Showing posts with label comedy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label comedy. Show all posts

Friday, February 12, 2021

Comedy of Roy Wood Jr. surfaces under-appreciated contributions of real historical black figures

Roy Wood Jr.
(photo by Lisa Gansky CC BY-SA 2.0)

I'm a big fan of Roy Wood Jr., and every installment of his "CP Time" bit on The Daily Show is an instant classic.  They're always funny, but often, also, are educational.

Last year during African American History Month, Wood talked about little recognized black explorers, such as Matthew Henson, an American who journeyed to the North Pole, and Abubakari II, a Malian royal said to have set sail for the New World more than a century before Columbus.

This year, on Wednesday night, he highlighted African American spies who contributed importantly in the history of war and civil rights, including Josephine Baker and Harriet Tubman.

Baker on a German poster in 1929
The piece reminded me of two memorable experiences learning about these women.  I first learned about Josephine Baker, an American-born French resistance agent in World War II, only recently, in a seemingly unlikely place, a 2019 exhibit at the Musée d'Orsay titled Black Models: from Géricault to Matisse.  In the brilliant, wide-ranging exhibit on the intersection of black culture and French history, Baker was featured among entertainers whose work was fused into a new French cultural identity in the 20th century.

Tubman NHP in 2018 (photo by RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-SA 4.0)
In 2018, my family first visited the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park, which opened in Maryland in 2013.  Situated amid the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay, the museum is not on the beaten path, but it's worth every extra mile to visit.  Impassionedly curated, the exhibits comprise an encyclopedic history of civil rights of which I knew precious little, even having gone to grade school in Maryland and being schooled in constitutional law.  Tubman's vital contributions as a Union spy, as well as the real story of her military leadership, portrayed by an eponymous 2019 film, is featured among narratives every American should know about the future face of our $20 note.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

'Horace and Pete' captures American moment

In our fast-paced platinum age of TV, a show foregone is too often vanished in the void, maybe a gem to be unearthed by a future socio-archaeologist, maybe a treasure committed to eternity.  Subsisting with this embarrassing extravagance, I watch as much TV as humanly possible.  Last week, I wrestled a prize from the gravity of evanescence.

The Harvey Weinstein allegations splashed across the internet in 2017.  "Me Too" got a hashtag, and so many of our screen stars were plucked from reverence that it wasn't easy to keep track of who was on the outs and whom we still could watch.  Relative qualitative assessment of sin was not a lawful plea.  Hollywood was blanched in black and white, and the implicated were expeditiously expatriated.  Here, certainly, I'm not meaning to diminish #MeToo, nor to opine on the merits of any accused, but only to observe the outcome.

Comedian Louis CK was out.  He already had been grist for the rumor mill, and then ugly accusations surfaced.  King Louis was deposed before the curtain closed on 2017.  He had not been a favorite of mine anyway, so, to be honest, I barely noticed.

Edie Falco in 2009
So there were a lot of reasons why I, and a lot of people, missed Horace and Pete (short trailer below, from Hulu via YouTube).  CK created, wrote, directed, and starred in the series in 2016.  It was a 10-episode television drama, sort of.  Really it was an experimental web series.  It was experimental in how it was made, a budget crowd-sourcing operation that filmed, episode to episode, only as funding goals were reached.  CK sought both to pioneer a democratic model for making online TV and, with full transparency, to publish the model so that others could do it, too.  That business model didn't work out.  But A for aspiration.

The show also was experimental for what it was: a TV show, on a set, yes.  But through scene structure, stage direction, blocking, cuts (or lack thereof), and especially dialog, the show exudes the intimacy of a live stage play, and every viewer has the best seats.  Sometimes the actors make mistakes, let slip a sly smile, or trip over a line, but the camera carries on.  Longer episodes even have an "Intermission"—the word burns for a minute, white type on a black screen, suggesting that sets and costumes are changing behind the electronic curtain.  One is given the impression that crowd-sourcing doesn't swell the budget for endless takes and post-production wizardry.  The ultimate effect is to make the viewer feel like an insider in the conceit of the art.

And art it is.  CK stars as the eponymous Horace, owner of a rundown Brooklyn bar, Horace and Pete's, and its apartment above.  The bar survived the 20th century as the inheritance of generations of Horaces and Petes.  Now, a hundred years on, the bar, and the family, might have entered their coda.  The script bears ample evidence of CK's signature wit, droll style, and sardonic frown.  But the story is thoroughly a tragedy.  In the distinctively American tradition of Death of a Salesman, Horace and Pete is unrelenting with its occasions for despair, and yet, somehow, manages to illuminate the silver linings of family, loyalty, and love.

