Andy Cohen’s new book ‘Superficial’ is deeper and more thoughtful

Andy Cohen’s second collection of diary entries Superficial: More Adventures from the Andy Cohen Diaries reads a bit like a solid descendant of Andy Warhol’s diaries. Like Warhol, Cohen’s tome is filled with entries of running into celebrities and his unvarnished opinions of those famous people. And while the title is self-referential and tongue-in-cheek, Cohen is surprisingly introspective and candid throughout the book. Even though he’s pretty free with his judgment on his celebrity pals, he’s often hardest on himself.

For most, Cohen will be reality TV’s ultimate carnival barker. A former executive at Bravo, he has since become a TV star in his own right, a sort-of 21st century answer to Truman Capote (though are less literate). He’s most famous now for the Real Housewives franchise. Because of him, women like NeNe Leakes, Brandi Glanville, Teresa Guidice, and Bethenny Frankel are household names. Cohen’s successfully shepherded these women into fame and has foisted them onto the public consciousness.

But as shown in Superficial, the housewives are just one part of a busy life. One thing readers will notice about Cohen’s life is that it’s busy. Yes, he’s not working in a coal mine, but for a rich privileged white guy, he’s got an exhaustive schedule of meetings, appearances, talks, TV and radio spots, brunches lunches and dinners, and vacations. Celebrities pop in and out of his professional and persona life – Anderson Cooper, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kelly Ripa are regulars in Cohen’s world. To his credit, though the book is heavy with names dropped, he’s not obnoxious about it.

In fact, despite enviable wealth, good looks, lots of friends, a rewarding job, Cohen’s approach to his life and work feels like a yeoman effort. Often Cohen sounds tired, irritable, and lonely throughout the book. He doesn’t grumble about his work, and he does have perspective, but often his tone reflects a “done with it” attitude. It’d be very lazy – though tempting – to suggest that he’s going through a midlife crisis; it does seem though that Cohen’s life is a less rosy than outsiders would assume.

And though Cohen’s public persona is that of an affable gay BFF, he’s a bit crustier in real life. He’s honest though about his moments of petulance – there’s the shockingly immature reaction to his “loss” at a silly lip sync show, in which he owns his “sore loser” status. Also, he owns his ignorance and naiveté about intersectionality and cultural appropriation when he obliviously (and quite stupidly) stepped into a controversy about race after criticizing Amandla Stenberg’s public statements about cultural appropriation (which he dimly reduced to a celebrity feud between Stenberg and Kylie Jenner over hair) It’s commendable that the author doesn’t try to pass himself off as perfect. Far from it. In fact, the Cohen we get is fully three-dimensional, and quite interesting.

Some will be disappointed by Superficial after finishing it: Cohen’s US Weekly public image, his association with trashy reality TV, and the candy-colored dust jacket of the book will lead readers to assume that this is a breezy, silly affair. And a lot of it is dishy, gossipy tea about celebs that orbit around Planet Andy, but there’s just as much of Andy Cohen, the hardworking, sometimes unlikable, sometimes lonely man who is looking for companionship and stability in his whirling, high-paced world.

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Kathy Griffin’s funny new book is a case of not enough of a good thing

Kathy Griffin’s comedy comprises of tales of the comic’s dealings with celebrities, good or bad. Throughout her career, she’s had many confrontations with famous people, and instead of ruing and being moody about, she has taken the experiences and made a multi-Emmy winning and Grammy winning career. In her new book, Kathy Griffin’s Celebrity Run-Ins: My A-Z Index, Griffin has compiled a selection of celebrity encounters, good and bad, and laid it out in alphabetical order like a dictionary.

Because she’s somewhat trapped by the format of the book, some of the stories feel abrupt and some of the celebrities get such a short shift, you wonder why she included them in the first place. And the stories that do get more ink feel somewhat rushed, too, which is a shame because Griffin’s an ace at translating her quick-fire wit to the page. And when she wants to be – as in the passages devoted to late pals Joan Rivers, Jackie Collins, and Garry Shandling – she can be an emotional writer, too. Those readers who remember her first book, Official Book Club Selection, will know that despite her reliance on humor and wit, she doesn’t shy away from darker aspects of her life. Celebrity Run-Ins is different, though, much lighter in tone and content, so there are only a few spots that feel like a shift away from the general jocular tone of the book.

