Chris Pratt does his best on a decidedly so-so season premier of ‘SNL’

It’s no surprise that last season was a bit of a slog for Saturday Night Live viewers. And evidenced by the huge purge of cast members and various shakeups, Lorne Michaels felt it too. So I watched last week’s season premier of SNL with some higher expectations. Not only was SNL being rebooted and fixed up, but the host was Parks and Recreation star Chris Pratt, probably the nicest and most joyful comedic actor on the planet, who seems like a perfect fit for a show like this. So I was really disappointed by the episode. Instead of being a goofy laugh-riot, the 40th season opener was sprinkled with weird pacing, flubbed lines, and actors hitting the cue cards something awful.

The show opened with a skit about the NFL PR disaster. Aidy Bryant did a so-so Candy Crowley impression – it’s not her fault that I wasn’t impressed. I mean, what does a Candy Crowley impression look like? She did get some sly quips in her introduction as she described her weekend of Nora Roberts novels and a “crack team of Korean ladies” dispatched to “rehab” her feet.

Hans and Franz State Farm ad – huh?

Pratt appeared in the cold open as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Strangely, the audience was silent when he first appeared (maybe they were all cheered out from earlier? I dunno…) Anyways, Kenan Thompson then appeared as Ray Lewis and Jay Pharoah came on as Shannon Sharpe. The skit worked okay mainly because Thompson’s funny performance as Lewis who kept deflecting Crowley’s questions about child abuse by a rambling explanation of childhood education.

The skit finally gets some (much-needed) bite when Goodall introduces a new campaign for the NFL, “Take Back the Night! We Fight 4 Women,” but Goodall misreads the poster and announces “We fight women!” confused about the “4” in the poster.

As an opener, the skit worked okay – and offered some good laughs at the NFL’s expense. The NFL would be slammed a few times more throughout the show, but the jokes could’ve been a little bit more pointed – the focus seemed to paint the NFL as a hapless victim of its players.

The credits ran and it was strange to see just how many people were pushed off from last season. Michael Che and Pete Davidson were added, and former SNL castmember, Darrell Hammond took over for Don Pardo’s announcing duties (thankfully not by doing a Pardo impression – and kudos to the folks at SNL for the touching silent tribute).

For his monologue, Pratt did a serviceable job, with a neat allusion to Chris Farley’s Matt Foley by mentioning that while in Hawaii, he “lived in a van down by the river.” He made some jokes about his famous weight fluctuations, and introduced his wife, Mom star Anna Farris in the audience (the funny pair should host together), who hosted the show twice.  He then busted out with his guitar and stumbled through a funny song that was better because of his enthusiasm than the decent lyrics. Normally I hate musical numbers in the monologue, but Chris Pratt’s adorable Parks and Rec character Andy is a musician, so I was okay with it.

After the monologue came a fake ad for erectile dysfunction medication – Cialis Turnt, which turned patients into crunking hip-hop superstars. It’s a very silly sketch that took advantage of Aidy Bryant’s go-for-broke quality.

After the break came a strange skit and the first dud of the evening, and because it was so early in the show, that wasn’t a good sign. In the sketch, Kyle Mooney played Danny and Bryant was his suburban mom. Danny just had a birthday, but no one showed, so he transferred his desire for friendship toward his He-Man and Lion-O action figures, who come to life after he blows out his birthday candle. Pratt was He-Man (complete with a pageboy wig) and Killan was Lion-O (with a weird tan line on his arms, as if he spent the summer on the beach wearing gardening gloves). The joke was that He-Man and Lion-O weren’t like their cartoon selves, but instead stupid, Frankenstein’s monster like duds who crashed through walls and discovered their libidos. Music guest Ariana Grande pops up at the end as She-Ra, and then the three just start shredding the kitchen into pieces, before Bryant shows up, randy at the sight of the two muscular superheroes purring, “mama’s wish done come true.” It was a confused sketch that suffered from some strange timing – and Mooney obviously relied on the cue cards.

