Thursday, November 25, 2010

Second Time Farce

Saturday Night Live '80 resembled an Andy Kaufman piece. Much of the writing was bad bordering on bizarre; the cast appeared uninspired, shadow puppets dimly lit. Following the original show was certainly an unenviable task, and NBC was rigid about SNL's format. But you'd think that Jean Doumanian's crew would've dug deeper than they did. Watching this season again, it's baffling how wrong they got it.

A lot has been written about Doumanian's SNL, primarily the backstage confusion and insanity that ultimately sank it. Everything you shouldn't do when trying to create comedy Doumanian did, with a few touches of her own. If this were any other new show from that period, few would remember it (Pink Lady and Jeff, which was worse, bowed and died around the same time). But this was SNL, the cultural fuse for the 1980s comedy boom. It's tough to hide from those harsh media lights.

Lorne Michaels has tried to obscure that period. Since returning to SNL in 1985, Lorne solidified his hold on the show's official history, air brushing unflattering moments and personalities from the larger picture. Doumanian's time in Lorne's chair did not please him; and while he insists that he never watched her SNL (which is hard to believe), Lorne and his lieutenants have done much to marginalize Doumanian's mess. It helped that SNL '80 ended after 12 outings. Much easier to erase over subsequent decades.

While the cast and most of the writers were green, a few comedy veterans like Mason Williams (Smothers Brothers), Sean Kelly (National Lampoon), and Brian Doyle-Murray (the original SNL) were on staff, so you'd expect some measure of competence. But Doumanian's insecure grip on what material was chosen for air negated their experience. Williams quit, Kelly was fired, and Doyle-Murray hung on, becoming a featured player the following season. If these comedy pros struggled, then the show's rookies had little chance.

I remember the first promo for Doumanian's cast, wondering if it was a joke.

Granted, I was young and totally devoted to the original SNL, so this skewed my reaction. But gazing at Gilbert Gottfried, Denny Dillon and Joe Piscopo, I thought, who the fuck are these people, and what possible contributions can they make?

I expected a more robust-looking cast, talent worthy to walk that sacred ground. Charles Rocket looked the part, as did Gail Matthius. Ann Risley, while pretty, appeared lost. If anything, this increased my desire to watch their first show. Maybe they were great, but if not, it might make for an interesting failure.

I watched SNL '80's premiere on tape. The night they opened, November 15, marked Kamakaze Radio's inaugural show, which my partner Jim Buck and I took as some kind of comedy sign. Like many on the new SNL, we were doing live sketch comedy for the first time, only KR's debut came after a performance of Waiting For Godot on a spare, desert-like set in front of five or six people.

We went on at almost precisely the same moment as did the cast in New York, boosting our energy level, for we felt weirdly competitive. Later, watching the SNL tape, Jim and I arrogantly agreed that our show was smarter and better. It was a comparison we made throughout KR's brief life. It's what gave us the confidence to end the group and move to NYC.

What crippled SNL '80 from the jump was having Elliott Gould as its first host. Gould made a serious mark on the original show, and his presence on the new SNL merely reminded viewers of the old. This wasn't helped in the show's first minutes, when Doumanian's kids compared themselves to SNL legends. What was intended as exorcism released demons that multiplied weekly.

Fidelity to Lorne's format compounded the problem. What should have been fresh, innovative and surprising limped out of the gate saddled with another show's conceits. Doumanian's only hope was to twist as much of Lorne's format as NBC would allow, and then twist it some more. But Doumanian simply picked up where Lorne left off, minus the talent needed for a smooth transition.

Doumanian's sole exception was stuck on the sidelines for the first two shows, kept on a short leash for the third. But when 19-year-old Eddie Murphy first spoke on camera, SNL '80 sprung to life. Murphy's presence, authority, and connection to the audience were immediate, and one wondered why this kid wasn't front row center at the start. No matter. After his initial Weekend Update bit, Murphy's airtime expanded. Before long, SNL '80 became two shows: Murphy's, and everybody else's. He worked at a higher level, a discrepancy seen on the faces of the cast left in Murphy's wake.

