Surprisingly Good Comedy

We live in a time flush with comedy, and let’s face it:

A lot of comedy out there is just plain bad.

And here’s the problem with studying comedy: your tolerance for bad comedy is drastically lowered. No, scratch that — your tolerance for good comedy is lowered. Once you recognize the setups, the structures, the formats, and the characters, you’re primed to know the jokes ahead of time. I’ve been rewatching Friends on Netflix lately, and even though I never really followed the show, the setups and characters are so familiar and ingrained by now that I can hear a setup and, over half of the time, anticipate the punchline (or, at the very least, offer another possible punchline). Though I love it, comedy has become painfully predictable. So here, I’d like to offer some comedies I have seen recently that have genuinely surprised me.

Galavant (ABC)

The Premise: A knight sets out on a quest to re-win the heart of his former lover, who has married a preposterously incompetent king. Oh, and it’s a musical. Make no mistake, this show is a musical in the most traditional sense. But here’s what makes it special: Alan Menken and Glenn Slater composed the songs for the show. Menken is known for The Little MermaidBeauty and the BeastAladdinPocohontasHerculesTangledLittle Shop of Horrors; Slater is a Broadway lyricist, having written for Sister Act the MusicalLove Never Dies, the Broadway adaptation of The Little Mermaid with Menken, and Tangled. Between the two of them they have a ton of nominations and awards for their musical work. Given their history with Disney, it is no surprise that they are working on a musical for ABC, which is owned by Disney.

What Makes it Surprising: Right off the bat, Galavant proves that, while it may be a show on Disney’s ABC, it’s not aiming to be family-friendly. Take the opening song of the pilot episode, which sings the praises of the eponymous knight:

Way back in days of old, there was a legend told
About a hero known as Galavant!
Square jaw and perfect hair! Cojones out to there!
There was no hero quite like Galavant!

The song continues, introducing his love who will soon become the wicked queen:

The man we’re speaking of, he had a lady love,
And Madalena, she was one fair maiden.
Long legs and perfect skin, a body built for sin.
With cleavage you could hold a whole parade in!
True love was never this ecstatic — Nor as wildly acrobatic.
Yes! He loved her to excess! Thrice daily more or less!
And she’d be screaming “Galavant!” 

Who am I kidding, reading the lyrics don’t do anything for the show. Watch the opening here:

Yes, the show hits a lot of standard jokes that any fan of recent musicals will be familiar with: characters vying for the big finales, meta references to the fact that characters are singing, and the like. And a number of jokes don’t quite land (it has a few too many modern slang jokes thrown in there that remind me of the “You da ant” bit from Antz), but Galavant throws so much at you that some of it is bound to fail.

Best Moment: It’s hard to choose, and I must  but my favorite moments came from the onslaught of amazing guest stars: John Stamos plays the cocky French knight Jean Hamm (I see what you did there), Ricky Gervais plays Xanax, the court pharmacist-cum-magician, and in my favorite cameo, Weird Al Yankovich plays the leader of a group of singing monks (of “The Order of Perpetual Refrain”), in a song that contains the wonderful lyric, “We’ll fetch the holy water, the holy soap as well / Cause holy guacamole that one reeks to holy hell!”  Just watch it and enjoy:

Honorable Mention: Timothy Omundson (of TV’s Psych) absolutely steals the show as the incompetent and effeminate King Richard. His songs are among the show’s most memorable and fun. He sings about all the horrible thing he wants to do to Galavant:

… and he employs the Jester, who is sleeping with his Queen, to teach him how to be funny, so that she’ll find him attractive too (instead of, you know, executing the Jester for cuckolding him):

Overall, Galavant surprised me because it absolutely delivered on its musical premise and managed to be easily one of the most unique shows on TV. Plus, it’s just a lot of fun. Here’s hoping it gets a second season (something the show itself is aware of, as it ends its first season by asking, “Will all this singing kill our Nielsen ratings?”).  You can watch it on Hulu, and please do.

Broad City (Comedy Central)

The PremiseAbbi and Iliana are two twenty-something women living in New York; the show chronicles their misadventures with roommates, romance, and unfulfilling and underpaying jobs. Amy Poehler is one of the Executive Producers of the show, which originated as a webseries.

What Makes It SurprisingIt’s been hailed as a more raunchy, surreal version of Girls, and while I see the comparison, I don’t fully agree. It’s its own creation. And what makes it different from Girls is that the two leads have genuine chemistry. Their friendship seems genuine and storied, and arbitrary conflicts aren’t added for dramatic weight. The show isn’t aiming for weight, it simply aims to entertain. To that end, the jokes can be utterly surprising because the show has a certain “what if?” quality to it. They’re not afraid to venture into surrealism and absurdity if it means they can cram a few more jokes into the show. In many ways, it echoes the surrealistic detours of Louie, but it is unconcerned with the trademark melancholy and pathos that make Louie so unique; instead, it embraces surrealism to further the humor and the humor alone, which makes for exciting and unpredictable storytelling. Take this jaunt on the subway, which anyone who has taken public transportation in a major metropolis can recognize, even in its surrealism:

But perhaps what is most surprising — and refreshing –about Broad City is that it depicts two young women’s sexuality in frank and honest openness. It is not something shameful or prized — there aren’t lengthy discussions about when one of them will sleep with a guy they just started dating, but nor are they chastised for having a sense of sexual agency. Much like Inside Amy Schumer (another fantastic show), there’s no sense that because the characters are women, there needs to be a softening or romanticizing of their edges. Instead, there is humor found in their sexual and romantic experiences, a sense of honesty and believability that is lacking in much TV that aims to explore the lives of twenty-something women. Girls, I’m looking at you.

Best Moment: Too many to name, but I have to give it to the episode in which Abbi has to pick up her neighbor’s UPS package from North Brother Island.  It is a strange and (again) surreal take on the little annoyances of life:

Honorable Mention: Hannibal Buress plays Ilana’s on-again off-again boyfriend, Lincoln, and he grounds the show with some much-needed understated and warm-hearted humor. His deadpan delivery is a perfect counterpoint to the show’s manic energy. Meanwhile, John Gemberling plays Matt Bevers, the boyfriend of Abbi’s perpetually absent roommate (and by extension, Abbi’s unwanted roommate). He is a grotesque, bothersome, childish caricature, but it is almost like we are seeing him as Abbi sees him. He is a great source of grotesque humor throughout.

What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

The Premise: A documentary crew films a group of vampires as they go about their daily lives living in Wellington, New Zealand. Directed and written by Taika Waititi (Boy) and Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords), the film follows a mocumentary format along the same lines as Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show.

What Makes it SurprisingFirst of all, the film has genuine moments of fear and horror — essential when creating a genre mash-up like this. Horror comedies are at their best when they don’t let the horror fall by the wayside (Shaun of the Dead and Evil Dead 2 are great examples of this). The vampires are unique and feel like fully-formed characters from differing centuries, which accounts for their differing tastes and outlooks (Viago is an 18th-century dandy who feels drawn from Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire; Vladislav the Poker, never to reach the heights of Vlad the Impaler, is more of a sex-and-gore vampire along the lines of Bram Stoker’s Dracula). There is even a Nosferatu-esque vampire who doesn’t speak, and instead only stares intensely in a Max Schreck sort of way.

This dynamic lends the film a sort of Odd Couple quality (domestic quibbles about doing the dishes, putting newspaper down before killing a victim, and where to go for a night on the town make up the majority of the film’s conflicts). The humor is drawn specifically from familiarity with vampire lore and horror film tropes and clichés, but it has enough going on to make it feel very new.  The film has a lot of fun with the fact that vampires don’t have reflections, are adverse to sunlight, have Twilight-esque rivalries with werewolves, and can only eat blood (they definitely can’t eat french fries). The artistic design is admirable and on par with the classic Tim Burton and Addams Family films. It’s bloody, and bloody funny.

