Comedian Todd Glass opens up in ‘The Todd Glass Situation’

As a result of a rash of suicides of gay teens in 2010 and 2011 inspired comedian Todd Glass to publicly come out on Marc Moran’s podcast, WTF. Before that, Glass established a respectable career by telling jokes about relationships, but cleverly switching gender pronouns – thereby proving that most relationship problems are universal, regardless of gender or sexuality. In The Todd Glass Situation: A Bunch of Lies about My Personal Life and a Bunch of True Stories about My 30-Year Career in Stand-Up, the comedian shares his upbringing and his yeoman-like effort in building a career as well as the difficulty of living a double life, one as a straight man, the other as a gay man.

On stage or in interviews, one thing that comes across clearly is that Todd Glass is passionate. He’s also very intelligent and he uses his smarts to deconstruct popularly-held beliefs and attitudes about words or language. For example, despite its casual use in conversation, Glass writes about the problem in using “retarded” to signify that something is bad or stupid. What’s more, he takes on the anti-PC crowd that seems to think it’s brave for embracing archaic turns of phrases and slang, and upends the argument that holding on to these terms is somehow subversive. Because language and rhetoric is key to his work, he does a lot of insightful examination of word usage and word choice. This passion obviously intersects with his interests in social justice and social progressive ideology. I’m not saying that Todd Glass is a liberal – in doesn’t really matter what his politics are – because his righteous feelings of what’s right and wrong are clear.

But deconstructing language and comedy isn’t the only interesting part of the book. In his title, Glass chose to include the words “lies” and “true stories.” Important word choices because the two are essential when looking at how someone lives a closeted life. Glass writes of his upbringing being supportive and the horror stories of being ostracized and kicked out don’t appear in this work. Still, his torment is no less acute because he writes about a self-loathing that is expertly conveyed on page. He has a partner throughout most of the book who lives with Glass in his splintered life, pretending to be a “roommate” and Glass even has women pose as girlfriends. All these are classic, almost obligatory rights of passage for gay people.

Though funny on stage, on paper, he’s more thoughtful. Which means that The Todd Glass Situation isn’t a hilarious knee-slapper like Tina Fey’s Bossypants or any of David Sedaris’ books. That doesn’t mean it’s not as enjoyable or thoughtful. It is. But Glass’ humor works best when he’s delivering it with his effusive charm and his roaring voice. Still, I’m nitpicking because overall, I found The Todd Glass Situation to be extremely readable and hard to put down.

Click here to buy Todd Glass’ The Todd Glass Situation on amazon.com.

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Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, and Ty Burrell show the sad side of funny in ‘The Skeleton Twins’

The Skeleton Twins poster.jpgI would hate to have to market Craig Johnson’s new film The Skeleton Twins. It’s an almost-impossible task. It’s a dark drama, but has some hilarious moments, but calling it a dramedy sounds trite (Steel Magnolias is a dramedy). And when two of the three stars are Saturday Night Live alumni, of course it’s tempting to market it as a comedy, but Wiig and Hader do some heart-wrenching work. And its indie cred would make some want to push it as a quirky dark comedy a la Lars and the Real Girl or Little Miss Sunshine, but that would be a mistake because The Skeleton Twins is far too original for that. Instead, the film’s a strange, but beautiful experience, one in which viewers will wipe away tears from laughter and sadness – often at the same time.

Wiig and Hader play twins – Maggie and Milo. They’ve been estranged for ten years and are reunited when Maggie has to fly to L.A. to pick Milo up from the hospital after an unsuccessful suicide attempt. The problem is that at the moment Maggie received the call about her brother she was about to end her own life by swallowing a fistful of pills. From this shared mutual despair, the two figure out just why they’re so unhappy. In upstate New York, Maggie lives a seemingly idyllic life, holding down a good job as a dental hygienist and being married to the lovable, if simple Lance (Luke Wilson). Because it appears that Maggie’s the one who’s got her shit together, she takes on the role of caretaker. Milo, understandably, chafes under his role as patient, and uses his sharp wit to deal with his sad situation.

Because Maggie never left their town, there are loads of dark secrets that Milo and she share – one of which is the handsome, middle-aged bookstore proprietor, Rich (Ty Burrell), who has a past with Milo. The two were lovers at one point, but an event intruded on their relationship that had devastating repercussions on Milo’s relationship with Maggie. I won’t go into the details of Milo’s affair with Rich, but it’s pretty easy to guess after their second scene together. But Milo’s return isn’t wholly welcomed by Rich and the two share a reunion that’s fraught with angst, tension, and regret.

