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Comedy Stray Notes November 8, 2021
On "Book of Mormon's" return to Broadway, an interview with Marlon Wayans and why you have to see "The French Dispatch" in theaters
• Lotteries, sweepstakes, and surveys always seem to evade me. In my lifetime, I’ve probably filled out 100 “you could win $100 from answering this series of questions” for businesses but have never seen anything from it. Yet, I keep trying.
Finally, it paid off this past week. “The Book of Mormon” held a contest for fans of the show to see their first show back on Broadway. All you had to do was write a paragraph about your “Mission Partner,” throw their hashtag “Mission Partner” on social media, and then you were in the mix. Having never seen the show, I hungrily applied writing a short ode to my mission partner in life, Anna Paone.
A week or so later, I received an email in my “Promotions Folder” that I nearly missed when I was mass deleting spammy-looking messages. Thankfully, I opened it. We had tickets. Free tickets to see what critics all call “the funniest musical of all time” (that was Entertainment Weekly who gave it that title).
On the night of the show, we arrived and found out ALL fans got in for free that night. Some were diehard fanatics dressed as missionaries and others like us didn’t get the memo and just wore slacks and a dress shirt like my momma taught me. We sat in our very limited legroom seats at the Eugene O’Neill Theater and just before the show began, our crowd was treated to a surprise- Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez came out to thank the audience for coming and let us know the show was being filmed. “Don’t mind the cameras,” they said.
With that, the room got dark, a spotlight shone on a little golden cherub statuette above the stage playing the bugle and it rotated. The show was underway. Immediately, it was apparent why this show is so beloved. The opening number (following a super quick Mormon 101 history) features a dozen or so missionaries overlapping their doorbell pitches while introducing our conventional protagonist Elder Price and his n’er do well co-star Elder Cunningham crescendoing into a sustained chorus of voices harmonizing. This led to one of the longest applause breaks I’ve ever heard anywhere. If you let the fans into Broadway for free, they’ll be grateful.
After the long clap, I could feel the actor’s joy as we all kept clapping as they seemed to break character and let out real smiles. The rest of the show maintained this cathartic energy. In a musical about a notoriously repressed culture (one of the best numbers is called “Turn It Off” about how one should bury their most awful thoughts), there was so much fun to be had. The story centers itself around the two aforementioned missionaries- Price, the responsible one who studied and dreams of preaching Joseph Smith’s gospel in Orlando and Cunningham, the lying “follower” one who never even read the Book of Mormon- and their subsequent trip to spread the good word in Uganda. There, they realize how useless they are until they aren’t. And then they are. And then the devil is there. And then he’s not. I’ll keep this spoiler-free but it’s all a very clever satire chipping away at what religion really is and what it can be.
More than anything, “The Book of Mormon” is a crowd-pleaser. With “South Park”-level shock humor, the play effectively mixes the sacred and profane to create an elaborate comedy cocktail. For example, when the Ugandans are upset with their lives (they later dream of Salt Lake City as a place similar to Heaven), they sing a cheerful song decrying God; the Mormons sing along thinking it’s their version of “Hakuna Matata” until they end up shocked to learn they’re flipping off the Lord.
I’d wager the biggest laughs are mined from the elaborate and cheery choreography. Who knew stage direction could be so funny? At one point, Elder Price sings a song about how their mission could benefit “mostly me” and the curtains move around Cunningham eventually all but obscuring him while he tries to get in on the action. You know how when you see a great improv show and you leave confused at how what you saw was so impressive and changed your notions of what comedy can do (only me?)? That’s how I felt after seeing this show.
All that being said, this barely scratches the surface of what made this play so great (ok, it’s a bit problematic too in places) but if you’re in New York and haven’t seen the play, get tickets. Buy them months in advance because they’re not crazy pricey then. You’ll sit in a seat with limited legroom but won’t even mind. The reviews really aren’t as hyperbolic as they sound- the play really is that great. That’s all.
• OK, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s a much more truncated assessment of everything else somewhat related to the business of funny from the week.
- I recently started writing for NJ.com as an Entertainment and Experiences Reporter. My beat is live events like concerts, comedy, Broadway and the occasional wrestling story. Oftentimes, I have to pinch myself on assignments because I can’t believe I’m doing them for work. Most notably, a few weeks ago, I interviewed Marlon Wayans about his upcoming show in New Jersey that was supposed to take place on November 5 but has since been postponed. This was my first ever professional interview with a well-known comic figure and although our conversation only lasted about eight minutes, Wayans gave me all the sound bites necessary for a great story. In fact, he gave me more than I needed. I ended up cutting his great line about how he loves all of his sisters equally even if they choked him out and how he picked DC Ervin to open for him because he’s so good and makes Wayans have to elevate his game. To see what DID make the short profile, the link is in the comments.