Best Moment: The vampires discuss their appreciation of virgin blood, and describe why they like it so much more than non-virgin blood. As Vlad explains (I’m paraphrasing here), “It’s like eating a sandwich. You would enjoy that sandwich so much more if you knew that, you know, nobody had fucked it.”

Honorable MentionFlight of the Conchords’ Rhys Darby plays the leader of a gang of polite and well-spoken werewolves (“We’re werewolves, not swear-wolves”); the vampires’ run-ins with this rival group lead to some of the film’s most memorable comic moments.

So there you go.  Three comedies (two TV shows, one film) you should check out immediately if you want something surprising and new to cleanse your comedy palate. Enjoy!

Je ne suis pas Charlie

The recent Charlie Hebdo massacre needs no prefacing. We know the details: Charlie Hebdo is a satirical French magazine targeting primarily right wing politics and religious extremism, and on 7 January 2015, twelve individuals at their offices were killed in an act of terror. Much of the discourse surrounding Charlie Hebdo in the last several days has focused on the magazine’s relationship with Islam, and on the religious extremism that apparently precipitated the attack. I’m not interested in discussing that — there are many more qualified than I who have already done a fantastic job unpacking the complex religious and political agendas at the center of this event.  Rather, I would like to take a moment to address the nature of Charlie Hebdo‘s comedy and satire, to see what we can learn from this event.

 

Equal Opportunity Offenders?

I’ve previously discussed in this blog the significance of ambivalence in comedy — in other words, how comedy often demands that we hold to conflicting responses in our minds at the same time. Failure to fully embrace ambivalence can be detrimental to comedy’s success. Think how often we laugh at a joke that we understand to be problematic, offensive, or unsettling. To fail to understand the joke’s humor, even if it does not align with our own sense of humor, leaves room only for offense or disgust.  On the other hand, however, failing to recognize seditious or offensive qualities and only embracing the comic valence leaves one’s laughter cold, heartless, and perhaps, cruel.  Even the simplest jokes require ambivalence: an understanding of what is expected coupled with a recognition of the unexpected (i.e.: the punch line).

I bring up ambivalence here because I think it is essential to the understanding of the current discussion surrounding Charlie Hebdo. Jordan Weissmann wrote a fantastic piece for Slate, entitled “Charlie Hebdo Is Heroic and Racist,” with the tag, “We should embrace and condemn it.”  I couldn’t agree more.  He writes, “Charlie Hebdo‘s work was both courageous and often vile.  We should be able to keep both of these realities in our minds at once, but it seems like we can’t,” arguing that there seems to be a binary in the responses to the massacre: you can either celebrate free speech and the importance of “equal-opportunity offenders” in comedy, or you think it’s unacceptable to intentionally and repeatedly aim to offend groups of individuals based on a system of beliefs and traditions. He adds, “But it’s wrong to approach this issue as an either-or question, to blaspheme or not to blaspheme. Free speech allows us to say hateful, idiotic things without being punished by the government. But embracing that right means that we need to acknowledge when work is hateful or idiotic, and can’t be defended on its own terms.”

We live in a strange time, comedically speaking. We celebrate free speech and those so-called “equal-opportunity offenders,” such as South Park. Liberal viewers of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report — myself included — are quick to defend the biases of those programs by saying things such as, “But they make fun of the Obama administration and Liberal politics just as much as they do Fox News” (pro tip: they don’t). We marvel at figures like Louis C.K., who seems to have an inhuman superpower to say words like faggot, cunt, and niggerrepeatedly and seemingly without reprisal, despite being a straight white male.  At the same time, however, we seem to be on heightened awareness for anything that might be deemed offensive to any groups of individuals, based on race, religion, sexuality, gender, politics, et cetera. How the hell can we do both of these things at once?  The same people who laud the importance of equal-opportunity humor are so often the same people who get their knickers in a twist when comedy gets too offensive. And yes, I’m one of those people. But what does this mean? It means that ambivalence is more important than ever. We must recognize multiple truths at once if we are to make sense of this situation.

This is the risk assumed by the equal-opportunity-offender view of comedy: when nothing is sacred, and everything can be made the subject of the joke, we have no matrix for measuring humor. We lose subtlety. We lose subtext and nuance. When all things, individuals, or beliefs are deemed valid targets for satire, satire itself loses its edge and transforms into blind ridicule.

Here’s the (perhaps) unsettling truth. Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoons are often racist, sexist, Islamophobic, homophobic, antisemitic, et cetera. Many have relied on offensive and misinformed generalizations regarding groups of individuals. They conflate extremists with the general populace, while rarely subjecting their own beliefs or identities to the same satiric scrutiny. Their humor Others groups and individuals in problematic and dangerous ways. It would be easy to dismiss these aspects of Charlie Hebdo as symptomatic of their “equal-opportunity” approach, as I have seen done in social media. But here’s the problem:

Charlie Hebdo isn’t an equal-opportunity offender.

They have a specific group of repeated targets, and in doing so, their satire can become cruel; it becomes, in many ways, a reflection of superiority and power. In what will no doubt prove to be a feather-ruffling op-ed, Jacob Canfield astutely observes:

White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire, and it needs to be called out. People getting upset does not prove that the satire was good. And, this is the hardest part, the murder of the satirists in question does not prove that their satire was good. Their satire was bad, and remains bad. Their satire was racist, and remains racist.

So, yes, you could say that Charlie Hebdo is racist. But the “offensive” quality of much of Charlie‘s imagery and humor belies a more complex satirical construct. Much of the satire found in Charlie has a double meaning. It’s somewhat tricky to unpack, but it’s much like The Colbert Report: Colbert is a comic representation of a self-important extreme right-wing pundit. If his humor is offensive, it is so to satirize a specific group of people, behaviors, and ideologies. Charlie is often engaging in the same sort of multi-layered satire (for a great article on this subject, see Max Fisher’s article on Vox. However, that is not to say that they are free from criticism. There is racism there. There is xenophobia. There is stereotyping. Again, we have this ambivalence.

And there has been racism, xenophobia, and stereotyping in the responses to the attack. It pervades the entire discussion regarding this event. We’ve all heard how the brave [white] Westerners are defending free speech against the evil [brown] Muslims who would hope to silence them. There has been so much of this blanketing in the last several days on major networks and social media. And this view is fundamentally, simply, wrong.

(I know I said I wouldn’t discuss the religious aspect, but let me just put in my two cents really quick)

I’ve heard it argued that part of the problem with Islam is that when religion becomes political — when it becomes a governing body — humor is the first thing to go. Again, this is wrong. The Charlie Hebdo attack isn’t a matter of religion — it’s a matter of extremism and zealotry. Here’s the thing with extremism and religious zealotry: it seems to be categorized, from religion to religion (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, you name it), by a distinct lack of a sense of humor. When you lose the ability to laugh at your own existence, you lose humanity. And when you lose humanity, all sorts of dangerous opportunities become available to you. So let’s stop referring to this as a conflict of religious ideologies and acknowledge it for what it is: a small band of extremists who responded violently to another group of extremists.

 

Je suis fumiste

To understand the sort of humor Charlie Hebdo perpetuated — and it is most certainly a specifically French brand of humor (which is part of my umbrage with the whole Je suis Charlie thing, but more on that shortly) — we have to look to the origins of French humor.  Here’s where I bust out my “Doctor Smarty-Pants” card, but bear with me.

