Archive for the ‘Comedy’ Category

Why I’m Glad That ‘The Colbert Report’ Has Come to an End

December 23, 2014


Stephen Colbert is a talented guy who has often made me laugh, but I must admit that I’m glad his faux-news show has come to end. On his final show, one of Colbert’s guests was Henry Kissinger. This was Kissinger’s second appearance on the Report. Earlier this year he appeared in a comedy sketch with Colbert. So, Colbert has had the rare distinction of doing comedy with a war criminal.

This shows us the limitation of Colbert’s approach to political satire. Through it, politicians come to be seen as simply funny people who say and do funny things that Colbert gets to poke fun at. What gets lost sight of here is that these people make decisions that hurt other people. And Kissinger made decisions that caused unimaginable suffering.

I wish Colbert good luck with his new talk show. I just hope that he leaves political satire to people who actually care.

Some Thoughts about Bill Cosby

November 21, 2014


The accusations against Bill Cosby have left me feeling conflicted. I grew up listening to his early comedy albums and watching his TV specials. I would listen to his records with my friends and my brothers and sometimes with my whole family. I recently re-listened to some of the routines from those old albums, and I must say that they hold up pretty well.

During the 1970’s, however, I began to lose interest in Cosby. First, he produced a Saturday morning cartoon show called Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, which flattened all the subtlety and nuance that had made his childhood stories funny. (The fact that the show was “educational” only made it worse. Comedy isn’t supposed to be educational.) Then there were the TV commercials. Jello pudding and Jello pudding pops. He did a commercial for Hi-C, in which, with a perfectly straight face, he assured us that this soft drink is good for us because it contains “ten percent real fruit juice”. He was the pitchman for Coca-Cola during the “New Coke” fiasco. (Spy magazine once called Cosby “grimly unavoidable”.) It seemed to me that Cosby had ceased to be a comedian and had become a brand. (It’s perhaps worth noting that the accusations against Cosby date back to this period.)

I never watched Cosby’s 1980’s TV show. For all I knew, it may have been funny, but I didn’t really care. For me, Cosby was someone who had started out being really cool and had become uncool. I could never get over my disappointment.

Whether or not the accusations against Cosby prove to be true, I will always think fondly of his early comedy. It seems to me that he is someone who got lost.

Auto Focus

March 9, 2014


I remember seeing the network premiere of Hogan’s Heroes when I was a kid. I liked the throbbing beat of the opening drum roll. I liked the sight of the POW’s rushing to get in line. I liked the haughty look of Werner Klemperer as he put a monocle to his eye under the opening credits. And then my mother turned the TV off. She was indifferent to my protests. I subsequently learned that my parents considered the show to be in bad taste – which it was. I was, however, too young to understand the concept of bad taste. Also, the fact that my parents forbade it made it attractive to me. I managed to find ways to watch it on the sly. I have to admit I found it pretty funny. Years later, though, I read in the newspaper that Bob Crane, the show’s star, had been found bludgeoned to death in his apartment in Scottsdale, Arizona. The article noted that the police had found dozens of videotapes of Crane having sex with various women. At that moment I had the weird feeling that perhaps my parents had comprehended something that had eluded me.

One of the things I found interesting about Paul Schrader’s 2002 film, Auto Focus, is that it seemed to me to suggest that my initial response to Crane’s death was correct. The film begins in the mid-1960’s, when Crane (Greg Kinnear) was the morning disc jockey at a radio station in Los Angeles. He has ambitions of working in movies; he sees himself as another Jack Lemmon. The best his manager, Mel Rosen (Ed Begly, Jr.) can do for him, however, is get him a role in a TV comedy set in a German P.O.W. camp during World War II. Crane initially expresses reservations about this, but eventually he decides to do it. On the set of the show one day, he meets John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), who sells video equipment. Carpenter takes Crane to a strip club, and he and Crane begin double dating. They start taping themselves having sex with various women. Carpenter comes across as a sordid Mephistopheles, who introduces Crane to a world of casual sex and narcissistic voyeurism. Over time, though, they gradually switch roles, with Crane becoming the dominant partner, since his status as a TV star makes it easier for him to attract women. Carpenter becomes increasingly insecure as a result of his growing reliance on Crane.