And that’s a shame, because the years since Official Book Club Selection, a lot has happened in Griffin’s life, including the deaths of several friends (including mentor Joan Rivers), the cancellation of her talk show, the embarrassing Fashion Police fracas, the end of her popular reality sitcom,  her win of a Grammy, a notable dust up with Elisabeth Hasselbeck, and a seeming end to her relationship with Bravo. Some of these events are alluded to in her book, but it would be great to read more about how she dealt with these difficulties, and how she sees them now, with perspective. Of course, none of these stories would fit into the rigid format she’s constructed, so hopefully she has another book in her.

That’s not to say that Celebrity Run-Ins isn’t funny or not worth picking up. It’s hilarious and often an astute look at our celebrity culture. What inspired the book, according to Griffin, is she realized with a start that she knew or worked with the principal figures in the excellent documdrama Straight Outta Compton. And the list she’s compiled is an impressive array of figures from sports, politics, film, television, theater, and music (her adorable bother, Maggie, a celebrity and fan favorite in her own right also gets a chapter). While expected names make appearances  – Gloria Estefan, Anderson Cooper, Gloria Vanderbilt, Chris Colfer – it’s the names of folks you wouldn’t necessarily expect like Suge Knight, Warren Zevon, and Marshawn Lynch that may be a pleasant surprise for readers (the Suge Knight story is very funny). And because she’s known for her brutal irreverence for celebrity (along with her devotion and obsession with it – she’s our Andy Warhol), some of the celebrities included – and I’m looking at Jon Hamm in particular – may want to skip her assessment of them.

Celebrity Run-Ins works best when Griffin is indulging in her love of gossip, Hollywood, and admiration for her subjects. The book hits various high points, most notably when she writes with great affection about Anderson Cooper, Cher (who gets dialogue written in funny phonetic spelling) Jackie Collins, Gloria Steinem, and Jane Fonda, among others. It’s in these passages that she combines her sharp wit with her big heart. It makes for fun reading that gets sentimental, but never gloppy. Her relationship with Cooper in particular is wonderful because the two have a sibling-like love for each other, and Griffin is forever subjecting him to her hilarious pranks, and he seems to be the perennial good sport about it all.

Hopefully there is a weightier tome in Griffin, yet. Her Twitter has posts that reflect her attitude and opinion on politics, race, age, gender, the election, queer rights, and culture. I’d love for Griffin to pen an essay collection in which she addresses Black Lives Matter, ageism, sexism, homophobia, Trump, Clinton, as she does in her stand-up and social media. But that’s for another time. For now, Celebrity Run-Ins does a commendable job in providing its readers with some laugh out-loud moments.

 

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Megyn Kelly’s ‘Settle for More’ is a jumbled but admirable effort

Megyn Kelly’s public persona is a study in contradiction: on the one hand, many see her as simply one of a giant roster of beautiful blonde talking heads on Fox News. On the hand, she’s a feminist hero, bravely standing up to the bullying tactics of Donald Trump. The truth is a messy in-between, which Kelly tries to present as an authentic human being instead of a two-dimensional figure concocted by a team of TV producers, image experts, managers, and hair and makeup people. In Settle for More, Kelly works to humanize the glossy image she presents so successfully on her various appearances, by sharing anecdotes of her childhood, her frailties and vulnerabilities, as well as her ambition and drive. She makes a convincing case for herself as a complex and complicated person with many sides to her. But often her rather stark limitations as a writer fail her, muddying the impact of her words.

Some of why Settle for More fails in part is because Kelly seems unsure of what kind of book she’s writing. As a straight-up memoir it doesn’t work because Kelly’s childhood and upbringing isn’t that interesting, and she doesn’t have the literary flair of a Sarah Vowell or a David Sedaris to inject her storytelling with anything amounting to interesting yarn spinning. She grew up in a solidly middle class New York State family, and went through a hellish year of bullying in junior high and suffered through the unexpected death of her father. To be sure, these are traumatic events, and Kelly’s perseverance is to be admired. But these experiences aren’t enough to warrant a book, at least not the one that Kelly’s written.

