Discover more from Matt Levy's Comedy Stray Notes
Comedy Stray Notes May 30, 2022
On wearing too many hats in indie productions, karaoke comedy, the first ever "guest segment" in Comedy Stray Notes history and SO MUCH MORE (yep, I done scribbled down a bunch of thoughts again)
• In indie film productions, whoever is in charge has to wear a lot of hats.
Not literal hats (although directors do like berets lol).
No, oftentimes, you need to write, storyboard, shot list, find locations, direct, produce, finance, set design, bring equipment, feed the crew and edit.
The real dream is to wear only one of these “hats” and really focus on your task at hand for best results.
Still, we all do it for the love of the game, mom and dad (they often wonder why I do it).
Most recently, my good friend Barak Ziv made his directorial debut with the excellent five-minute sketch “The Guest Spot” where he wore all the hats AND to top it off, also starred in the dang thing.
That’s no easy feat.
Anyhow, ol’ Barak made it look easy, telling the funny story of a comic who takes a guest spot at Stand Up NY way too seriously which flusters the jerky show producer (that would be me) and then nicely escalates the tension in absurd ways.
It’s a nice, nerdy, “inside baseball” parody of delusional new comics, rude gatekeepers and wraps it all up with a clever twist ending.
Sure, I might be biased because I’m in this sketch but I think it’s a slam dunk. Give it a look-see.
• Anna Paone and I are less than t-minus 50 days away from Operation BABY.
The two of us are trying to simultaneously take it easy and get in as many non-infant having activities as we can because come July 15, those days are over.
All of this is a long-winded way to say that I participated in Harmon Leon’s wild stand-up themed game show “Joke-E-Oke” this past Thursday.
Harmon’s show takes a simple concept—karaoke for jokes— and executes the idea with projectors, a teleprompter and judges.
If you can’t tell, the theme of this week’s Stray Notes is producers putting in tons of effort to see their visions through.
In the first round of the show, I impersonated Gilbert Gottfried (I give myself a 4/10; the judges gave me a 3) and Seinfeld (my Jerry is better than my Gilbert) and advanced to the second round against two other semifinalists. There, I recited Hedberg material, hitting the last syllable of punchlines after a laid back setup just like ol’ Mitch would. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it any further than that.
That was totally fine by me though. In the finals, the last two standing have to trade rapid fire Don Rickles putdowns at one another which is way more fun to watch than take part in.
Now having been a part of it, I can safely say that there is no other show quite like “Joke E Oke.” There’s no other gig in New York that allows one to pay homage to comic greats while also letting you stretch your own impersonation wings. It’s a fantastic monthly show and one you should definitely seek out if you’re burnt out on meat and potatoes straight stand up eight-comic lineups.
*Side note: At the show, Tom Nemec channeled George Carlin so precisely, it felt like he was in the room with us. Goosebumps.
• If Dan Perlman and Kevin Iso’s “Flatbush Misdemeanors” isn’t already part of your comedy diet, you need to change that immediately.
Their compact, naturalistic ten-episode first season is a master class in storytelling, world building, complex three-dimensional character creation, pointed social commentary and most importantly hard jokes.
The understated series is set into motion by a simple act that reverberates throughout the entire season—when artist/food delivery man Kevin leans into a bottle of drug dealer Drew’s (the electric Hassan Johnson) lean, he becomes indebted to him. Lean ain’t cheap.
Dan, playing an unflappable and flustered teacher, does everything he can to help while also trying to control his middle school class and pursue a romantic relationship with his school’s principal.
While there isn’t a bad episode in the bunch, I’d like to spotlight my favorite scene in the series and make a case for why everyone should jump on this show before Season Two drops in a few weeks.
In episode six, Dan meets with his therapist (Yamaneika Saunders) over video chat. She is so obviously bored with his mildly dramatic life that she insensitively roasts and solves all of his problems like they’re nothing. Then, for the remainder of the session, she asks to be taken to the much juicier fight happening next door.
This brilliant scene plays on the fear that our therapists will find us dull and weak in the funniest, smartest way possible. After I saw it, I was bowled over. Yamaneika’s startling performance that put into perspective just how basic Dan’s problems were was so relatable that it ran through my head all week. That’s what the best comedy does- changes your worldview ever so slightly.
Final verdict: “Flatbush Misdemeanors” is worth the price of a Showtime subscription alone (Streaming on Showtime. Obviously).
• New Jersey gets a bad rap from New Yorkers. The state is often referred to as a punchline but if you give the Garden State a real chance, you’ll find that many funny, original voices are fine-tuning their talents there as well.
Exhibit A: This week, I came across Shaquan Yates and Di’quanne Yates’ web series “That’s My Brother” where they pack multiple seasons of story into Garden State flavored ten-minute bursts.
Over the course of six episodes, we see siblings reconnect, relationships fall apart and board games taken super seriously. Overall, there’s a nice balance of melodrama, humor, original hip hop spat on the spot, cool camera tricks and New Jersey flavor.