Screenwriters Mark Heyman and Craig Johnson (who also directed the film) put together a beautiful story that is very sad, but there are moments of high comedy and hilarity that never undermines the drama. The plot moves at a leisurely pace, and that’s okay – these two characters are wonderful to watch, and their interactions are great because they’re based on years of a deeply intimate bond. Flashbacks give viewers glimpses of what Maggie and Milo were like as kids and often these flashbacks parallel the adult relationship. The ending is the only true sour note in the film (though the lip syncing sequence to Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” is a touch grating) – it feels pat and easy and panders to the audience. But that issue is minor because for the bulk of the film, the film tells its story well.

Most viewers, however, will note that triumphant performances of Wiig, Hader, and Burrell. Even though their stars are known primarily as comedians, Heyman and Johnson make sure that they push the actors to stretch beyond their respective comfort levels to produce some exciting work. Wiig and Hader have an easy rapport, that goes back to their work together on SNL. It’s a relief that despite the heavy subject matter, the actors are called on to be funny as well. Burrell has a smaller role, but is just as effective as the deeply conflicted Rich. His scenes with Hader are great because both actors manage to create an exchange that feels as if it lasted for 20 years. Wilson is also good and in a welcome cameo, Joanna Gleason does some solid work as a nightmarish mother from hell.

Because it’s the film’s so small, and the actors’ work is so subtle, I don’t see The Skeleton Twins doing all that well during the award season. That’s a shame because it’s a joy to watch Wiig and Hader develop and grow. It reminded me of my earlier review of the second season of The Mindy Project and how its star Mindy Kaling has grown as an actress. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are also great examples of comics who have been able to retain their hilarious personas without remaining static. The Skeleton Twins also proves that Wiig has the potential of being a credible leading lady, who can do more than just Bridesmaids-level comedy. The film also shows that even when things are horrible, there are momentary glimpses of humor.

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Welsh rarebit recipe – and a story

I love British food and melted cheese, so a Welsh rarebit should be a dish I cook all the time, but I don’t because it’s all cheese and eggs and it feels as if I was eating a heart attack. But last night I was tired and didn’t know what to cook and didn’t get a chance to go to the market, so I decided to make a Welsh rarebit. I had a loaf of bread that was a bit stale so toasting it would be a great way to eat it. We got a rosemary olive oil loaf which was really nice.

I like Welsh rarebit – it’s basically melted cheese on toast which is great comfort food. Purists may poo poo my Welsh rarebit, and I don’t claim it’s super authentic, but it was good.

Welsh rarebit – serves two, generously 

  • Shredded cheese – I had some fat free cheddar cheese. I used about two cups.
  • 3 large eggs
  • A dash of Worcester sauce
  • 1 tbl of good quality mustard (not French’s hot dog stuff)
  • 2 tsp of good quality dried mustard – I use Coleman’s
  • 4 thick slices of bread that isn’t too soft or mushy
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Cayenne pepper

Preheat the oven to 450. In a bowl beat the eggs until well-mixed. Add the Worcester sauce, mustard, dried mustard, and cheese and mix. It should be a thick, scraggly paste. If it’s too wet, add a bit more cheese. Add a pinch of cayenne pepper and the black pepper.

Take your slices of bread and pile on the mixture over the bread – try to cover the crust if you can, otherwise it can burn. Bake for about 15 minutes. I then lower the heat to 350 and cook for another 10, 15 minutes until the cheese is puffy and it’s golden brown. Check often to make sure that the food isn’t burning. Serve with some good beer and a side salad. Oh, and enjoy.

 

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Mark Whitaker paints a complex and fascinating portrait of Bill Cosby

Because of the historic success of The Cosby Show, its star Bill Cosby has been preserved in amber as the family-friendly, goofy Dr. Cliff Huxtable. Though his public persona is that of a curmudgeon who’s grumpiness is benign and silly. Of course for performers to be as successful as Cosby, they cannot be pushovers. In Mark Whitaker’s book, Cosby: His Life and Times, the comedian’s perfectionism and temper complicate that grinning, mugging face that entertained millions during the 1980s.