It’s when she writes about her professional life that Settle for More becomes far more interesting. Her career is fascinating in that she started off as a lawyer, but disaffected and unsatisfied, she decided to shift gears in mid-career and jump over to broadcast journalism. When she writes of her time as a female attorney dealing with condescension and sexism, Kelly’s work shows much more promise. Here we see the assemblage of the public persona and image of Megyn Kelly, and she does a solid job of showing the real person underneath. She shares anecdotes of sparring with politicians and fellow journalists (including an amusing bit about a terse tete-a-tete she shared with Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart), and she highlights some of the misogyny and sexism that she faced.

Unfortunately, because she’s part of the Fox News brand, she cannot indulge in any semblance of feminism – and she even indulges in some stupid and simply untrue characterizations of feminism – and hedges her bets continuously throughout the book by stressing just how much gender doesn’t matter. This theme becomes tiresome and feels a little bit like overcompensation, as if she was worried that if she sounded too much like Gloria Steinem (whom she dings for wearing a “I had an abortion” t-shirt), her fan base may abandon her. In her quest to downplay gender, she comes off a bit desperate to be “one of the guys.”

But despite her ambivalence toward gender issues, they are major themes throughout Settle for More. And why shouldn’t they? After all, as a lawyer and then a journalist, Kelly has succeeded in male-dominated industries that still operate in large part, on the boys club mentality. Throughout her career, she has faced obstacles that will be relatable to female readers, including sexual harassment and unwelcomed advances by colleagues and superiors. The most notable – and high profile – passages in the book involve Kelly’s interactions with Donald Trump and Roger Ailes.

Trump’s fights with Kelly were well-publicized. The now president-elect took to Twitter to slam Kelly’s questions during the debate, using typically boorish and sexist language (referencing her menstrual cycle). Kelly tells a riveting tale of rabid Trump supporters who take to social media with sexist and misogynistic threats and slurs. Surrounding herself with security detail, Kelly would become haunted and hunted by Trump’s supporters, and became an unlikely hero of the left, while the right thought of her as a turncoat. What’s important about Kelly’s account is that she is taking control of the narrative, instead of allowing for the media to shape it, and her writing does a solid job in complicating the reductive assumptions people came to, when the Trump fracas was dominating the media.

Her disclosure of her experience with sexual harassment at the hands of Roger Ailes is also important in that highlights an important issue that too many people disregard, minimize, or trivialize. Many question Kelly’s timing and motives for her candor – some will go the predictable route of victim-blaming, victim-shaming, misogyny, and dismissal, which is why it’s so vital that we continue to hear stories like Kelly’s, and that we continue to encourage victims to speak. Our job as readers isn’t to question why or how Kelly dealt with her experience of harassment, because there is no one right or ideal way of responding to sexual harassment. Our job is to hear Kelly’s story and listen.

If Kelly had focused on her career when writing Settle for More, she would’ve had an above-average book. If she focused on gender issues, and stopped hedging her bets when it comes to gender identity and gender politics in law and journalism, she’d have a great book. Unfortunately, Kelly chose the traditional memoir, and as a result, she merely has produced a competent book, with flashes of great potential.

 

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Dave Chappelle and Kate McKinnon work out their post-Election blues on ‘Saturday Night Live’

Dave Chappelle and A Tribe Called Quest Bumper Photos

Whew. What a week. Saturday Night Live had a pretty rough assignment: follow up the awful of Donald Trump’s victory and remind shell-shocked Americans that shit can still be funny. Host Dave Chappelle was in a strange position because he’s a performer that is too electric for the mainstream trappings of SNL, and when booking the comic, one runs the risk of either pushing SNL to an area it’s just not prepared for, or shoving him into an anodyne TV-friendly personality (just review Chris Rock’s disappointing hosting turn a couple years ago as evidence).