Charlie is indebted to the fumistes, a group of artists, writers, performers, and thinkers who were part of a greater subversive artistic movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s, centered mainly in Paris. Bernard Sarrazin described them as “l’audace […] d’oser rire de ce qui n’est pas drôle” [“bold… to dare laugh at what is not funny.” (Daniel Grojnowski and Bernard Sarrazin, L’Esprit fumiste et les rires fin de siècle, 38].  The fumiste is characterized by a “denial of the established order and of official hierarchies. […] everything has the same value, everything is one and the same thing” (Grojnowski, “Hydropathes and Company”) — does that sound familiar? It’s the old “equal-opportunity offender” card. The fumistes undermined artistic creations, social mores, political and religious hierarchies, and the like through a cold, calculated, often malicious comic sensibility that was meant to provoke, confuse, and disturb its audiences. “Laughter at any price” was the credo of the fumistes.

Charlie Hebdo, as a forum for contemporary fumistes, has retained the fumiste spirit of “laughter at any price,” but its satire is hit or miss. True satire presents us with truths in comedic ways, so that we may recognize the ridiculous within those truths. Charlie Hebdo often presents us with stereotypes and beliefs, not truths; hence, satire falls by the wayside. This is a dangerous game, for to cry “satire” when what you’re really perpetuating is extremism or racial comedy is to dangerously conflate politics and comedy. And when millions of people rally behind your comedy without a true recognition of what that comedy is — as opposed to what it stands for (i.e.: free speech) — nuance is lost.

 

The problem with ‘Je suis Charlie’

Here’s what it comes down to, for me — the problem I see with many of the responses to Charlie Hebdo. Most of us don’t practice the same sort of fumisme found in the pages of Charlie. We don’t regularly aim to offend and provoke other cultures and religions with mordant satire. And to be fair, if you or I were to make many of the same “jokes” seen in Charlie, we would quickly be labeled as racist or xenophobic. I venture to say the majority of the people proclaiming “Je suis Charlie” have never read an issue of Charlie Hebdo, or perhaps, had never heard of the magazine until a week ago.

I am not Charlie. You are not Charlie. Charlie Hebdo stands on the fringe of accepted social commentary, which is what makes it so provocative. When we all start proclaiming that we too are part of this fringe group, the work they have done loses meaning, loses significance. And their martyrdom — as that is the term that has been bandied about — becomes commonplace and loses its own significance. In other words, when everyone is Charlie, no one is.

These satirists died because they were willing to provoke, to challenge limits of taste and the efficacy of taboos, to take a risk that had already proven to be dangerous. Most of us do not have the courage to do that. Most of us avoid confrontation, provocation, antagonism. Was their satire always intelligent? No. Was the satire always informative? No. Did it allow us a greater understanding of some social ills, the way great satire should? Not always. But that does not mean that the work of Charlie Hebdo and publications like it is not important to the greater cultural and social fabric of society. We need comedy on the fringe. This may sound callous, but humorists like Charlie Hebdo are the sacrificial anodes that allow comedy to thrive in today’s society. Their extremism draws the attention of other extremists and allows other, less provocative comedy to flourish. For everything I’ve said about the problematic aspects of Charlie, they are essential. Though their work often lacks subtlety or nuance, their presence texturizes and enriches the comic landscape. They add diversity, they add layers of subtlety, they add nuance and variety. These individuals paid the ultimate price for their work, and for critics and supporters of Charlie Hebdo alike, this ambivalence may be difficult to comprehend.

Yes, I have been harsh on Charlie here. But it should be known: I respect their willingness to provoke, to continue the fumiste spirit, to challenge us to think about comedy and how it functions in our lives, and ultimately, for the role Charlie Hebdo has played — and will continue to play — in contemporary satire. And while this attack is a horrific display of the deadly power of extremism, I think we can also see it as an example of the dangers of losing one’s sense of humor. They challenge the limits of “Laughter at any price.”

I am appalled and saddened by this atrocity. I am grateful for Charlie Hebdo‘s celebration of free speech and the comic spirit. I am critical of the content of their satire. I am all these things, but there is one thing I am not.

I am not Charlie. And that’s OK.

The 20 Best Holiday Comedies

It’s been a while since I’ve updated with a blog post, and since the holiday season is upon us, I figured I would give my list of the best holiday comedies, ranked in no particular order, except that sometimes I refer to some as better than others.  Confusing, right?  Let’s get to it.

1. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)

Xmas VacationThe pièce de résistance par excellence of Christmas movies.  We have all had those experiences at the holidays where nothing goes right, where our family drives us nuts, and where wild animals jump out of the tree.  Easily the best of the Vacation films, Christmas Vacation is also one of the greatest holiday films ever made, because it shines a light on the dark underbelly of the holiday season. And it even spawned a sequel!*

*Protip: don’t watch the sequel.

2. Elf (2003)

elfA modern classic, Elf manages to merge the saccharine nostalgia of Christmas classics of old with a modern sensibility.  Add a great soundtrack and a blonde Zooey Deschanel singing Christmas songs, and you’ve got a Christmas movie with something for everyone.  Except people who don’t celebrate Christmas.  Those people are out of luck.

3. A Christmas Story (1983)

You can't always get what you want.
You can’t always get what you want.

“You’ll shoot your eye out!”  “Fragíle! It must be Italian!” “Oooh fudge!”  The pink bunny suit!  The frozen tongue!  Ah, the endlessly quotable and recognizable A Christmas Story.

I’ve never seen it, but I’ve heard it’s great.

4. The Santa Clause (1994)

Santa and head Jewish elf, Bernard.
Santa and head Jewish elf, Bernard.

Another modern classic.  Tim Allen plays Scott Calvin, a curmudgeonly toy maker who, after stripping a corpse of his clothes and wearing them himself, unwittingly signs a contract that turns him into a sort of celestial indentured servant, doomed to be the new Santa Claus until he too perishes and has his vestments stripped from him by another unsuspecting victim of this Sisyphean hell.  Soon, Calvin grows to relish in his newfound power, commanding a legion of servants who must toil endlessly in his sweatshop workshop for no pay.  Add the inspired casting of Jewish actor David Krumholtz as head elf Bernard, and we have a fascinating allegory for the atrocities committed in Auschwitz.

Of course, by naming the head elf "Bernard," the filmmakers are clearly prompting us to draw parallels to Doctor Bernhard Rust, Minister of Science, Education and National Culture for the Nazi Party, who attempted to disseminate the National Socialist philosophy to the youth of Germany.
Of course, by naming the head elf “Bernard,” the filmmakers are clearly prompting us to draw parallels to Doctor Bernhard Rust, Minister of Science, Education and National Culture for the Nazi Party, who attempted to disseminate the National Socialist philosophy to the youth of Germany, just as Santa disseminates presents to the children of the world.

This is one of the heavier films on the list, but its social implications are what make it such a valuable holiday film.

5. The Santa Clause 2: The Mrs. Clause (2002)

Scott Calvin sees his fate before him...
Scott Calvin sees his fate before him…

The second entry in Tim Allen’s Clause trilogy is arguably the best of the three, but I have ranked it slightly below the first if only because without the innovations of the first film, we would have no second film.  It’s the Empire Strikes Back of Santa Clause movies. Its ending is so unforgiving, so dark, so utterly shocking, that it had audiences everywhere on tenterhooks as they eagerly awaited the conclusion to this epic cinematic trilogy.

6. Scrooged (1988)

That guy from Ghostbusters and the chick from Raiders of the Lost Ark reenact Dickens’ classic tale of greed giving way to holiday cheer.  Oh, and nipples.

Scrooged

7. Home Alone (1990)

Macaulay Culkin stars in this prequel to the Saw franchise, where we see how Jigsaw got his start.

