‘Cristela’ is a bright and promising sitcom

Cristela's Horrendous Internship InterviewABC’s freshman sitcom Cristela is a throwback to the “boom years” of stand-up comedy when TV networks were plucking comics from clubs and crafting vehicles around their acts. Once the sitcom started to fall out of favor, the television landscape became very hostile to shows like Roseanne or Seinfeld. Because of Chuck Lorre’s success with Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, networks are still trying to find the next Friends. ABC, which has abandoned its popular TGIF lineup is looking to bring the sitcom back. With the relative success of Tim Allen’s return Last Man Standing, ABC is trying to pair it with Cristela, an old-fashioned sitcom that feels like it belongs on TV Land.

Cristela Needs a Partner for Her Costume

Stand-up comedienne Cristela Alonzo stars as Cristela, a law intern who lives with her sister Daniela (Maria Canals Barrera) and irascible brother-in-law, Felix (Carlos Ponce). Daniela and Felix let Cristela live with them and their children in their home while she works at a high-profile law firm, in a much-coveted but unpaid internship. Part domestic comedy and part workplace comedy, Cristela’s office family includes Josh (Andrew Leeds), the nebbish fellow intern and Maddie Culpepper (Justine Lupe) the other intern, who also happens to be the daughter of the firm’s owner, Trent (Sam McMurray).

For those who don’t demand too much from their television viewing, Cristela is a charming, unambitious sitcom that manages to score because of the talent and goodwill of its star. Alonzo is a wonderful presence, and will remind viewers of Roseanne Barr or Brett Butler. As her alter-ego, the comedienne manages to inject a lot gravitas and intelligence into what is really a standard milquetoast multi-cam sitcom. Because the show features a mostly-Latino cast, there are some valuable insights to diversity and privilege and Cristela’s a fine mouthpiece for some of the micro (and not-so micro) aggressions that people of color have to endure in an all-white environment. Because Cristela has worked her way up to a corporate environment, notorious for its hostility toward women of color, she has a unique perspective on her position there. Thankfully, Cristela isn’t a fish-out-of-water story. It’s clear that despite her limited financial background, she belongs at the law firms and deserves her place.

Cristela Pushes Isabella to Play Soccer

And because there’s so much potential in Cristela, when the show see-saws from decent social commentary to standard family sitcom, it becomes clear that despite its charms, the best thing about Cristela is well, Cristela. She easily outclasses her costars. And though at this point in the season  Alonzo hasn’t developed her acting chops yet, it’s easy to see that this lady has a huge future.

BigA show like Cristela will probably last a season or two if it’s lucky, but its lead has an important voice and story to tell. Throughout the middle-of-the-road plots, Cristela is able to raise the consciousnesses of those around her – or at least she tries. This is especially true when she’s helping her sister raise precocious tween, Izzy (Isabella Day). The interactions between Izzy and Cristela are especially heart-warming because of Alonzo’s feminism, which the writers manage to fold in quite nicely. In one episode, Izzy chooses a trendy purse instead of an e-reader for her birthday, so that she can keep up with the popular girls, and Cristela schools her on the pitfalls of keeping up with the Jonses (or the Kardashians). Or in another example, in the pilot episode, Cristela secretly prods her niece to try out for the soccer team instead of cheer leading. The feminism is doled out in such sweet doses, that it won’t scare off viewers afraid of the f-word.

If Cristela can shake off her Disney Channel sitcom trappings, it may develop into a stronger sitcom. It does add an important – if oft-ignored – perspective, and Alonzo can enliven even the hoariest of jokes (and yeah, some of the gags feel awfully dusty). Hopefully, the show will last long enough for viewers to see its growth.

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Woody Harrelson is good in a solid, if one-note episode of ‘SNL’

Woody Harrelson and Kendrick LamarActor Woody Harrelson is out promoting the latest Hunger Games film and hosted Saturday Night Live last week. Known as a genial performer, he first hosted SNL, in 1989 during his Cheers years when he was known for playing the sweet but dim-witted bar tender, Woody Boyd. In the years since, he’s graduated into full superstar status, even surpassing Ted Danson or Kirstie Alley. Along side his movie fame, he’s also known for his penchant for pot. Unfortunately, the writers exploited this side of his public persona and ground it to the ground. Still , this was a solid, if unexceptional episode, in which the host did a good, if unremarkable job.

