‘Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie’ as an ante-Brexit fantasy

Absolutely Fabulous The Movie.jpgJennifer Saunders reportedly started working on the script for a film version of her cult show Absolutely Fabulous back in 2012. This was four years before the nightmare of the Brexit happened, when the UK was still ensconced in the EU. And though the film wrapped before the EU referendum took place, it’s difficult to watch the film without contextualizing it in what the UK looks like now: smaller, meaner, and more isolated. The film provides an hour and a half when viewers can watch a Great Britain frozen in time before the plunge: one in which races coexist, where London pushes its way ahead when it comes to creativity, multiculturalism, and globalism. In short, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie works as an ante-Brexit fantasy because it allows viewers to savor a UK that remains relevant in the international scene.

That’s not to say that Saunders’ creations: Edina Monsoon or Patsy Stone are great ambassadors of tolerance. They’re not. But they are international. The show’s 25-year history relies on the two characters’ international appeal. The show took them to various locations throughout the EU and the world. For Edina and Patsy to successfully delude themselves and others into believing they’re the last word on what’s fabulous, they have to have a stilettoed heel firmly stabbed in more than one country.

It seems strange that the script took some four years to write (though Saunders was busy during that time writing other shows, acting, and writing a book), because the plot seems paper thin. It’s an excuse to string together Saunders’ sharp-as-a-needle wit. The story takes place some four years later after the last episode, “Olympics” which yet again, highlighted just how international London is (and should remain). In the ensuing four years, life has been tough for both Edina and Patsy (Joanna Lumley). The two women are not only facing ageism in an industry hellbent on erasing older women, but they’re also looking at a pop culture landscape that somehow has passed them by. Edina is a PR maven, but no longer a tycoon. Her client list is limited to Lulu, Emma “Baby Spice” Bunton, and Queen Noor. That Lulu and Bunton appear as recurring characters – as themselves – throughout the series, lampooning their waning celebrity status show just how attractive Saunders is (and it proves that they’re great sports….Queen Noor hasn’t appeared on AbFab, though).

To inject some much-needed money into her bank, Edina plans to write a memoir. And why not? Every reality “star” has some kind of tome popping up in the bookstores. But Edina has always been averse to hard work – particularly hard work that she doesn’t understand, so when she shows up at her publishers with garbagey nonsense, she’s rebuked. Stung by not getting a hefty advance, Edina is thrown a lifeline when she learns that Kate Moss is looking for PR. At a fashion event, Edina shmoozes with the London glitterati, and Saunders crams in as many celebrity cameos as she can. It’s wall-to-wall famous people, and there are so many faces that it becomes difficult to figure out when we’re watching a celebrity cameo and when are we watching an actor play a part. Jon Hamm does his usually-funny shtick, playing himself, and we get a preening Jerry Hall good naturedly sending up her image.  When Edina spots her nemesis, fellow PR monster, Claudia Bing (Celia Imrie), she makes a mad dash for Kate Moss, knocking the supermodel off the balcony and into the Thames.

Now, Edina is wanted for murder and flees London with her pal to the South of France. The plan is that the two lay low and live in Cannes indefinitely. It’s not much of a plan, and of course it falls to pieces because it appears as if the whole world is collectively in despair over the death of Kate Moss. All of the news coverage, including the scrawling crawl on the bottom of the television screens, is devoted to the late and lovely Kate Moss. Flowers and teddy bears pop up on the makeshift memorial, mirroring the extravagant and media-orchestrated world grief over Princess Diana’s death (with time, those of us who blubbered and sobbed can recognize that even though the death was tragic, we did take things too far).