For most, the passages dealing with The Cosby Show would be the most interesting. The iconic NBC show not only revitalized its channel, but it also resurrected the then-dying sitcom, and it has been credited for opening up discussions of race and class in popular culture. Detractors of The Cosby Show and the comic himself argue that the ethos of the show: an avoidance of race issues downplayed racism in favor of large audiences. Whitaker doesn’t see it that way, and brings up the different ways that the show challenged preconceived notions of the black middle class. Cosby bristled at accusations that he wasn’t “black enough” or that The Cosby Show was “Leave It to Beaver in blackface.” And Whitaker agrees with the assessment, as well.

In fact, Whitaker comes to his subject’s defense when relating the “Pound Cake” controversy in which Cosby again brought up questions of race when he was perceived to blame poor black people for their poverty. He takes on Cosby’s critics, namely Michael Eric Dyson who took particular aim at the TV star’s politics in his 2005 book Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind? which took Cosby to task for what he saw as victim-blaming. Whether readers will agree with Whitaker that Cosby was given a bad rap is irrelevant, because the author does argue convincingly.

Aside from Cosby’s race politics, there are also peaks into the comic’s creativity as well as his work process. It’s clear that though he’s a dedicated and hardworking individual, he’s not necessarily the nicest employer to have. There are details of Cosby hazing and possibly bullying writers on The Cosby Show, which resulted in insane turnover among the writing staff. Interestingly enough, the much-publicized feud Cosby had with his onscreen daughter, Lisa Bonet is breezily covered with a perfunctory treatment. That Bonet might’ve been cast as a spoiled and impatient diva could be one way to tell the story; or, Whitaker could’ve also looked at the relationship as a willful young woman chafing against a patriarchal source of authority – either would be interesting, but instead Whitaker rushed through the Bonet/Cosby relationship. It’s admirable that he doesn’t want to indulge in showbiz gossip, but just as Cosby represents race discourse in pop culture, gender also finds its way on The Cosby Show.

After The Cosby Show, Bill Cosby’s career took on a rockier road. He starred in some failed vehicles (You Bet Your Life and The Cosby Mysteries) and suffered some personal tragedies, most notably the 1997 murder of his son, Ennis. His public persona also took a beating because of reports of his extramarital affairs as well as allegations of sexual assault, and the aforementioned “Pound Cake” speech that alienated many young African-Americans. It’s a testament to The Cosby Show, that despite these obstacles, the comedian is still universally-beloved.

Interestingly enough for a figure as important and influential as Bill Cosby, Whitaker’s book is the first serious look at his life and work. Whitaker shows a prodigious talent for research. His Bill Cosby is a deeply conflicted but ambitious man who could be prickly and unpleasant, but also generous and deferential (according to Whitaker, he thought very highly of Madeline Kahn). For his fans, Cosby: His Life and Times is a great look into one of the most iconic faces of television.

Click here to buy Mark Whitaker’s Cosby: His Life and Times on amazon.com.

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“Good” gay vs. “bad” gay – is there an ideal gay man?

I’m a huge fan of Richard Simmons, and often love to watch videos on YouTube. I think he’s great: he’s joyful, smiling, and very witty. Plus, he’s helped a lot of people who struggle with obesity and low self-esteem. Part of his appeal and charm is that he’s just so damn happy – whenever he’s on a talk show, he pounces on the stage in his trademark shorts, and overshouts everyone – including the studio audience. I always have a big goofy grin on my face whenever I watch him because he’s pretty much the epitome of a great big ball of joy, unfiltered.

But to some, Richard Simmons’ mannerisms and demeanor is cringe-worthy and embarrassing. To those soulless, fun-suckers, I say they could eat a dick, because there’s nothing wrong with Simmons’ carriage or demeanor. And as a side note, I don’t know if the guy is gay, and to be honest, I don’t think it matters – all I know is that he’s a nice guy who awakens a lot of deep-held insecurities of masculinity in a lot of our society. I’d understand if it were only jocky straight guys who looked askance at the man, but it’s also “straight acting” gay guys who fear that if someone looks at Richard Simmons, that person will make a snap judgment on all gay men (which, by the way, wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing).

To one of the videos, a guy posted the following comment:

“Richard is a bad example as a gay man. He is the biggest queen that has ever lived and has made a career out of it. It’s not cute, he’s not funny. I don’t understand why shows keep inviting him as a guest.  I just feel like throwing hot grease.”

