Discover more from Matt Levy's Comedy Stray Notes
Comedy Stray Notes October 25, 2021
On Chappelle's divisive new special, Jason Sudeikis hosting SNL and a tribute to a family member
• I’m a little late to the party but I finally saw the confounding, controversial, and not all that comedic new Dave Chappelle special “The Closer.” To comment on it feels like a losing battle but after witnessing a real-life verbal argument about the hour at a restaurant last week and seeing thinkpiece after thinkpiece litter the internet, I was compelled and had to check it out for myself.
Most of the special places its focus on Chappelle’s point of view on marginalized LGBT groups/white people and while he tells compelling first-person anecdotes (at one point he self-identifies as the GOAT), many of them end up turning into stories that end with messages that generalize an entire group of human beings. Then, in his “closer” to “The Closer,” he tells what may be his most upsetting story ever that makes me angry just thinking about it the way he positions himself in the narrative. However, I’m not interested in discussing Chappelle’s politics- it’s a losing battle. I’m more interested in whether or not the special was funny.
I think the answer is no and sporadically a little bit yes. Although many of his jokes slip into silly/crass material (the repetition of “Space Jews” as a punchline was shockingly bad and below any special’s standards as it feels more like something a comic writes in their notebook, rips up and burns in a fire), there are a few moments of inspired comic madness that harken back to the old Chappelle that we all loved. For every moment of real comedy though, there’s either a slur, uninformed opinion, or goofy wordplay coming soon after. The crowd eats it all up but the whole time, I couldn’t help but think to myself- the fame and power have gotten to the GOAT and he’s forgotten what made him so great in the first place.
Netflix has stood by him in an effort to show solidarity with comedians but this may end up hurting them more in the long run as they have to ask themselves the tough question- do we serve the uncompromising artists or the audience that a special like this could hurt first? Either way, they’re getting the clicks (I’m giving them free publicity here for chrissakes) so I’m sure they’re happy with their decision.
• This was probably my biggest week of doing comedy stuff since before the pandemic. Without further ado, here’s what I do’d:
- For the first time since January (!), I published a profile on my site “A Profile About You.” This piece was about vivacious author/comedian Nikki MacCallum and how she adapted her hilarious and harrowing memoir “Dry Run” into a podcast. I’d love for you to read more about Nikki’s story and listen to the pod but in the meantime, to whet your appetite, here’s a quick excerpt from the profile:
“Since all of the audio was recorded at the height of the pandemic, each actor had a remote at-home mic set up. There were a few Zoom rehearsals for the larger roles but for the most part, actors sent her two to ten takes of each line, and Nikki listened to every single one carefully choosing the interpretations of her words that told the story best. As one might expect, completing a podcast about a marathon is a marathon of a job in and of itself.”
- A show with a thematic lineup of comics on it always carries a little extra pep in its step. The audience is all there not because they love comedy but they love what the comics represent. I certainly felt this energy at Laura High’s “TikTok Famous” show at Carolines. Boasting a lineup made up of TikTok luminaries Dave Columbo, Sarah Hartshorne, Lukas Arnold, Zarna Garg and Laura closing out the show, all proved that while they rule the small, vertical screen, they are masters on the stage as well. Most impressively, Laura ran on stage decked out in a sperm costume and danced like no one was watching. In a city where comics put more emphasis on their material than simply just being their funniest, goofiest self, it was a refreshing change of pace.
Also, of note, new SNL cast member Aristotle Athari dropped by for a ten-minute set. He seemed a bit rusty doing halfhearted crowd work off the top before settling into a groove demonstrating what the SNL talent scouts saw in him. My favorites of his were a story of troll-like sounds his ex made and another about how his joining SNL coincided with his wedding. No need to spoil the bits because hopefully they’re repurposed for the show but it’s definitely one of those great perks of living in New York- you never know who will be working material out on a random Sunday night.
- Speaking of NYC comedy benefits, I attended two back-to-back shows at Ben Lillie’s Caveat for the first time this week. Before I discuss them, I want to use this space to discuss how special and unique this place is as a comedy environment. Not a traditional club, this venue is more of a space where theme and alt shows thrive. Located underground in the Lower East Side, Caveat has a full bar with a legit drink menu, popcorn seasoning station, elaborate lights, and a projector for all your offbeat show needs. It’s the thinking person’s comedy club that doesn’t solely care about two-drink minimums and instead devotes its time to producing brainy, off-the-wall and funny shows.
