Discover more from Matt Levy's Comedy Stray Notes
Comedy Stray Notes May 9, 2022
On Zoom comedy two years after it was a thing, specials filmed in bodegas, Colin Jost's memoir, the new Machine Gun Kelly AND SO MUCH MORE (yeah, there's a lot of good stuff)
Comedy Stray Notes
• I’ll admit it. Sometimes I miss the quaint Zoom days of 2020. There was something comforting about clicking into a long calendar invite link and meeting up with friends virtually.
So, I went old school this week and gathered a few of my favorite folks (Anna E. Paone, Jay Welch, Jocelyn Chia, Nikki MacCallum, Christie Bahna, Audrey Shapiro and Sam Zelitch) for a reading of my pilot “Wabbits” (details are under wraps…just because I like to maintain a sense of mystery. Now you kinda want to keep reading, right?).
Admittedly, the draft I had the cast read was a bit undercooked. I could have done more research, tightened up the storyline and balanced the tone better. However, my dream cast came through for me. Not only did they deliver very funny and grounded performances but after the reading every single person stayed on and offered valuable notes to improve the show.
It was a beautiful thing. Each actor generously gave their time to help me see what the best version of this show could be. I didn’t just have actors help me in a pinch. I also inadvertently hired a writer’s room. Remember these above names. You have a reading or need a cast? Each of these people will go way above and beyond to help you make the best version of whatever your project is.
• About four months ago, I graduated from Brent Forrester’s five-week “Creating Comedy--From Character to Scene and Story” course. In the class, I learned quite a bit about CCC’s (Core Comic Characteristics) but the most valuable takeaway has been the community that Brent built.
Since the class concluded, I’ve been a part of the 926-member (and growing) Facebook group where writers share projects they’re working on, swap scripts, start pilot analysis clubs, offer industry scripts and stage readings.
In the past week, I had the privilege of taking part in Henry Greenberg’s very funny mockumentary “The Dentist” and watching Kelly McCarron’s laugh out loud “Siblings” featuring my wife Anna Paone. Then, there’s another one coming up this week. Pilot season is in full swing.
Want to start acting in Zooms and meet fellow writers/directors/actors/comics from all over the world? Let me know. I’ll see what I can do to get you involved.
• In the real world, I spent my Tuesday evening on the set of Barak Ziv’s directorial debut “The Guest Spot” at Stand Up NY.
You’d never guess it was Barak’s first time helming a production. He and director of photography Matt Menard collaborated seamlessly to create a chill environment for the cast made up of Max Marcus, Daniel J. Perafan, Divya Gunasekaran, Crenshaw White and Dave Jenkins who all brought a collaborative spirit to the proceedings punching up jokes on the spot and coming up with creative solutions to logistical problems that popped up.
Best lesson on the set though? If you’re filming a sketch, get as many funny takes as you can. You’ve already spent the money on the location, equipment and craft services. Now, go crazy with the lines. They’re the only thing that’s free and will save you in the editing room. Never ask yourself “Should we film the performer saying this line?” Just get it. You’ll thank yourself later.
• As you may recall, I’m a big fan of the self-produced stand up special. They’re typically more personal, unique and memorable than content mass-produced for networks.
Nic Crespo’s beautifully photographed, 19-minute “SUPERIOR: A Lower East Side Special” is all of the above and more. Set inside Crespo’s neighborhood bodega that’s being bought out, he centers his material around the convenience shop that’s more than just a place where you can buy ramen, cigarettes and seltzer- it’s a hub for the community.
Crespo takes the stage behind the store counter and delivers hard hitting jokes while also incorporating characters from the neighborhood into the show. It’s a masterful stroke to include people the audience doesn’t know and make them feel as if they’re old friends.
At one point, a few women walk out of the showroom. Rather than cut this from the special like other comics might, Crespo opts to walk on the wild side and not only keep this moment in but showcase his improvised, hostile reaction. It’s mean-spirited, vitriolic and fully in the moment. That’s what separates this special from others: “SUPERIOR” is bursting with realism.
Comics, we need more self-produced specials with this. Keep comedy personal.
• It took me a little over a year but I finally finished Colin Jost’s memoir “A Punchable Face.”
Before I get into my review, I have a thought: if you’re under 40, please don’t write a memoir. You don’t have enough perspective yet. Save the life story for later. Trust me on this.
Now, my review.
My major gripe with Jost’s lively, occasionally hilarious collection of true stories is that it often rings hollow. There are great anecdotes about how he didn’t talk until he was four, high school speech and debate in Staten Island, the Harvard Lampoon (don’t know about the building the Lampoon is written in? You’re in for a doozy), what slips past censors at SNL, bombing at the Emmys, bombing at Weekend Update and bombing at stand up (lots of bombing) but a secret ingredient is missing.