As the doomed season dragged on, Charles Rocket and Gilbert Gottfried became opposite poles. Rocket, cocky and seemingly confident, grew frantic, agitated, mugging and ad libbing to sell weak jokes. Gottfried all but checked out, a sullen stare his comic mask. Joe Piscopo looked pissed off and embarrassed. Gail Matthius and Ann Risley tried to keep their spirits up, but lacked adequate support.

Denny Dillon kept hitting her marks with purpose, doubtless owing to her extensive stage experience. Dillon's work that year is severely underrated. Given the material handed her, Dillon's professionalism was profound. Too bad she didn't work with better writers. Dillon's name would likely be better known.

As awful as SNL '80 was, there were moments of originality. Mitchell Kriegman's short videos brought a downtown sensibility to 30 Rock, something that could have been built on. Kriegman contributed to Mr. Mike's Mondo Video, and it was O'Donoghue who helped get him hired. And while Kriegman's work was one of the few things critics lauded, Doumanian fired him after five shows. Mitchell told me that at the beginning he was "teacher's pet," but as the storm clouds gathered, Doumanian reacted in unpredictable ways.

Firing a singular voice like Kriegman proved that she was not all there, or had no idea what she was doing. The writing on the wall was decidedly hers.

SNL '80 tried its hand at dark humor, too often settling for cheap shock. Again, this wasn't a group capable of comic subversion, at least not initially. Bits about murderous Klansmen, heroin addicts, negligent surrogate mothers, cancer and S&M arrived flat. The strain and effort to offend clearly showed, and this further distanced the cast from the audience, Eddie Murphy excepted.

A few slice-of-life pieces stood out. One featured Ellen Burstyn as an elderly shut-in talking about her missing son to a confused trick-or-treater. Another showed the POV of a stroke victim in a hospital bed, having to endure greedy relatives interested only in his will. Sketches like these hinted at a richer show. But Doumanian's many bad decisions brought NBC down upon her, so whatever new ideas existed had no chance of developing.

Charles Rocket muttering "fuck" at the close of the Charlene Tilton show sealed Doumanian's fate. Bill Murray's subsequent appearance, the best of that season, made no difference. The following Monday, Doumanian got canned.

SNL was handed to Dick Ebersol, who took the show off the air for a month, adding Rocket, Risley, and Gottfried to the unemployment line. In less than a year, NBC's late night cash cow fell onto jagged rocks, bleeding profusely. The network expected Ebersol, a trusted executive, to revive it. One of his first moves was to hire an old hand who wanted to kill it. The seeds of a contentious season took root.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Still To Come

Netflix just had to do it. They couldn't gradually make available old seasons of SNL; they thought it cute to dump a bunch all at once. Okay. Fine. Keep them coming. I could use the batting practice.

SNL's first five seasons, The Golden Age, were periodically released in box sets over several years. (I reviewed three of them.) Then, nothing. There was word that Lorne Michaels was skipping directly to Will Ferrell's first season, leaving behind notable performers and varying levels of comic execution. That made commercial sense, given how long SNL's been on the air. But even that period, which began in 1995, is old news. Meanwhile, the years immediately following the original show seemed forever lost, living on in bootleg form (the Fridays Effect). That is, until last week.

Netflix now streams SNL seasons six through 12, from Jean Doumanian through Dick Ebersol and back again to Lorne. Unlike the box sets, these shows do not feature any musical guests (which is too bad -- there were some great moments), and the shows themselves are incomplete. Curiously, every Weekend Update is included. I don't understand this approach: there's only so much Charles Rocket, Brad Hall and Dennis Miller one can take. Still, many forgotten pieces and performances are here -- some mind-boggling, a few truly stellar, and a lot in between. And you, lucky reader, will see them all through my bloodshot eyes. Prepare for another semester with Professor Cheap Laffs.

I'll also review Rick Meyerowitz's coffee table tome Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Writers and Artists Who Made The National Lampoon Insanely Great. And if I find the time, I may squeeze in an appreciation of Punching The Clown, the hilarious saga of Henry Phillips, a comic singer/composer lost in small club land. But don't wait for me to write about it. The Professor suggests you get punched now. And yes, this will be on the test.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Search Me

Leave it to a libertarian to test authoritarian limits. For all of their online heckling, most liberals wouldn't dream of confronting police state mechanisms. They admire state power, especially with a mule president in place. Say what you will about John "Johnny Edge" Tyner, at least he put his principles on the line. When was the last time an "antiwar" liberal directly challenged Obama's murderous drone strikes?