Seriously, this is one fucked up kid.
Seriously, this is one fucked up kid.

8. Gremlins (1984)

gremlinsAn anti-Christmas film which asks us if we, too, are consumer-driven Gremlins who shouldn’t be fed after midnight. The perfect antidote to Black Friday and late-night leftover binges.

9. Die Hard (1988)

Romance is in the air this holiday season!
Romance is in the air this holiday season!

Bruce Willis stars in this heartwarming story of a man struggling to reunite with his estranged wife, Holly (I see what you did there, screenwriters!) at Christmastime.  Willis’ John McClane would do anything to reunite with Holly, and that’s exactly what he does.  Die Hard shows us the importance of having loved ones near us during the holiday season.  A true family classic.

10. Love, Actually (2003)

Now, I’m not a huge fan of this movie, but a lot of people are.  If I learned anything from this movie, it’s that if the woman I love marries my best friend, I just have to play Christmas Carols and show her some cue cards, and she’ll be so enamored that she will start a long con to cheat on her husband with me. Oh, I also learned that if I’m the one doing the cheating, be sure to hide the presents I’m buying for my mistress from my wife. On second thought, this movie should be called Cheating, Actually.

11. A Christmas Carol  (2009)

WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT THING?   Also, what's that candle thing to the left of the first thing?
WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT THING?
Also, what’s that candle thing to the left of the first thing?

Yeah, this is the super creepy animated one with Jim Carrey as everyone.  And there’s that weird candle ghost.  This shit is scary.  Never mind.  I’m taking it off the list.  Jim Carrey ruined this classic Christmas story.  Goddamnit, Jim Carrey. 

11 (Re-do). The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause (2006)

This entry is much lower on the list than the first two movies, but I suspect that much like Return of the Jedi, it has its supporters who argue it’s the best in the trilogy.  For me, not so much.  The plot: a small band of Santa’s elves have been moved to a high-security “escape-proof” camp.  Steve McQueen leads the elves as they plan one of the most ambitious escape attempts the North Pole has ever seen.  Based on a true story.  Oh, and there’s a side-plot involving Martin Short (here, reprising his Ed Grimely character from Saturday Night Live, who has somehow been transformed into Jack Frost), who wants to take over Christmas.  jack_frost ed-grimley

12. Arthur Christmas (2011)

Dudley Moore gets drunk and ruins Christmas, I think.  I’ve never seen it, but I assume it’s a holiday-themed sequel to Moore’s Arthur (1981).

13. Batman Returns (1922)

513340-96639_batman_returns_movie_stills_ccbn_24_122_526lWerner Herzog directed this documentary that explores the holiday rituals of leather fetishists. Admittedly, it isn’t for everyone.  This film also introduced me to the fact that mistletoe is deadly if you eat it.  And to the fact that a kiss can be even deadlier… if you mean it.

14. In Bruges (2008)

Bruges-1What says “Merry Christmas” more than two hit men waiting for their contract in Bruges?  Starring Mad-Eye Moody as a talking pile of guts, Voldemort as a man who habitually abuses telephones, and Bullseye as Bullseye, this film has it all: Christmas lights, murder, and little people.  It’s… confusing.

15. Roots (1977)

rootsIt’s the story of Kwanzaa, right?

16. Bad Santa (2003)

bad-santa-1-1000The pitch: What if the guy who plays the mall Santa is kind of an asshole?

17. Fred Claus (2007)

fred-claus-topperThe pitch: What if Santa has a brother, and they’re both kind of  assholes?

18. How The Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

There's more mugging in this movie than at a Rodney Dangerfield impersonator conference being held in a coffee mug store that just also happens to be run by armed robbers.
There’s more mugging in this movie than at a Rodney Dangerfield impersonator conference being held in a coffee mug store that just also happens to be run by armed robbers.

The pitch: What if we let Jim Carrey ruin another classic Christmas story by having him just run around in front of a camera, acting like kind of an asshole?

19. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

"You can have your clothes back after I have made several glib comments about your predicament."
“You can have your clothes back after I have made several glib comments about your predicament, ma’am.”

James Stewart plays a suicidal psychopath who steals women’s clothes and forces them to hide in bushes while he publicly mocks them.  A classic for the whole family.

20. Life of Brian (1979)

The true story of our Lord and Savior, who is the reason for the season.

Glory unto Him.
Glory be unto Him.

Oh Captain, My Captain

When a high-profile celebrity or public figure dies — or even when a family member dies — people tend to turn the event inward, to focus on what that individual meant to them specifically.  I’m not going to pretend this isn’t a totally selfish and self-serving blog post, but I finally wanted to put my thoughts down concerning the late, great Robin Williams, who died on Monday. But I’m going to keep it short and to the point.  The simple fact is that the world has lost perhaps its greatest comic voice.  There may be arguments about whether individuals found his particular style of comedy to their liking, but there can be no doubt that he was easily one of the best comedians the world has ever seen — and I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic.  He did it all, and he did it with love and compassion and sensitivity and humanity and empathy and boundless joy.

robin-williams-hook-1 robin-williams-hook-2 robin-williams-hook-3 He was undoubtedly a genius.  His mind, despite the years of substance abuse and admitted depression, was razor-sharp and he didn’t wait for us to catch up with him — he knew his audience could keep up, even though we’d always be a few steps behind.  He was a personal trainer for comedians, comedy fans, and anyone who wanted to work a little for their laughter.  Take this episode of Louie, for example.

dead poetsI knew him best from two films that seemed to be on a constant loop through our VCR: Aladdin and Mrs. Doubtfire.  Others knew him from his early work such as Mork and Mindy or his Live at the Met comedy special; still others remember Dead Poets Society or Good Will Hunting or even Popeye or Patch Adams.

helloFor me it was his role as the Genie that did it… an iconic and generation-defining role if there ever was one.  I remember, even at nine years old (I saw Aladdin on my ninth birthday, before going to lunch at Red Robin, where I’m sure I bothered my friends and family by immediately, and inevitably, endlessly quoting the movie), realizing that the film had not just made me laugh, but it had made me care in a way most kid-friendly pop culture hadn’t at that point.  The Genie, having asked for his freedom, knows that he won’t likely receive it… but he does, the music swells, and then comes the sudden realization from both Aladdin and the Genie: his freedom also means saying goodbye.  It’s painfully bittersweet.

We had the soundtrack, which I used to listen to on cassette before I fell asleep at night.  I remember being filled with that sort of joyous melancholy during that musical crescendo — and it was due almost entirely to Williams’ performance.  Joy.  Love.  Empathy.  These were his gifts, but even more, he taught us that we could laugh even as we experienced that twinge of sadness.  It was a rare gift, and for those of us who grew up with his humor, I believe he taught us a great deal about what it means to care for others, and to make a sacrifice to help others smile.

patch-adams-gifEveryone has a Robin Williams role or film that has been important to them for some reason or another.  I have yet to hear of someone who has been unaffected or unmoved by his death.  He touched us all.  He brought us joy, laughter, and a sense of wonder, even as he struggled with disease and addiction.  It’s often been said that comedians are some of the most troubled individuals — many take their own suffering and turn it into humor in order to cope with their own demons and illnesses.  Williams’ manic energy and chaotic transformative comic sensibility no doubt protected him from himself.  I remember discussions during high school and college, when he would come up in conversation, that this was his ego on full display — and many (myself included at times) suggested this was a negative characteristic.  Now I realize that his energy was probably a completely vanity-free call to say, “Please, I want you to like me!”  And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.  He made himself the center of attention because he wanted that attention.  It was not ego or pride, but the complete opposite of that: a vulnerability, an honesty about his anxieties and insecurities, an unabashed, uncensored desire to be loved and to make others laugh.  This is I think what drew us to him; we recognized our own vulnerabilities and fears, and he made us comfortable with that sort of raw openness through laughter and humor.  His comic vision was entirely selfless — he wanted to connect to others and to create connections, and laughter was the conduit for these connections.