The setting takes the characters out of their usual environment. Some of the best moments of AbFab took place in Edina’s living room, kitchen, or office. It’s in these spaces that Saunders had to rely heavily on caustic wit and a complete flagrant disregard for taboos. The characters were often thrown together and sparred with each other, nursing heavy grievances. While Patsy and Edina had a sick and codependent friendship, it’s their interaction with the other characters that added much of the darkness to the comedy. Edina’s daughter Saffy (Julia Sawalha), was a target of abuse and resentment from Patsy, while Edina herself approached her daughter with neglect and contempt. But years of growing up in such a twisted household made Saffy strong and reliant in her own right, and she was capable of hurling the abuse just as well as her mother. Speaking of mothers, Edina’s mother, Mrs. Monsoon (the seemingly ageless June Whitfield), is a constant reminder of just how Edina turned out wrong: a deceivingly cherry and lovely facade that hid a colder interior. When the four women were confined in a space together, Saunders would write some crackling dialogue that would tear open emotional wounds that never got a chance to heal.

But in Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, Saunders takes her troupe of actors on a trip. And it’s all beautiful, visually. Cannes is gorgeous, even when you’re not trying to idealize it. Much of the action takes place on the grounds of the Grand-Hotel du Cap-Ferrat, where beautiful people swan about in expensive clothing and relax around stunning swimming pools. And when Patsy and Edina go on the lam to avoid being caught by the gendarme, we’re treated to our two heroines indulging in some nifty physical comedy. It’s a good thing, too, because Saunders and Lumley are crack physical comics. The sight of the two of them smashed into the microscopic cab of a three-wheeled delivery van is priceless – the sight of seeing them in said van, slowly sinking into a swimming pool is even better.

As a writer, Jennifer Saunders excels when her characters are throwing around quips and one-liners. She’s best when she’s creating situations that allow for her characters to be terrible and cruel to each other. Edina and Patsy are at their most appealing when they’re being vile and unappealing. The characters aren’t real people, they’re glorious cartoons come to life. There’s little “development” or “character growth” though there are spots of introspection, when Patsy and Edina stop for a moment to digest just how ridiculous their lives sometimes can be. But thankfully we don’t get too much of that – Absolutely Fabulous is meant to be a Bacchanalian feast of decadence and impropriety. And if the caper in the middle part of the film starts to show strain, it’s all easily digestible because it’s so damn funny.

And as escapist fantasy, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie couldn’t have come at a better time. The summer of 2016 will go down as one of the most depressing and unstable times in recent history. Starting with the July 12 terrorist attack in Orlando, Florida, it feels like a week doesn’t pass by with some tragic or catastrophic news. The instances of terrorism in Nice and Munich threaten the kind of cosmopolitan glossy world that Sanders presents in her film. The characters seem blissfully innocent of the carnage and xenophobia that take place in a reality just a few steps away from the triumphant end. When Kylie Minogue warbles the show’s theme, it takes on an unintended poignancy, because in the current political climate on the international stage seems intent on crushing the kind of international feeling that the film tries to impart.

Leave a comment

Filed under Celeb, celebrity, Comedy, commentary, politics, Sitcom, Television, TV, Writing

Summer reading for 2016 (so far…)

Because I’m not in school right now, I’ve been able to pick up on my reading. I burned through quite a few books this summer so far. My goal was to read more fiction – something I find hard to do since I graduated from college back in 2010. Aside from my yearly reading of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice I tend toward creative nonfiction, specifically travel books or food writing.

I took a class in a-realism literature and we read some challenging literature, including László Krasznahorkai’s Sátántangó and Jesse Ball’s Samedi the Deafness, both books that kinda knocked me on my ass when we read them as a class. So I re-read them on my own, with more time – they’re fantastic books, and am glad that the professor – Kyle Beachy, a fantastic author in his own right – assigned them.

Anyways, my summer so far has been a crazy mix of YA (which I don’t normally read), fantasy (Again, I don’t read), plus some great stuff by feminist authors (which I do read, a lot of…).