The following sketch set at possibly the world’s worst vet office was better. Cecily Strong, Vanessa Bayer, Pratt, and cast standout Kate McKinnon were nurses who were syrupy and Southern, but their kindness belied a shocking number of pet fatalities at the office. While not an outstanding sketch, it was funny and Strong and Pratt were good, and there were some good one liners such as Pratt’s description of a parrot uttered its last few words before dying: “pizza…pizza…and then nothing.” As with the other sketches, something felt off with the pacing, but the performers raised the material significantly.

Pratt’s success with Guardians of the Galaxy meant a fake trailers for upcoming Marvel movies, with the joke being that Marvel couldn’t do anything wrong as the films’ superheroes were getting more improbable and ridiculous – a pastry chef, an office chair, bus passengers, ghosts dressed in tuxedos, but the biggest laugh came from Bryant as “Pam” – a smiling everywoman (who even gets her own sequel, “Winter Pam”). Even the image of Pratt dressed in Princess Leia drag from a Marvel redo of Star Wars couldn’t take away from just how joyfully silly a Pam movie from Marvel would be (though I would watch both Pams).

Grande then did her first song and it was okay. I’m not a fan of the singer – she’s decent and the song was okay dance-pop. A sorta Janet/Mariah/J.Lo lite.

The biggest news of the show was the Weekend Update. Last season Weekend Update got some knocks because of the nonexistent chemistry between Colin Jost and Strong. Unfortunately, Strong was axed in favor of writer Che. And while Che did a very okay job (just okay – but it was his first time, so he deserves some more time to develop), Jost shouldn’t be sitting at that desk. Not only was his performance blah, but the jokes were really poor – Hillary Clinton and Cuba Gooding, Jr. jokes were particularly moldy.

As if to remind the audience just how much better she was than Jost, Strong returned as her recurring character, the Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party, that particularly noxious kind of person that one runs into, who feels she’s an expert on everything. Ostensibly there to muse on the Ebola outbreak, instead she wandered off into tangents laden with malaprops, awful metaphors, and terrible self-involvement.

Leslie Jones makes a welcomed return, as well. Her bit was about how cool she was being single, and the material was pretty funny and Jones sold it. I’d love to see more of her – and I love, love, love her take on singlehood: “I don’t like it, so much as I’m used to it.”

Then something truly great and wonderful happens: Pete Davidson shows up and kills it in a hilarious stand-up bit about a game he and his friends used to play: how much money would they take to perform fellatio on a guy. The material was funny and his delivery was brilliant. This was a moment when a star was born.

Finally, Thompson came on to soulfully croon “Oooh Child” as Che and Jost offered some solace and comfort to President Obama in light of his low approval numbers. The jokes were good and Thompson’s optimistic lyrics were becoming more and more realistic (“things will probably not get worse now”).

What was clear from this episode of Weekend Update was that it was Strong, Jones, Thompson, and especially Davidson who made the sketch work. Jost and Che were both weak links – Jost needs to be pushed back to behind-the-scenes work.

After Weekend Update, we got another Bryant-heavy sketch, in which she played a woman who flirted shyly with Pratt at a bar. Not sure how to approach him, she took advise from one of her girlfriends and instantly turns into a Nicki Minaj-like rapper who extorts the beauty of her “big fat ass.” Pratt’s wallflower of an office worker responds in kind by spitting out salacious rhymes, as well. It’s a good sketch that is predictable and a little easy, but there were some cute details – I loved how Bryant’s character went to Wellesley College only to sing about her “big fat ass.”