But last week’s episode managed to overcome these difficulties with grace, style, and compassion. As a host, Chappelle unsurprisingly dominated. His sketch show is legendary and he is a dynamic presence in the different sketches. And thankfully, as with most stand-up hosts, Chappelle devotes his monologue to a bit of stand-up work. A couple weeks ago, Chappelle seemingly defended Trump in a concert, drawing ire and anger from fans. In his monologue, Chappelle took the opportunity to highlight the absurdity of the election as well as pinpointing how white liberals’ shock over the election is just a repercussion of their privilege. Black voters, female voters, queer voters all know just how tenuous progress can be – and how vulnerable it can be to backlash. Chappelle points out that white people aren’t as surprising as we think – an important point because disenfranchised groups are used to being royally screwed over on a grand scale. Chappelle – not the most sympathetic voice in comedy, isn’t cruel in his assessment, just brutally honest. Towards the end of his monologue, he talks about approaching Trump’s impending presidency with hope – and uses a poignant anecdote of a White House party he attended, in which all of the guests were Black (with the exception of Bradley Cooper). He mentions seeing the portraits of the presidents, and notes that when Frederick Douglass was invited to the White House, he had to be escorted by Abraham Lincoln; he also shared how Franklin Roosevelt kowtowed to public pressure and never invited a black guest to the White House again after feeling a backlash.

From the Set: Dave Chappelle and A Tribe Called Quest

And as potent as Chappelle’s monologue is, it’s Kate McKinnon’s cold open that not only outshines this episode, but possibly anything SNL did since having 9/11 first responders stand on the stage with Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Lorne Michaels. McKinnon – dressed as Hillary Clinton, maybe for the last time – sits at the piano and performs a stirring – and truly heartbreaking – rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Two things are happening here: McKinnon is paying tribute to the late Cohen who died earlier this week, and she’s paying tribute to Hillary Clinton who lost a very bruising and important presidential election. The song is an apt choice because it’s a melancholic tribute to regret. When McKinnon-as-Clinton sings “I tried my best/it wasn’t much” it takes on even more poignancy as one remembers just how hard Clinton worked throughout the primaries and the general election, and it’s a sad follow-up to Clinton’s apology to her supporters during her beautiful concession speech. It’s a heartbreaking moment – McKinnon, an openly queer woman and feminist embodying a woman who for many represented progress for queer folks and women – and it’s a rare moment when the show knocks it out of the park.

The Election Night sketch – with guest star Chris Rock – was a fantastic sketch, too. And scarily accurate of the tiny dinner party that I was at on election night. White liberals played by Cecily Strong, Aidy Bryant, Vanessa Bayer, and Beck Bennett, spoon fed with  happy talk about Clinton’s chances of winning the election – are slowly realizing throughout the evening something that Chappelle and Rock  have known since forever: America is often very racist. As the evening begins, the party is jubilant and the white guests settle in comfortably for what they think is going to be a great evening (Bennett’s character even predicts that we’ll never have a Republican president again – we can dream, can’t we). As the evening progresses, though, and Trump starts to pile on one victory after another, the party goers start to get desperate (Bryant is great as she concocts an impossibly convoluted path to victory for Clinton – again, I did the same thing). Meanwhile, Rock and Chappelle – playing a Greek chorus of sorts – remind their friends that this isn’t a huge shocker. When Strong gasps in disbelief that she thinks “America is  racist”  Chappelle responds with a sarcastic, “Oh my god, I remember my great-grandfather telling me something about that…but he was a slave or something.”

The sketch is exactly the kind of thing that SNL needs more of: it can get very smug, particularly when it comes to liberal vs. conservative politics. Though the show is often very toothless, it does hit slightly harder against conservative politicians (at least in the last 10 years or so – the awful early 1990s SNL was a different animal all together). Rock and Chappelle aren’t mean when they school their friends – but again, they’re doling out some much-needed medicine about privilege and awareness – something that the sheltered white liberals in the sketch (and throughout the country) need a lesson in. And there’s a great shot of intersectionality in the ignorant rant of Strong’s character who asks her Black friends, “Do you even know what it’s like to be a woman in this country where you can’t get ahead no matter what you do?”

The Kids Talk Trump continues to worry expectations – this time Vanessa Bayer is talking to a group of small children and asks about Donald Trump.  Among the usual garbled six-year-old answers that refer to his “funny hair” or that he’s a “bully,” a little girl starts to share her perspective, in the same, innocuous cutesy way that her friends are, except she’s relaying her father’s hard truths about a Trump presidency, including legitimizing racism and xenophobia and that her black cat, Pussy, will be stopped and frisked. It’s a queasy sketch – but for all the right reasons – as a lot of the commentators were asking after the election “What about the children? What do we say to our children?” When Chappelle pops by as the little girl’s woke father, he joyfully announces, “Hey sweetie – sounds like somebody’s dropping some truth!”