Alan Alda
CK the star might be the least compelling actor of the principal cast, and that seems to be exactly his plan.  The show is sumptuously star studded, and CK wrote for himself a central yet characteristically subdued role that serves to intensify others' shine.  As Horace's sister, Sylvia, Edie Falco does her most moving work since The Sopranos.  As present-generation Pete, the abundantly accomplished Steve Buscemi has done nothing else quite like this to date.

As the elder "Uncle Pete," the incomparable Alan Alda turns in a career-capstone performance, the omega to the broken-protagonist alpha of Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen, 33 years before.  Jessica Lange brings elegance to the dispirited surviving love interest of an elder Horace, and Aidy Bryant is incandescent as the aggravatingly unforgiving estranged daughter of CK's Horace.

The cast is rounded out with a stunning breadth of stand-up talents, often offering edgy and well-tuned comic relief, who take turns as bar flies.  The list is too long to give it its due, a who's who of contemporary American comedy.  So I'll mention only my favorites: Steven Wright and Kurt Metzger banter throughout the series.  Amy Sedaris, Michelle Wolf, and Colin Quinn get an episode each.  And there are cameos, too.  Mayor Bill de Blasio drops in the bar as himself, and magician David Blaine tries to trade a trick for a drink.

CK with a Peabody in 2013
(Photo by Anders Krusberg
/Peabody Awards CC BY 2.0)

Horace and Pete earned some critical acclaim before it dropped off the radar.  It won a Peabody Award in 2016 "[f]or a truly independent and groundbreaking demonstration of how quality television is expertly done in the new media environment, all the while building upon decades of artistry and craft."  And then there was 2017.

The show might be rising the recommendation ranks at Hulu now because CK spent 2020 at hard labor on the rehabilitation road.  Again, I'm not opining on the appropriate consequences for, or redemption eligibility of, a #MeToo offender.

The fact that I cannot escape is that too many people gave too much and worked too hard on Horace and Pete, and the sum of what they made is too valuable, to write it off.  Label it with whatever disclaimers one must, #MeToo and financial failure.  Amid our transition from broadcast frequencies to the electronic multiverse, Horace and Pete nevertheless represents a pivotal moment in cultural creation and a searing snapshot of the American condition.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Multi-ethnic kid crew fights bloodsucking gentrification

Are you in need of a Stranger Things fix? Season 4 resumed filming a couple of weeks ago.

In the meantime, Netflix's Vampires vs. the Bronx offers delightful diversion.

There have been black vampires and black horror films, but not so much vampire films with human protagonists of color.  Or many colors.  Enter Vampires vs. the Bronx, a welcome addition in the open vein of comedy-horror.

In Vampires, a quartet of talented youthful stars (Jaden Michael, Gerald Jones III, Gregory Diaz IV, and Coco Jones) are residents of a Bronx neighborhood resisting a clandestine vampire invasion.  The characters casually comprise kids of African-American, Haitian, Puerto Rican, and Dominican descent.  Their cultures are not conflated as we get glimpses of their home lives.

The film collects stars and boasts a few subtle send-ups to classic comedy and horror.  An opening cameo by Zoe Saldana is especially apt, as her heritage includes all of Dominican, Haitian, and Puerto Rican roots.  Cliff "Method Man" Smith plays the local priest, who doles out the Eucharist with a steely glare to his troublesome young congregants.  Bronx-native, Dominican-American comedian, Joel "The Kid Mero" Martinez drives the narrative as beloved bodega owner-operator Tony.   

Saturday Night Live actor-comedian Chris Redd and another Bronx-native, Dominican-American comedian, Vladimir Caamaño, get a few of the film's top comic lines as observers of the action in the tradition of Statler and Waldorf, or Jay and Silent Bob. Director Oz Rodriguez also directs Saturday Night Live and is a native of the Dominican Republic.

Vampires vs. The Bronx is built not so subtly on a storyline of urban gentrification.  The Scandinavian-blonde vampire brood seeks to seize local businesses and convert the likes of Tony's bodega to high-end retail and craft coffee.  The vampires are aided by their human familiar, Frank Polidori (Shea Wigham), who brings Italian-mob-style tough tactics to persuade property owners to sell.  Acquiring a building has the spooky side effect of allowing the vampires to enter without asking permission.  

The theme carries through as vampire leader Vivian (Sarah Gadon) stops by the bodega to peruse Tony's growing inventory of new-age super-foods and settles on a purchase of hummus.  If you can't have a sense of humor about cultural stereotypes, this isn't the film for you.