After this sketch came easily the most original piece in the episode. A spoof on 90s multi-cam sitcoms with Pratt, Mooney, and Beck Bennett as a trio of friends a la Friends or Full House. Pratt’s character is a loner who gets involved in a gang and is badly influenced by his new friends. The thing is the gang is made up of three 10-year-olds. Complete with a laugh track and sappy musical cues, the strange sketch worked not because it was hilarious, but because the writers and the actors were trying to do something original and interesting. There were some great tropes of TGIF sitcoms like the treacly music during apologies as well as anodyne conflict (“This is a fight,” Pratt helpfully fumes before storming off to his room). The acting is gloriously deadpan and there are some really messed-up edits and blocking (which seem to spoof low budget sitcoms). I liked that even if I didn’t laugh all that much, I appreciated just how weird and ambitious this sketch was.

Another NFL sketch followed that had the male stars play football players, each who would announce his crime as he introduces himself. The actors played a few characters each. I have to be honest, I didn’t think the sketch was all that interesting or funny.

The final sketch was another dud – this time Bobby Moynihan, Sasheer Zamata, and Davidson play participants at a video game focus group. The conceit of the sketch is that the characters in the video game – Pratt and Bayer – egg the players on, before going off on their own very dramatic soap opera (with shades of Beauty and the Beast). Davidson easily swipes the sketch without really doing much, though there wasn’t all that much to steal in the first place.

By the end, when Pratt was taking his bows with the cast, I was sad for the show. It’s obvious that the quality was on par with the mediocre 39th season. One bright spot will be Davidson (who got pushed out in the front during the bows – really classy of the castmembers to do that, btw).

For the show to work at this point, I think Lorne Michaels will need to look back at why certain seasons popped while others fizzled. Some of it is political landscape – left-leaning SNL doesn’t know how to tweak liberals and President Obama’s pretty likable, regardless of his politics, which makes it harder to make fun of him.

Interestingly enough, the show has a lot going for it – namely McKinnon and Bryant. Strangely, the former was pretty absent for most of the episode (maybe the showrunners want to avoid a female cast MVP a la Kristen Wiig). Killan, also someone who dominates was underused. Another problem that this season has is a bloated cast – too many performers often thin out a sketch and leave little-to-no room for many of the actors. Case in point: the very talented Zamata who appeared in a couple of sketches, but wasn’t given a chance to make much of a mark – again, a shame because when given a chance, the comedienne proves to be very funny. Failing on SNL may be a public failure, but it doesn’t always mean the performer isn’t good – Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Laurie Metcalf, Christine Ebersole, Janeane Garafolo and Robert Downey, Jr. were all members of SNL and each had a hard time making his/her mark during his/her tenure.

Next week another former castmate/writer, Sarah Silverman, is hosting. Like Louis-Dreyfus, et al, Silverman is a very talented comic who – for a number of reasons – couldn’t hit her stride during her time. Since then, Silverman’s gone to become a minor legend and icon of sorts. And the week after Silverman, Bill Hader returns. Hader, unlike Silverman, had a triumphant run on the show. The contrast couldn’t be more pronounced. It’ll be interesting to see the upcoming episodes to see just how well these alumni blend in a cast that is largely made of performers they’ve never met.

Pratt, on the other hand, won’t be remembered as a particularly good host (which is a shame), but then again, he wasn’t the disaster that Jim Parsons was, either. It’s a little surprising that he felt lackluster given that he’s one of the funniest men working in Hollywood today. All in all, not a great way to start a season that’s supposed to be rehabilitative.

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‘Black-ish’ is off to a solid start

Black-ish is an interesting sitcom because unlike every other on network television, it looks at race and identity, as well as class. These are topics that people don’t like to talk about: polite society freezes up whenever someone raises the issue of race. Fear of offending coupled with white privilege makes for a not-so-great combo that leaves lot of problems unexamined. On Black-ish, the questions of racial identity are voiced by its lead character, Andre ‘Dre’ Johnson (Anthony Anderson), a high-powered ad executive who works crazy hard to provide his family with a lush and comfortable life. He’s married to Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), a successful doctor. The couple have two teens, Andre, Jr. (Marcus Scribner) and Zoey (Yara Shahidi) and a pair of adorable twins, Jack and Diane (Miles Brown and Marsai Martin)- yup, Jack and Diane, and nope, we don’t get a John Mellencamp joke. On the side is the grumpy grandfather, Pops (Laurence Fishburne).