Kate McKinnon makes another strong impression as Ruth Bader Ginsberg during Weekend Update. Like her other impersonations, Justice Ginsberg is more of a character than a detailed impression (she’s not an  astute mimic like Jay Pharoah is). Like her Clinton, McKinnon’s Ginsberg is an amalgam of public perceptions, namely the woman’s stamina and no-nonsense demeanor. Now that Clinton’s lost, McKinnon’s Ginsberg is raring up to stay fit and healthy for the next four years so that Trump can’t replace her with a conservative justice. It’s a great – and silly – stab at partisan politics with Ginsberg burning Trump’s possible cabinet (calling Guiliani a vampire), and downing a giant packet of Emergen-C. It’s not a terribly smart joke – it’s very easy, but McKinnon’s energy carries it (and her implication that Mike Pence might be a little light in the loafers is funny – if again, a touch easy).

The rest of of Update was as always – okay…Though when Jost announced the record number of female minorities in the Senate and suggested we see all their names, I laughed heartily when just four names quickly zoomed by and we barely got through two seconds of Rachel Platton’s “Fight Song” (it cuts off at “This is my f…” The other jokes about the election were softballs – Trump’s old and unqualified, that kind of thing – though Michael Che handled a goof well, when he tried to land a Trump vs. Mexican immigrants joke.

Though the other sketches – the non-political sketches – were solid, they feel like above-average afterthoughts to the meat of the episode which was the country post-Election. Chappelle showed off some strong versatile acting chops and his subversive quality had an effect on the show as a whole, elevating it to something higher. As usual, when a strong comedic voice takes on the hosting duties, he/she is usually the dominant force in the sketches, and Chappelle’s turn at bat is no different. He proved himself to be an estimable live performer and his monologue was masterful.

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My favorite episode – ‘Drunk History’ – “Marsha P. Johnson Sparks the Stonewall Riots” / “Ella Fitzgerald’s Big Break”

My favorite episode is a feature for this blog in which I look at my favorite episode of a TV show I like. Some of the shows will be classics – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I Love Lucy, etc., and others may be shows that I personally loved, even if they haven’t endured or stood the test of time, like Ugly Betty, for example. I won’t go into the history of the show too much, but will give some context if needed – and I’ll also go into the show’s historical significance and if the episode is a much-beloved classic, I’ll also discuss that.

For this entry of “My favorite episode” I fudged a bit with the format with my choice of Drunk History. Each episode has a short film, and I cherry picked two segments from two different episodes for this “My favorite episode”entry.

In light of Tuesday’s election, both “Marsha P. Johnson Sparks the Stonewall Riots” and “Ella Fitzgerald’s Big Break” take on extra poignancy  – and frankly, sadness. Both tell the story of people of color who must survive and thrive in systems of oppression. It feels strange to write about sadness and poignancy when writing about Drunk History, because it’s a Comedy Central show which boasts an insane premise: get somebody plastered and have that person recount an historical event, while famous actors act out the event (often lip syncing to the drunken recount of the tale).

marsha-johnson

But some of the best comedy can have tinges of sad. In “Marsha P.Johnson Sparks the Stonewall Riots” comic/writer Crissle West tells the story of Marsha P. Johnson, the trans queer activist who is believed to have instigated the Stonewall Riots that sparked the modern Gay Rights Movement. The story isn’t without controversy because there are people who tried to minimize Johnson’s role – or in Roland Emmerich’s case, completely erase it – but that call can be chalked up to a larger erasure of black contribution to American history.

Emmerich is an important reference because the director could’ve done something really good with his 2015 film about the riots, but instead chose to create a fictional avatar of white gay malehood. West’s recounting of the story – in about six minutes – gets at the heart of why the Stonewall Riots were so important, in a much more truthful way than Emmerich managed in his two-hour movie.