The show’s creators compare their season to “The Wayans Brothers” and “How High” but that’s doing a disservice to the show’s gonzo originality and indie film charms.
You can easily binge the entire run- the Yates put together a YouTube playlist for your viewing pleasure.
• Like everyone else alive, I loved “Breaking Bad.”Like a few hangers on, I enjoy “Better Call Saul” as well. To me, it’s a “Lost”-like Rube Goldberg device of a show tinkering with audience expectations, building to something grander and more satisfying in the end than how each season began with puzzle piece bread crumbs teasing what’s to come.
This most recent first half of the final season was a true humdinger that slowly but surely told a quiet story with loud exclamation points in a few key moments.
However, I’m really a fair weather “Better Call Saul” fan. A pedestrian.
My wife, on the other hand, is the real deal. She listens to podcasts, trolls Reddit for fan theories and follows all of the actors’ Instagrams with a rabid curiosity. She catches every small detail, piece of trivia and “Breaking Bad” connection with a hawk-like attention to detail.
Therefore, I asked her to contribute her thoughts/hot takes and she charitably agreed to do so. Now, without further ado, I present to you the first ever “Stray Notes Guest Segment” written by Anna Paone. Enjoy:
I’m thrilled to be writing my first guest segment on Stray Notes!
When Matt first suggested we watch “Better Call Saul” during quarantine, I was reluctant since it wasn’t my choice. However, I soon grew engrossed by the dark humor, scam montages, beautiful New Mexico cinematography, and evocative look at early-aughts law firms in this “Breaking Bad” prequel. “Better Call Saul” traces Saul Goodman’s journey from scheming nail-salon lawyer Jimmy McGill into Albuquerque underworld consigliere. Meanwhile, the show also depicts Mike Ehrmantraut’s prequel arc and, perhaps more importantly, introduces compelling new characters, such as Nacho Varga, an aspiring criminal kingpin with a sensitive heart, and Kim Wexler, ambitious Albuquerque lawyer who may or may not be the voice of reason in Jimmy’s life. Not only did I dress as Kim for Halloween (and asked Matt to dress as Jimmy), but I took us on an extensive tour of locations both famous and obscure while in ABQ for a wedding (the bar where the lead couple scam Ken Wins, anyone?).
[SOME SPOILERS AHEAD.] Now caught up with the series, I eagerly awaited the premiere of its sixth and final season. I was not disappointed. I had never been quite as invested in the cartel storyline, but the show efficiently and emotionally dispensed with one of its key loose ends three episodes in. (I read a theory suggesting that this was so Mark Margolis, who plays Hector Salamanca, could reduce his COVID exposure. Check out his adorable Instagram!) Then showrunner Peter Gould and company turned their lens on the further scheming and possible moral decay of Jimmy and Kim as they attempt to take down their sometimes-toxic-but-probably-not-that-bad erstwhile boss, Howard Hamlin. This leads to unintended consequences and, in the mid-season finale, brings the cartel and legal sides of their lives together in a devastating way.
Like most fans of this show, I love the complicated, resourceful, eloquent Kim Wexler, who, early in the series, seemed to be the typical girlfriend who would pull Jimmy back from the brink and maybe leave him when his schemes became too much. “BCS” turned this dynamic on its head when it became clear that Kim was both intellectually and romantically turned on by Jimmy’s complex plans, and hoped to use them to fund her pro-bono law practice. What she does in season six is not right, but if you’ve followed the character, it is understandable. I didn’t follow “Breaking Bad” while it was airing, but she’s certainly more sympathetic (in my mind) than Walt. The mid-season finale leaves us with several tantalizing questions: Can Kim be redeemed? Will a key sin of omission prove too much for her marriage? And, as viewers have been asking the whole time, what is her ultimate fate?
Finally, as mentioned, I watched “Breaking Bad” some years after it aired, and binged the first five seasons of “Better Call Saul” in a rush. However, the COVID- and Odenkirk-health-induced hiatus led me to seek out the official “Better Call Saul” insider podcast as well as fan writings and theories. I feel now like I better understand the Hitchcockian close-ups and leading shots from Gould et al., the Easter eggs, the hints, the artifacts and the symbolism. This certainly has enriched my viewing experience. I’m sad that there are only six episodes left, but I know the denouement is in good hands, and I can’t wait to see how it all ends. Mike Ehrmentrout says, in a line ostentatiously highlighted in one of the trailers, “Whatever happens next, it's not gonna go down the way you think it is.” Or, as playwright and memoirist Helene Hanff wrote–in a line I often invoke in my personal life–“You persisted in assuming there were two possibilities and there were always three: the two you thought of and the one that happened.”
Editor’s note: Yes, my wife is a much more gifted writer than me. I had just as much fun reading that recap as you did.