Andre Jr. Wants a Bar Mitzvah

Because the episode’s a pilot, I gave it some slack. Some stuff I didn’t like – I don’t like voice-over narration, and unfortunately, Dre narrates his story. In the first episode, the Johnson family is abuzz because Dre’s up for senior veep at his marketing firm. He knows he’s going to get the job, and when he struts into the office the morning of the impending promotion, his success also is a thing of pride for all the other black employees at the firm. Unfortunately, when Dre does get his promotion, it’s mitigated with a suffix – he’s going to be SVP for the urban division. “Did they just put me in charge of black stuff?” he groused in the voice-over.

At home, things are just as eventful. Andre, Jr. is joining field hocky and not basketball as Dre would hope. Andre, Jr. also wants a bar mitzvah – even though he’s not Jewish. I wish the script explored this a bit more. Ross has a Jewish father, so maybe Rainbow’s dad is Jewish, too, but we don’t get any of that, so it feels a bit random that Andre, Jr. wants to be bar mitzvahed. Not only that, he wants to change his name to either Schlomo or Schmuel. All of this is too much for Dre and he browbeats his son and the rest of the family, insisting that his kids start “keeping it real” and embrace their black heritage.

Because this is a family show, none of the characters get too angry, sad, or hurt – and the resolution slides in, wrapping up the pilot’s plot a little-to neatly. And though no one could call Black-ish edgy or cutting edge, it’s a lot smarter than most of what’s on TV nowadays.
As the show’s lead, Anthony Anderson is very good. He’s very funny and he’s able to portray his character’s blustery frustration hilariously. Even better is Tracee Ellis Ross, who has become one of Fried-Fried Chicken Is Too Black for You?television’s most underrated comediennes. She works as a withering counterpart to the broader Anderson, and the two share a great chemistry. As Andre, Jr., Scribner is an appealing and funny presence, and is poignantly awkward and smart with a way with one-liners that is on par with his onscreen parents. The rest of the child actors are good, but none get a chance to show off distinct talent at this point (hopefully that’ll change as the show progresses). Fishburne, the biggest name of
Black-ish
is good, but sorely underused, as he merely strolls into a scene, spit out a funny punchline, and then disappear.

black-ish

At this point, Black-ish isn’t a great show. Dre is a likable protagonist, but the writers have to be careful not to make his intolerance too one-note. Nor should it indulge in Modern Family sappiness. It’s a difficult balance to maintain, and the pilot succeeded for the most part until the end, when characters learn their lesson, hug, and return things to order. I don’t like these kinds of rushed endings to wrap plots up neatly, but the intended audiences of Black-ish may not like ambiguous endings.

There have been too many lazy comparisons to The Cosby Show, because Black-ish features a highly successful and functional black family with two strong parents and a gaggle of happy, smiling children. The comparisons should end there, because the message behind Black-ish is that race and class differences do exist and they can inject themselves in everyday life. Black-ish is great at pointing out micro (and not so micro) aggressions that black people have to face daily.

How Does a Black Guy Say "Good Morning"?

When Dre walks into his office, his white colleagues approach him throwing around slang loosely, one even going as far as asking Dre how do black people say good morning. In a very funny bit, during a meeting, a large conference table is divided by two – one the one side is senior/executive management (all white), and the other side of the table was populated by the rest of the staff, a much more diverse group. As Dre starts to daydream, he sees the executive staff members revel in their privilege, and in his imagination, they’re enjoying a bacchanalian feast, while he and his peers were given Cheetos and grape soda.