Another bonus of this episode is that – yay! – the folks at Drunk History actually hired trans actresses to play the lead parts. Alexandra Grey stars as Johnson and Trace Lysette portrays queer rights activist Sylvia Rivera. The two give wonderful performances in the short time allotted to them. And Grey in particular has some fun with miming West’s slurred account of the events.

What’s so great about West’s retelling of the story is that it brings up the importance of intersectionality, something that often gets ignored when telling the history of queer rights. West pinpoints just how important it is to remember that these aren’t just queer folks, these are queer folks of color.

So, in West’s recount, the cops raid the Stonewall Inn (West was shaky on the dates –  it was either June 18th or June 28 – one of the “eights”…It was June 28th), and are rounding up the patrons, and Marsha P. Johnson has enough. And when she throws a shot glass across the bar, shattering a mirror, and then shouting “I got my civil rights!” it prompts other patrons to fight back, keeping the abusive police officers at bay. West calls it the “Shot glass heard around the world.” The follow up is great because West links the riots to a larger movement in the queer community – one that included support for homeless queer folks.

Once she finished the story, she and show creator Derek Waters are in the kitchen next to her fridge, and West ends her segment with some powerful, important words: “But truly, Black people deserve to be on all this shit. Black people and Sacagawea, who needs to get off the goddamn coin, and onto some paper money. Because this is our shit.”

marilyn-ella-cc

The other segment “Ella Fitzgerald’s Big Break” doesn’t have the high stakes of the Stonewall Riots story but is equally important (and hilarious). This time comedienne Tymberlee Hill tells the story of Ella Fitzgerald (Gabourey Sidibe), who is aided by Marilyn Monroe (Juno Temple) after facing discrimination. Like West’s segment, Hill’s segment is helped immeasurably by the impassioned storytelling which is not hurt at all by Hill’s growing drunkenness.

The story – some may argue it’s apocryphal, thought Fitzgerald herself was the one who told it originally – takes place in the 1950s and Fitzgerald is kept out of the famed New York City nightclub, the Mocambo, because the owners didn’t want a black singer performing there. Monroe – a fan of Fitzgerald’s music – calls the manager and promises to attend every evening of Fitzgerald’s engagement there, ensuring that her heavy press following would be great publicity for the club.

Hill’s story is more about female friendship and solidarity, but in the context of pre-Civil Rights America, and some ten years before the Civil Rights Act. Marilyn Monroe’s commitment to social justice is instructional to a lot of white female celebrity feminists today because it was a practical way of the legendary actress to use her privilege and power for social betterment.

Like West’s segment, Hill’s is more poignant and heartfelt than the average segment on Drunk History where the gimmick of having a comic slur her way through an historical event while some famous movie stars goof around in powdered wigs and costumes is what’s normally expected. But in “Ella Fitzgerald’s Big Break” Hill, Sidibe, and Temple imbue their roles with touching sentimentality. In fact, Sidibe and Temple give quite powerful performances, despite the schticky premise and trapping of the show.

The centerpiece of this segment is the meeting of Monroe and Fitzgerald in the latter’s dressing room. It’s here that we get to see the beautiful friendship between these two iconic women. It’s here that the two women share their struggles with the entertainment industry: they bond because both women have been abused by show business (though Fitzgerald’s life as a woman of color has unexplored difficulties). We also get a tiny peak into their difficult personal lives too (though the sheer wretchedness of Monroe’s life get developed – which is okay, as it’s so widely retold it’s almost become a cliche). When they hug, and Hill chokes through emotion to tell the story, the show transcends its silly, yet smart, trappings.

But as touching as this episode is, it’s also high-larious. Hill tells the story with such enthusiasm and joy that her mouth sometimes runs before her brain – she loses her breath and hiccups (which Sidibe mimes perfectly). The best, though is when it’s time to watch Fitzgerald perform, and Hill does some great sloshed scatting that Sidibe mimics exactly – and when Hill stumbled through Fitzgerald’s name, Sidibe has a great bit of lip syncing to that, too.