mrs-doubtfire-dancingHe’s had so many different roles, but there is one thing that I think runs throughout them all (even his villainous or “creepy” roles: One Hour Photo, Insomnia, World’s Greatest Dad, etc.).  Whenever a film needed a bit of heart, of empathy, of genuine openness and humanity, it seems he was able to bring that sensibility.  And his creativity, talent, and mental acuity allowed him to create that humanity in so many different ways, asking, “how do we smile when faced with this crisis?”

robin-williams-good-will-hunting-3Comedy is dangerous.  It demands you be perceptive, empathetic, understanding, open, listening, engaging with the world.  Imagine stripping away those layers of you that you have placed, subconsciously or consciously, as barriers to the world.  Layers that protect and insulate, that keep you safe and help deflect sadness, anger, uncertainty, fear, anxiety.  The greatest comedians must often peel those protective layers away in order to reach that raw, tender, vulnerable state that allows them to create comedy that will touch us deeply and resonate beyond our immediate laughter.  The trade off is, of course, that with this gift, comes potential for pain and sadness.  I think of spiritual healers who personally absorb others’ negativity, sins, pain, and suffering, in order to help their patients reach peace and tranquility.  Robin Williams was this sort of spiritual healer, but his tools were empathy and love, coupled with boundless energy and enthusiasm for life’s chaos.  Perhaps he absorbed too much, his heart became too heavy.  I won’t speculate, I can only assume that his gifts to the world must have come at a heavy price.

robin-williams-memesI’ll leave you with this piece of advice from the man himself.

You were our spark, Mr. Williams.  And the world will be a little dimmer without your light.

genie

Guardians of the Galaxy Explained

Guardians of the Galaxy opened this weekend, and it’s getting pretty stellar — or should I say, interstellar — reviews across the board (see what I did there?).  The latest in Marvel’s cinematic universe (which includes such iconic characters as Iron Man, Thor, Captain “Human Torch” America, and three different The Hulks), GotG was a pretty sizeable risk on Marvel’s part.  But the film is not only good — it’s quite good, in fact – but it is also easily the funniest Marvel film to date.  Now, I’m a big ol’ nerd, but I’ll be the first to admit there are gaps in my nerd wisdom, and GotG is precisely that. I’m entirely unfamiliar with this comic.  And before the film, I even made a point to not read any of the comics, so I could go into the movie with the dewy, doe-eyed wonder of a newborn babe.  I knew that Darth Vader was Luke’s father before I ever saw The Empire Strikes Back as a kid.  I read Jurassic Park before I saw the movie.  I knew the books that the Dark Knight trilogy was working with before the films came out.  This was my chance for a fresh, unsullied view of this pop culture phenomenon.  So here is my analysis and review of Guardians of the Galaxy, from the point of view of someone who has pretty much no idea what’s going on in the respective comics.

GotG
From left to right: Pete NyQuil (aka: Star Jones), Drax Shepard the Destroyer, Elphaba Thropp, Vin Treesil, and Bradley Raccoonper.

Warning: Spoilers.

So.  The film starts out with a little kid in the ‘80s, listening to some radical tunes on his Sony Walkman (side note: does Sony own Marvel?  If not, they got some great free product placement… I bet Walkman sales double after people see this movie).  Turns out his mom is dying of baldness, and she calls the kid into the hospital room to give him a birthday present or something, but she really just wants him there so that he can watch her die.  Talk about selfish.  Spoiler: she dies.

After she dies, he runs out of the hospital and into a misty fog-covered field, because everyone knows that most hospitals are located next to vast, empty, fog-colored fields.  And he gets sucked into a spaceship like he was Mike Teevee in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  And that’s the last we ever hear of that kid.

Cut to outer space, and there’s some dude who has the kid’s Sony Walkman (I think he abducted the kid and killed him and stole all his shit).  He’s some kind of red-eyed homeless Cyberman, digging through old planets for their leftover recycling.

Star Jones the Stripping Cyberman
Star Jones the Stripping Cyberman

He dances through some ruins, kicking little alien rat things like some sort of futuristic douchebag, before finding a Fabergé egg.  But there are some other dudes who want the egg too, and he tells him that his name is Star Jones before they attack him and he escapes.  Star also has a pink lady in his spaceship that he had forgotten about – maybe he likes Grease?

Look at that Faberge egg.  Who wouldn't want it?
Look at that Fabergé egg right there.

Star Jones goes to the Mall of America in Naboo to try to hawk the egg, but he gets attacked by the Wicked Witch of the West – she’s there because she’s working for Ronin (they must have recast Robert DeNiro from the first movie, and time Ronin is basically a blue version of Johnny Depp’s Tonto, somehow with even more mascara).  Ronin wants the egg to make an intergalactic omelette or something.  Ronin also has a big hammer that he never actually uses to hit anything with, of course his hammer blows gusts of wind instead.  Because comic books.

Someone get this dude some waterproof mascara.
Someone get this dude some waterproof mascara.

So the Wicked Witch of the West is trying to get the egg from Star Jones, but there’s also Bradley Raccoonper and Vin Treesil, who both want to get him because they hate babies or something.  They all reinact the opening fight sequence from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, with the egg as a stand-in for the antidote, before Dr. Steve Bruhl arrests them all and sends them to prison.

In prison, they meet the Fifth Beatle, Drax Shepard.  He’s covered in muscles, and those muscles are covered in crazy red scars, and he doesn’t understand metaphor and takes everything literally, which is apparently a trait of his alien race.  Which seems to me more of a lack of literary development on his homeworld than a genetic “trait.”  Nature versus nurture, people.  So everyone hates each other until they realize that Elphaba is betraying 47 Ronin, and Dax Shepard  wants to kill Ronin too.  So they put aside their differences and break out of prison in a flying guard tower, accompanied by a pillaged prosthetic leg.

 

Then the Guardians of Ga’Hoole go to a giant floating head, which is also planet, where they meet with Steampunk Andy Warhol, who has started collecting things from across the galaxy.  He’s also called “The Collector,” in case, you know, you were wondering about his profession (it must be Marvel’s answer to old-timey Anglo-Saxon surnames like “Smith” and “Fletcher” and “Hooker”).

The Collector playing with his balls.
The Collector playing with his balls.

In his collection, The Collector has collected cosmonaut dogs and slugs and Slave Leia, and he wants to collect Vin Treesil when he dies.  But before he can do that, Elphaba wants to sell him the egg.  When he opens it, he finds out that inside of the egg there’s a purple Infinity Stone.  Which I think is a misnomer, because there’s literally only one stone.  Another pink lady (Rizzo, I think) grabs the stone and everything explodes.  And everyone except Rizzo lives through this ridiculous explosion because science.

 

Meanwhile, Drax Shepard has called Ronin to say, “Come at me, bro!”, which Ronin does.  Hard.  And he brings along the Borg and some flying beetle ships.  A big space fight ensues, Ronin gets the Stone of Infinite Wisdom, and the Wicked Witch of the West dies, and then Star Jones saves her and he dies, but then Star Jones’ old boss or dad or mentor – blue Merle Dixon – comes to the rescue.

How do you know if Merle Dixon is feeling sad?   He looks pretty blue.
How do you know if Merle Dixon is feeling sad?
He looks pretty blue.

