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Comedy Stray Notes September 5, 2021
On being interviewed, my favorite audiobook of the year, a fantastic TikTok about improv classes, getting caught up with "Better Call Saul" and a paragraph where I talk about how great Simon Rich is
• As a person who enjoys writing about others, there really is no better feeling than when it’s reciprocated. It’s especially validating when a talented interviewer who has done their homework uses you as their subject. In my case (and my wife Anna Paone’s), I was asked probing questions by the gifted writer Kevin Stephany on his Critique Compendium site about my videos and time doing comedy. This was no template; Kevin read my newsletter, watched my sketches, heck, he even quoted me. In fact, one of the questions was, “You take the concept of bathroom humor to another level in your YouTube sketch “100 Movies to See before You Poop.” How did the muse of creativity grace you with that idea?” As the kids say, “I felt seen.” In addition to my interview, Kevin has reviewed a great number of plays and his site is full of top-notch criticism. Check out his site and you might get lost clicking on endless pieces each better than the last.
* For context, the interview was written in advance of my “Best Of” screening so many questions center around that. If you missed the “Best Of” and want to see it, I’ll gladly send a link your way. Just let me know. You know I love to send a good link.
• I listened to, watched, attended and read a few really great comedy things this week. These are those great things:
- NY comic Nikki MacCallum wrote an intimate and slyly hysterical memoir about her experience running a marathon to connect with her father called “Dry Run” and just this past week released the podcast (!) version on Spotify. I quickly binged all 26.2 episodes, one for each mile, becoming more and more engrossed each mile I listened to. Each chapter begins with real time marathon updates where Nikki fills the listener in on what’s happening in the race like the part in her hair becoming sunburnt and racing preteens. Once the update concludes, the memoir portion of the chapter kicks in telling the story of Nikki’s family in 90s Massachusetts. The crux of this actual story is about Nikki’s father who ran 32 marathons and struggled with alcohol addiction. However, dramatic that sounds, in Nikki’s hands, she deftly oscillates between giving the material the gravity it deserves and levity; some of my favorite moments wedged in this story were about friends taking “bites” of her cheesecake when not getting desserts of their own and her inner monologue refusing to let her run less than four miles at anything less than a 6.0 speed. While a marathon may be exhausting, listening to this pod is a breeze. Easily my favorite audiobook of the year.
* I was inspired to run while listening to this podcast. While running, I thought about giving in three miles in on the treadmill. Then, Nikki detailed what it was like to be on mile 18. Thanks to that, I ran two more miles and got five in for the day. So, if you need content to get you over a jogging plateau you can never eclipse, this might be the pod for you.
- If you’ve ever been in an improv class, you’ve noticed certain archetypes of folks that show up in each class. I don’t know how but they’re always there. That’s what makes Maggie Lalley’s TikTok video “Every Level One Improv Class” so incredibly relatable. Switching outfits and voices, she jumps from character to character embodying the creep, the “scary corporate person” and the kooky teacher with a scary degree of accuracy. I’ve known all of these people before and Maggie brought me right back to my UCB 101 class I paid way too much for so long ago. This is a spot-on walk down memory lane for those that have taken these courses and also a cautionary tale for those who have thought of dipping their toe in the improv waters. Plus, it’s less than a minute so there’s that.
- This Saturday, I performed at Barak Ziv’s outdoor Bar Popular mic with a number of great comics but the real story was the hype woman heckler who stayed for the whole show. Most performers handled her chatty, sing-songy demeanor with ease and others folded under the pressure of getting her to be quiet. Either way, I argue that she made the mic better. Some hecklers bring the show down with their negative energy; in this case, this positive stranger who plopped down for the entirety of the mic covered up silences and never stopped supporting in her own bizarro way. I wouldn’t want her at every show or mic I went to but for this one, I was a fan.
