Tag Archives: Comedy

Richard Seymour on Talk Show Hosts

“The late night talk show hosts are all politically timid mummy-birds, puking up pre-masticated ideas, plucked from brain-dead newspapers, into the wide, expectant beaks of their audience. *** But they tend, on that ground, to be very sensitive to the ideological consensus they both form and, through laughter, police.”

Richard Seymour, “Ridiculous”

 

Bonus link: “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” Review

The Ghost and Mr. Chicken

The Ghost and Mr. Chicken

The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966)

Universal Studios

Director: Alan Rafkin

Main Cast: Don Knotts, Joan Staley, Dick Sargent


Here is a rather mediocre film that nonetheless features a rather great performance by its star Don Knotts.  The basic premise loosely resembles the story “A Fairy Tale About a Boy Who Left Home to Learn About Fear” from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, about staying in a haunted house to win the affections of a girl.  Knotts plays Luther Heggs, an inept man working for a newspaper with aspirations to be a photojournalist.  Another reviewer aptly described the protagonist as having “delusions of adequacy.”  A recurring gag is that as Knotts fumbles about awkwardly and timidly some unidentifiable person in the back of a crowd yells, “Atta-boy Luther!”  Knotts’ finest moment comes when the small town he lives in presents a luncheon in his honor and he gives a speech.  This speech manages to include a practically exhaustive collection of every inept mistake a nervous presenter can make.  Knotts opens speaking in a whisper no one can hear.  He talks mostly about writing the speech, without actually saying much beyond that, other than to briefly pander to the audience by expressing support for the military — a complete non-sequitur.  His hands tremble uncontrollably while holding his notes.  The speech just kind of ends abruptly, without ever having made a point.  Knotts is positively brilliant in the scene.  As a whole, the film is one of those stiff Hollywood set-bound films that is only slightly more advanced in production values than a television sitcom of the day, and there just aren’t quite enough jokes/gags.  But, it is watchable and Knotts shines through the merely passable filmmaking and writing.  This also perhaps influenced Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?

Eddie the Eagle

Eddie the Eagle

Eddie the Eagle (2016)

20th Century Fox

Director: Dexter Fletcher

Main Cast: Taron Egerton, Hugh Jackman


A comedic sports biopic that is a bit too corny and hamfisted to really succeed.  It is loosely (very loosely) based on the story of real-life ski jumper Michael “Eddie the Eagle” Edwards, who was one of the most inspiring figures of the modern olympic games.  Emma Goldman is credited with saying, “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.”  The story of Eddie the Eagle and the Jamaican bobsled team (both competed in the 1988 winter olympics) are kind of the sports corollary to that saying.  Their presence resulted in rule changes to ban almost any others from following in their footsteps.  If there was hope for anything good in the olympics, it was (and is) in athletes like Edwards, who came from a working class background and self-funded his training.  Sadly, the olympics are a bastion of corruption — from the U.S. government pulling the term “olympics” out of the public domain (privatizing the commons), to out-of-control corporate sponsorships/bribery/consumerism, to bribes and scandals with the top committees, to financial chicanery and defrauding of public budgets for funding, to wasteful construction, … ahh, the list goes on.  They might represent everything wrong with sports — though there are so many examples of dirty business in sports that there are many other contenders (FIFA, NFL, NCAA, etc., etc.!).  The world would be a better place without them all, frankly.

I still remember the real-life Eddie the Eagle jumping in the olympics.  I was in a bar or restaurant of some sort with my family.  Everyone in the place watched the TV to see Eddie the Eagle jump.

Anyway, this film is dumb but the story of the real-life Eddie the Eagle remains a great thumb in the eye of elitist twats who run the world (for now).

Anthony Jeselnik – Caligula

Caligula

Anthony JeselnikCaligula Comedy Central (2013)


I haven’t heard this album, per se, but I saw the TV special of the same name and presume it’s identical.  Jeselnik has a very well-defined schtick.  He delivers “conventional” jokes, rather than telling stories, etc.  His humor is based largely on misdirection, a bit like Rodney Dangerfield, etc.  But his version of misdirection takes on a new dimension.  He usually takes positions that are considered socially taboo or even undiscussable and feigns being a sociopath (as others note, just a step beyond Craig Kilborn et al.).  Often that means jokes premised on hilarious false/extremist dichotomies.  So, he implies he’s a rapist, that christianity is worse than pedophilia, and that others’ deaths and disabilities are an inconvenience to him.  Often he does this by simple grammatical errors, like substituting the present tense “has” for the past-tense “had” to send the audience a false message before the punchline of a joke.  What was kind of interesting in the TV special routine was that in the middle of the show he does this has/had joke involving his brother as a character, but then he finishes up the show with a very similar joke where he kind of “calls out” somebody else for doing essentially the same thing (using “is” instead of “was”).  Jeselnik drops hints all over the place that almost everything he says is a complete fabrication (though I wonder about his comments about being an atheist).  What I like about him is that he’s found a way to actually create some kind of rudimentary social space to discuss or at least think about some (liberal) social taboos, at least by calling attention to them.  It’s a kind of mild meta-humor that recalls Neil Hamburger just a little, but with more general social norms on the table in place of specifically comedic norms.  [Edit: it seems like Adam Kotsko‘s book Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide To Late Capitalist Television makes an argument similar to this review]

