobsmacked.
A five-minute film about open mics closing with a strong punchline? I’m sold.
• Pound for pound, it’s hard to compete with Joe List when it comes to LPMs (Laughs Per Minute). The naturally funny neurotic shoots hard, polished jokes out so fast and furious that all you can do as an audience member is sit back and laugh while slack jawed in awe.
In his second-most recent special “I Hate Myself” (I’m a bit behind), he squeezes the very last bit of juice out of well-worn airline material (just like Luke; maybe we all were quick to write off flying as a premise in a post-Seinfeld world) and does the unthinkable: List takes somewhat unrelatable experiences like swimming in the Dead Sea and makes the audience feel as if they’re there with him by not bogging us down with details.
This is a typical comic trait and one I often fall prey to- anytime, you tell a story about, say boogie boarding (boogie boarding is always my example), you can very easily lose audience members that have never had this experience.
List has the opposite effect. Then, when he takes on something even more universal like “dining in” at McDonalds, every therapist’s advice or finding out what your wife finds sexy, it hits twice as hard.
Yes, List dubbed the special “I Hate Myself” but this audience member loved it (HIGH CHEESE ALERT).
“Clifford” (1994): We ain’t talking about the darn big, red dog. No, this is a review of the famously critically maligned/cult classic Martin Short film where he plays the titular character who happens to be an insufferable P.O.S. that is also ten.
Yes, 40-year-old Martin Short starred in a movie where he played a pre-teen “PEN15” style. The ‘90s were a wild time.
Here, Short dreams of going to Dino World, a fictional amusement park centered around dinosaurs released a year after “Jurassic Park” (but filmed in 1990 and shelved for four years). His parents, a harried Richard Kind and Jennifer Savidge, drop him off with his uncle, the king of cinematic discomfort, Charles Grodin who is using Clifford to become closer to his fiancée (Mary Steenburgen) who thinks he isn’t fit for fatherhood based on a real estate purchase he just made with a steep cliff not fit for children (a plot thread ironically left hanging).
Did I mention Short is essentially the devil incarnate? For 90 minutes, he insufferably tortures Grodin’s put upon doting uncle character who eventually snaps.
There’s no one to root for here and if that sounds like a downer, it kind of is (there’s also an awful Dabney Coleman grabby boss subplot too). The studio had to interfere and wedge in a preachy preamble and epilogue with a prosthetics-ridden, elderly looking Short as a Priest doing penance for his youthful misdeeds and steering troubled kids (like a young Ben Savage pre “Boy Meets World”) away from similar hijinks. This tacked on message completely drops this chaotic film’s nasty streak undercutting its entire mojo.
When it was over, I didn’t know what to think. Was Short funny as the unhinged tween? Absolutely. Did Grodin ground a seemingly far out story? 100%.
Did this movie’s critical maligning pass muster but the cult status didn’t make sense? Totally.
So, I consulted a podcast to try and make better sense of my conflicted feelings.
Keep reading for…
“Blank Check with Griffin and David” featuring Tom Scharpling: I’m ashamed to say these guys figured it out for me.
I’d been meaning to listen to this movie discussion podcast for a long time and while scrolling through their back catalog, I discovered they talked about “Clifford” not once, but twice. Surely, they would help me understand why this beloved film has merit.
I listened to the sequel episode which came about because podcast extraordinaire Tom Scharpling was such a super fan that he repeatedly called into Griffin Newman’s other podcast “George Lucas Live” many times to donate with only one request- they give his favorite film “Clifford” a proper re-evaluation.
This is exactly what I needed. Please inform my opinion, people who have been stewing on this film for two decades.
Although tongue in cheek, the hosts and guests present a level-headed and sympathetic assessment of this cinematic misfire labeling it as a battle of wits “overbearing guest secret horror film” in the same league as “What About Bob” or “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” On the other hand, it also checked the boxes of bizarro kid living a whimsical reality like “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” and “Problem Child.”
On paper, the movie simply followed the conventions of these subgenres; something I had not considered. Were they as good as its predecessors? Heavens, no. They do defend the movie valiantly though.