The cold opener was yet another political sketch. At this point, the folks behind SNL should accept that their politics skewering days are behind them. In the opening sketch, Jay Pharoah trotted out his President Obama and Taran Killan got to play Mitch McConnell. Pharoah is great as Obama, but the performance is mechanical now. At least in this skit, Obama’s unnerved by the midterm elections which handed the his party its collective ass on a big ole platter. In the sketch he and McConnell are meeting for a drink as a way to “reach across the aisle” but quickly the two become drunk, going through various stages of inebriation. It was neat to see Obama getting maudlin while drinking his feelings. And just as quick the guys bond and become frat boyish, crank calling Hillary Clinton. Sasheer Zamata strolled through to do her so-so Michelle Obama, but the look of panic on Killan’s face was priceless. As expected, there were no laughs and just prove my earlier point that SNL should leave the politics to The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

Harrelson’s monologue was the first (of many) that teased him about his predilection for drugs. Because he last hosted in 1989, he brought out his guitar doing a cover of Taylor Swift’s “1989″ with redone lyrics that included late 80s minutia that was shady at best because of all the drugs he did. Because Woody Harrelson does a lot of jokes. The joke got stale real quick – even when his Hunger Games costars Josh Hutchinson, Liam Hemsworth, and Jennifer Lawrence stopped by to help him with his little ditty. Though the monologue was the epitome of laziness, Lawrence was adorable when she saved her awful flub with a pot joke (she’s a funny lady).

The first proper sketch was initially funny, but then sort of petered out when the joke proved to be unable to sustain a whole sketch. At first the sketch looked like an easy spoof of terrible, bland CBS family sitcoms - The Dudleys, starring Kate McKinnon and Beck Bennett. Though it wasn’t original, it tweaked sitcom tropes and was very funny, but then it takes a turn when the show is repeatedly retooled because of viewer feedback. McKinnon and Bennett are dumped for Harrelson and Kenan Thompson as a gay couple and because viewers complained of lack of intimacy (something Modern Family viewers bring up), the guys engage in a silly bit of PDA. Obviously, the sketch is made to mock professional complainers. It was okay to see Harrelson and Thompson run fingers all over each other, but it wasn’t a funny enough of a joke to go past a minute.

The next sketch was another okay, so-so affair, which is strangely dated for 2014. Cecily Strong starred as Desiree, a contestant on Match’d one of those appalling MTV dating shows that featured some of the most disgusting people on the planet. The writing was okay (Desiree’s line, “I’m horny as hell and here to fix that”). The guys who are competing to win her hand in dating are Bennett, Killan, and Kyle Mooney, all of whom play various degrees of douchery with expert ease. As with the kinds of shows Match’d is mocking, the guys are introduced and have to spout off some awful, smutty puns that are supposed to be sexy. The twist of the plot is that the host of the show (played by Harrelson) is Desiree’s dad. Before the guys know that they’re hitting on daddy’s little girl, they lay on the awful sex talk, and quickly turn into fine gentlemen when the secret is revealed. These kinds of shows have been parodied to death, but it’s pretty funny, and Strong was good (when one of the guys said he’d like to meet her mother, she chirped, “You can’t shake hands with a ghost”)

Next we have another pot joke, this time making fun of the misunderstading of the new pot laws in New York. It’s treated like a movie trailer, where potsmokers emerge from their apartments (clad in PJs and sweats), and march through the streets like freedom fighters. Harrelson, with blonde dreds, is featured, and new guy, Pete Davidson is the leader. It’s a funny sketch (with some amazing production values, by the way).

The next sketch took place in the locker room of a high school football team. Harrelson is the coach, trying to motivate his players, but the rub is that because of new safety rules, it’s much harder for the guys to tackle. To avoid the risk of concussions, the new way of tackling, involves the gentle laying down of one’s opponent. There’s something priceless in seeing Harrelson cradle Pharoah’s head (“put your princess to bed”). Thompson pops by as a former player, completely addled by years of getting knocked on the head on the field. Thompson plays the intense, but very confused guy very well. And in a shockingly good ending to a sketch, the players trot out wearing crazy-big helmets that look like novelty items.

Weekend Update happened, and Leslie Jones showed up to stole the sketch with an energetic performance as a relationship expert. Her monologue was about reclaiming “crazy bitch” as a badge of honor, in reference to the story of the woman who got stuck in her boyfriend’s chimney.