Rick and Morty

Rick and Morty

Rick and Morty (2013- )

Cartoon Network

Director: various

Main Cast: Justin Roiland, Chris Parnell, Spencer Grammer, Sarah Chalke


Rick and Morty is a sci-fi comedy cartoon that revolves around the adventures of Rick Sanchez (Roiland) and his grandson Morty (Roiland), increasingly also joined by his granddaughter Summer (Grammer).  Rick is a kind of genius mad scientist who works out of the garage of his daughter Beth Smith (Chalke) and her husband Jerry (Parnell).  He is kind of an alcoholic, and regularly drools and belches.  He has invented the means to travel to other dimensions in which parallel versions of all the characters exist.  The characters encounter many aliens.  Most of the episodes are spoofs of popular films and TV shows.

Rick is an existentialist, convinced of his own superiority.  He travels around different universes for lulz, seemingly indifferent to consequences — other than ensuring his own safety — and enjoying whatever pleasures he can along the way.  His most abiding characteristic is a deep cynicism towards everyone and everything around him.  He fits perfectly the observation about “the secret seductive lure of cynicism: living in truth and goodness is boring; the only authentic challenge is that of Evil, that is, the only space for extraordinary achievements is to be found in transgressive idiosyncrasies.”  (Slavoj Žižek, Revolution at the Gates).  And yet the entire series is kind of about how Rick is really more than a cynic, that he has empathy and bigger plans.  But he recognizes how most people are basically just stupid or evil or both, even as they pretend or try to be otherwise.  In spite of Rick’s high intelligence, his grandson Morty — constantly ridiculed by Rick (that is, all of the Ricks of all the dimensions) as being stupid — has a higher sense of morality.  Most episodes revolve around the interplay between Rick’s intelligence run amok and Morty’s bumbling yet morally constant skepticism.  Morty regularly calls out Rick’s moral ambivalence and the pair almost rights all the wrongs they commit — as the seasons progress, there is much wreckage accumulated from their past adventures.

What sets the show apart from many others, cartoon or live action, is the psychological depth of the characters.  In spite of the zany sci-fi plots, usually absurdist takes on familiar pop culture films, TV shows, etc., Rick’s moral shortcomings are generally called out and he grudgingly redresses them.  In one episode from season two, “The Ricks Must be Crazy,” the show offers a (sideways) critique of capitalism and accumulation of power, told through a story about Rick creating a miniature universe (“microverse”) inside his vehicle’s battery, with the universe’s inhabitants decived into creating electricity for him.  The season three episode “The Rickshank Rickdemption” (based on The Shawshank Redemption), has Rick (supposedly) inventing all his gadgets to find a way to recreate a limited-time fast-food dipping sauce created to promote a movie.  So, this presents him not as a simple hedonist, but someone who enjoys simple pleasures that come along tangentially in his adventures seeking the mythic sauce.  It is about avoiding being imprisoned by illusions, as Beth and Jerry seem to be.

This is one of the best and smartest shows on TV, due to the great characters, the intriguing parody/satire plots, and (especially) the biting critique of cynicism.

Bulworth

Bulworth

Bulworth (1998)

Twentieth Century Fox

Director: Warren Beatty

Main Cast:  Warren Beatty, Halle Berry, Oliver Platt, Jack Warden, Joshua Malina


There are two political films from the 1990s that took on added intrigue around the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election: Bob Roberts and Bulworth.

In Bob Roberts, Tim Robbins provides a realistic satire of a right-wing populist running for political office.  The film seeks to skewer the hypocrisy and rapacious aims of such a candidate.  Looking back on the film in 2017, there are many resemblances (and some differences) with the successful candidacy of President Donald Trump.  But Robbins’ sanctimonious liberal critique does get a little tedious, and for all the complaining the film does it stops well short of offering any sort of meaningful alternative.