I've never understood liberal hatred of libertarians. Yes, there's that tribal thing where if you're not a Democrat, you are an Enemy of The People. But classical liberalism dovetails with many libertarian beliefs, and if you strip away partisan colors, there is much in modern libertarian thought that self-described liberals would, or should, agree with. Looking at the present scene, however, that ain't happening.

When I flew out of Boston's Logan Airport recently, I was a bit stunned by the TSA's militarist approach. I've flown more this year than I have in a decade, but I haven't seen anything like Logan. Having the 9/11 Twin Tower planes leave its tarmac did a serious number on Logan's head. The TSA woman barking orders at travelers took me back to boot camp. When my turn came, she briskly pointed me to the body scanner. Unlike Mr. Edge, I went passively along, assuming the classic arrest position, hands clasped behind my head. "Arms higher!" I was told. I smirked, shook my groggy head and complied.

Welcome to prisoner nation.

More and more travelers, pilots among them, are reportedly fed up with tightening airport procedures. Three cheers, but how does this translate into action? Americans are so atomized that our concerns and fears barely reach the level of consumer complaints. The idea of an organized, dare I say it, collective resistance to the widening police state seems more a science fiction/video game narrative than an actual political possibility. So we grumble and shuffle along, obedient, cowed. Personal films play in our heads as we try to avoid as much contact with other people as possible.

I watched this unfold during a long layover at Chicago's O'Hare. Most airports show just how fucked Americans are, but O'Hare is the main stage. A gigantic place filled with every conceivable archetype you can imagine, and some you've never considered. O'Hare would be a nightmare on hallucinogens, and hydroponic weed would make everything too precise to handle. Booze is your best bet here, and I drained a couple of eight-dollar brews to soften O'Hare's psychic assault.

Listening to Joy Division on my iPod helped as well, Ian Curtis' dark voice and lyrics putting the parade in perspective. It's easy to mock the masses, especially when they're trudging past you for several unbroken hours. And while there were those I judged based solely on appearance, I felt mostly sadness for our present condition (sadder still for the janitors; I know that pain). We seem so lost, distracted, powerless, trying to maintain some kind of dignity amid larger, faceless forces. Little wonder that at the food court, the longest lines belonged to McDonald's. Sugar, fat and sodium help dull the pain. I went for another Heineken. Whatever works.

Grand Street long ago published a translation of a French essay about crowds. I forget its title and author, but I can paraphrase its opening: Considering the countless humans bustling in the same space, it's a miracle that more violence doesn't break out. That still holds true (NFL games and Terror Wars notwithstanding), and I hope it remains so for the time being. Let's try to keep psychotic behavior in the movies where it belongs.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Psycho Killers

Here's a brief taste from the Boston gig. I may have more later, but if not, share this morsel amongst you. No hoarding or fighting, please.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Through The Picture Windows

As a teen, I romanticized Boston. Its elite colleges, colonial architecture, cobblestone streets, and sweaters in the Cambridge Fall fascinated a young autodidact stuck in rural Indiana. As late as 1980, when NYC was my main focus, the Boston fixation remained, primarily through A Small Circle of Friends, a mediocre film about three Harvard students in the turbulent Sixties. Karen Allen, fresh from Animal House, was the lure, but the city behind her sold it. I saw Small Circle countless times, balm for the Hoosier grind.

Walking through downtown Boston last Saturday raised none of those old feelings. True, I was concentrating on that night's show, but you'd think some emotion would surface while touring scenic spots. I'd last been in Boston over 20 years ago and loved it. Now, nothing.

Perhaps it's age, or the current sea change in my life. I can't really say. Gazing at the harbor, strolling down narrow alleys, fried fish scent in the crisp New England air -- it all seemed antiseptic. I bought a large turkey sub and returned to my hotel room, eating, dozing, watching college football until it was time to leave for Mottley's.