OK, back to the shows I saw there. The first was Nat Towsen’s weekly that featured a monster lineup featuring David Cross, Janeane Garofalo and Orli Matlow. Towsen got the ball rolling with a tight set that included a fantastic joke about what it’s like to be the guy in the ads before YouTube videos and was followed soon after by Orli who crushed with her re-telling of “Season One of the pandemic.” After Orli, Garofalo dropped “comedy bags” full of notes onstage to open her set. She never got to them going from tangent to tangent being interrupted by ringing phones that sounded like Amber Alerts and riffing, “I may not be great at comedy but I give a hell of a filibuster.” Her set was so all over the place and alive that when David Cross closed, he had to completely reset the room before going into his tricky, edgy, calculated material that included a poignant tale of how he and his wife had to put their dog down. Still, he found time to devote a few minutes to praising Garofalo and her process suggesting he make a documentary about her. She was too shy to take the spotlight though. It’s a shame.
Show two was Emily Winter’s “Comedians with Ghost Stories.” The show really delivered on its title as four comics Nonye West, Myq Kaplan, Tracy McClendon and Pete Stegtmeyer spun yarns of varying degrees of scary and supernatural while also making sure to pepper jokes in to keep it moving. If this sounds like your thing, Emily has a podcast that shares a name with the show where you can hear said spooky yarns. Anyhow, at this live show, Emily and her co-host Larry Mancini included so much more than just what a podcast provides. There was an opening set devoted to the goofiness of ouija boards by Chris Calogero, a “Wheel of Destiny” (one audience member spun the wheel and got “Do you believe in ghosts?” as their trivia question and they replied, “No,” which was the wrong answer and when they spun again, they got “Do you believe in ghosts” a second time. This time, they figured it out) and a good-old-fashioned pun-based trivia game that gave the show that special live factor.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, after having spent just one night there, I can safely say Caveat is where it’s at.
- Did a mic this week. Yeah, an open mic. It was Gabe Mollica’s Wednesday at Q.E.D. which brought me back to ye olde mic days from pre-March 2020. Due to a stacked schedule, the 15-comic mic had to be completed in just 45 minutes. On paper (or digital like you’re reading), that sounds stupid short but what it really does is create a very efficient, respectful atmosphere for everyone to do their time and get out of there as quickly as possible. As for my set, I’m still working on shaking off the rust and figuring out what I’m doing with stand-up. Some stuff I’ve tried a few times before worked, some fell super flat and some of the set was nonsense. What was the most fun of all though was the end of the mic when three poets closed us out. The final poet gave it everything with vulgar rhymes and had everyone laughing harder than any comic’s set. Sometimes you don’t need setup/punchline jokes to be funny- you just need charisma and a good instinct.
- Listened to Joe Nami’s ballsy “Cancel Joe Nami” podcast for the first time this week and greatly enjoyed his episode on “How to commit insurance fraud.” Yup. He really goes there. Not everyone has the chutzpah to talk about taboo subjects on the air but Joe does and he’ll teach you exactly what you shouldn’t learn how to do step by step.
• In addition to seeing and hearing a lot of live comedy this past week, I also dusted off the old and unused AMC Stubs membership rewards card that had been lying dormant on my phone’s app-filled home screen. Here are the decidedly unfunny movies I saw:
“The Last Duel” (2021): First of all, Ridley Scott is in his 80s and still making damn good movies. That needs to be applauded. Secondly, this medieval epic is also secretly an excellent commentary on #metoo, neglectful spouses, and might be the frontrunner for my favorite movie of the year. Told in “Rashomon” style with dueling perspectives, “The Last Duel” pits mulleted Matt Damon against Adam Driver who seems to have shown up on set and didn’t change a thing in combat and we’re led to believe this will be your standard knight and squires picture. Yet, screenwriters Ben Affleck, Matt Damon (they’re back, baby), and Nicole Holofcener have tricks up their sleeve shifting the narrative to Damon’s wife played deftly by Jodie Comer who is non-consensually taken advantage of by Driver’s monstrous character (Damon’s no great shakes as the “good guy” either). This is where the story heats up and finds its footing going to great lengths to show viewers that very little has changed between 1386 and the present day when it comes to men believing women. It’s powerful, effective, unforgettable. I WENT INTO THIS KNOWING NOTHING AND NOW I CAN’T STOP RAVING ABOUT IT (See it in theaters while you can).