To the poster, Simmons is a bad example because he’s “the biggest queen that has ever lived” – as if being a big ole queen is something to be embarrassed about. I snarkily asked if there was an example of a “good” gay, and he responded modestly, “Me” – and then listed some celebrities including Rupert Everett, Anderson Cooper, Ricky Martin, Lance Bass, and Nate Berkus. His argument was that a “good” gay doesn’t “go around snapping [his] fingers, twirling on tables, licking people in public, rolling their eyes to their back of their eyes (sic) and being all dramatic.”

Now, I have to agree – good gays – in fact good anybodys don’t go “licking people in public” and not only is that intrusive, but also very unhygienic. But what about the other things he listed? The other things that “good” don’t do, like snapping fingers, twirling on tables, rolling their eyes, or being dramatic? What’s so bad about rolling your eyes and being dramatic?

Well, the problem lies in how gay people are perceived by the general public, how they’re portrayed in the media, and how gay men view themselves. For a long time the only images of gay men we were shown, outside of the pathetic, depressed suicidal gay or the predatory gay, was the faaaabulous effeminate gay. The kind of guy who adopts black female slang and will silence a crowded room with a lispy roar. And lots of gay guys cringe when they see this kind of gay guy because when homophobes on the schoolyard want to target us, they go after the easiest, most obvious target.

But that’s not Richard Simmons’ fault. In fact, instead of shaking our head in shame, we should be celebrating Richard Simmons for being who he is, without a shred of reservation. It’s not easy being different and Richard Simmons embraces a kind of self-love that each and everyone of us could use.

It’s interesting that in his examples, the poster from YouTube used largely successful, white male. With the exception of Ricky Martin, all the guys listed are rich cis men who conform to standard or traditional male gender expression. They are “straight acting.” At least in their public persona, their gayness is an afterthought. Sure, they may highlight their hair or wear tight tank tops, but hell, straight men do that now, too – in fact if we just went on appearance alone, Adam Levine would’ve fit in. Just as straight women have a narrow standard of beauty to look up to, so do gay men. For the most part, the gay media pushes an image of an athletically-built young guy, with no visible physical differences, usually white – but if not white, then light skinned, and if this guy walks and talks, he does so in a bland, masculine-lite way. And when we hold on to these images for dear life because they’re so corporate and nondescript that no one can make fun of us, the combination Mardi Gras/Carnivale that is Richard Simmons throws a mighty big wrench in all that.

In the end, internalized homophobia against effeminate men comes from the same source as general homophobia from straight folks, and that source is a feeling of insecurity. A worry that translates to, well I’m openly gay, and that flaming queen is openly gay, but I don’t want people to think I’m a flaming queen, so I’ll crap on that flaming queen to prove just how non-stereotypical gays are. It’s a goofy line of logic that doesn’t work because homophobes are nothing if not consistent, and they hate on gays of all kinds of persuasions – it doesn’t matter where on the spectrum you land, whether it be John Inman or John Wayne, the minute your gayness does become apparent, no amount of machismo will make you acceptable to those who find homosexuality distasteful. So let’s figure out our shit and not get embroiled in the femme/straight acting crap, because when we’re shitting on nellie guys or butch guys we’re doing exactly what the homophobes want us to do – it’s divide and conquer. If we’re splintered, we’re a lot easier to defeat.

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‘SNL’ is right to switch one of the anchors from “Weekend Update” – unfortunately, the wrong anchor got cut…

It’s no secret that Saturday Night Live‘s “Weekend Update” skit has been on a decline for the last few seasons – namely after Seth Meyers took over on his own. Though he’s a funny guy, Meyers needed someone to balance out his appealing smugness, and so they gave him a co-anchor, newer cast member, Cecily Strong. And while she would never replace Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, or Jimmy Fallon in anyone’s mind, she did pretty well, growing with each episode. Then when Meyers left, Strong was saddled with head writer Colin Jost, and the “Weekend Update” segment continued on its downward slide. So it’s no surprise that Lorne Michaels and company are trying to reverse that trend by switching things up and bringing in Michael Che, a writer for SNL.