The hosts and Scharpling note that what separates “Clifford” is that by casting a cynical, put upon straight man (Grodin) and an evil kid (Short), we’re left with no one to root for…which is kind of hilarious if you think about it. What are we, cheerleaders? Why do we need to root for someone? They riff on how kids kicking adults in the shins is hilarious and make sense of Clifford’s indomitable spirit (He often says “I sleep less than you’d expect” often). While it’s grating to watch, when you hear these co-hosts unravel the nutso kid logic, you have to give credit where it’s due- it makes sense to Clifford even if it doesn’t to us.
Even still, I’m selling this sophisticated podcast short. The hosts bring a wealth of knowledge and a smidge of snobbery to the proceedings which is exactly how I like my movie commentary served best. To put it succinctly, I felt like I was listening in on funnier, smarter people discussing something I couldn’t quite articulate, which now that I write that, is what most of entertainment is (at least what I like to consume).
Plus, they imagine a “Clifford 2” that takes place in between the original and future epilogue “Clifford” that shows how he got to be the pious soul he eventually became. Now that’s a movie I’d see.
Final verdict: See this cult classic film (Streaming on YouTube for free) and then chase it with the podcast. They pair well together.
• The hit to miss ratio on SNL this season has been exceptional. Looking back on past episodes, I don’t think there was a clunker in the bunch unless you include the Paul Rudd Christmas episode where they forced Tina Fey and Tom Hanks to host the world’s lamest clip show.
This week, we got our first true stinker of the season where the groundouts and strikeouts outweighed the base hits (I score sketches weirdly. Sue me).
My hunch is that this had something to do with a few cast members being out with COVID which leads me to speculate that maybe some of the writing staff was as well.
With all that said, here’s my review of this week’s episode hosted by “Only Murders In The Building” third banana Selena Gomez.
“Old Enough” pre-tape: This parody of the “toddlers running errands” show “Old Enough” was smart, pointed and another jab at the listless 30-something man I see myself becoming (this season’s earlier “Man Park” as a nice companion piece). Here, a 34-year-old boyfriend is sent to run his girlfriend’s errands and completely drops the ball picking up her makeup and two shallots. They’ve tapped into something very real here (at least for me) and put up a mirror to my mere existence. There were some logic gaps here like “why doesn’t this guy just FaceTime his girlfriend and ask what she wants” but that’s not the point. This works big time and will hold up years later after the Netflix reality show “Old Enough” is long gone.
Weekend Update: First of all, major props once again to the team who comes up with the recurring “Mitch McConnell pictured here (insert awful action)” bit. It does not get old. All other jokes did their thing. Your classic intentionally shocking, goofy gags (“Barbie with hearing aids is coming soon which goes to show that it doesn’t matter if you’re deaf as long as that body bangin’”) and socially relevant jokes (the spelling out of how our reality has become Mad Max-like was particularly inspired) along with sensational correspondent pieces from Baby Yoda (I never tire of this character; sue me again) and Sarah Sherman pilfering through Jost’s dressing room.
“Baby Monitor:” A pure five-to-one balls to the wall weird sketch. Here, a house party turns into a group of teens diligently overseeing two demon babies (Sherman and Yang) squirming, running, jumping and catapulting in their crib. The heightens are fun, the staging of the scene impressive. Stick around for the ending of this one- this is the rare sketch punctuated with a thrilling final punchline.
Johnny Depp and Amber Heard Cold Open: I’ll admit I haven’t caught any of this trial. After reading the YouTube comments for this sketch, I found that the general consensus was that SNL completely missed what was funny about Depp V. Heard. Anyhow, the running bit where the housekeeping staff tries to make sense of why someone would take a dookie where they sleep was amusing enough and felt more like a sketch (similar to Bill Hader’s “Dateline” where he would goad criminals to elaborate on grisly details) than a Cold Open, so points for that.