At the same time, don't expect pedantic messaging on race and gentrification to run too deep.  PG-13 Vampires vs. The Bronx means mainly to make fun.  At that, it succeeds.

Here is the trailer.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Ted Lasso heads to UK, will coach AFC Richmond

From The Daily Show with Trevor Noah (Oct. 6, 2020)
A new Apple TV+ show has Saturday Night Live alum Jason Sudekis playing southern-drawl-wielding American football coach "Ted Lasso," as he is recruited to coach an English Premier League (PL) soccer squad.

Lasso's fictitious team in the Ted Lasso comedy series is "AFC Richmond," but Sudekis wore an authentic Manchester City FC (my team) hoodie for his interview with Trevor Noah on last night's Daily Show.

Financially regrettably, this show compels my wife and me to re-subscribe to Apple TV+.  We shelved the channel, pending new content, after we finished the highly gratifying For All Mankind (blog), and after I finished the sufficiently compelling if after all tritely pedantic Morning Show (both shows 2019, second seasons forthcoming).

Ted Lasso is a co-creation of Scrubs (2001-2010) creator Bill Lawrence, which scores dispositively in my playbook, though I don't think Lawrence has since re-created that Scrubs magic.  Ted Lasso is a spin-off, or spin-up, of NBC Sports promotional shorts imagining Lasso's appointment as head coach of Tottenhan Hotspur.

 

Incidentally, I'm a consistent critic of NBC's intellectual-property monopoly over PL broadcast rights in the United States.  NBC carves up the PL season so that one would have to subscribe to an impossible, and impossibly expensive, range of commonly owned services to follow a favorite team.  Americans would never tolerate such exploitation of American football broadcast rights.  NBC and the PL are greedily short-sighted, because inculcating loyalty to a single side is essential to sell British soccer to the American viewer in the long term.  It remains to be seen how UK regulators would react were NBC, since merging with Sky, to dare to try such such shenanigans there, where team loyalty is a multi-generational sacrament.  Other sports-loving countries won't have it.

Sports comedy is supremely watchable when it's well executed.  I thoroughly enjoyed Hank Azaria's Brockmire (2017-2020), though I have not watched baseball in many years.  And who can forget comedy-drama Sports Night (1998-2000)?  The West Wing (1999-2006) is too often credited for Aaron Sorkin's introduction of fast cuts and fast-paced dialog into small-screen canon, but it was on Sports Night that he pioneered the art.

The Sudekis interview appeared on The Daily Show just a day after Trevor Noah opened with some Premier League humor (cue to 1:13), noting Aston Villa's defeat of both Manchester United and Liverpool, the latter 7-2.  Noah is a Liverpool supporter.

Here is the trailer for Ted Lasso.


Sunday, April 7, 2019

W. Kamau Bell solves racism.
Or at least makes some progress....


My wife and I were privileged last night to see W. Kamau Bell speak at the Zeiterion Theatre in New Bedford, the show part of the New Bedford Lyceum.  (Also in the audience: our friends, colleague Professor Justine Dunlap and UMass Law alumni City Councilman Hugh Dunn and attorney and radio host Marcus Ferro.)  Bell is a comedian, but at the same time, most definitely a social activist, performing through multiple media, including television, podcasts, and books.  He is most familiar to me from his Emmy-winning show on CNN, United Shades of America, which returns to the small screen with its season 4 premiere, about megachurches, on April 28 (cordcutters pay per episode).

Tongue in cheek, Bell titled his show at the Zeiterion, "The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour," a play on the title of the controversial 1994 book, The Bell Curve, by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray.  Bell's essential thesis is that race is a construct, but, nevertheless, one we have to pay attention to.  Bell aims "to dismantle racism," but not race, which he believes can be turned into a constructive concept for the good of society as a whole.  Any effort on my part to summarize Bell's approach beyond that point would be inevitably inadequate.  Suffice to say, he works toward his mission with a brilliant combination of observational hilarity, multimedia presentation, and sharing
Outside 'the Z'
about his own life and family.  He does not ask that everyone agree with him on every point, he admonishes.  Rather, he has accomplished enough if people are moved to engage in meaningful dialog about race and social justice, which surely they must be.

The Zeiterion Theatre, or "the Z," is a classic building in old, cobblestoned New Bedford, Massachusetts, opened in 1923 to host vaudeville acts.  Its fortunes have waxed and waned with the history of working-class New Bedford.  The New Bedford Lyceum is a community cultural organization that dates to the city's whaling heyday.  Founded in 1828, Lyceum lectures and events aimed for “the improvement of its members in useful knowledge and the advancement of popular education.”  The Lyceum was disbanded in 1905, but revitalized by New Bedford leaders in 2016.