Blue Merle sucks Star Jones and Lady Gumby into his ship, which apparently has the power to reverse death.  Because the next time we see Star Jones and Elphaba, they are alive again all of a sudden.  Merle forms an uneasy alliance with Star Jones and She-Hulk, and then Bradley Raccoonper and Vine Diesel and Jak-and-Draxter show up to save their buddies.  So Star Jones gives a riveting speech about being losers or something, and they make a plan to get Ronin, who’s heading back to Naboo for some unknown reason.

 

Somewhere in the middle of all this, somebody calls Bradley Sly Cooper a raccoon, and he responds by basically saying, “What the fuck is a raccoon?”  And that’s the end of that conversation.  But think about that.  What if someone came to you and said, “hey, you’re a human,” and you had no idea what a human was, and you’d never seen another creature in the entire GALAXY that looked like you.  How is he not having an existential crisis for the rest of the goddamn movie??  Instead he just shoots shit and tugs at his crotch.  Which, now that you mention it, isn’t so bad.

Crotch Rocket.
Crotch Rocket.

 

Anywho.  Back on Naboo, a crazy fight ensues with an Ocean’s-Eleven-style plan to get into Ronin’s giant Lego ship.  So the Naboo police get in their spaceships and join hands and hug Ronin’s ship while our heroes go inside to fight Ronin.  But they can’t beat him and the ship starts to crash.  And then Roots McTreeface gets everyone together and is like, “KUMBAYA, BITCHES!” and gives the Guardians of Middle Earth a giant tree hug by growing a giant branch orb around them, which I guess was to protect them when the ship crashed into future San Francisco?  I was unaware that wrapping yourself in branches was enough to survive a spaceship crash – next time I fly, I’m bringing some wicker furniture as my carry-on, just in case.

In the case of a water landing, sit in one of these chairs and you'll be fine.
In the case of a water landing, sit in one of these chairs and you’ll be fine.

 

So they crash, and Mother Willow dies and is turned into a bunch of sticks.  And Ronin shows up and is like, “I WASN’T EVEN IN THE TREE FORT BUT I SURVIVED IT TOO, MOTHERFUCKERS.”  And then Star Jones and Ronin have a dance off, but it doesn’t work because Ronin is like “EAT MY WIND HAMMER, BITCHES.”  But not before someone knocks the Bagillion Stone out of his hammer.  Star Jones does a volleyball dive and catches the stone and he starts to explode, but then he and his buddies hold hands and they don’t explode… but Ronin does because science.  And then they fly away and everything is hunky-dory.  Oh, and one of the little kindling sticks grows a face and starts dancing to The Jackson Five.  So I guess that means we’ll have more Treebeard in the inevitable sequel.  But it raises the question: what about all the other sticks that he broke in to?  Are there going to be hundreds of monosyllabic tree people in the next one?

 

Guardians of the Galaxy 2: Branching Out.

Guardians of the Galaxy 2: Electric Grootaloo.

Guardians of the Galaxy 2: Tree’s Company.

 

So that’s the movie.  But what about my review?  Well, I found the movie to be a careful and well-thought-out deconstruction of Marxist attitudes toward economic and sociopolitical development of capitalism.  For you see, the titular Guardians are all from the lower economic strata for various reasons, and strive endlessly toward financial recompense for individual gain (though the prospect of divvying bounties among themselves and a talking tree is a point of contention for Star Jones and company).  The film centers on the strivings of characters to defy preexisting social and cultural taxonomies, wherein social and economic inefficiencies propel the characters toward a growing class warfare.  The Collector – ostensibly, the film’s most explicit representation of the nouveau-riche — lives among the ruins of impoverished and lawless mining planet, where resources are literally tapped from the living matter of the vast deceased skull, in a clear symbolic reading of neo-Marxist politics of economics and stratification.  That the film ends with a cameo by an anthropomorphic, alcoholic duck asking Andy “The Collector” Warhol why he would allow a Russian dog to lick his face, the film seems to ask, “How do we, as the common man, assume responsibility for our actions?”  (to say nothing of the overt Cold War imagery invoked throughout the film, as if to suggest that we are not as distanced from history as we would have ourselves believe).  Meanwhile, Ronin’s agenda is informed by his zealotry, and reflects attempt to purge the galaxy of the established bourgeoisie, who all live in Naboo.  But the film also has a sardonic sense of humor, one which deflates the severity of its Marxist agenda.  In this way, the film becomes a Derridean deconstruction of Western readings of these contemporary mythoi.  This deconstructionist agenda is further evidenced by the film’s narrative, which eschews Jung’s archetypical “Hero’s Journey,” in favor of a Baudrillardian approach to simulacra and simulation – the Guardians of the Galaxy serve as Marvel’s attempt to transpose their familiar and tangible narrative motifs into a third-order simularcrum, one that honors and adheres to its signifiers, while simultaneously developing a wholly unique construct by which to judge forthcoming Marvel films.

 

Oh, and there’s a raccoon scratching his crotch in it, too.

 

Mike Birbiglia: Sleepwalking, Self-Defenestration, and the Trouble With Marriage

“To be a comedian, you have to be a little bit delusional.”

So I finally watched Mike Birbiglia’s film, Sleepwalk With Me (2012).  For anyone interested in stand-up comedy or what makes comedians tick, this is essential viewing.  Here’s the trailer:

For those unfamiliar with the film, it stars Birbiglia (here named Matt Pandamiglio, which only seems to emphasize the comedian’s autobiographical approach) and chronicles his early years doing stand-up comedy in dire locations and to underwhelming audiences.  There is a hefty side-plot about his deteriorating relationship with college sweetheart Abbie (played wonderfully by Lauren Ambrose), which gives the film an emotional center that seems more at place in a romantic comedy — or drama, perhaps — but it works here precisely because it is not, for lack of a better word, romanticized.  Birbiglia does a great job of navigating three stories: his rise from a neophyte comedian to a slightly-not-as-neophyte comedian, the death knell of his relationship with Abbie, and his struggle with his increasingly-perilous sleepwalking condition.

The film is also narrated by Birbiglia as he drives to a gig, paying tolls and stopping for a roadside nosh, as he speaks directly to the audience.  He prefaces the story he’s about to tell with the above quote about delusion, and we watch him confront these delusions (accepting some, fighting against others) throughout the film.  At one point, he remarks about knowing the outcome of the story — an outcome his past self isn’t aware of — by confiding in the audience, “I know, I’m in the future also.”  Wonderful, sly narration throughout.  What this narration does, though, is frame his story as a stand-up routine, which it essentially is.  It’s a well-told, well-filmed extended stand-up routine.

The story of his stand-up career (which we can call “Plot A”) hits all the expected notes regarding an amateur stand-up comedian: his first gig, a successive series of shitty locations and tanked sets, regurgitated jokes (“We heard those in college… they’re funny!” reassures one of his friends after she ignores a set).  But what is so smart is that Birbiglia/Pandamiglio doesn’t get a genuine laugh until quite literally halfway through the film, when he starts to talk about his failing relationship (“I’m not gonna get married until I decide nothing else good can happen in my life”).  Talking about his relationship allows his jokes to grow, evolve, and succeed.  As his jokes get better and more personal, he reveals his anxieties and neuroses; but as he moves away from his early material (jokes about Cookie Monster and the A-Team) and toward personal anecdotes and self-deprecation, his success is mirrored by a growing strain on his already-tenuous relationship.

Success shifts his personal life, but not in the standard narrative we are used to.  Many success stories see individuals’ personal lives suffer because they abuse their newfound power, success, money, or popularity and lose touch with who they once were.  Here, we are treated to a wonderful and bittersweet realization that as one finds their own voice and develops a way to confront their own personal issues, they instead discover themselves and find that their previous choices/relationships/identity were constructed or compensatory.  It’s simultaneously uplifting and empowering, but never is there an easy solution — something’s got to give.  And here, that something is his relationship with Abbie (Plot B).