But the comedy is merely a side effect of a great story told by a great story teller. When Monroe and Fitzgerald hug after bonding, Hill stresses, “And these two women, they literally need each other…Because in this moment when Marilyn helps Ella, she frees them both…The fact is sometimes sisters have to hook each other up.” It’s a great message about the uplifting nature of social justice – both those who help and those who are helped are better because of it. And Hill’s final thought on the story is important because she reminds Derek Waters that her story is about two women who forge a friendship when she says through tears, “Ella loved that lady.”

Both of these segments were aired weeks ago, but I can’t help getting emotional when watching them now, given what’s happened this past week. It’s a scary time for a lot of people, particularly queer people and people of color, and these segments show the healing nature of comedy, but also the important direction of progress: forward.

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Melissa McCarthy graces solid ‘The Boss’ with a wonderful performance

Melissa McCarthy’s career is a series of performances that outclass her films. With the exception of Spy and Ghostbusters, none of McCarthy’s films matched her talent, commitment, and verve. 2016’s The Boss is a solid comedic outing that works as a fun – if undemanding – vehicle for the comedienne’s vast talents. Written by McCarthy, Ben Falcone (McCarthy’s husband and the film’s director), and Steve Mallory, The Boss is a sprightly, breezy way of spending a couple hours.

McCarthy stars as Michelle Darnell, a character she created while a member of the legendary The Groundlings. Michelle is a multi-media tycoon – a lampoon amalgam of Donald Trump, Suze Orman, and Martha Stewart – who is arrested for insider trading. After serving a sinfully short sentence of merely five months, she’s left broke, alone, and homeless. With few prospects, Michelle turns to her former assistant, Claire (Kristen Bell), a single mother who’s perennially overworked and exhausted. Michelle – used to the finer things in life like owning her own helicopter or skyscrapers – has trouble adjusting to the simpler life of sharing Claire’s relatively iddy bitty apartment (in what looks like Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood).

Frustrated with little outlet for her talents, Michelle eyes the local girl scout-esque troupe in which Claire’s daughter Rachel is a member of; poaching members of the troupe, Michelle births a new startup – Darnell’s Darlings – a girl scout troupe that sells Claire’s amazing brownies. Before Michelle realizes it, she falls for her former assistant and her cute little tyke and the three form a quirky family. Looming in the background is Peter Dinklage’s Renault (or Ronald), Melissa’s former lover-turned-rival who’s plotting to muscle in on Michelle’s new business venture.

The Boss is an undemanding, unambitious little film that serves dutifully as a funny entry in McCarthy’s oeuvre. The script – some of it feeling improvised – is solid, though it starts to lose its logic in the final act, where it sends its characters on a caper that culminates in a surprisingly violent sword-fighting scene between McCarthy and Dinklage. And though the screenwriters are capable of penning a solid script, it doesn’t take much time to develop Michelle’s friendship with Claire, nor does it take enough time to show the growth of their fledgling company (its huge success feels too fast and unearned).

As a director, Falone (who has a cameo as Michelle’s much-abused lawyer) doesn’t show much personality or distinction. It’s a nondescript effort, but he’s smart in that he lets McCarthy do her thing – and she does it beautifully. Even in the most mundane situation, the comedienne manages to perform movie magic. Her Michelle isn’t much of a character (and there’s some forced backstory stuff about Michelle having a wretched childhood in a series of foster homes that doesn’t feel earned or natural), but even if the role doesn’t tax McCarthy’s acting skills, she gets to show off her estimable comedy chops. As support, Bell is fine and Dinklage has some goofy fun (and in a smaller role, Kathy Bates chews up some scenery as Michelle’s mentor/mother figure). But this is clearly McCarthy’s show and she’s a whirling dervish of mugging.

At this point in her career, McCarthy has graduated from mere talented character actress to a full-fledged movie superstar. The Boss is an enjoyable effort, but one that is strikingly mediocre, which is a somewhat disappointing theme in her film career. The film did well in the box office (as do most of her films), but it would be nice if she veered more toward smart, funny, and thoughtful movies like Spy or St. Vincent or even Bridesmaids. Her box office appeal shows her having the kind of commercial legs to compete with the likes of Will Ferrell or Seth Rogan, but given how smart she is – both as a comic and an actress – it would be nice to see her avoid easy junk like this and hold out for smarter projects.