Then Killan and Harrelson showed up to talk about True Detective. Killan played Harrelson’s True Detective costar, Matthew McConaughy. Harrelson was hitting the cue cards really hard in this one, and Killan’s impression was just okay, but anything to distract from Colin Jost is appreciated.

Another sketch, another drug joke. This time Thompson, Harrelson, Killan, and Bobby Moynihan play bar flys, lamenting the “old” New York. Thompson, Killan, and Moynihan reminsced about closed restaurants and how the neighborhoods have changed, but Harrelson’s character is stuck on how crack is different now. The sketch was very well-acted, but the drug theme was silly and felt a bit endless.

Next came a camping sketch, that like the crack-bar sketch benefited from enthusiastic performances that elevated ho-hum writing. Sitting around a campfire with his pals, Harrelson is singing a strange song about apples, and is frustrated when none of his friends join in. It’s funny to see the other characters try to sing along with Harrelson, sounding exactly like him, and yet being scolded by him for not singing the song right. In frustration he pitches his guitar and pouts (I loved seeing his bottom lip tremble during his tantrum). In the end, the friends admit that they knew the song all along and were playing a joke on him. All the performers did a good job giving life to some strange jokes.

The last skit was another Last Call sketch with Harrelson and McKinnon, the later playing the particularly repulsive bar fly. It’s a gross sketch with the two characters each one-upping each other in the disgusting department (McKinnon’s job? “Replastering unpopular glory holes”). McKinnon’s performance is brilliant and Emmy-worthy and Thompson is fun as the appalled bartender who ends the sketch resignedly pour gasoline on his bar to burn it down after Harrelson and McKinnon collapse into each other’s arms in heated passion.

All in all, a good entry – nothing stood out, but Harrelson proved to be a good host. He dominated in most of the sketches and gave strong, committed performances. The next episode will be hosted by Cameron Diaz, a funny actress (and only the second female host this year). Like most great screen comediennes, she doesn’t have much vanity, so it’ll be great to see what kind of job she does.

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Whether innocent or guilty, why Bill Cosby’s silence affirms misogyny

In an interview on NPR, Bill Cosby responded to the rape allegations with a stony silence. On his Facebook page, the legendary comedian posted a message from his lawyer that read:

“Over the last several weeks, decade-old, discredited allegations against Mr. Cosby have resurfaced. The fact that they are being repeated does not make them true. Mr. Cosby does not intend to dignify these allegations with any comment. He would like to thank all his fans for the outpouring of support and assure them that, at age 77, he is doing his best work. There will be no further statement from Mr. Cosby or any of his representatives.”

It’s understandable that Cosby doesn’t want to go into details about the allegations. After all, his image – that of a family-friendly patriarch – has been questioned and put into doubt. I don’t know if Cosby is guilty, but his silence is problematic because when he’s not addressing these allegations, he’s giving credence to the trope that rape victims often lie.

The Cosby of the post-Cosby Show era has been a social critic who hasn’t thought twice about scolding much of his fan base. He argues for social responsibility, without addressing social and institutional inequalities that often contribute the to kinds of social ills Cosby is railing against; in his new guise as a stern lecturer, he proudly addresses victims of racism, classicism, and social inequality, placing the onus on them for social betterment.

But his quest for social betterment seemed to have side-stepped gender equality. While The Cosby Show has rightly been lauded for its depiction of a marriage where both the man and wife are equal partners in their marriage, Cosby’s silence on the rape allegations has simply reaffirmed much of the misogyny and sexism that has made it so difficult for victims to report being assaulted.

Among the notes of support, as well as suggestions of conspiracy, some of the comments on aforementioned Facebook post on Cosby’s wall include:

“Everyone is human, isn’t it odd on how all these broke gold diggers are coming out to try and weasel a buck for not having to work.”

“I rarely believe rape accusations anyway.”

“I do not believe for one minute he is guilty seriously this woman is just a gold digging twit.”

“All of these women could’ve walked away and never dealt with him after the first alleged assault. Looks to me like they came back for me with a motivation. Maybe they thought if they could please Mr. Cosby’s needs, they could get further in the game.”

“She a hoe fo sho.”

Sounds like a case of a bunch of groupies gone wrong!! Why would anyone of his celebrity NEED to rape a woman when she will just give it up!!! Also as history has shown, there is always “rape” when it comes to the black man PERIOD!!”

“First off you can’t rape the willing, raped once shame on them raped twice shame on you! She should of taken her self out of the situation! Guess she liked the treatment she was getting, hotels, dinning, traveling, shopping! Please if you think she wasn’t enjoying her self you have problems! Victim myself and not by choice!”