Crane’s womanizing leads to the break-up of his twenty-year marriage to Anne (Rita Wilson). Crane subsequently marries Patricia (Maria Bello), his co-star on the show. Patricia is aware of Crane’s womanizing and accepts it. After she becomes pregnant, however, she gradually changes her mind and begins demanding that Crane spend more time with her.

After six years, Hogan’ Heroes comes to an end. As often happens to actors who are in a successful TV series, Crane has trouble finding work afterwards. He ends up doing dinner theatre. When Crane tires of this, he goes to Mel Rosen for advice. Mel tells Crane he needs to change his way of living if he wants to revive his acting career. Crane decides to sever his relationship with Carpenter and tells him so. Later that night, someone enters Crane’s apartment and bludgeons him to death. The film implies that Carpenter is the murderer, though it leaves some room for doubt about this. (In real life, Carpenter was tried for Crane’s murder and was acquitted.)

The final joke of the film is that Crane carries his lack of self-awareness into the after-life. As police officers gaze at Crane’s bloody corpse, we hear Crane’s voice, presumably coming from the grave, cheerily remarking, “Men gotta have fun.” One is reminded here of Taxi Driver, which Schrader co-wrote, in which Travis Bickle remains self-deluded to the very end. According to his Wickipedia biography, Schrader was raised in the Chrisian Reformed Church, which is described as Calvinist, meaning, I suppose, that they believe in predistination. Perhaps this explains why Schrader presents us with a world in which people are not redeemed.

Mad Russians and the American Left

August 31, 2012

Soon to be a contributor to CounterPunch and Dissident Voice.

Back in the 1930’s, there was a radio comedian named Bert Gordon, who was billed as the Mad Russian. His tagline was “How do you dooo!”, which you can hear in some Warner Brothers cartoons from that period. Gordon was enormously popular in his time, but, alas, he is largely forgotten today. Yet, the spirit of the Mad Russian lives on at some left-wing websites. At CounterPunch, Israel Shamir has become their resident authority on Russia, the Dreyfus Affair, and conspiracy theories.

Not to be outdone, CP’s rival, Dissident Voice, have their own mad Russian, Andre Fomine. His latest article is entitled Pussy Riot, the CIA, and Cultural Terrorism. In this article, we learn the shocking truth about Pussy Riot:

    No doubt it was not a single spontaneous act by a group of dissolute individuals but an episode of a much wider global campaign to shake and eventually ruin traditional societies and institutions. It is being carried out by the same powerful circles which inspired — e.g. offensive caricatures of Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper in 2005.

Oh, my. From Pussy Riot to Danish cartoons. Who could possibly be behind this fiendish global conspiracy? Need you ask?

    It is an open secret that avant-gardism became popular in the West in 1950-1960s thanks to unprecedented support from the CIA and was used by the United States as a powerful ideological weapon.

The CIA. Why, of course! Aren’t they behind everything?

Fomine ends his article with a dire warning: “The puppeteers of Modern Art and Cultural Terrorism keep carrying out their mission.” [Emphasis in the original.]

Modern Art! Run! Flee! Hide!

In another article, entitled The Last Victory of Muammar Gaddafi, Fomine exposes the sordid truth behind the “Arab Spring”:

    First, there was nothing spontaneous in the wave of 2011 North Africa and Middle East revolutions. The popular unrests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, etc were carefully prepared, organized, financed and supported through international media. Quite surprisingly, Al-Jazeera played a critically important role in fueling the conflicts within Arabic societies spreading disinformation and blocking truthful and sober voices.

The media did it! And, as we all know, media = CIA. Fomine, however, ends his article on a cheerful note:

    Thus we are entering very interesting, perhaps decisive times. Muammar Gaddafi has won his last battle despite eluding vigor and insolent pressure from everywhere. Will there be any new Gaddafis born by Muslim mothers to resist the new world order? We hope and pray for that.