  1. Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs by Dave Holmes
  2. I’m Just a Person by Tig Notaro
  3. Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival by Laurence Gonzales
  4. Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters by John Waters
  5. Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America by John Waters
  6. Role Models by John Waters
  7.  Approval Junkie: Adventures in Caring Too Much by Faith Salie
  8. My Holiday in North Korea: The Funniest/Worst Place on Earth by Wendy E. Simmons
  9. The House of Hidden Mothers by Meera Syal
  10. I Know What I’m Doing – and Other Lies I Tell Myself: Dispatches from a Life Under Construction by Jen Kirkman
  11. Sátántangó by László Krasznahorkai
  12. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
  13. Hollow City: The Second Novel of Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
  14. Library of Souls: The Third Novel of Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
  15. Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West
  16. All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister
  17. We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement by Andi Zeisler
  18. In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi
  19. Victoria: A Life by A.N. Wilson
  20. A Boy Called Mary: Kris Kirk’s Greatest Hits by Kris Kirk

I’m sure I’m missing some, but these are the books I read throughout the second half of May and all of June. Overall, I was pretty happy with the books I’ve read – nary a dud in any of them. The most surprising thing is that I enjoyed Riggs’ books so much. It’s a fantastic trilogy about a young boy named Jacob who travels through time with band of kids. There are time loops and the author references historical events, namely WWII and parts of the novels’ action takes place during the Blitz. The Riggs Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children novels are YA, but they’re quite violent and disturbing – especially with the allusions to the Holocaust. Like X-Men, Riggs uses the concept of children with special powers to highlight discrimination and bigotry. In that respect, he’s not doing something new, but having the kids try to navigate throughout different time periods, all the while battling larger, more evil forces made for some gripping reading. My favorite were the first two, the third one being just slightly less interesting – it felt episodic and padded. Tim Burton is making a film from the first novel, and already I see that his screenwriter Jane Goldman has played with some of the plot points, which have elicited angry comments in the comments section of the trailer’s YouTube page. While I’m wary of these changes, too, I’m hoping Burton – who has a great track record – won’t make hash of this book.

I also was on a mini-John Waters break. I’m a fan of his movie work, and now he’s pretty much retired  from movie making, so he’s writing books and traveling the country on his one-man tour. I enjoyed his books – they’re similar in style and humor to his films, though alternative. Role Models is a great look at different people that Waters has run into in his life – people like Little Richard, Cy Twombly, Tennessee Williams, and Leslie Van Houten, are among the people he profiled in the book. Leslie Van Houten is especially sad – Waters recognizes that his fascination with Charles Manson can be seen as morbid and macabre, and he paints a sympathetic, but not white-washed, image of Leslie Van Houten. The Little Richard interview was fascinating because of the rock legend’s rigid need for control over his image. Carsick was interesting in that Waters split the book up into thirds: one part of the book was a fictional account of a hitchhiking trip that goes well, the second part is a fictional account of a hitchhiking trip from hell, and the third is a factual account of Waters’ hitchhiking trip from Baltimore to San Francisco. I thought the book’s structure was a neat gimmick, and the first two parts of the book were pretty funny – especially the disastrous trip. The authentic story in the book was also good, but felt a bit like a let down because the trip wasn’t all that memorable. I did like how respectful he was of the kind locals who picked him up – creative types can be a bit dismissive, if not downright condescending, so it was a relief that he imparted a dignity to everyone he passed by. Crackpot is an earlier piece (I read it almost in one sitting, during a long subway ride out of the city to visit my dad and stepmom), which is a collection of essays on a wide range of topics – celebrities, cities, films, etc. My favorite essay is a crazy interview he conducted with Pia Zadora – I love Pia Zadora for the same reasons everyone else does, she’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous that there is such a thing as Pia Zadora – and though Waters definitely sees the camp value in his subject, he’s not mean and ends the peace on a high note (Zadora’s reinvention from b-movie star and c-list pop star to respected torch singer). I was always a big fan of John Waters’ work, and was sad to learn that he slowly faded from film making. One thing that was interesting was John Waters’ fascination with Christmas: he has a Christmas record and one of the last film he was hoping to put together was a twisted tale of Christmas. I know this because when I bought Crackpot from After-Words New and Used Books (a fantastic bookstore), the kind seller behind the counter shared with me the tidbit about the aborted John Waters Christmas movie.