I think these women just want money, maybe I should claim he raped me too, since apparently evidence isn’t necessary, so I can get a chunk of money. If he was a rapist, and seriously why would he be when he could afford to pay for all the women he could ever want, then wouldn’t each of these women be responsible for any rapes that occurred after their own? They could have accused him, and stopped him from raping others, when they had evidence, but they just let him continue to rape other women. Now, 30 years later, they want to accuse him with no evidence. It should be thrown out of court, and the women charged with slander at this point. In fact, I think Bill should sue them all for slander, there’s plenty of evidence for that.”

“I believe they are golddiggers, never in his career have I noticed mr Cosby to be disrespectfull to women like that, never! I simply cannot believe the allegetations.”

“Studies have shown that over 30% of women have sexual fantasies about being raped. Even if the women were raped by Bill Cosby it is likely that they enjoyed it..”

Some of the trends I see in the posts are that Cosby’s problems are a result of a liberal conspiracy, designed to punish him for supposedly preaching conservative values to black people. Others simply hold to the image of Cliff Huxtable, and simply cannot believe that a man like that could rape a woman (Cliff Huxtable is fiction). There are those who believe that the women were looking to extort the comedian for money, and a common sentiment sprang up that the women were scorned lovers, out for revenge.

If Cosby doesn’t want to go into the rape allegations, he should at least speak out against misogyny – especially, the kind of victim-blaming mentality that’s taken hold among his fans. He doesn’t have to comment on his particular situation, but he should make it clear that he’s against shaming women, especially rape victims who come forward. It shouldn’t matter when the rape took place, or if any settlements were agreed upon. Cosby’s feminism should be more than just the kind of lip service of having his TV wife be a successful attorney. If he really believes in gender equality, he should take this situation and use it for good, and highlight the horrors of rape and sexual abuse. He took his fans to task earlier for what he saw as damaging behavior (i.e. wearing pants slung low and using slang), he should also apply the same kind of condemnation to the misogyny that is trailing these allegations. Bill Cosby is renown for his social activism – it’d be great to see him put it to use to stamp out rape culture and victim-blaming.

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Why ‘Black-ish’ has replaced the aging ‘Modern Family’ as ABC’s best sitcom

Won't You Be Our NeighborIt’s no secret that Modern Family has been experiencing a creative drought for the two seasons. While still a well-produced show, it no longer reaches the peaks of its glorious first two seasons. Characters have been broadened into caricatures and talented comedians have been reduced to mugging. The writing has also been remarkably lazy, mining jokes and themes over and over again, with hopes that the viewers’ good will may somehow hide the fact that Modern Family has become rather stale.

Marco Polo

In its wake, Black-ish has outpaced it as the best sitcom on ABC right. And though that sounds like faint praise, it’s not. Starting off with a surprisingly solid pilot, it has managed to remain consistent so far, and has proven to be a more reliable source of the kind of smart, if middle-of-the-road comedy, that Modern Family was (rightly) praised for in its first few seasons.

The Nod

And on top of being very funny, Black-ish also gives network television a much-needed dose of diversity (there was a time when all of the shows featuring black casts seemed to be shunted to UPN). Black-ish is a universal sitcom with issues that anyone can relate to, but it doesn’t ignore race. Lazy comparisons to The Cosby Show has some critics say that Black-ish is Cosby for our generation (it feels a bit strange to talk about Cosby given the recent renewed outrage over Bill Cosby’s alleged rapes). But aside from featuring a successful, upper-middle class black family, Black-ish doesn’t have much in common with Cosby. The classic 80s sitcom was meant as propaganda, intent to prove that race and class doesn’t matter.

The Johnsons Dine at the Beef PlantationBlack-ish does deal with race and class in ways that are often ignored on Modern Family. On the latter show, the families are almost-aggressively middle-class, and money never seems to be a problem. And race does assert itself at times on Modern Family – Manny, Gloria, and Lily all disrupt the gallery of blindingly-white faces. And race is merely used as yet another source of humor (Gloria and Lily are often the butt of ethnic jokes), but not much introspection goes into what it means to be a person of color who is inserted into a homogeneous family. Because as modern as Modern Family likes to think it is, it’s pretty traditional in its vision of family, despite the presence of a gay couple (more on Mitch and Cam in a bit).