Unlike the night before, the club was bustling when I arrived. People streamed in much more quickly, the audience larger than the last. There was a hotter energy, louder voices, a tangible anticipation. Barry told me that Saturday night audiences were generally more responsive than Friday crowds. This boosted me, since Friday's show went so well. This should be a slam dunk, I thought, took a long swig of ale and waited for my set.

Erin's opening received an enthusiastic response. She didn't have to coax the crowd into laughing; they were ready to go. Erin's likable persona and fluid delivery opened them up, so much so that three young women felt free to talk to each other after nearly every joke. Erin showed no sign of being distracted. Her material scored well, setting the table for my spot.

I strode on stage feeling confident, but as I grabbed the mike, the crowd's energy overwhelmed me. The place was packed; several people sat inches from my feet, staring up with smiles and expectations. This was the first time in ages that I encountered such conditions. I'd gotten used to scattered people in smaller rooms, people who didn't care, texting, emailing, Web surfing. Now I had their total attention.

I performed the same set as before, trimming as I went to give Barry his complete time. This fucked with my timing a bit, but not too badly, scoring strong laughs in certain areas, mild amusement or silence in others. Friday's crowd flowed with the comics, creating a wave that ran through each set. This audience laughed, then went silent. Laughed, then went silent. There was no carryover, no rhythm. Barry compared it to repeatedly inflating a leaking beach ball. A lot of effort for a concentrated response, then back to square one.

Later watching the tape, my set went far better than it seemed on stage. But in the moment it felt jagged, off. Black Muslims on acid again did well, and the punch line to a bit about psychos in the Army got a bigger laugh than the night before. My jerking off as a kid to Eva Braun received more shocked expressions than laughter, whereas the previous audience found it funny. I closed that routine, and the set, by ad libbing: "Children masturbating to Nazis. You should think about that. Or maybe I should think about that, especially before ever publicly confessing it again." This they liked, so I thanked them and ended my spot.

I felt like shit coming off stage. Barry sensed this and whispered to me that the set was fine. I'd gotten laughs and handled the silences without rancor. This definitely helped. I went outside, smoked part of a small joint, paced, reflected, drifted back inside, ordered a drink, stood against the bar as Barry took the stage.

It soon became clear that Barry faced the same on/off/on/off energy from the crowd. But this didn't faze him. He adjusted to their tempo and played around with it, carrying them through whatever reticence they showed. Again, I watched and learned. Barry fused social observations with personal stories about living in upstate New York, where the thriving businesses are prisons and Walmarts. He wondered how the Chileans dug so deep to save the trapped miners, yet didn't run across Pinochet's mass graves. He improvised a song about Reagan sucking cocks in Hell, to which the audience clapped along in time.

Another fine performance. Watching Barry work taught me many things, primarily how to move with an audience, find its handle, then steer it in a favorable direction. That he did this after three years off heightened the lesson. And Barry's just embarking on a fresh career path. It's only going to get better, sharper, funnier.

Barry is already looking to book new venues. He graciously asked me to join him, which I cannot pass up. We want to present something that's not necessarily "comedy" as it's currently understood, but something with more texture (and music). Ideally, the first stop will be a space in NYC, then some campus towns around the country. All of this is in flux. But Boston showed us what is satirically possible in an atmosphere of reactionary howling and liberal handwringing. When the joke's on all of us, it's time to change the premise.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Kicking Shadows

Save for a moment, when visions of writing for Fridays in LA briefly enticed me (its cancellation closed that door), Jim Buck and I had our minds set on New York. We knew no one in the scene, had no clue what awaited us, but desire outweighed reason, and in September 1982 we settled into a shitty heroin building on the Lower East Side. Those early days were frightening yet inspiring. Jim and I enjoyed some success in the clubs, the politics of that scene a mystery to us. That quickly changed. Still, we never second-guessed our move. We felt we'd found nirvana.