Earlier in the summer, I blogged about going to see Lindy West and Rebecca Traister at Chicago’s Printers Row Lit Fest. I was prepared for the event and I read both West and Traister – I enjoyed West’s book a lot. I love humor essay collections, and I love funny ladies (nothing greater in the world than a funny dame). West, a comedienne who is married to a stand-up comic, became known for her funny, heartfelt, and emotional response to popular culture, specifically how it shapes women and feminists. The book is very funny, but also quite heartbreaking at times, none more so than when she talked about the stress of battling against the comedy world over the permissive use of rape jokes. She writes about how comedy essentially broke her heart. I love Lindy West’s sharp sense of humor and I laughed out loud many times reading Shrill, so I hope that one day she and comedy can have a healthy reconciliation. Traister is a journalist I’ve been following for a bit now – she wrote a fantastic essay on Hillary Clinton (and I’m currently reading her book on the 2008 elections). All the Single Ladies is more “journo-speak” than Shrill, though it’s still funny and personal at times. It charts the history of married women in the United States and charted the growing number of single women – and what that meant for gender parity.

There were two other feminist books I read this summer: Andi Zeisler’s We Were Feminists Once, which is a great takedown of corporate feminism and the commodification of feminism; and Susan Faludi’s engrossing In the Darkroom which chronicled her late-in-life relationship with her estranged father who came out as trans. Zeisler is the editor of Bitch magazine, one of the best sources of media criticism ever (I say this even after I was rejected for writing fellowship). Zeisler takes on this trademark feminism that has sprung up in advertising, television, pop music, and film, and examines how destructive and ultimately emptying a neo-liberal/capitalist takeover of feminism is. In Faludi’s book, we are treated to a difficult father-daughter relationship as she starts to rebuild her tie with her father, who came out as trans at the end of her life. Faludi – whose book Backlash is still required reading according to me – treats her father with great respect, but the book is weighed with the pain she felt when she was younger, hurting because of her father’s abuse. When Faludi shifts away from her interactions with her dad and onto more journalistic writing, the book loses some of its power – I also find it difficult to read trans narratives – particularly criticism or theory on trans issues – when written by cis authors.

Along with Lindy West, I read some other comedic memoir/essay stuff. Jen Kirkman is one of my favorite comediennes of all time. She’s great at skewering popular cultures obsession with motherhood and shaming women into having children. Dave Holmes was an MTV VJ – one I had kind of a crush on – and he writes about his childhood and adolescence, as well as his career trajectory, framed by the titles of pop songs. Faith Salie is an NPR favorite of mine, and I devoured her book, too – I especially loved her writing about her close relationship with her gay brother. The strangest of the comedic memoirs was Tig Notaro’s I’m Just a Person. I almost don’t consider this a comedic memoir, but Notaro’s a comic, so…For anyone who hibernated underneath a rock, Notaro is this fantastic stand-up who had a year of complete hell: her mom died, she had a bacterial infection that landed her in the hospital, her relationship collapsed, and then she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s a pretty heavy book, but with some beautiful writing. It’s not light, easy reading, and those who marvel at the brilliance of Notaro’s voice on stage will be floored at her candor and her insight, especially when she writes – with devastating humor – about the reactions of those around her, who want to claim she’s brave and a hero (though she is a comedy hero of mine).

I picked up Flight 232 for a number of reasons. One, I remember hearing a rapturous review, I think on NPR. And two, it’s the inspiration, in part, of one of my favorite films, Peter Wier’s 1993 film Fearless, starring Jeff Bridges, Isabelle Rossellini, and Rosie Perez. United Airlines Flight 232 was an airplane that crashed in July of 1989 – it was a catastrophic crash landing that killed 111 people. The miraculous thing about the incident was that 185 people survived the crash, mainly due to the work of the pilots, flight attendants, and heroic passengers who helped each other. It’s a heavy book to read and obviously not a fun one – but Gonzales has done some exhaustive research and was able to piece together a compelling work that often read like a novel. And he maintained a dignified restraint, eschewing dramatic or gory language that would feel exploitative, given the subject matter.