On Black-ish, we get some decent discussion about cultural issues. In “Crime and Punishment” the Johnson family have to figure out if corporal punishment is still appropriate. And an ongoing theme has Anthony Anderson’s patriarch, Dre, worry that his children are alienated from black culture. In “The Nod” Dre’s worried that eldest son, Andre, Jr., is deprived because he has no black friends and in the excellent pilot, he’s nonplussed because Junior wants a bar mitzvah. And as the irascible grandfather, Pops, Laurence Fishburne represents an older generation’s perspective on social mobility and racial progress.

Dre Tells His Kids to Get Jobs

Aside from all this cultural studies talk, Black-ish also scores because it’s often hilarious. The show’s innate social message is couched in a sharp and witty context, that only occasionally dips into schmaltz. The writers – Kenya Barris and Corey Nickerson are responsible for the funniest episodes – are largely responsible for the show’s excellence.  They steer clear from the unfortunate cliches of family sitcoms without alienating the show from its mainstream trappings.

Crazy MomAnd along with the excellent writing, Black-ish benefits from a n amazing group of actors. I always knew Anthony Anderson was a funny guy, but he’s clearly an excellent sitcom lead, too. And as mother, Rainbow, Tracee Ellis Ross has emerged as one of TV’s greatest comediennes (I still laugh out loud at her miserable wailing when she fails to find one of her kids at the mall and thinks he’s been kidnapped). As for the kids – I have a natural aversion to child actors. Often kiddie thespians are hired more for their cuteness factor, and recite their lines in monotonous drones; or even worse, they’re gifted with sassy, precocious characters and drop catchphrases all over the place.

But with Black-ish we get sitcom kids who are funny but realistic. As oldest son, Junior, Marcus Scribner easily steals all his scenes. Few teenagers can accurately portray the weird, awkward place in adolescence, when a teen beings to assert himself, while at the same time, seek acceptance and assimilation. Junior’s a nerd, who seeks his father’s approval, but is still able to maintain a sense of self, which includes endearing idiosyncrasies like an affection for role-playing games. And though initially I was on the fence with the twins Jack and Diane (Miles Brown and Marsai Martin, respectively) because they are eye-gougingly cute, buuuuuuuuuuut, they’re really funny kids and the cuteness is used almost ironically and not to simply pander to its audiences (yeah, I’m looking at you Full House).

But we can’t dismiss Modern Family just yet. It’s still got the best cast in TV sitcomdom today (save for the geniuses who are acting the hell out of Parks and Recreation). The show’s got some real comedic talents – Ty Burrell, Eric Stonestreet, and Sofia Vergara haven’t run across a line that they couldn’t make hilarious, and their respective straight men Julie Bowen, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and Ed O’Neill all anchor the show wonderfully.

Come Emmy nomination time, Modern Family will undoubtedly be up for best comedy again. It doesn’t deserve the honorific anymore (it hasn’t for the past three years). At this point of the season, Black-ish has already produced a strong slate of episodes that makes a strong case for it to be crowned the best comedy series (and Tracee Ellis Ross should swipe Lena Dunham’s Emmy nomination for best actress in a comedy series). Hopefully, Black-ish will keep on growing.


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‘Mulaney’ isn’t great, but it deserves a second glance

John Mulaney’s sitcom Mulaney was highly anticipated because the guy was such a star from his time writing on Saturday Night Live (Bill Hader’s club kid Stefan, is a Mulaney creation). When it was announced that Mulaney would be leaving SNL, taking cast member Nasim Pedrad with him, audiences and critics were practically shitting themselves with anticipation. Comedy legend Martin Short and movie vet Elliot Gould signed on, and Mulaney was supposed to be a sure fire hit. So what happened?

When the show premiered it got some of the worst ratings and reviews of the 2014-2015 season. Many of the critics complained that it was a terrible Seinfeld retread. After seeing a few of the episodes, I can see the problems critics have:

  • It’s multi-cam, and if it’s not a Chuck Lorre product, then a multi-cam won’t work
  • Mulaney – an appealing and genial presence – doesn’t have the acting chops to carry a show
  • Gould’s a treasure, but is wasted as a silly gay joke

Despite all that – and a terribly shaky pilot episode - Mulaney is shaping up to be a decent show that could become a good show if it has a chance to exploit its strong points: namely Short and Pedrad.