Plot B chronicles their relationship through flashbacks to college, a desperate and ill-thoguht-out proposal, and the impending wedding.  Here we get some well-written and funny analogies mixed with a bittersweet realization that love, for comedians in particular, is a difficult path to (sleep)walk.

Falling in love for the first time is a completely transcendent experience.  It’s like eating pizza-flavored ice cream.  Your brain can’t even process that level of joy… [Love] is a mountain of pizza-flavored ice cream.  And delusion.

Of course, he is a comedian, and he relishes in wry self-deprecation that borders on upsetting truth.  “I think everyone thinks the best thing about my life is my girlfriend,” Birbiglia/Pandamiglio bemoans. Of course, there are some issues with Plot B that have been addressed in opinion pieces, mainly having to do with the sense of “Yet another slacker-schlub fantasy about a ridiculously hot girlfriend who is way out of his league in all areas, but who just wants to marry him anyway.”

Wendy Widom, in regard to the film, writes, “Has the world — or at least our tiny corner of it — gone totally batshit crazy?”  She continues:

Sleepwalk With Me turned out to be clichéd, predictable and insulting to the women of the world who do not live for the possibility of landing a down-and-outer and siring his offspring.

I know, I sound harsh. Let me explain, since the source of my dismay is simple. Yet again, a group of dudes has created a movie that portrays women as a combination of saintly and beautiful morons waiting around for guys who don’t deserve them. Birbiglia’s girlfriend, Abby (played by Lauren Ambrose), is the next of the Apatow-esque prototype: beautiful, smart, kind, talented, fun, supportive and loving. In short, she’s perfection topped off with absurdly juvenile hairdos reminiscent of the youngest daughter in The Sound of Music. She’s only slightly less annoying than the other lead female character, Matt’s mom (played by Carol Kane), who is one chirpy chirp away from the cuckoo’s nest.

Widom’s criticism is important to discussions of this sort of film, but I might suggest that this film is different from the works of Apatow, Rogen, MacFarlane, and the like precisely because it is a distinctly autobiographical story told from Birbiglia’s point of view.  In this way, it reminds me of [500] Days of Summer — and particularly the film’s preface: “AUTHOR’S NOTE: The following is a work of fiction.  Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental… Especially you Jenny Beckman… Bitch.”  That film has the manic pixie dream girl trope firmly in tow, but it’s also told from the man’s point of view, wearing heartache and anger on its sleeve.

Jenna Sauers has a similar concern, but she seems more forgiving of the film’s characterizations:

The fact that these are otherwise well-rounded characters — Lauren Ambrose’s Abbie, a singer and an instructor at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is shown as capable and patient, and Mike, aside from his resistance to getting hitched, is considerate and loving — doesn’t entirely excuse the stereotypically gendered view of marriage. How many times and in how many different forms of media is it really necessary to send the message that men naturally fear commitment, and that marriage is something women must dun men into with a combination of enticements, ultimatums, and plain old threats? It’s a tired and stereotypical view of sex and relationships that’s more befitting a 1950s sitcom than an otherwise formally creative and very sweet indie comedy from 2012.

Again, I agree… but Sauers also ignores the fact that when the relationship does finally end, Abbie reveals to Mike/Matt that she had been unsure about the relationship for likely as long as he had been… but that they both had been afraid to say anything, lest they hurt the other people.  Both parties were careening toward something they really weren’t sure was right for them out of a fundamental fear of confrontation; the marriage was a hoop that they both felt compelled to jump through based on some combination of pity, inertia, and obligation.

As the narrator, Birbiglia prefaces a scene wherein he cheats on his girlfriend with a waitress who has asymmetric boobs: “Before I tell you this story, I want to remind you that you’re on my side.”  This overt manipulation also places the film’s missteps in regard to its portrayal of women squarely on Birbiglia’s shoulders: it’s his story, from his point of view — and essentially, isn’t that what stand-up comedy is about?  Whether you’re telling jokes about airplane travel…

… your kids shitting on the floor…

… or setting yourself on fire…

… it’s an exercise in subjective interpretation of misfortune and suffering, filtered through the comedian’s particular sense of humor.

Which brings me to the final “plot” of the film: Birbiglia’s  sleepwalking condition — which he does suffer from in real life.  Throughout the film, we are shown surreal dream sequences, juxtaposed with him enacting those dreams in life.  The condition starts out humorous but quickly turns dangerous, as he falls off a dresser and bangs his head, and later, as he throws himself out a hotel window (which, again, he really did).

This aspect of the film is, in my opinion, a touchstone for the opening idea of the film: to be a comedian, you have to be a little bit delusional.  Or, in other words, your brain has to work in a way that allows you to experience trauma, but to find humor in it as well.  Delusion is a theme that runs through the film; Birbiglia/Pandamiglio finds that it is essential to love, comedy, relationships, family… but it is risky business.  As his sleepwalking becomes increasingly dangerous, he finally resigns to his father’s demands and sees a specialist.  The specialist can’t cure his condition, so instead, he has to sleep in a zipped-up sleeping bag, wearing mittens so he can’t unzip the sleeping bag.  It’s curing the symptoms, not the illness.   The film ends with Birbiglia observing, “People ask me, ‘Are you cured?’ And I say, ‘No.’… but I think that’s OK.”  The title of the film (and Birbiglia’s book, which I need to read) even invites us to join him on these dangerous outings, in the hopes that we can find humor in the suffering as well.

For Birbiglia, sleepwalking is a dangerous, frightening condition that, like his relationship with Abbie, grew worse as his comedy got better.  But it’s those difficult things — heartbreak, anxiety, jumping out of hotel windows — that inform his comedy.  And if you can laugh at self-defenstration, well, maybe that’s the best way to heal.

After the doctor pulls the glass shards out of your legs, of course.

Comedy’s such a drag.

Apologies for my absence; I’ve been busy as hell with lots of amazing theatre projects… but that’s what I want to talk about today.

I have, in recent weeks, found myself thrust into the world of drag performance.  I am in a production of Molière’s The Reluctant Doctor, where I play the busty nurse-maid; I am also co-directing a production of Charles Busch’s Psycho Beach Party, which originally stared the playwright as a 15-year-old wannabe surfer girl à la Gidget (only with a liberal sprinkling of Mommie Dearest thrown in for good measure).  After dick jokes, drag is perhaps one of the most lasting comic motifs.  But drag is neither specifically comic, nor a drag.  Discuss.

Drag started, at least in Western cultures, out of theatrical convention.  As I’ve already discussed, women usually get the short shrift in comedy, but this also goes for theatre.  Generally speaking, having women on stage is a relatively new phenomenon.  Historically, theatrical convention often said that all roles were to be played in drag; in Shakespeare’s time, women were played by boys, while men were played by, well, men.  This is why most of Shakespeare’s women, even the leads (Juliet, Lady Macbeth, etc.) generally have fewer lines than the men: the actors were less skilled because they were younger.  For Molière, who was around at the birth of the actress, plays suddenly had to change.  Sexy young ingenues were all the rage; audiences wanted to see beautiful young women on stage, and playwrights wanted to write young women into their plays.  But what of all the actors who had made careers playing women?  Enter the old maid character: the patently unattractive matron who somehow garners the attention of the bumbling protagonist.