• “Rescue Rangers” (2022): It’s not oft discussed but the most fun subgenre of the 21st century is the self-aware, super-meta fourth-wall breaking animated film. It started with “Shrek” relentlessly taking fairytales to task and continued on with “Lego Movie,” “Wreck It Ralph” and now the action-packed, toon/CGI showbiz satire packaged for kids “Rescue Rangers.”
In this goofy yet sometimes grounded flick, we begin at a “FanCon,” where Dale (Samberg) has undergone CGI surgery to appear more like a modern ‘toon alongside other less popular characters like “Ugly Sonic” (who you may remember as the Sonic that the internet rejected a few years back) shilling merch for nostalgic fans.
Dale is a mover and shaker living in the past while Chip (Mulaney) has forged ahead with his life and sadly taken up working in insurance. The two fell out after Dale pursued a series— “Double O Dale”‚— on his own.
They’re reunited when their friend Monterey Jack (Eric Bana?!) is kidnapped by baddies, lured in by cheese, as cartoon mice often are (Anna pointed out that this may be a sly nod to Mulaney’s history with addiction- she’s much more perceptive than me). The gang is reunited and have to use their long dormant skills from the series so long ago.
What separates this fairly standard storyline are the never-ending jokes (my favorite running gag are all the billboards with fake movies in the background like “Fast and Furious Babies”), innovative ideas (the “animation imaginer” that demonstrates what one would look like in every single animation style is an Instagram filter waiting to happen) and its pro-Disney/anti-bootlegging message. Our bad guys, led by a now grown-up Peter Pan (Will Arnett doing his best Will Arnett), take minor figures in animation and sell them to overseas production companies to create knockoff versions of their original works.
By telling the same “the gang teams up to save the day!” story but with a slightly different meta bent for its villains, the movie becomes much more memorable and digestible.
Final verdict: There are so many in-jokes here that might not just fly over kids’ heads but their parents’ heads too. This is a DENSE wall to wall joke machine. Case in point: there’s a three-second throwaway gag where Rogen’s character interacts with all of the other animated Seth Rogen characters. It’s brilliant but as an audience member you have to quickly clock what’s going on and remember, “Oh, yeah, he was Pumbaa too.”
What I’m saying is, this may warrant rewarding re-watches (Streaming on Disney+).
• Although SNL is on hiatus for a good three-four months, they’re still quietly releasing “cut for time” sketches. No idea if this practice will continue on throughout the summer, but if you need your fix, they dropped two this past week. Here’s a quick summary of both:
-“ESPN First Take NBA” is your classic sports roundtable talk show featuring huge personality Stephen A. Smith (Chris Redd giving an impressive 5000%), contrarian, understated Kendrick Perkins (Kenan Thompson doing Kenan Thompson) and overly New York-y Michael Rappaport (Natasha Lyonne doing Natasha Lyonne) debating every single topic that comes into play. They start small arguing whether or not it’s a “good morning” and then heighten by going back and forth trading barbs about Steph Curry and Luka Doncic.
Hidden within this fairly standard sketch though is a true comedic gold nugget when Rappaport describes what being a Knicks fan means. Never have I heard the pitfalls of sports fandom described so hilariously, concisely and accurately all within the span of two lines.
So, there is that.
“Cigarette Show,” another talk show, stars Lyonne and Chloe Fineman as two nurses making the most of their seven-minute smoke break alongside their doctor sidekick (Bowen Yang) who has a keyboard yet never plays the thing. There are fun jokes like “We give cigarette smokers a voice, which unfortunately sounds like this” and only gets better once Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph appear as French tourists who point out the different ways Americans smoke. There’s a lot of charm here and I’m bummed that this never saw the light of day.
Maybe it was cut because they’re semi-glorifying smoking cigs? Who knows? Either way, there are solid laughs here and it’s worth your five minutes.
• Nothing made me laugh harder this week than the completely straight-faced, incredibly cheesy “Bezos” trailer.
Yep, it’s a Jeff Bezos biopic featuring Kevin Sorbo in a small role and is trying so hard to be “The Social Network” but hilariously hits all the wrong notes unintentionally making this look like the funniest movie of the year.
If you’ve always dreamed of an unironic movie where one of the world’s richest human beings attempts to portray their greedy selves as a hero who “just wanted to sell books to the world,” look no further.
Ironically, this looks like it was made on a nothing budget.
Wanna know what’s doubly ironic? If you or I see this, we’re just putting more money in Bezos’ pockets. So, you do have to wrestle with that moral quandary.
• Now that it’s nice out, I wanted to share that I’ve been writing about how to best buy tickets for concerts, comedy shows and theater for NJ.com for the past nine months. So, if you want to go to a show of any kind and don’t know where to purchase seats, check out my articles- I’ve already done the homework for you (plus, there’s a $20 promo code in there too if you needed any extra motivation).
I recently shared a list of the 33 best comedy tours this year that you might find helpful.
• Happy Memorial Day weekend. Easily the best weekend of the year. Now, go outside and scroll Instagram there