When I found Dave Holmes’ book, I initially though it would be essays about music. Kris Kirk’s  A Boy Called Mary is a collection of essays about pop music and its intersection with UK queer culture in the 1980s. So much of queer culture in the 1980s was wrapped up in pop music, which was at its gayest. He interviews various pop stars, including Dusty Springfield, Erasure, Bronski Beat, and Boy George, and he writes about AIDS, drugs, gay rights, drag. It’s a fantastic book – one of my favorite. Kirk later would die from AIDS and he became a folk hero of sorts because he was one of the first people in the UK to come out as being HIV+.

Wendy E. Simmons’ My Holiday in North Korea was a great read. Funny, harrowing, and sobering. I picked it up after reading about Otto Warmbier, the college student who got 15 years of hard labor, after being arrested in North Korea for trying to steal a poster from the hotel in which he was staying. Warmbier’s plight broke my heart, but I ‘m ashamed to admit, I wondered “what kind of person wants to visit North Korea?” Which is super racist and super xenophobic on my part, because all I know of North Korea is from Western media that portrayed the country as some kind of far-away monster. Simmons’ book is useful because it shines a spotlight on a country that everyone seems to have an opinion on, but hardly anyone has actually visited it. Her stories of her trip are interesting in that she writes about traveling in a country that is highly restrictive and under a government that is highly controlling. There’s just the right amount of gallows humor to make the book as fun a read as possible (we are talking about North Korea, after all).

Leave a comment

Filed under Biography, Book, Book in a Month, commentary, Writing

Second season of ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ bests first season

The first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was all about how Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper) gets acquainted with a world that has changed during her 15 years living in a bunker with a maniacal cult leader and her fellow victims. Because she’s so strong and resilient, Kimmy was able to carve out a life of some normalcy – she got a job, made new friends, even started to date. Most people take these kinds of life markers for granted, but Kimmy was entering a new adolescence at 30.

The second season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt looks at the damage Kimmy suffered in that bunker. Though she’s smart, perky, and extremely competent, Kimmy is also bruised. The writers barely hinted at the dark trauma, and for the most part, even the worst parts of Kimmy’s imprisonment were played for laughs. But in the second season, Tina Fey and company are willing to push the character into new emotional depths. She still maintains her rigorous positive outlook on life, but throughout the second season we also see cracks in her upbeat facade.

The first season ended with Kimmy successfully sending the Reverend Gary (Jon Hamm) to jail. Meanwhile her best friend Tituss (Titus Burgess) finds out he’s married. And Kimmy’s socialite boss/friend Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski) reconnects with her Lakota roots. And landlady Lillian (Carol Kane), who was rather under served last  season gets her own plot in which she futilely battles against the oncoming gentrification of her neighborhood.

Kimmy’s journey to fulfillment is riddled with obstacles. Though she finds a job at a Christmas store, her dogged commitment to her friends causes her to lose it; her love for Dong (Ki Hong Lee) causes her much heartache, and though the two try to reconcile and pick up their attraction, it ends disastrously; but the most important thing going in Kimmy’s life is her disintegrating self-control.

Because Kimmy was defined by her strength, it was easy for her to fall back on it, rather than deal with what kinds of wrong the bunker did to her. But in the second season, she’s starting to exhibit some symptoms of PTSD that were merely hinted at in the first season: she’s triggered by certain stimuli, she has unresolved issues with Velcro, and whenever she mentions the bunker, she retches uncontrollably and belches foully. To this end, we get a wonderful recurring character, Andrea Bayden (Tina Fey), a horrible shit show of a person who’s a superb analyst and psychologist, but also a hopeless drunk. What makes the episodes with Andrea work so well is that though her character’s alcoholism is funny (in the way that Fey plays it), it’s also very sad, highlighting yet another damaged character. It won’t be a surprise to many viewers to see that as much as Kimmy needs Andrea’s help, she also wants to save her doctor, too. There’s a wonderful moment of epiphany for Kimmy at the end of the Andrea story arc that fully explains why Kimmy is so hellbent on helping people, even at the expense of her own mental health. It’s a profound realization that isn’t pat nor easy – and the story line ends rather bleakly for Kimmy.