At the same time, Barry Crimmins was running comedy shows at the Ding Ho, the now-legendary Boston club that eschewed traditional approaches to stand-up. The Ding featured such acts as Steven Wright, Bobcat Goldthwait, Lenny Clarke, Paula Poundstone, Jimmy Tingle, Kevin Meaney, Ken Ober, Brian Kiley (who writes for Conan), Dana Gould (The Simpsons), among many notable others. But it was Barry's comic-friendly approach that truly distinguished the Ding. So far as I can tell, the Ding Ho was perhaps the closest thing to socialized comedy that's ever existed in the States. The workers owned the means of production, much to the consternation of competing Boston clubs. That was Barry's vision. It still is.

Barry has told me that if Jim and I chose Boston back then, we would've inevitably drifted into the Ding. How I wish we had. While my disillusionment with 80's comedy may have surfaced anyway, exposure to Barry's room would've provided added comedy depth and perception. Who knows -- I might have stuck with it instead of going fully political. But this would alter the time-space continuum, and we might now have gills instead of lungs, battling giant iguana bats for basic survival. We have enough problems as it is.

This past weekend, Barry and I finally shared the same stage. For Barry it was a financial decision, and naturally Boston was the perfect venue. For me it was the next step in The Project. No open mic bullshit, no cattle call comics doing the same tired bits. I'd be able to see just how far I've developed in the last seven months. And the more I thought about it, the more anxious I felt.

Barry's confidence in me helped tremendously. I have confidence in much of my material, despite the indifference and incomprehension some of my NYC sets received. But I wasn't sure if there was a paying audience for it. Barry wanted me to breathe some of the oxygen he's used to. It was time to kick it up a few notches.

Barry picked Mottley's Comedy Club for his his return to stand up. Joining us was Erin Judge, a New York comic who's a Mottley's regular. Erin would open and emcee the show, with me in the middle doing 10-12 minutes. While Friday night's audience filed in, I sat in the back of the room, running the set through my head. As showtime approached, my material faded, replaced with jangling nerves. I hadn't been this anxiety-ridden since The Project began. All I could hear was my accelerated heartbeat, the audience muffled, distant. I sipped a pint and stared at the stage. I wondered if I really wanted this, and why.

Despite my seemingly gregarious nature, I've long had some measure of stage fright. I have several theories why this exists, but the chief goal is to fight through it. For once I'm on stage, either for comedy or in a debate (these have occasionally merged), my adrenaline shifts, and a different part of my mind takes over. Mottley's was the biggest challenge to date. I would need everything I've learned this year to make it really work.

Erin's opening routine was sharp, smooth, funny. Her timing was precise, her smile infectious. Friday's crowd was slow to warm up, but Erin gradually pulled them from their end-of-week stupors. Watching Erin work, I realized again that I don't speak comedy club language, that my material is perhaps more suited to performance spaces. Erin understands that language and speaks it perfectly. After ten or so minutes, the audience now responsive, Erin introduced me, and through the fear wall I went.

I opened with a bit conceived on the walk to the club. My hotel room could not receive Wi-Fi. Two tech support guys spent over three hours trying to hook me up, but failed, scratching their balding heads. While they worked, I had CNN on mute, and saw that Haiti was about to be hit by Hurricane Tomas, further plunging that country into disease, death, and despair. I felt stupid for being pissed about my lack of internet access, and confessed this to the crowd.

"Here I am, worrying about not having internet in a First World city like Boston (pause) -- and these poor people in Haiti probably aren't gonna have internet either. I'm so selfish sometimes. Americans can be such pigs."

This got a very nice laugh, which immediately relaxed me. The rest of the set flowed beautifully. I did a couple of Army bits, including the Black Muslims on acid story that many NYC comics found bizarre and unfunny. At Mottley's, the routine soared. They understood it, laughing at lines that I instinctively knew were good. Barry was correct: I simply needed the right audience to see its full potential.

A few lulls existed here and there, and some editing was needed for the next show. But overall I was ecstatic with the set. It felt good to connect with a crowd open to different takes. Then again, they were there to see Barry. I doubt that Dane Cook's audience would find me amusing.

Erin introduced Barry to passionate applause. Barry, wearing a wireless lapel mike, slowly walked on stage, sizing up the crowd. He carried a folder filled with pages. "I want to read something to you." He dropped the folder on the table in front of him, opened it and said, "My act."