Bulworth came along a few years later.  It was the work of writer/director/star Warren Beatty.  Beatty is kind of an old Hollywood icon, known for his egotistical preening.  But perhaps more than any other such big, preening Hollywood star, he repeatedly made films with some sort of connection to leftist politics.  In Bulworth, Beatty plays incumbent U.S. Senator Jay Billington Bulworth from California, who is running for reelection.  Early on, the film reveals him to be a kind of apostate leftist, whose office has photos of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., etc.  He is now a corrupt Washington insider, doing the bidding of big business campaign funders to sustain his reelection campaign and coddle his estranged family members.  He gets an insurance company lobbyist to give him a big life insurance policy in exchange (i.e., as a bribe) for stalling some insurance regulations in legislative committee.  Beatty’s character then hires a hit man to have himself killed.  But he has a change of heart, and over the course of the next few days goes around suddenly speaking bluntly and honestly about corruption in Washington and sensible left-leaning social policies.  Amiri Baraka makes a cameo as a homeless man shouting advice to Beatty’s character, which Beatty’s character then applies by starting to deliver speeches and interviews as hip-hop raps — Beatty does a superb job making these raps as awkward as they are enlightening.  Much of the film relies on zany comedy bits, reminiscent of another Beatty film from a decade prior, Ishtar.  Almost all of the characters and many broad plot points are contrived and unrealistic — the polar opposite of Robbins’ mockumentary Bob Roberts.  The characters are especially one-dimensional for the most part.  But the characters and broad plot points are really just pretexts for Beatty’s Jay Billington Bulworth to suddenly speak sensibly in individual scenes, highlighting how that doesn’t seem to happen in contemporary “real life”.  What, exactly, does he talk about?:  corrupt campaign financing, lack of journalistic integrity, the need for socialized health care, the need for corporate regulation, the decimation of manufacturing jobs, outsourcing, exploitation of the third world to extract natural resources, the hypocrisy and deceptions of the Democratic Party, etc.  Most if not all of what he says became the platform of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic Presidential Primary.  In the film, Bulworth’s hip-hop rants gain him enormous popularity, even as party insiders and big business insiders try to contain or repudiate him.  At the time the film came out, the realism of those portrayals might have been questioned.  Would such a candidate really be popular?  The Sanders primary campaign and its aftermath demonstrated the underlying realism.  A candidate standing for such things (minus the hip-hop flamboyance) would be enormously popular.  That is why the establishment and big business always seeks to prevent such a candidate from ever being treated as viable.  The contrived part of Bulworth requiring the audience’s suspension of disbelief is that an incumbent politician from the establishment, with a history of big business collaboration, would suddenly shift back to the political left, thereby being inherently “viable” (and setting aside all so-called “third party” campaigns of this sort, like those of Henry Wallace and Teddy Roosevelt).  But this plot contrivance is no more a problem than Jimmy Stewart‘s character getting appointed to the senate in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Another interesting this to consider about this film is the way that Beatty suggests a left-leaning candidate could gain popularity through sensational and outrageous public acts.  Could it be that he got the idea based on what he experienced as part of filming Madonna: Truth or Dare? Beatty was dating pop singer Madonna around the time she filmed the behind-the-scenes documentary.  Beatty appeared in it as kind of an out-of-touch old timer.  Is Bulworth his answer to how an old timer can use vaguely Madonna-like spectacle to put forward a left-leaning political platform?

Bulworth is also somewhat a historical curiosity.  Released in 1998, just before the Glass-Steagall Legislation was repealed to put Wall Street corruption on steroids, Beatty does not spend any time railing against financialization or predatory banking/finance in general — of the sort that would come to dominate American society for the next two decades.  There is also nothing said about environmental destruction.  And, much like the real-life Bernie Sanders, Beatty’s character also spends relatively little attention to imperialist wars (though Saddam Hussein gets mentioned).  He does talk-up the anti-capitalist Black Panthers a bit — Bernie Sanders never did that.

One thing the film does have going for it is that the zany escapades of Mr. Bulworth take place over a few sleep-deprived nights, kind of like a “lost weekend” sort of scenario.  In a time just before the Internet sped up the pace of news reporting (and the dissemination of gossip), there is slightly more believably that the senator could have gone along for a while as he did.

The ending of the film is unintentionally anti-climactic.  However, there is something to be said about parallels to the real-life fates of most left-leaning politicians.

Bulworth may not be a great film, but it is a good one.  It seems to have held up beyond its immediate time period, which is more than most political-themed films can say.