But Dre’s views don’t go unchallenged, and Rainbow acts as a life coach, highlighting hypocrisies that finds themselves in his rants, and suggests that once he figures out how he feels about race and class in his work place, he may not be as aggressively opposed to his son’s self-identification. Thanks to the great chemistry between Anderson and Ross, these scenes are very smart and show the potential the program has.

Hopefully, Black-ish will find its place because if it gets rid of some of the bugs (Fishburne’s role needs to be expanded; there should be a moratorium on the phrase “keeping it real”), it could easily be the best sitcom on ABC.

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‘Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814′ – 25th Anniversary, track-by-track review

Rhythm Nation 1814Twenty-five years ago, Janet Jackson released her fourth album, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814, which became a monster hit – one of the biggest-selling records of the late 80s, early 90s. It spun off a ridiculous seven top 5 hit singles (four of them went number 1). A loosely socially conscious concept record, the album further cemented Jackson’s status as a major hitmaker after her successful classic Control (1986).

While parts of the album have dated – the drum machines and synths thunder through the speakers – but it still shows off Jackson (and her crew of record producers, namely Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis) at her best. Because Jackson’s voice is tiny, tiny, thin, she’s an integral part of the music, but no the dominant factor.

Since 1989, Jackson released a series of albums including the phenomenally successful janet. (1993) and the critically-acclaimed The Velvet Rope (1997). Starting in 2003, though, Jackson’s career fortunes dropped furiously, and since 2001, she hasn’t had a top 10 pop hit. And listening to Rhythm Nation feels like you’re listening to a different artist.

While the socio-political lyrics are somewhat naive and generic, the dance songs are incredible, boasting some incredible production work. And though no one will confuse Jackson with Tracy Chapman, it’s still admirable that she chose to take on social ills (and set them to a disco beat). What’s interesting is that in 1989, Janet Jackson was 23 years old. Think about it: think about Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Rihanna, and Jennifer Lopez – were they singing about prejudice, illiteracy, the War on Drugs?

Here is a track-by-track review of the album, with my takes on how the album works years later.

“Rhythm Nation” – the title track samples Sly & the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” hand is crammed full of clattering beats and pounding drum machines. Jackson’s minuscule vocals are layered a thousand times over trill over the industrial beats. The lyrics are optimistic and hopeful (“With music by our side/to break the color lines/let’s work together to improve our way of life”), but doesn’t delve too deeply into social privilege and context. Despite the so-so lyrics, the song doesn’t age badly and offers Jackson fantastic opportunities to perform wonderfully on stage. The Single ran up to number 2 on the pop charts, and the video was a black and white masterpiece (which won a Grammy).

“State of the World” – Jackson follows “Rhythm Nation” with ‘State of the World” which gets into the specifics on what’s wrong with the world. The stories include a prostitute who’s trying to raise a kid, and a homeless kid who endures bullying at school. Like “Rhythm Nation” the song is produced with a landscape of different electronic instruments, heavy bass, samples, and the overused drum machine. It’s not a catchy song (which is why it probably wasn’t a single in the U.S.), and Jackson strains to sell the serious lyrics of the song (it’s difficult to hear weighty themes sung by her airy wisp of a voice), but again, it’s an admirable effort.

“The Knowledge” – a good song, but Jackson’s input is the least impressive part of the tune. She speak-sings the lyrics which celebrate the importance of education. It’s a pretty minimalist kind of dance song, with tight-fist percussion, and pretty long instrumental break which makes for a great video (which it was), but for tiring listening.

“Miss You Much” – easily the best song on the record, and one of Jackson’s best songs. The First track not to be a serious song, it harks back to Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis’ Minneapolis background (it sounds like a great Prince cast-off). It’s also a contender for one of the greatest New Jack Swing songs ever. Because Jackson’s free from being somber and pondering, she actually comes off great here – her vocals are kicky and sassy, and she injects the kind of attitude and spunk that made a gajillion people buy Control. Like “Rhythm Nation,” “Miss You Much” made for a great music video, with Jackson and a pair of dancers doing a great dance routine with chairs and fedoras. The single sailed to number one, and is one of the pop diva’s biggest and most enduring hits.