Big laugh. The first of many. While the folder did contain new material, Barry glanced at it occasionally. He'd peek at a line, look up and riff. And Barry is a master of the long-form riff. Political, social and personal observations hit you from every angle. Barry paces the stage like an intense professor, a pitchman for intellectual evolution and political clarity. He expects you to listen and you do. And he's so fucking funny. That's how he gets away with it. He makes you laugh hard at madness and deceit while making rational points between the punch lines.

I stood in the back with Barry's close friend Thomas Duffy and marveled at his act. There is much to learn from Barry, and I studied him closely. I had never seen him live before Mottley's, and imagined how riveting his Ding Ho sets must have been. He's older, but still throws high heat. The sheer amount of references, critiques, jokes, throwaways, and appeals in a 45 minute span makes your head spin -- not from confusion, but from appreciation. He shows how the bread gets baked, slices it up and feeds you. There's more than just comedy happening here.

Barry, Duffy, me and a couple of other people hit a nearby hotel bar after the show. Warmed by an Absolut martini, listening to everyone talk and joke, I felt complete for the first time in a very long time. Walking back to my hotel, I thought about the next show. Nerves began burning through the buzz.

NEXT: Satire closes Saturday night.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Where Sanity Breaks

Boston writer Nick Zaino interviewed me the other day about The Project and related topics. You probably know most of this stuff already -- but don't count on it. The mind is a deceitful fucker. It's telling you that you're reading this. Don't believe a word.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Nurembore Rally

Jon Stewart's Sanity show was one of the oddest, at times dumbest events I've seen. I'm not sure what it actually was or what its organizers hoped to accomplish, but American reality is no saner today than it was before the weekend.

In essence, the rally served as a three-hour Comedy Central commercial, with a "play nice" sermon attached. Even by tame American satirical standards, Stewart's laugh-in was a dud. It reminded us how utterly empty the present culture is, and how subservient countless Americans remain.

At least Woodstock '99 had Rage Against The Machine. Sadly, Rage would've been profoundly out of place on Stewart's stage. Too angry. Too political. Too partisan. Eeek!

I'm not surprised. For as clever as Stewart, Colbert, and their writing staffs can be, they are at bottom corporate mouthpieces, part of the very distraction Stewart bewailed in his closing monologue.

Indeed, Stewart's focus on cable news channels and their corrosive influence on the body politic proved how disconnected he truly is. The vast majority of Americans don't watch these channels, so their lives and public behavior aren't coarsened by blather and sensation. Daily American life batters them enough without O'Reilly and Olbermann screaming in their faces.

Stewart's main audience are white, college-educated/age liberals with deep self-regard. For them, politics is basically voting Democrat and little more. This was seen on the faces in the crowd, and on several signs, celebrating superiority to Tea Partiers and the ability to spell correctly.

Looking at them, you felt no sense of alarm, no anger about present conditions, no effort to make their desires (whatever they are) reality. Just solipsism, smugness, waving at the cameras like they were at a ball game. Afghanistan? The economy? Boring! Appletinis after the show? Sweet!

Again, this comes as no shock. Hostility to political action and indifference to political thought runs through this crowd. I've seen it up close, and the precision with which the larger culture has depoliticized contemporary youth is both remarkable and heartbreaking.

Obama's PR blitz in '08 successfully exploited this sorry condition, and his re-election campaign HOPEs to harness it once more. It may work. Judging from those empty smiles at Stewart's rally, this crop of consumers remains ripe for the fucking.

Unlike Jon Stewart, Bill Maher isn't shy in making his true feelings known. On last Friday's Real Time, Maher noted that in England, more and more newborn boys are being named Mohammed.

"Am I a racist to feel I'm alarmed by that? Because I am. And it's not because of the race. It's because of the religion. I don't have to apologize, do I, for not wanting the Western world to be taken over by Islam in 300 years?"

Well, unless China becomes a Muslim country, I wouldn't worry about Sharia Law spreading westward. But I understand Bill's anxiety -- white male "contrarians" tend to become more reactionary as they age. Still I wonder: Given the growing Latino population, is Maher equally alarmed by Spanish-speaking Christians naming their sons Jesus? Not that said concern would be racist, of course.