More Gaddafis! That’s exactly what we need! The comments on the thread for this article were adulatory. (“Excellent article. I am glad that the author had the courage to write it.” I’m not sure that “courage” is the right word.) When one commenter was churlish enough to point out that Fomine offers no evidence to support his claim about the Arab revolutions, he was promptly smacked down by another commenter who wrote:

    How do you expect the writer can supply you with what you call proof?!
    Do you expect him to hack computers or bulglarise certain offices and displays the documents here for you to see??!! Is that make sense?!
    There is something called commonsense combined with knowledge of history, precedents and good analytical ability!

Yeah, who needs evidence?

As you can imagine, I wanted to learn more about this truly original thinker, Andre Fomine. I found out that he edits a web journal called Oriental Review. There, you can find excerpts from a book by Nikolay Starikov entitled Who Made Hitler Attack Stalin. The latest installment is titled Leon Trotsky, Father of German Nazism. Lest you think that this title is meant as a joke, here is how the article begins:

    Who organized the February and October revolutions in Russia and the November revolution in Germany? The Russian and German revolutions were organized by British intelligence, with the possible support of the United States and France.

That’s right, British intelligence must have engineered the Russian Revolution, since it was a strategic defeat for the British empire. This is common sense. Displaying his extraordinary narrative skill, Starikov tells us:

    Dropped into Russia by British intelligence, thanks to a secret agreement with German secret services aboard the “closed wagon,” the Bolsheviks refused to leave the political scene.

That’s right, the Bolsheviks (all of them) were parachuted into Russia inside a sealed train car. (It must have been awfully uncomfortable, but they were willing to endure anything for the revolution.) Later, we learn:

    The main funding supplied to the Russian Revolution from American bankers was transferred through accounts in neutral Sweden and briefcases of inconspicuous figures stealthily entering the country.

Because there’s nothing bankers love more than a government that’s dedicated to abolishing capitalism.

Just by clinking on certain links on the Dissident Voice website, you can find this treasure trove of occult knowledge.

How do you dooo!

Why I’m Not Keen on Seeing ‘The Dictator’

May 17, 2012

I’ve been debating in my mind whether or not I should go see Sacha Baron Cohen’s new film, The Dictator. Judging from what I’ve seen and heard about it, it doesn’t look very promising. First of all, the main character, Aladeen, is obviously modeled after Muammar Gaddafi: the sunglasses, the gaudy uniforms, the female bodyguards. The movie poster shows him posing on the back of a camel. (Gaddafi might have done this, but I can’t imagine any other Arab leader doing it.) The problem with this is that Gaddafi is dead. It would be just as timely for Baron Cohen to do a parody of Hitler or Stalin. It would be more relevant to make a film parodying the government of Saudi Arabia or Bahrain or the army generals who are trying to reverse the gains of the Egyptian revolution. One can only assume that Baron Cohen decided to make a film about Gaddafi because his notoriously eccentric personal behavior makes him an easy target.

And then there’s the trailer:

It starts with film clips of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and David Cameron. This is apparently meant to make the obvious Gaddafi connection even more obvious. However, it leaves out the fact that these leaders were all cozying up to Gaddafi until the uprising in Benghazi, when they suddenly decided to dump him. Western leaders do not oppose dictators unless they decide it is politically expedient to do so.

The synopsis on Wikipedia doesn’t make it sound any more promising:

    For forty years, the North African Republic of Wadiya has been ruled by Admiral General Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen), a lecherous, anti-western and antisemitic despot who surrounds himself with female bodyguards and intends to develop nuclear weapons. After the United Nations Security Council resolves to intervene militarily, Aladeen travels to the UN Headquarters in New York City to address the council. During his stay, he is kidnapped and shaven by a hitman (John C. Reilly) hired by his traitorous uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley). Tamir intends to replace Aladeen with a political decoy, who he can manipulate into signing a document democratizing Wadiya and opening the country’s oil reserves for business. Aladeen escapes and is discovered by activist Zoey (Anna Farris), who offers him a job at her co-op. Following the advice of his ally Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), Aladeen accepts the offer, as Zoey’s employees have access to the UN headquarters. Aladeen manages to acquire a new beard taken from a corpse, and infiltrates the headquarters, tearing up Tamir’s document in front of the UN delegation. Upon seeing Zoey in the room, he declares his love for her and vows to democratize his country. Upon returning to Wadiya, he marries Zoey, but is shocked when she crushes a glass and reveals herself to be Jewish.