“Three Daughters:” A prince seeks a bride from a king who has three daughters to choose from and expects one of them to be “weird” or “have something really wrong with them.” A bit of meta commentary on the rule of threes in sketch. Smartly, they subvert expectations and make the third character overly normal until the end, of course. It’s a brilliant move but never quite took off (although the prince’s review of stodgy dance moves as “regular hot dancing” did make me LOL) to take it to the next level.
“Intuition” pre-tape: I’d have given this energetic “Devil on the shoulder dispensing wild advice” sketch a much higher grade if it didn’t give off such “Big Mouth” vibes. Sure, it’s not entirely fair to grade a sketch based on what it’s similar to but I just felt like I’d seen this “person does irrational things because a hormone monster told them to” charade before. Kudos to Punkie Johnson though- her devil was the best work she’s done of the show thus far by my estimation.
“Bratz Dolls:” Ah yes, another tried and true formula where “something in a child’s bedroom comes to life.” Here, the two female and one male Bratz comment on a girl’s sad life and try to hook up with her dad. It’s a well the show has dipped into before with better results.
“A Peek At Pico:” Oof. This talk show hosted by Villasenor and Gomez trades in stereotypes that feel out of place in 2022. Yeah, there are a few fun ideas bandied about (the hosts interrupt their guests a la “What’s Up With That”) but this cringey, almost exploitative sketch felt dated on arrival. I’m rooting for Villasenor but don’t love when she taps into this type of minstrel-y act.
“Irish Play:” Anna and I diagnosed what was wrong with this sketch right out of the gate. They took a great premise about the state of modern theater where understudies regularly replace cast members who are out due to COVID and can’t remember lines. Ripe for comedy. However, by making fun of a nonexistent Irish play rather than one actually running on Broadway, this sketch lost a chance to have real bite and graduate from “silly” to “satire.”
Selena Gomez monologue: This did not inspire confidence. Gomez’s anti-charisma works on “Only Murders” when she’s playing against Martin and Short but by herself, she’s a real drag. All of the eligible bachelors (who turn out to be married) and bachelorettes hitting on her? Yawn. Singing “Barney” unironically? That’s when we moved into the rare strikeout territory.
“Inventor Documentary” pre-tape: When I was in film school, we screened all of our thesis films at the end of senior year and I was so excited. My movie on the big screen! I imagined every joke would get huge laughs. Nope. I’d made something “clever” but not “funny.” There were a lot of knowing smiles but not many actual lols. That’s how I’d categorize this Steve Martin curio. Inventor of the whoopee cushion looking for the right sound? Tough sell. This seems like a summer camp skit (yes, I said skit). While Aidy Bryant admirably attempts to breathe life into this stale concept by going big with her unlucky character that inspired all of the gag gifts of the 20th century, I just couldn’t bring myself to laugh. The fact that this was all they did with Steve Martin knocked it down a peg for me too taking it into full-on strikeout.
“Guidance Counselor:” Surprisingly short, this unusual trifle where guidance counselors advise graduating seniors to pursue modeling even if they want to be accountants never went anywhere. A commentary on influencers and Gen Z’ers? I don’t know because I didn’t get anything out of this other than…I might be getting tired of Bowen Yang’s shtick.
Here’s hoping they saved all the goods for next week’s finale with the very random Natasha Lyonne and Japanese Breakfast as host and musical guest. My dream is that they give loving sendoffs to middling cast members like Moffatt, Day and Mooney (although I’ll miss him) to make way for a new generation next season.
• One notable trailer dropped this week (by my estimation). Cooper Raiff’s “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” which netted bank at Sundance, appears to be a modest indie dramedy centered around a bar mitzvah DJ who finds himself as the odd man out in a love triangle.
Looks decent enough. Solid concept with an obvious unrequited love story. Kinda looks more like an eight-episode Apple TV series than a movie but I’d still see it just to catch Brad Garrett and Leslie Mann in supporting roles.
All that being said, I have a theory.
Film schools are bankrolling Cooper Raiff’s movies just so more students keep enrolling. This guy gives the next generation hope- you still can get an indie dramedy made, even if it looks just so-so.
• Now, go outside. You can scroll there. It’s a beautiful day lol