Jost is a pure joke writer and fills his pages with laugh lines, admissions of guilt (he honestly could be arrested for something he did in France he writes about in a later chapter) and non-stop self deprecation but there’s no real perspective, emotion or stakes. This may be the greatest downfall of comic writing- the author feels like they have to make the reader laugh ten times per page and in the process forgets what makes for compelling reading.
However, in one chapter, Jost drops the act to pay homage to his mother who helped the NYFD on 09/11. It’s by far the least funny chapter (as one might expect) but the ten pages are his most gripping (and this is coming from someone who bought the book mostly to read behind the scenes SNL stories). By sticking to what’s true and meaningful, you find what the readers really want which is honest storytelling.
• “The Lost City” (2022): Now, I’ll back up my “honesty in storytelling” thesis from above.
While on the surface “The Lost City” is a whiz bang action comedy crowd pleaser that follows all the beats of the “Hero’s journey” to a T, it has a beating heart at its core that propels the story forward.
That story is the tale of romance novelist Loretta Sage (Sandra Bullock) and her book’s cover model Alan (a never funnier Channing Tatum) that she can’t stand.
Sage is grieving the passing of her archaeologist husband and turns in an uninspired final draft of her most recent novel. Doesn’t matter that the book’s no good, all the publishers have to do is slap a sexy cover on the story and it’ll sell like hotcakes.
On her press tour hosted by Bowen Yang, fans clamor for Alan while she lifelessly goes through the motions.
It’s a disaster. Alan’s Fabio wig is ripped off, she insults the fans, no one’s happy.
Then, she gets kidnapped by billionaire Daniel Radcliffe. He supplies her with a lifetime supply of charcuterie and tells her he needs her to find the symbols that will take him to “The Lost City” on the island he’s taken over.
Her stories have become her life!
Alan (along with a star in an extended cameo so unexpected and well-executed I refuse to spoil it) heads overseas to rescue poor Sage.
Leeches stick to Tatum, romance blossoms and a hilarious set piece where Bullock is chained to a chair all ensue.
It’s a great time.
“The Lost City” does everything you expect it to but in a way that was so breathlessly fun and emotionally true that I didn’t care. All you need to make any story no matter how far-fetched is give audiences the three-dimensional characters and heart they crave. Plus, cameos from Patti Harrison, Oscar Nunez and a score of other comedy ringers doesn’t hurt.
Final verdict: Although critics dunked on this movie, I think it’s the true meta movie of the year. Sorry “Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,” this is how it’s done.
• After an extended hiatus, SNL is back. This go-round, they brought in Benedict Cumberbatch, the latest face to be slapped on a Marvel poster along with Arcade Fire whose new album “WE” is indisputably hot fire.
Here are my slapdash, rinky-dink baseball-scored ratings of the 90-minute program:
“Blue Bunny” focus group: You may recall that Sam Elliott criticized Cumberbatch’s film “Power Of The Dog” on WTF a few months back. He was in no way part of the film but the mustachioed septuagenarian cowboy didn’t like what they had done to the modern western.
So, Cumberbatch slyly returned the favor by playing a sleepy Elliott type who can’t stop earnestly waxing poetic about how Blue Bunny’s flavors bring him back to pivotal moments of his life. Heidi Gardner’s “pea in a pod” character follows suit and does the same. The two go dark and their stories ooze with tension much to the chagrin of horrified onlookers who were just eating some ice cream. Either way, I’d watch a movie, nay! a franchise of movies about these characters. Very funny stuff.
“The Understudy” pre-tape: Chloe Fineman does her best work on the show to date dressing up as her fellow female cast members and impersonating them demonstrating what she can do if any of them can’t make an episode. It’s a tricky line to walk but she smartly makes it more reverential than snarky and even impersonates impersonator Melissa Villasenor. A neat trick. Would like to see her do the 14 or so male cast members next.
“Chain gang:” Musically, this sketch was on point. A quartet of prisoners sing about their troubled lives in the chain gang. Then, BOOM! My screen froze. Anna and I did that thing where we predicted the “game” of the sketch. I guessed one of them did something really awful to become a part of the chain gang and they’d sing about it at length. The actual reveal? Much funnier and friendlier. Once again, no point in spoiling as all the fun here is in the surprise.
“Roe V. Wade” cold open: Major points to the show for not giving us the stodgy C-Span version of this cold open that it easily could have been. Instead by citing Justice Samuel Alito’s references to a document from the 13th century and then actually going nearly 1000 years back to when this historical precedent was set was a nice touch. No matter where you stand on this hot-button issue, you gotta admit that this observational take on what life was like nearly a millennium ago is a smarter way to handle this sensitive topic. Plus, McKinnon’s “elderly” woman in her 30s was a swell gag.
“Mom sign:” The Mother’s Day episode always means we’re getting mom sketches. Love when the writers have to play within a sandbox to come up with new ways to cover old material. Here, the team executes the tried and true “give a person those inspirational signs” as a gift with aplomb sticking the landing and then some. At first, the signs seem cheesy which is fun on its own. Then, they get aggressively personal and aggressively weird. Special kudos to Andrew Dismukes for pointing out that they got the Aidy Bryant mom character so many signs because “they were only $1.99.”