Bell was a smart choice to fulfill the Lyceum's public-educational mission.  New Bedford has an unusually (for not-Boston, Massachusetts) diverse population in terms of race and economic class, leading inevitably in our trying times to social tension and painfully obvious stratification.  City leaders—such as Councilman Dunn and UMass Law alumna Mali Lim, city coordinator for community education—work mightily to keep the peace, and, moreover, turn tension and diversity into productive community identity.  Bell's lecture at the Z was preceded by four public screenings and discussions in New Bedford and the surrounding area, one at UMass Dartmouth, each reflecting on a theme from Bell's CNN work.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Laughing with Lenny Bruce, from schmuck to conscience

 
Kitty Bruce cuts the ribbon on the Lenny Bruce archive at the Brandeis University Goldfarb Library.

There is indecent language in this post.

In the last week of October, Brandeis University hosted a conference, “Comedy and the Constitution,” celebrating the life and work of comedian Lenny Bruce (1925-1966).  The conference marked the accession in the Brandeis University Library of Lenny Bruce’s papers, donated by his daughter Kitty Bruce, who participated in the conference.  The program was organized by Professor Steve Whitfield in American Studies and Sarah Shoemaker in Goldfarb Library Special Collections.  Featured speakers included Christie Hefner, former chairwoman and CEO of Playboy Enterprises, and “outrage” comedian Lewis Black, known to many through his long-running Daily Show segment, “Back in Black.”

My own paper for the academic part of the program concerned free expression and communication regulation.  Specifically, I looked at Bruce's technique of repeating indecent words with the aim of disempowering them.  If one repeats fuck again and again, the tenth repetition doesn’t sting the ear as much as the first.  George Carlin was there at least once when Bruce was arrested for “obscenity” based on the use of discrete words.  There can be little doubt that the experience directly influenced Carlin’s famous “seven dirty words” routine.  This comedic tradition at least tracked a strengthening of free expression in U.S. culture and law—think “Fuck the Draft” on Cohen’s jacket, 403 U.S. 15 (1971)—and might moreover have been a precipitating force.  For better or worse, the power today that attaches to many favorites in the pantheon of bad words is not what it used to be.  Ruth Wajnryb observed in her 2005 book, Language Most Foul, “[N]owadays it takes several fucks to achieve what one lone fuck would have achieved ten years ago.”

The lodging of Bruce’s legacy at Brandeis is a good fit for a couple of reasons.  The university is named for Justice Louis Brandeis, an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1916 to 1939.  Brandeis was a key contributor to modern First Amendment law.  In the wake of World War I, he laid the groundwork for a more vigorous model of speech protection than had been known in the prior century.  Even amid the Red Scare, Brandeis recognized that if freedom of speech means anything, then minority perspectives on politics must be protected, however distasteful to the establishment.

Brandeis also was the first Jewish member of the U.S. Supreme Court, an experience that informed his views on social justice and antimajoritarianism.  Judaism played a key role in the founding of (non-sectarian) Brandeis University and remains today an omnipresent part of the university’s social culture.  Bruce was a Jewish comedian, and his cultural experience shaped his comedy.  

A number of academic papers at the conference focused on the role of Yiddish in the comedy of Bruce and also in the wider tradition of Jewish comedy.  I was ignorant on this point.  But presenters made a compelling case that the Yiddish tongue is especially well suited to comedic devices such as double entendre and nuanced word play.  In broad strokes, the particular compatibility of Yiddish with comedy seems a function of the truism that people have always turned to comedy to relieve suffering.

Christie Hefner

In terms of political commentary, Christie Hefner traced a direct legacy from Lenny Bruce to the sharp witted comedy of The Daily Show and Last Week with John Oliver.  I think she’s right.  Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert routinely scoffed at the notion that they produce news, despite serious research showing their influence on popular thinking about politics.  Stephen Colbert’s SuperPAC bits on The Colbert Report spoke volumes on the very real role of money in politics.  John Oliver eschews the label of journalist, but his work at HBO has at least raised awareness, if not effected reform, on critical social issues such as net neutrality.

Someone at the Brandeis conference pointed out that some of our attribution to Lenny Bruce of a desire to make the world a better place--by cursing of all things--has got to be a posthumous fiction.  I think that’s right too.  Bruce was just a person, not a legend.  He wanted to sustain himself with his flair for the funny, to fill seats at shows, and to take care of his family.  Arrests for obscenity--the more absurd the state's case, the better--were good for business.

I’m not troubled by any dissonance in the legend and the man who was Lenny Bruce.  The Old Testament is replete with the sea changes of unlikely messengers.

Lewis Black