The show’s premise is a Xerox copy of Seinfeld – but a faded one. Mulaney stars as John Mulaney, a comedian who writes for a bombastic, hammy comic, Lou Cannon (Short). John shares a New York apartment with a fellow comic, Motif (Seaton Smith), and BFF Jane (Pedrad). So basically, it’s a show about a stand-up comic with wacky friends. Mulaney even introduces the show with a bit of his stand-up, just like Jerry Seinfeld did on his show. And John’s kooky neighbor Andre (Zack Pearlman) is a combo of George Castanza and Kramer.

The lack of originality wasn’t the only problem. As a comic persona, Mulaney’s a bit of a blank slate. He has a strong and singular voice (and is in love with 90s pop culture trivia), but it’s been flattened out to boring, sitcommy proportions. Instead of coming off as appealing, he comes off as a bit of a wimp. And he’s easily outshone by the more colorful characters that support him. And as an actor, he’s still very stiff – but that’s okay, because Roseanne Barr, Amy Poehler, and Tina Fey have all started off as just decent performers before developing into wonderful actors.

All of these ingredients make for a bad show. And Mulaney started off as a bad show. But there are signs that there may be a glimmer of hope that with some extreme retooling and nurturing (and pruning), there may be an okay show lost somewhere in the mediocrity.

The first episode that manages to punch out of its boredom “Sweet Jane,” a pretty funny entry with a spiffy plot that examines the difficulty in opposite-sex best friendships. Because she’s constantly undermining John’s relationships, everyone assumes Jane’s harboring some deep love for her buddy. Thankfully, the show doesn’t go the easy route of affirming this trope and instead maintains Jane’s prickly/sweet persona. Pedrad is a find (she was underused on SNL) and is a great scene-stealer.

The following episode is even better. On “In the Name of the Mother, and the Son and the Holy Andre” John’s Catholic guilty is lampooned. And the episode is a virtual SNL reunion, having not only Mulaney, Short, and Pedrad, but comedienne Nora Dunn showing up as John’s religious mom (Dunn is great and I’d love to see more of her).

Because Mulaney‘s episode order has been cut down, it doesn’t look good for the show’s future. It’s a shame because other shows starting off badly: Parks and Recreation, Cougar Town, The Office, and 30 Rock have all had shaky starts before finding themselves. Mulaney has the potential of being good if it did some revamping: Gould belongs on TV, but not like this; more Pedrad; ditch the self-conscious Seinfeld homages; and maybe Mulaney could take some acting lessons, too.

I noticed that a lot of the negative reviews for Mulaney were tinged with regret because we all want the show and its star to do well. We remember the great jokes on SNL that tweak on 80′s and 90′s pop culture (there is no reference too obscure or ridiculous – for example, on “In the Name…” we get a Saved by the Bell: The College Years joke – yeah, you read the right, The College Years) and of course, Stefan’s a legend now (though a lot of it is due to Hader’s inability to keep his shit together when trying to recite Mulaney’s insane jokes). Like the other critics, I’m a Mulaney fan, too, and may be giving it more credit than it may be due.

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Chris Rock stumbles on his return to ‘SNL’

Chris Rock and Prince Chris Rock is a singular talent and voice – a big problem when he’s supposed to play different characters and be part of an ensemble. Not a terribly versatile actor, his delivery is often a loud, harsh roar. As a stand-up comedian, few are his equal. His point of view is fearless, taking on a diverse range of topics which include politics, relationships, race, and sexuality. But on SNL, Rock wasn’t able to thrive as a performer because he was unable to stamp down on his raucous persona, and therefore often was limited in what kinds of sketches he could work in – another problem (which exists to this season) is that black comedians (as well as female comics) are badly served by the writers who cannot seem to figure out what to do. On Rock’s return, he stumbled badly, done in by subpar material, lack of preparation, and disappointed acting.

As always, the show opened with a political sketch – this time Bobby Moynihan brought out his New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who was in the news because of his heavy-handed response to Ebola. The jokes have the potential of being sharp and on the point, but it feels as if the writers are afraid to go too far, and merely create vaudevillian-like situations that have the actors mug and throw around lazy one-liners and cliches (hey, New York and New Jersey are dirty!). As nurse Kaci Hickox, Kate McKinnon gets to show off some fun comedy as the woman who was unfairly quarantined by the New Jersey governor. The so-so sketch ended with both Christie and Hickox slapping each other silly. There were some okay one-liners, including McKinnon’s slam that Christie “looks like a cartoon on a pizza box.” As for Moynihan – he’s always good for a laugh, though the sketch doesn’t give him much to do. As Fox News anchor, Megyn Kelly, Cecily Strong’s performance is generic and bland, but then again, so is Megyn Kelly.