- I also attended Matt Storrs’ “How Was It” storytelling show at QED. The show/mic featured an eclectic group of performers who told stories that varied wildly in tone, style and content. I walked in late and watched a breakup over text in real time and by the end I’d heard stories about a comic meeting his father in Nicaragua, a painful catfish and a pandemic engagement. IMHO, storytelling is a freer, purer form of communication than stand up and this 90-minute weekly that Storrs puts on is the best place in the city to tell your tale in a friendly environment.
- There’s not a ton of great comedy news newsletters. There’s certainly a ton of funny newsletters but not enough that report on the state of comedy. The good news is that Sean McCarthy’s Piffany exists. This Substack is so incredibly readable and informative that you’ll feel that you won’t need to actually read check out any additional coverage after subscribing to his writing. The past few weeks he reviewed all the comics who performed at JFL’s New Faces (and just how new their faces are), a comedy festival where three comics died a month later from COVID and a scathing critique of Lorne Michaels’ plan to keep the veteran cast onboard until Season 50. I read all three back to back to back and urge you to do the same. This is the real deal for comedy nerds.
• It’s difficult to finish tv shows and books that you love. Here’s some brief notes on a show I caught up on (there’s one more season set for 2022) and a book I sped through:
“Better Call Saul” (2015- ): This show shouldn’t be this good. Spinoffs are never good. However, by giving side characters Saul Goodman and Mike Ehrmentraut the spotlight, the iconic New Mexico universe expands and refracts in new ways which reshapes and reframes the alread near-perfect “Breaking Bad.” This is a show about two kinds of wrong; you simply have to figure out who is more wrong which can be endlessly entertaining.
Over the course of the five seasons that have been released, the audience is treated to the origin story of Bob Odenkirk’s crooked, fledgling lawyer Jimmy McGill and how he becomes Saul dripping in dramatic irony since we know every character’s fate from the later series. Along the way, the creative time behind “BB” treat the audience to so many backstories we didn’t even know we needed- there’s an able-bodied Hector Salamanca, the story of how Gus Fring and Mike Ehrmentraut’s business partnership came to be and an amazing episode devoted to how Jimmy AKA Saul got Huell (Lavell Crawford) out of prison with a scam so brilliant you have to see it to believe it. “BCS” also introduces fans to characters never even alluded to in “BB” like Jimmy’s paranoid yet brilliant lawyer older brother played by Michael McKean giving the performance of a lifetime and Kim (Rhea Seehorn), Jimmy’s steely co-conspirator, love interest who surprisingly skirts the line of moral ambiguity.
On top of that, the showrunners flex their comedy nerd muscles by featuring Joe DeRosa, Josh Fadem, Mark Proksch, the Sklar Brothers and Roy Wood Jr in small roles. For the cinema nerds, classic film references abound and wildly creative shots like POV shots from the perspective of a bullet hole or drain pipe can be found in every episode. My only complaint is that some of the Salamanca B-story material can feel a bit procedural but the show’s mostly freewheeling, surprise you at every turn storytelling more than makes up for the occasional stodgy scene where two characters talk about what they’re going to do with their drug trade. I can’t wait until AMC announces when Season Six begins; this is my most anticipated release of 2022 (also, I have no idea what else is coming out in 2022).
-”Hits and Misses” by Simon Rich: Rich’s short stories are so funny, clever and readable that it’s almost as infuriating to read them as it is enjoyable. I don’t read books quickly but I tore through this one. At a scant 226 pages, Rich’s stories take simple premises like death coming for an elderly talent agent who convinces death that he’s right for a Scorsese picture and wringing them for all their worth. My favorites though were a) “Hands” about a monk determined to cut off his hands and prove himself the most pious of all the monks only to realize this was an act of hubris through lessons from a shallow princess; b) a writer whose wife is giving birth to a baby who is writing a book with a lot of buzz in the womb and c) a court jester who doesn’t have the self awareness to realize he’s never gotten a laugh. There really isn’t a stinker in the bunch. I often found myself dog-earing pages in the book so I could come back and reread his turns of phrase later. Once again, I do have one complaint though. In this case, it’s that Rich makes comedy writing look TOO easy.
Hope you have Labor Day off and if you don't enjoy reading this on the clock. You deserve it, kid