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The Morning After: To a bruised and devastated nation

The unthinkable is suddenly thinkable. Donald Trump is our president-elect. Despite narrowly winning the popular vote, Hillary Clinton could not beat Trump, who claimed a huge victory (his 290 to her 228). The response around me has been a mixture of grim resignation, shock, sadness, anger, and fear. Instead of electing the over-qualified candidate with years of experience in public service, our country instead chose to elect a real estate mogul-turned-reality-TV star, with no experience in politics or civic engagement.

The pundits and historians will dissect this election to see just what happened. Why did Clinton – who enjoyed healthy poll numbers (though the FBI’s surprise announcement, that amounted to nothing hurt her critically) – lose an election that she seemed all but guaranteed to take? Why did Trump, who struggled to amass support within his own party, prevail in a surprisingly strong night?

I spent the night watching the show with my partner and a  good friend of mine. We had a lot riding in the election – two queer men, one of whom is an immigrant, and a woman of color. We belong in groups that have been blamed for our country’s currant divide. According to Trump and some of his supporters, our push for equality has made white Christian men the new oppressed minority. A lot of this election was about backlash – when white men see a shift in that they are losing their grip on the privilege they hold so dear.

With Trump’s victory, the last 8 years’ of progress under the Obama Administration is under great threat to be negated or reversed. Trump ran on a campaign that reveled in highlighted the many divides of the country, but his campaign failed to address how to bridge those divides. Instead, he blamed the divides on those who suffer most from them – he blamed Muslims, immigrants, people of color, women, gays, for demanding their place at the table, and for fighting when those demands were denied.

From the start, this election was something different. It wasn’t just the historic nature of the candidates – Clinton being the first female nominee of a major party and Trump being the most unqualified candidate in recent memory. What made this election different was the tenor of the fight. Mudslinging is a treasured art in politics, but this election saw something different, sinister. We saw an open hostility toward liberals, immigrants, people of color, gays, women, the disabled, Muslims – the language used by Trump to denigrate these identities legitimized a lot of the resentment that was building up among white people who are simply unwilling to go along with a new America – one that was marked by true diversity instead of condescending tokenism.

In her concession speech, Clinton vowed to work with Trump to serve the country, she wished him the best, and said she hopes that he’ll be a successful president. It’s standard boilerplate stuff that a losing candidate has to say to save face and to appear gracious. The sentiment, no matter how sincere, rings hollow because this election was a rejection of her platform that reveled in the diversity. The voters saw her campaign as a threat. There is a lot of talk about how Donald Trump represented change. But that isn’t the whole story. Yes, Donald Trump is the ultimate outsider, and in that respect, he is an agent of change. But when one really looks at what he stands for, then one can see that Donald Trump isn’t about change at all – he’s about stagnation and regression. He’s about halting change. He’s about stopping and moving. The change that his supporters are interested in isn’t a change at all, but a status quo that has saddled this country since its inception. It’s one where hierarchies are constructed, based on wealth, gender, race, and nationality. It’s one where opportunities are granted to those who can afford to exploit the system to achieve them. It’s one where a select few will benefit, but a large many will suffer.

Many compare last night’s election to the Brexit – another global event that left me reeling and grieving. In much the same way my beloved United Kingdom rejected inclusiveness and openness for isolation, my even-more beloved United States is doing the same. Some more spirited liberals and progressives are trying to inject some fight into our side, by reminding us that we cannot get too mired down in misery. That we have to continue to fight for progress.

In the quagmire of last night’s brutal, some tiny pockets of wonderful did take place:

  • Tammy Duckworth won her bid to become the senator for Illinois, beating Mark Kirk.
  • Kate Brown is the first openly queer governor in the United States, winning the race in Oregan.
  • Kamala Harris is only the second black woman to be elected to the Senate (after Illinois’ Carol Mosely Braun), winning her contest in California.
  • Catherine Cortez Masto became the first Latina senator in U.S. history, winning her election in Nevada.
  • Pramila Jaypal became the first South East Asian woman to be elected to congress, winning in Washington.
  • Like Jaypal, Ilhan Omar is also an immigrant, and became the first Somali-American in the U.S., winning her bid in Minnesota

I hold on to this bit of good news because a) it’s important and not insignificant and b) I need something to hold on to.

 

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