“No Time To Die” (2021): I’ll admit it, I fell asleep in this movie. Multiple times. Like snapping my head back into action when Anna Paone tapped me to wake me up because I’d missed minutes at a time. I felt bad because I liked what I saw. The opening sequence is downright chilling and seems to be cut from the cloth of an entirely different arthouse horror film. Then, when the story becomes your typical Bond cat and mouse game, that’s when I started dozing off. Sure, the chases, shootouts, and near-drowning scenes are invigorating but anytime Daniel Craig sat down to talk about logistics of how to stop Spectre, Rami Malek’s villain, or a virus, my eyelids got heavy. I can’t give this film a proper analysis because I was barely there for it SO IF YOU’RE NO REAL BOND FAN, YOU MAY FIND YOURSELF NAPPING BEFORE YOU KNOW IT (Still in theaters).
- SNL completed its run of four shows to start the season with 2021’s king of sentimentality Jason Sudeikis. I’m a sucker for former cast member episodes because you know the entire show will center around the host’s past work and this episode completely delivered on that assumed promise. As expected, Sudeikis reprised a few characters and impressions, brought his unmistakable blowhard nonchalance to the proceedings, and gave 150% in every sketch. My only complaint is we didn’t get a Will Forte or Bobby Moynihan cameo or return of the “2 A-Holes” which if I recall was a pretty big recurring sketch back in the mid-aughts.
Anyhow, here’s a super quick ranking of the sketches from those I deem grand slams all the way down to whiffs:
Annie: Clear comedic game, lively performances, lived-in heightening. Excellent
Parent-Teacher Conference: Slow seduction between strangers while a third party helplessly watches; would have given this a grand slam but SNL was called out on Twitter (where else?) by Eric Idle for this sketch being TOO similar to a Monty Python marriage counselor sketch and after checking it out, I’m inclined to agree
Declaration Pitch: Ridiculous historical farce that played dumb very seriously; we need more sketches where the Founding Fathers are bros
Sudeikis Monologue: The exact type of inspirational “it’s an honor to be here” monologue that makes this show special; the best part of all though is that Sudeikis considers Gilly to be a legendary character
Mellen: “Ellen” for men would have gotten a grand slam for me if it was a minute shorter; instead they simply ran the perfect, loopy joke into the ground
Dueling Bidens Cold Open: A fitting tribute to all the Biden impressions (James Austin Johnson, Sudeikis, Moffatt) from the past few years while quietly skipping Woody Harrelson
Science Room: A slow build that lets Cecily Strong and Mikey Day’s clueless students run wild with irreverent misunderstandings
Weekend Update: No jokes truly stood out to me but Sudeikis’ Devil was a delight explaining all he’s done over the past few years along with a deal he struck up with Jost to marry Scarlett Johannson
What’s Up With That: Yes, this is maybe the most well-known recurring character of this millennium but the fact that they do so little “new” with it puts it pretty low on my list. I’d much prefer to see what makes Sudeikis’ hype man character tick rather than this fun but forgettable retread
Casino Proposal: A bit too long and obvious for my liking; Kenan was so weird and lacking in logic though that I bumped it up from a whiff to a single
Men’s underwear: Every season, SNL has a commercial parody about farting or butts. I think it’s an inside joke Lorne has where he’s trolling the audience or maybe he just has a fondness for scatological humor. Either way, this wasn’t for me
Interestingly, supposed equal opportunity offender SNL didn’t touch on either Alec Baldwin’s surprisingly tragic week onset or Chappelle’s special which has been out for weeks making me wonder if the two are such sacred cows for the program that they can’t risk offending them and severing ties with the rich and powerful. Food for thought.
• Finally, I wanted to pay tribute to the recently departed Hans Harris. Hans was my wife Anna’s kind uncle who always was ready to talk “What We Do In The Shadows,” “Goonies” or Dungeons and Dragons at any family gathering. In fact, he even went so far as to play a lengthy three-hour DnD session with us mid-pandemic which was one of the most fun nights of quarantine we had by far.
Outside of his top-notch pop culture tastes, Hans loved his family more than anything and we all loved him back. He will be more than missed; missed is far too great an understatement.
As silly as it seems to bring this up here in a comedy blog, I do so to draw attention to a memorial fund in his name. If you can donate, it would be greatly appreciated. Every penny counts.
Goonies never die