In Japan, we have Kabuki.  The performance style is etymologically rooted in a sense of leaning away from the ordinary, so in many ways, you could call it queer.  Rooted in stylized singing, dancing, and movement, Kabuki started as performance by women (many of whom also offered other… ahem… services). Women were soon banned from performing because their sexual allure was too distracting, and they were replaced by boys.  Of course, the problem continued, and the boys were eventually replaced by men.

A Kabuki performance of "Steel Magnolias."
A Kabuki performance of “Steel Magnolias.”

But what about comedy?  When you think of drag and comedy, you might think of a number of modern images…

tumblr_lrvwh1VpVT1qa1urpo1_500The Kids in the Hall.  Monty Python.  Mrs. Doubtfire.  Hairspray.  Tootsie.  Divine.  Pink Flamingos.  Victor/Victoria.  Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.  To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar.  The Birdcage.  Ja’mie.  The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  Some Like it Hot.  Eddie Izzard.  Dame Edna. 

And no, I’m not going to talk about She’s the Man, so don’t ask.

Because it has jokes like this.
Why aren’t I going to spend any time on She’s the Man?  Because it has jokes like this.
... and this...
… and this…
... and this...
… and this…
... and OH GOD THERE'S A TAMPON/NOSEBLEED JOKE...
… and OH GOD THERE’S A TAMPON/NOSEBLEED JOKE…
... are they even trying any more?
… are they even trying any more?

 

Ugh.  Sorry about that.  Moving on.

We recognize these cultural touchstones instantly, and when we see drag characters, we know we’re probably supposed to laugh.  But where does drag humor come from?  Well, as it turns out, that’s a complicated question with no single answer. Today, drag is closely associated with Camp… but what is Camp?  There are lots of definitions and analyses out there, so let’s table that discussion, but we can look to Susan Sontag’s Notes on “Camp for a quick fix: “The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious,” which she suggests is done in part through detachment.  I’d say Camp embraces the ideas, individuals, and identities that lie outside the narrow realm of acceptance, and then upends cultural and social expectations, reversing established values and mainstream conventions.  In other words, Camp flips convention on its head.

Drag could be so associated with humor because of the Incongruity Theory, which suggests that we laugh when two things are jarringly and incongruously placed together.  Our realization of the dissonance sparks laughter — we expect one thing, but we are presented with another.  Or, perhaps more acutely, we laugh because of “the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing” [that’s Kant, by the way].  All comedy requires a reversal, and drag is reversal embodied.

There is of course a difference between drag performers — who use the costume and persona for entertainment — and cross-dressing in general… it’s the difference between costume and identity.  The language surrounding drag performance is very specific, but then you have something like RuPaul’s Drag Race, which has brought the art of drag to the public eye like never before, though it’s not without its own controversies.

I... um.  I... ... ... ok.
I… um. I… … … ok.

Speaking of controversy, there are strange catches to drag performance, especially in America.  There’s a bizarre phenomenon where many major Black male comedians end up having to do a drag role at some point.  There seems to be an expectation that, if you are a Black comedian, then drag is inevitable, whereas for white comedians, it is much more of an artistic choice.  Dave Chappelle explains his attitude toward this phenomenon:

But what happens when drag isn’t an obligation, a utilitarian choice, or something meant to get laughs on its own?  There is a subversive edge to drag that is often subsumed by the more flashy aspects of drag performance: enter Panti Bliss and Pieter-Dirk Uys.

I saw Ireland’s drag queen par excellence, Panti Bliss (whose real name is Rory O’Neill), two years ago when I was in Dublin and was blown away by her performance — she works in the self-described field of “gender discombobulation.”

So Irish.
So Irish.

I then learned that Panti is also an “accidental and occasional” activist for LGBTQ rights.  Check out her recent “call to action” at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

It’s a beautiful and moving speech, in which the issue of hiding and blending in are brought to the forefront of the discussion.  Panti makes the case that through drag performance, we can erase the need for invisibility and camouflage.  It’s a powerful moment, and just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Panti’s activism.  Not to mention she puts on a damn good show.

In South Africa, performer and activist Pieter-Dirk Uys has been fighting injustice and ignorance for decades.

Pieter-Dirk Uys as Evita Bezuidenhout
Pieter-Dirk Uys as Evita Bezuidenhout

Uys was born in 1945, just before the Apartheid era became fully institutionalized in South Africa; he is the son of an Afrikaner father and a Jewish mother.  This placed him at a bizarre crossroads of superiority and the Other.  During Apartheid, there was no shortage of protests, embargoes, demonstrations, and denunciations of the Afrikaner minority rule and the blatant racial discrimination and segregation.  But for all this effort, little actually changed…

Uys realized that Apartheid had been so pervasive that it had entirely warped the national way of thinking; there was no fighting it.  Since there was no point in directing his satire at the thing itself — at the Apartheid — he turned his satire inward.  He looked at the symptoms of Apartheid: ignorance, denial, lies, and the like.  His most famous drag character is the Afrikaner socialite Evita Bezuidenhout, whose good intentions are always upended by ignorance and naïveté (think Lindsay Bluth).

lindsay“There are two things I can’t stand about South Africa,” he remarks as Evita.  “Apartheid, and the Blacks.”

What is perhaps most amazing about Uys’ Evita is that Nelson Mandela views her as one of his heroes.
I’ll repeat that.  Evita Bezuidenhout was Nelson “The Hammer” Mandela’s hero [Note: I don’t know if “The Hammer” was Mandela’s actual nickname, but I’m going with it].  Let that sink in a minute.  A culture and society dissolved by racism, hatred, and ignorance, in its earliest days of rebuilding and healing, turned to Nelson Mandela, who in turn, turned to a drag performer.

Try and tell me this isn't just one of the greatest photos ever.
Try and tell me this isn’t just one of the greatest photos ever.

That’s the power of this sort of humor in drag performance — it has the ability to heal wounds that run centuries deep. Today, Uys is so big that he can go to schools as himself, talk to the kids, and in the course of his “performance,” start changing into a wig, earrings, etc., and the kids don’t giggle and make fun — they cheer, they applaud, they recognize that the transformation into Evita is only moments away and they’re excited.  Try that in America and watch the hate-filled comments and parental complaints fly.  Seriously, though.  Check out Evita’s interview with Mandela:

After the cessation of Apartheid, Uys turned his satire toward the other unstoppable threat to South Africa: HIV and AIDS.  In an interview on NPR, he describes his early comedy as a fight against “the virus of Apartheid”: “It was [a virus], and many, many people died, and there was no cure.”  This made the transition to dealing with HIV and AIDS in post-Apartheid South Africa a relatively simple shift.  “Once upon a time, we had a government that killed people.  Now we have a government who lets them die.”  I think that these jokes work because they operate in that dangerous space between understanding and incongruity, but they reveal some hidden truth that we may have been too blind to see until that moment. Panti’s speech above is drawn from experiences of fear and anxiety, and that is exactly what Uys is trying to combat.

“Humor, again, is my traditional cultural weapon, my weapon of mass distraction.  The moment you laugh at your fear you make that fear less fearful.  It never becomes less lethal, but it’s not 20 feet high, it’s maybe 20 inches.” — Pieter-Dirk Uys, The Connection

Uys and Panti utilize the conventions of drag performance to combat injustices and oppression.  If drag operates in a sort of middle ground of incongruity, where we must hold an ambivalent attitude toward opposing images, ideas, and concepts, then drag humor uses that same ambivalence to knock us in between the eyes and demand that we wake up.  Sometimes, it’s just to wake up for a laugh (hey, look, some folks doing something interesting with gender identity!), but in the hands of skilled performers, it can be a call to arms against the status quo.  I think it’s best summed up in Uys’ attitude toward his own humor: “I don’t do jokes.  But the truth is pretty funny.”