- Last Monday, the day after Halloween, I performed on Dan Fitzpatrick’s Divine Monday show at E’s Bar on the Upper West Side right after eating a crispy rice salad from Sweetgreen. The show was even better than that exceptional bowl of leafy greens. Dan hosted in costume as Indiana Jones and booked a monster lineup featuring Emily Winter, Steven Rogers, Matt Benjamin, and Tom Achilles. If I’m being completely honest with myself, I was easily the weak link that night. This mostly has to do with the fact that I haven’t been hitting the stage in the same way that I used to and a lot of jokes trailed off without a clear punch to accentuate them at the end. That’s completely alright though- the hit to miss ratio wasn’t THAT bad (although there were major whiffs)- it was more just that the rest of the comics had really done their homework and came prepared with great material and warm stage presence. No complaints here and I’m grateful for the stage time. Also, huge shout out to my dudes Barak Ziv and Roberto Tobar for coming by- always good to see friends in E’s back room.
- My pal Andrew Tavin staged his one-man show “That’s so Tavin” (yup, it rhymes with “Raven”) twice before the pandemic. His third performance was set for March 14, 2020 and he told the crowd at his show last night, “When the NBA got canceled, I thought my show probably wouldn’t happen. Because usually, they do the NBA every year.” Now after a prolonged hiatus, the world finally gets to see what we missed so long ago. It was worth the wait. In a show that runs just over an hour, Andrew pulled off the impossible- a variety show featuring just one guy (that one guy would be Tavin). He does it all: there’s stand-up where Andrew introduces himself multiple times, he sings segue tunes while changing costumes backstage and plays characters like “tour guide with a dark past,” sleazy financial advisor, and a children’s book author with an incredible twist on a Shel Silverstein classic. There’s highly specific trivia about his past, animated films and a series of movies all with the same title. Finally, it all leads to a surprising finale playing with audience expectations that Andrew set up so perfectly. Once again, no need to spoil. This one’s better to see with your own eyes.
- Michael Harrison’s “Character Debates” podcast has a brilliant conceit: let’s let comics play fictional folks and then duel on a topic they’re well-versed in. It’s a well-oiled joke machine. This week, I listened to their 35-minute episode “What’s the best fad diet?” and found myself astonished at just how quickly Rebecca Kaplan’s vegan dominatrix character and Drew Dunn’s cannibal came up with practical yet funny arguments for why Jake Vevera’s undecided slob should adopt their diet of choice. I was floored by on-the-spot lines like Rebecca’s “the only animal I harm are the men I dominate” and “I’ve also eaten some of my sexual partners but they were carrots.” Those are stage-ready funny. Debating for the consumption of people, Dunn cleverly argued “You are what you eat” and made sure to clarify that he always gets consent from whomever he scarfs down. On the fly, he improvised the rebuttal, “Lettuce is for the ground- if you have to water it, you shouldn’t be eating it.” Poetry in motion. Also, I learned gelatin is made from animal collagen. I sort of knew that but these characters hammered it home for me. Good stuff. Check that link out.
- Musical comedy is 100x harder than “comedy-comedy.” It requires the comic to not only be funny but also carry a tune. Yet, somehow Dylan Adler knocks tosses off timely song parodies with such ease that it makes me wonder why he isn’t already one of the biggest stars in the game. This week, he dropped his “Lin-Manuel Miranda auditioning for “Wicked” video, and even though I’ve never seen “Wicked,” it was so funny, it didn’t even matter. His Lin is pitch-perfect nailing the warbly, halfway confident singing voice followed by the prideful tossed-off rap style the “Hamilton” star is known for. This video, clocking in at less than a minute is more than worth your time. It’s so funny, fast and well-done, you’ll be watching on repeat.
- Belton Delaine-Facey has been churning out great, smart sketches under the radar for far too long. That changes now. His latest three-minute video, about a casual customer turning disgruntled upon learning that returning his frisbee will be much more difficult than he anticipated, is fantastic. The agent says, “You ordered an environmentally-friendly product; I want you to know just how much your return HURTS the environment.” This line stings with 2021 guilt; the repetition of “environment” hammers it home. From there, the customer and representative argue semantics over a product that costs somewhere in the neighborhood of $10. It’s hilarious and then twists and turns in ways your typical sketch doesn’t. I’d highly recommend watching and then following Belton. There’s more good stuff like this where that came from.
• Where I saw the entertainment I consumed this week: a movie theater and a couch. Here’s a recap of each.
“The French Dispatch” (2021): Wes Anderson’s tenth film held out its release for the entirety of the pandemic (did the pandemic end? I’m not sure). I was a bit annoyed in 2020; I wanted to see this movie and Wes was depriving us of that. We didn’t know when theaters would re-open and this was easily one of my most anticipated. Well, having patiently waited, I can safely say, Anderson, made the right choice holding off to release this exclusively in theaters because it really has to be seen on the big screen to appreciate his exquisitely framed compositions.