Elvis – Having Fun With Elvis on Stage

Having Fun With Elvis on Stage

ElvisHaving Fun With Elvis on Stage Boxcar Enterprises (1974)


Elvis had a contract with RCA records that required him to deliver a certain number of albums on a specified schedule.  The problem was, Elvis developed something approaching a fear of the studio and, with a somewhat deteriorating mental state dogged by depression, he could not deliver new music.  Coming to the rescue, his manager Col. Tom Parker assembled the chaff of live concert recordings — the between-song banter — and released it as Having Fun With Elvis on Stage.  Aside from all that, what is amazing is that RCA actually accepted this album and released it, perhaps desperate to make a buck off anything with Elvis’ name on it, placing it among the most bizarre major-label releases in history.  It’s also rather sad in how it reveals that Elvis’ health and well-being weren’t really at the top of the list of priorities for his record label or many of the people around him.

Full Frontal With Samantha Bee

Full Frontal With Samantha Bee (2016- )

TBS

Director: unknown

Main Cast: Samantha Bee


For a time, it seemed like Samantha Bee had launched the most successful post-Colbert Report, post-Daily Show (with Jon Stewart) spinoff.  It was a rare show with a feminist perspective.  And yet, with her show’s unprincipled, theocratic endorsement of Hillary Clinton leading up to the 2016 Presidential Election, engaging in all the worst irrational tropes and hypocrisies, her show really undermined everything it might have achieved.  The show regularly denounces Donald Trump and his supporters; Hillary Clinton and her supporters are hardly given any criticism — the tenor of the election cycle episodes has been, “well, obviously Hillary is better” without any substance to back up that sneering and superficial position.  Third party candidates are occasionally mentioned, but usually only Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party.  They do mention and joke about Jill Stein of the Green Party, but usually that is to dismiss her (like a gag where they put the wrong name up in her place in a graphic that also showed Gary Johnson).  But, see, anyone who watched the show before the post-primary election cycle was heavily underway might notice that Stein’s positions align much more closely with those expressed by the show’s humor.  Maybe more glaringly, the show is tremendously hypocritical.  Ronny Chieng, a correspondent for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, did an October 6, 2016 segment called “The O’Reilly Factor Gets Racist in Chinatown.”  He included clips from an episode of The O’Reilly Factor show in which a reporter goes to Chinatown in New York City and basically mocks the inhabitants with “gotcha” interviews (frequently with people who clearly don’t speak English, the only language the reporter seems to know).  Now, such remote location “man on the street” gotchas can be done in a funny way (Robert Smigel did a “Triumph the Insult Comic Dog” bit in Quebec for Late Night With Conan O’Brien years ago that humorously insulted French-speakers in English, with an obvious nod to the fact that the interviews were preposterous).  But the Full Frontal correspondents don’t do that.  Instead, they do remote segments like the one on October 5, 2016 (“Rigged!”) in which they do “gotcha” interviews with patently uniformed and ignorant Trump supporters.  As Paul Street put it, “Elite commentators love to mock and marginalize the childish mindset of those who think that everyday people (the rabble’) should actually be in charge of their own societal and political-economic affairs (imagine!) and thereby deprive elites of their supposed natural right to rule.”  So, there were no “gotcha” interviews with patently uniformed and ignorant Clinton supporters — the audience is implicitly pushed to draw the conclusion that there are none — not to mention any of her corrupt cronies.  The issue here is not that the Trump supporters are correct (the ones shown on air are mostly stupid and self-serving, at best).  They aren’t, even if they have real grievances.  The issue is that the show displays an obvious partisan bias, hypocritically engaging in more or less the same tactics as the Republican political far right in the service of the Democratic political center-right (and Full Frontal isn’t even on MSDNC, er, MSNBC!).  Given how genuinely funny Samantha Bee is, it is a shame to watch her show sink into a mire of self-congratulatory neoliberal stumping for a particular candidate (Clinton).  What a waste of talent.  Perhaps the show will become interesting again once the election cycle ends.  But viewers should cast a skeptical eye on it knowing what it devolved to during the 2016 election cycle.

If the best thing about the show initially was its feminism, consider how the following comment from Nancy Fraser fits (emphasis added):

“Mainstream feminism has adopted a thin, market-centered view of equality, which dovetails neatly with the prevailing neoliberal corporate view. So it tends to fall into line with an especially predatory, winner-take-all form of capitalism that is fattening investors by cannibalizing the living standards of everyone else. Worse still, this feminism is supplying an alibi for these predations. Increasingly, it is liberal feminist thinking that supplies the charisma, the aura of emancipation, on which neoliberalism draws to legitimate its vast upward redistribution of wealth.

Like a magician using distraction to perform an illusion, Full Frontal focuses on one very narrow (if still important) set of issues in order to obscure and deflect attention away from numerous other extremely important issues.  It’s worth thinking about what the show refuses to mock…