For his monologue, Chris Rock took the stage like a pro. The topics he chose were predictably dicey: 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing, Jesus Christ, anti-gun politics. As always, the comedian is willing to take on subjects that are usually thought of as sacred, and he manages to skewer the false piety, while avoiding to cheapen and trivialize the problems. While taking on the Freedom Tower, he renames it the “Never Going in There Tower,” and when pledging never to support another cause again he declares, “If you see me talking about a disease, I got it.” Rock’s delivery was aces, he paced the stage like an energetic prize fighter. It was a great monologue – one of the best ones of the season. Unfortunately, it was also one of the few high spots of the episode.

The first proper sketch had Sasheer Zamata play a teenaged vlogger, who is chafing underneath her over-protective father (Rock). Kyle Mooney, as always, adds nervous energy as the sad BFF of Zamata, who is firmly stuck in the Friend Zone. While trying to show off some suggestive dance moves on the Internet, Rock’s blustery pop barges into her room, appalled at her behavior. The sketch starts of slow, with Rock noticeably tripping over the lines and reading the cue cards, but the story picks up speeds and actually does get funnier, only to end on a strange note (the sketches never end satisfyingly).

After that there was a so-so camera ad with middle-aged men into extreme sports. The twist, the camera was a colonosopy camera. A strange concept, but well-filmed.

Then comes a recurring sketch I never liked, “How’s He Doing” – that works on the racist premise that black voters are so blind and unsophisticated that they’ll follow President Obama no matter what he does. I never understood why this joke was funny. While I can see the jokes striving for pointed commentary, it merely settles into silly stereotyping. That, plus a silly Kim Kardashian-Ebola joke (Kardashian claimed more black victims in America than Ebola) that already made the rounds as an Internet meme, makes this sketch a blah. The only thing that made this worth watching was some of the one-liners Rock got: “cologne I rescued from this magazine” and “Run into R. Kelly’s house and see what happens.”

Another Weekend Update, another week when the correspondences steal the show from Colin Jost and newly-outed sexist, Michael Che. Pete Davidson showed up to sample more of his great stand-up, this time telling a story about how his allergy to latex led him to believe he contracted an STD. Jay Pharoah brought out his amazing Kat Williams, while Kenan Thompson played Suge Knight.

The Shark Tank spoof took on a potentially powerful joke, ISIS pitching its terrorist agenda to win the prize. Unfortunately, as with other political jokes, the show’s pointed commentary feels like it’s going nowhere.

Another fake ad slams Taylor Swift. Well, not exactly. Apparently if folks who aren’t 12-year old girls listen to Swift’s music with pleasure, they experience vertigo, and should take some Swiftamine, the pill that helps you with Taylor Swift onset vertigo. It’s a funny joke because it spoofs Swift, yet at the same time, affirms her place as a pretty awesome pop star.

After the Taylor Swift ad, we have one of those couple sketches, with Rock and Leslie Jones starring as a warring couple. It is well-performed (I don’t understand some of the other reviewers who wrote that Jones stumbled – she seemed fine), but not terribly well-written. It felt like a nothing sketch, and both Rock and Jones deserve much more.

The final sketch is the best sketch of the evening. Another installment of the Women in the Workplace, this time Strong and McKinnon host a diversity video. Both actresses perform the strange, off-putting deadpan presentation wonderfully. It’s funny to see the dated approach to diversity and racism. Rock and Vanessa Bayer play the bad actors well enough, but it’s Strong and McKinnon who crush it. It’s a shame that such a well-performed, well-written sketch is hidden in the back, underneath an hour of mediocrity.

So, all in all, a thoroughly disappointing episode, given just what a brilliant performer Rock is. Also, this episode highlighted that despite some overtures towards diversity (hiring a larger number of black performers), the writers still aren’t sure how to better serve the black cast members (funnily enough, maybe the diversity training videos the writers are spoofing may be of some use). As a member of SNL, Rock was a victim of this issue and as a host he suffered as well. In the next couple of weeks, Woody Harrelson and Cameron Diaz will host. Both are popular actors who have had success in comedies, so it’ll be interesting to see how they fare in what is shaping up to be a slow season.