If Tamir wants to open up the country’s oil reserves, why the hell would he want to democratize it? Instead, he would want all power for himself, so he could cut deals with trans-national oil corporations (as Gaddafi was doing). And how do you “democratize” a country just by signing a document?

Also, I find it interesting that Baron Cohen thinks he has to explain Aladeen’s opposition to Israel by making him an anti-Semite. It apparently doesn’t occur to him that there might be other reasons why an Arab leader would be opposed to Israel. (By the way, Gaddafi was warming up to Israel during the final years of his life.)

I suppose this is what happens when someone who isn’t interested in politics tries to make a political satire.

Now, maybe I would enjoy this film despite its problems. Maybe. But somehow I just can’t get enthusiastic about it. I would sooner see The Avengers again. At least it doesn’t pretend to be about anything other than itself.

Damsels in Distress

May 6, 2012

Greta Gerwig in Damsels in Distress

These are dark times for movie comedy. In the past year, I’ve only seen three good comedies: the Irish film, The Guard, and two British comedies, West is West and The Trip. (I am speaking, of course, of films that are intentionally funny. Melancholia doesn’t count.) I mostly enjoyed Super, but I didn’t like the ending. And I found parts of The Cabin in the Woods funny, but that is primarily a horror film. Needless to say, I won’t go to any piece of crap with Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell in it. (Although I did like Ferrell in the drama, Everything Must Go.)

Into this wasteland comes Whit Stillman’s latest comedy like a gentle spring rain. Damsels in Distress is set in Seven Oaks University, an academically undemanding institution whose student body largely consists of clueless frat boys and suicidally depressed misfits. Three female students take it upon themselves to help their fellow students and to lift the standards of this dreadful place. They are: the moody and philosophical Violet (Greta Gerwig), the sharp-tongued and hyper-critical Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and the idealistic Heather (Carrie MacLemore). They persuade the university to allow them to establish a Suicide Prevention Center, where they lure in chronically depressed students by offering them free doughnuts and then try to cheer them up by teaching them tap-dancing. They recruit a new student, Lily (Analeigh Tipton), to help them.

Violet advocates that women should go out with men who are inferior to them in order to elevate the latter. According to her, a woman should go out with a man “who doesn’t live up to his potential” or who “doesn’t even have much”. Acting upon this idea, these women go through a series of truly atrocious boyfriends, including two dim-witted frat boys, Frank and Thor (Ryan Metcalf and Billy Magnussen), a would-be intellectual with strange religious beliefs, Xavier (Hugo Becker), and a disingenuous operator, Charlie (Adam Brody).

Although much of the humor is dark, Damsels in Distress nonetheless has a sweet goofiness about it. In that sense, it harkens back to classic 1930’s comedies such as Million Dollar Legs and International House.

Damsels in Distress is a delicious treat.

Peter Bergman (1939-2012)

March 19, 2012

I know this is a bit late, but I feel obligated to write about the recent death of Peter Bergman. He was one of the four members of the Firesign Theatre. (The others were Philip Proctor, Phil Austin, and David Ossman.) I listened to their records when I was in high school. They had a strong influence on my sense of humor and, in a way I find hard to explain, on my world-view as well. Their records employed a multi-layered, non-linear style of storytelling that was unlike anything I had ever heard before, or since for that matter. It was sometimes said of them that they made the long-playing album into a narrative art from. (They advertised themselves as “the rock band that doesn’t need instruments”.) They also peppered their work with all sorts of allusions to literature, philosophy and popular culture. I honestly believe that the Firesign Theatre made The Simpsons possible.

The Firesign Theatre’s humor was strongly rooted in the 1960’s. They didn’t seem quite as funny in later years. I saw them perform in Boston once, and I found the show a bit disappointing. They mostly did old material, and they didn’t use the stage very well. (Their medium was radio, after all.) I did get to shake hands with David Ossman, however, which was cool.

Still, they made a unique and lasting contribution to comedy. Bergman will be remembered as an innovator.