“Just Like You” pre-tape: This touching, if a bit preachy pre-tape starts in a familiar corner where Cecily Strong’s mom character lectures her daughter (Fineman) for coming home drunk only to flash back to her debaucherous college years with each return to the past more sordid and messed up than the last. The contrast between the buttoned-up matriarch and grunged up matriarch that Strong plays is impressive work on her part. I’d put it in her Best Of for sure. Only reason this slides into the “Double” category rather than a “Triple” or “Home Run” is the inherent treacliness/preachiness.
Weekend Update: Once again, Weekend Update gets the short shrift with a “blink and you’ll miss it” edition of the fake news. Jost and Che come out of the gate swinging a big stick taking on the historic news of the week. They set the tone with “Tomorrow is Mother’s Day whether you want it to be one or not.” Then, they don’t shy away from the topic when McKinnon is wheeled out as Amy Coney-Barrett downplaying how difficult pregnancy is. Overall, they handled one of America’s touchiest subjects with surprising delicacy and sensitivity without going too far to please any one side of the aisle. Some may call that spineless, I call it impressive (credit where it’s due- Jost writes a mean joke).
“New toilet” pre-tape: Gotta give points to this tribute to Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall” music video where everyone sits on boring toilets until the radical NEW TOILET comes along. This isn’t really funny per se but the practical invention of the new toilet (tell me that doesn’t look like a better experience, I dare you) coupled with the stoic, pitch perfect parody of ‘80s British schools (I didn’t go to an oppressive British school then or ever but it feels right) made me appreciate the bit here quite a bit.
Cumberbatch monologue: Old BC scored here sincerely paying his respects to mom and wife. This is middle of the road, meat and potatoes forgettable but warm hearted comedy. Gotta give credit where it’s due once again as well too- the gag where Cumberbatch’s mom didn’t come because she’d rather stay on the beach in Greece she’s vacationing was perfect.
“Fainting couch:” One-joke sketches are often considered SNL’s greatest crutch (see “The Californians”) or strength (see the layered “Cowbell”). This silly trifle where Cecily String’s character repeatedly faints falls into the former camp more so than the latter but thanks to her commitment to fainting and knocking over props, the dumb bit doesn’t fall completely flat. Even if you see the joke coming from a mile away, a solid performance can make a world of difference.
“Chuck E. Cheese:” Animatronic characters at ol’ Chuck E. Cheese not working? Why not bring in an ‘80s synth pop band to entertain the children instead? That’s the premise here. It’s solid until you get the joke and then it’s just Cumberbatch and Bowen singing semi-catchy tunes. Would have liked more interaction with the kids or the animatronic characters coming to life to switch things up.
All that being said, the biggest laugh of the episode for me came from this sketch which was when Moffatt’s Chuck E. Cheese manager FELT the music and truly rocked out to these soft synth tunes. For that alone, this sketch graduated from a ground out to a solid single.
Overall: Decent episode with a high batting average. No true whiffs and a few standout moments. The show isn’t flying as high as it was at the beginning of the season but this show was nothing to sneeze at. A lot to like here.
Side note: I’ve been a hardcore Arcade Fire fan for about 20 years having owned their music on CDs, iTunes playlists and MP3s over the past two decades.
While I have a soft spot for their 2013 “Reflektor,” this new album “WE” really is as great as advertised. Bombastic, and intimate, sweeping and weepy, it will make you want to cheer and tear up all at once.
Therefore, I just wanted to say how exciting it was to see the group get the rare honor of playing three songs on air which is usually reserved for heavyweights like U2, Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney.
Can’t wait for the tour.
Look out, kids.
• Let’s close the week out with a quick trailer roundup and then you can go about your day. Just need your attention for like anotjer 45 seconds I swear.
- It seems like “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” was announced yesterday, was a major part of the news cycle and now just a month or so later, we’ve already got ourselves a teaser.
There’s not a ton to go off on this minute-long promo story-wise but Radcliffe looks like he’s having fun, the look is spot-on era appropriate and faux serious treatment of the silliest parody songs of all time should be a gas. “Weird” should be a home run for the Roku Channel (or however it’s being distributed.”
- Machine Gun Kelly is starring in a comedy? And it looks halfway decent? I’m just as surprised as you are.
“Good Mourning” is your classic thin story (actor gets broken up and finds himself) where the lead encounters dozens of funny people (GaTa from “Dave,” Whitney Cummings, Pete Davidson, Danny Trejo and the voice of Snoop) who get all the laugh lines before it descends into quick hit chaos where it’s hard to decipher what exactly is going on other than drugs and cops are involved.
Don’t know if this will be any good but I’m guessing either “surprise cult classic” or “cultural punchline.”
We’ll see soon enough. Comes out May 20.
• Happy belated Mother’s Day to my mom, grandma, wife and sister in law. And all the other moms. You guys really deserve at least two days