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Joel Stein’s ‘Man Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity’ is a sporadically successful look at contemporary masculinity

Joel Stein is a funny guy who’s written some of my favorite op-ed pieces for Entertainment Weekly. An amiable and almost-aggressively likable man, his writing is rife with sarcastic asides and witty one-liners. In his book, Man Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity, Stein uses his humor to chronicle his seeming obsession with what it means to be a man. It’s an interesting question because masculinity has been flattened, dissected, and distorted, and is in continuing flux. That’s all a good thing because we’re inching toward a realization that no one thing can constitute proper masculinity. Because Stein includes “stupid” in his title, readers are aware that he doesn’t necessarily buy into all of what he’s doing. He performs experiments that are supposed to be masculine, like fixing a house, loving a sports car, being athletic, and being aggressive – all of these traits constitute conservative, traditional masculinity, and if one deviates from these norms, as Stein admittedly does, then one starts to question whether these traits are socially constructed, taught, or innate.

I like that Joel Stein questions masculinity. I just don’t like the way he sometimes does it in Man Made. For a liberal, he’s can sound pretty narrow-minded, at times. The most distressing thing about his writer voice is how much it indulges in some of the laziest homophobia I’ve ever read: it’s not particularly hateful or offensive, just cheap and rote (instead of self-righteously screaming, “How dare he?” I simply cocked an eyebrow and said, “really?”). I don’t know how Stein feels about gays, but it’s telling when freaking Adam Carolla sounds more enlightened about homosexuality when the two bond over sports cars. Because he’s self-aware of how dickish he can come off, he’s allows for the reader to understand that he realizes the tired gay jokes are silly – but then he still slings them (in one instance, he’s slapped down by a soldier who refuses to take the homophobic bait when Stein tries to make a gay/sodomy joke).He likes to say he’s a gay man trapped in a straight man’s body (because he had a glass menagerie and an Easy Bake Oven), which, like every other reiteration of “I’m a one-kind-of-a-person-trapped-in-a-different-kind-of-a-person” rests on threadbare cliches.

And it’s too bad that his view on gays hasn’t evolved from the tenth grade schoolyard, because when he writes about his fears and angst about fatherhood, he comes off as a caring and loving dad. His son Laszlo, is a very lucky little boy because Stein constantly writes about how affectionate the two are toward each other. It’s admirable that Stein wants to do a good job at being a dad – and though the gist of the book is very gimmicky (A.J. Jacobs should be consulting with his attorneys), it does give him opportunities to be funny with his trademark snark. His misadventures in fixing the roof on a house, or his haphazard approach to owning a dog all show a writer with a keen eye on some of the absurdity in our culture. He’s also charmingly self-effacing, and quick to point out his own weaknesses – he’s self-deprecating, but often in his self-assessment, he finds gold in his supposed debits: for example, when failing to come to his wife’s rescue after she was accosted by a violent neighbor, he comes to realize that standing back and not losing his shit probably saved them from a whole lot of grief and injury.

Because Stein runs into a lot of people in his journey, readers are gifted with some interesting characters. When experimenting with hunting, Stein is in the forest with the husband of a former flame; the guy is lovely and kind, and undoes a lot of ugly stereotypes about hunters. The army vets that he runs into are also wonderful and complex men who thankfully upend the popular image of the Louis Gossett, Jr.-like general, screaming at his recruits. Most endearing are the firefighters that Stein works with when he indulges in every kid’s fantasy of being a firefighter. Not only are the guys charming and cool, but they obviously care about their jobs and love helping people (one of their missions included reading story books to a room of small children). It’s when Stein interacts with these men, that the issue of masculinity gets its much-needed scrutiny, because despite the trappings of machismo, most of these guys are far more complex than simple “guys’ guys.”

One thing that bothered me about the book (aside from the eye-roll inducing gay stuff) was that these spaces he sought to assert his masculinity have been shared by women for years. For some reason, he never runs across female soldiers or female firefighters – and the fact that we have female soldiers and female fire fighters should make Stein question whether masculinity as he sees it exists – but no, women in these fields are sort-of conveniently erased, and instead hunting, car-racing, athletics, firefighting, and defense are all relegated as “man stuff.”

I struggled with how I felt about the book because I did laugh out loud quite a bit. The problem was that, at times, Stein’s narrator was too bratty and sophomoric, which brought me out of the book. Still, I recommend Stein’s book, with reservation, because he does add a voice to the debate on masculinity and what constitutes masculinity, and he does so with a mostly-funny point of view.

Click here to buy Joel Stein’s Man Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity on amazon.com.

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