By even revealing how this movie is structured feels like I’m giving too much away but I’ll do my best (the mildest of spoilers ahead): “The French Dispatch” is the story of a mid-20th-century periodical a la The New Yorker told in magazine format. It’s an idea so good, I’m kicking myself for never having thought of it. There’s an obituary, travel companion piece around the city and three features that turn this one movie into five disparate short films all told with their own distinct flavor that’s somehow equal parts midwestern and French all at once. Packed to the gills with an eye-popping cast (the movie poster is basically a modern-day Sgt. Pepper’s with every character actor you love like Bill Murray, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Timothee Chalamet, Lea Seydoux, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban, Benicio Del Toro, Willem Dafoe, Frances McDormand and standout Jeffrey Wright to name just a few), the real star is still Wes’ style and sense of humor which he doesn’t care if you like or not because it’s going to be front and center no matter what. The camera whips and glides showing off visual gags like a town full of cats on roofs, then a freeze-frame catching a fight in mid-action. This is speculation but I have to imagine each of these delicately constructed images took a day to compose. There’s hardly a single close-up or standard frame and if there is, it does something inventive like switch the color palette from black and white to color to show off one’s eyes. Wes even pulls a “Kill Bill” and briefly switches to animation at one point because the story appeared as an illustration in the magazine. Overall, it’s funny and sad and has one of the most compelling lines of dialogue I’ve heard all year about what poison tastes like that ends up being picked over by Wright and Murray.
Run, don’t walk to the theater for this one. “The French Dispatch” must be seen on a big screen. It will renew your faith in the movies. I haven’t wanted to see a movie again as soon as it ended in years (the last one was “Holy Motors”). As soon as the lights came up, I knew I had to see this again. It’s that good.
-Saturday Night Live was hosted by Kieran Culkin this weekend and once again maintained its steady pace of A-/B+ level content. Culkin was an assured host playing it straight when needed and going willingly goofy in my favorite sketch of the night. While I don’t think anyone will remember this show for much other than the debut of James Austin Johnson’s free-associating Trump, there’s quite a bit of solid, game-heavy sketch that can be appreciated. As always, here’s a quick rundown of sketches from grand slams all the way down to strikeouts (yes, I have a weakness for baseball metaphors):
Rapping weatherman: If that sounds dumb, it certainly was. The sketch starts with a bit of goofiness that makes you groan until it kicks into high gear and escalates into a rare piece of comedy with genuine high stakes while something truly ridiculous is happening. Loved everything about this one.
Judge Jeanine Pirro featuring Aaron Rodgers, Glenn Youngkin, a parent angry with critical race theory AND Donald Trump: Sharply written catching that Rodgers was almost the host of “Jeopardy!” this year and then letting Trump run his mouth at the end made for the most lively political moment the show’s had in ages.
Canceling Spectrum: As someone who has made sketches about customer service and appreciates them (see Belton’s sketch above), I was skeptical that this sketch could surprise me. Somehow, they went places I’d never even dreamed of bringing in the entire cast for a rare ensemble piece that built and built and built.
Bathroom Small Talk: Perfect observation about how uncomfortable the men’s room is. There’s a strange obligation to make small talk and it never comes out right.
“Angie” by Please Dont’ Destroy: The guys try to smooth things over with John Higgins’ ex but only make things worse. Not their best but the speed and all over the place nature of the jokes made it go down smooth.
The jockey: For a second, I thought this sketch was going to be about a horse riding a horse after a jockey is no longer able to ride. Nope. The actual direction the sketch goes in is stranger, sillier and more musical than I would have ever anticipated. Really does a great job switching genre halfway through too.
Kieran Culkin’s monologue: Lightweight, self-deprecating with a dose of nostalgia for when Culkin guested on the show at nine years old when his brother Macauly hosted and he was onstage for the goodnights. A great way to set up the goodbyes at the episode’s close.
The Heist: Chris Redd has settled into a niche with these pre-tapes that feature elaborate set-ups that deflate and then balloon with his incompetence becoming the focus. This one was similar to his naive drug dealer and then out of his element soldier but fun nonetheless.
Weekend Update: Loved quite a few jokes (the one about a high school football team winning 106-0 was a favorite) but the desk pieces from Kenan as Ice Cube and Cecily Strong as a clown who had an abortion didn’t quite strike a chord with me. Both were heavy and walked the tightrope line of silly and dark but neither made me laugh.
The Dionne Warwick Show: A bit long but punctuated by Ego Nwodim’s unimpressed Warwick host until she meets her favorite guest of all.
• Well, that’s it for me. I woke up at 6:05 to write this on a Monday morning. I think it was worth it.