I think it’s great that Che’s being brought on in front of the camera. But I think the folks behind this decision made the wrong one – if it was a choice between Jost and Strong, I can’t believe that it was Strong who was given the ax. Jost, a talented writer, has yet to make an impression in front of the camera. In fact, he’s kind of a blah nonentity, and it was up to poor Strong to try and lift the sketch – and though she never really succeeded, it was easy to see that of the two, she was the stronger presence and the funnier performer.

Also, getting rid of Strong means that for the first time in a long time that the show moved away from the male-female dynamic that worked for so long. Still, the Amy Poehler/Tina Fey combo worked, so maybe Che and Jost will find a rhythm and chemistry that’ll bring out the best in the latter.

Still, I can’t help but think that Strong would’ve been able to grow into the role and make her mark. It’s a shame…

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Kelsey Grammer and Martin Lawrence fail to find a solid comeback in FX’s ‘Partners’

Poor Kelsey Grammer. The guy’s had a rough go at finding an appropriate or successful gig since his 20-year stint playing Frasier Crane came to an end in 2004. In the last ten years, he’s had two failed sitcoms (Back to You and Hank) and a respectable, if ultimately unsuccessful foray into drama (Boss). Part of the problem is that Grammer’s been so closely identified by Frasier that it’s difficult for audiences to see him anything else. Sarah Silverman talked about her mother’s love of Grammer saying she appreciated his “love for diction,” to which the comedienne had to respond, “He’s not Frasier.” But playing the lovably pompous psychiatrist on Cheers for 8 seasons, plus another 11 years on the classic spin-off Fraiser has left a permanent mark on the audiences. And reviewing Grammer’s various comeback attempts show that despite being a brilliant and hilarious comedian, he is also a pretty limited performer who definitely works within a comfort zone.

And in his newest sitcom (his third since Fraiser‘s end) Partners, Grammer does another variation on his self-involved snob. Pairing him with comedian Martin Lawrence – on paper – sounds like an inspired idea. After all, Lawrence is an explosive and exciting talent. On his much-beloved FOX sitcom Martin (1992 – 1997), Lawrence brought his high-energy comedy to millions of audiences. Since the end of his sitcom, he seemed to have an easier time of maintaining a career than his costar. He starred in a string of successful big screen comedies (Big Momma’s HouseBad Boys IIBig Momma’s House 2, Wild Hogs, College Road Trip), though his box office returns have diminished. So a big TV hit would’ve been perfect right about now.

With two such talented actors, Partners should’ve worked. The Odd Couple-like story is a threadbare trope, but with the right elements, it could still be fun. But Partners isn’t fun. It’s boring and depressing because of the talent involved. The story has two lawyers, Allen Braddock (Grammer) who joins Marcus Jackson (Lawrence) after being fired from his father’s firm. Allen is yet another arrogant fussbudget that Grammer can play in his sleep. Marcus, however, is a little more interesting because he’s a civil rights attorney and a community organizer. Of course Allen’s corporate background will inevitably lead to clashes with his new partners, but like in all great buddy comedies, the two predictably settle into a friendship.

The main problem with Partners is that while it wants to believe it’s hip and cutting edge, it’s remarkably dated. I’m not a huge fan of multi-camera sitcoms, and I hate laugh tracks, which is all the more unbearable when a chorus of loud and forced laughter rains during punchlines that are delivered with broad gusto. And a lot of the jokes deal with race and homosexuality, but are so toothless, they would’ve seemed edgy back in 1995 when  Will & Grace was thought of as trailblazing television.

But all of that could be forgiven if Lawrence and Grammer were working at their peak – after all, both are so talented and likable, that they could elevate even the most mundane material. Unfortunately, Grammer’s performance is distractingly one-note. His performance is essentially Frasier, only less likable and not as funny. As Marcus, Lawrence is better, though strangely subdued. He lends some gravitas, but it always feels as if he’s slumming. The only cast member who manages to shine is sitcom vet Telma Hopkins, who is amusing as Marcus’s mother.

Partners is FX’s latest attempt at doing what TV Land has been doing for about five years now – taking formerly hot TV actors and placing them in strangely retro vehicles. Some of the channel’s other original programs are more original, but Partners feels like Anger Management and the failed George Lopez sitcom Saint George (apparently, former King of Queens star Kevin James also has an upcoming show for the cable channel). Partners squanders some great talent, both of whom would be welcomed back to TV if they were given proper outlets for their gifts – Partners doesn’t do that.

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