“Love Will Never Do (Without You)” – originally intended as a duet with Prince, Jackson does double duty, singing in a rare lower register, before returning to her familiar high trill. The song is a midtempo dance number that again creates a thick, impenetrable wall of sound with Jackson’s harmonized vocals, layered again and again (she becomes an instrument). She also gets a moment to show off some of her underrapprecaited vocal chops by hitting a high note at the climax of the song (while impressive for Jackson, Mariah Carey won’t be losing any sleep). Interesting enough, because Jackson was such a huge star and because the album was selling so many copies, this single went to number one over a year after the album was released. The video was also a major milestone in Jackson’s career because it featured the singer cavorting on the beach wearing a revealing top, showing for the first time in her career that she was a smoldering sex symbol (it was also the first time she blatantly ripped off Madonna by copying her “Cherish” video).

“Livin’ in a World (They Didn’t Make)” – the last serious song on the album, this is a piano ballad about how rough the world was (and still is) for children. What’s chilling is that the song samples a TV news radio bulletin reporting a school shooting (though the sound effects of gun shots and kids screaming is a bit much). The song is still appropriate 25 years later (how tragic is that?). This song highlights just how influential Michael Jackson was to his sister’s career – her “save the children” plea recalls him at his most earnest, but there are also slight echoes of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.”

“Alright” – like “Miss You Much” this song is fantastic. An interesting take on swing music, but filtered through late 80s dance music. Jackson’s malleable voice is twisted, vamped, vocodered, and manipulated through a series of audio tics. Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis prove their virtuoso talent in making state-of-the-art dance music. It’s shiny, polished and moves at a breezy clip, despite its long length (over six minutes). And the video is great, too – a MGM-inspired extravaganza with cameos by Cab Calloway, the Nicholas Brothers, and Cyd Charisse.

“Escapade” – another big hit, this is a fluffy pop number that is probably the least impressive song on the record. It’s a horribly dated affair with a thick production that feels suffocating. Too many synths and a ho-hum performance by Jackson (I hate it when she gets “whimsical”).

“Black Cat” – Jackson’s the sole songwriter on this rock-inspired dance-pop song. A rant at a ne’er-do-well boyfriend, this is actually a good song, even if it shouldn’t work – after all, Jackson’s airy croon shouldn’t work with roaring metal guitars. The chorus is insanely catchy and a neat combo of dance-pop and head-banging.

“Lonely” – This first song in a final suite of ballads, it’s pretty, torchy, and sexy. Though she’s not a great balladeer, it does work if she uses her vocal limitations to pant suggestively.

“Come Back to Me” – another huge pop hit, this is one of Jackson’s best ballad moments. She does bruised soul well, and her tiny voice can convey a heart-breaking vulnerability. The song is lavishly produced, stately and elegant with gorgeous strings and synths. Jackson’s performance is surprisingly soulful and proves that she doesn’t always need clipped, military-styled beats to succeed.

“Someday Is Tonight” – though janet. is supposedly Jackson’s sexual awakening, this song predicts the more sensual Janet Jackson. She doesn’t sing so much as she whispers through the verses before she melds into a gorgeous chorus that promises nookie. On Control, Jackson suggested that she and her lover should just “Let’s Wait Awhile Longer.” But as a companion piece, this song is great – a worthy sequel, with a scorching cameo by A&M founder/trumpeter Herb Alpert.

Janet Jackson - Rhythm Nation Compilation

An appreciation of Rhythm Nation wouldn’t be complete without the music videos. Along side the Rhythm Nation Compilation, there’s a short film, shot in arty black & white, that works alongside Jackson’s interest in social justice with a plot dealing with gangs and homeless kids.

Click here to buy Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 on CD on amazon.com.

Click here to buy Rhythm Nation Compilation on DVD on amazon.com.

 

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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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