Along with Tina Fey, we also get Lisa Kudrow guesting as Kimmy’s mother Lori-Ann, a disaster of a parent who spends her life riding roller coasters. Like Fey, Kudrow is perfectly cast as the fey, somewhat distant and scattered mother, but the writers are careful to imbue Lori-Ann with poignancy. Like Kimmy, Lori-Ann’s life largely became defined by the kidnapping: she was either a figure of pity or a figure of derision. She’s not off the hook for her neglectful parenting, but she isn’t necessarily pillared by it, either. Like every other character on the show, she’s flawed and very human.

Part of Kimmy’s life involves her work. She’s industrious and good at her job. The problem is her job left when Jacqueline left for her parents’ reservation. Jacqueline’s Native American heritage is tricky to play (and the backlash was spoofed in one of the episodes), but the writers just managed to push the story along by adding great comedy and sentiment. Since Jacqueline’s divorce and exile from Manhattan high society, she’s become a transitional figure: she doesn’t belong in her old world, but she doesn’t belong with her parents, either. They not-so-gently kick her out, and Jacqueline decides to return to Manhattan, humbled and poorer (though not poor), and vows to use her wealth and frayed society connections to help Native American causes. Making Jacqueline altruistic is an interesting choice, given that she’s often a monster of selfishness.

Like Kimmy, Jacqueline is looking for a mate, but this isn’t about love. She believes that her worth lies mainly in her beauty. And if she wants to raise any money for her cause, she needs to bag herself a rich man. She gets a sidekick in her endeavors, Mimi Kanasis (Amy Sedaris), a fellow trophy wife who has been thrown aside. And though Kimmy is willing to be on hand to be Jacqueline’s accomplice, their relationship changes as they are no longer employer/employee, but friends. But because Jacqueline is so far up her own ass, she often doesn’t recognize just how entitled and awful she can be, which causes a deep strain between the two. Again, the writers gift Krakowski and Kemper with some great and hilarious scenes together as they try to figure out their new relationship, which is missing what defined their former relationship: their lopsided power dynamic.

For Tituss, the second season is all about self-discovery. His career as a singer-actor is going no where, and though he’s very talented, he’s struggling to make any kind of progress. But thankfully the writers give Tituss a love interest, Mikey (Mike Carlson), the construction worker from season one, who sexually harassed Kimmy on the street (to no avail, due to her naive nature), and who later came out. Carlson is an excellent addition to the cast because he brings such warmth and stability in Titus’ life – and he and Burgess have great chemistry and the relationship grounds what can be a rather cartoony character.

Speaking of cartoony characters, the only mildly sour note of the first season – Lillian – was fixed when the writers decided to make the character more than just a wacky neighbor. Carol Kane is a great actress with crack comic timing, but her large, saucer eyes always seem on the verge of tears, which works out great for her story line: her neighborhood is starting to gentrify as hipsters start to infiltrate, swapping pawn shops and greasy spoons with cafes and trendy sneaker stores. Lillian isn’t railing against this onslaught because she’s old and recalcitrant; instead, she sees this move as a way of erasing not only her past but her presence, as well. Where will she fit in, if her neighborhood suddenly becomes a haven for trendy millenials? The general apathy of her friends and neighbors also has her spooked, as this is her family, and she feels that she must fight his war solo. And though there are the requisite hipster jokes (they’re so quirky!), the story line packs a strong emotional wallop when you see just Lillian’s world threatened.

If my review makes Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt sound sad, well, it’s because the show is sad. It’s very sad. In fact, if it wasn’t for the gags, the show could work as a drama. The cliche of comedy being tragedy plus timing is never more true than with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, especially in its second season, in which the writers aren’t scared to deliver a one-two punch of sad/funny. And the biggest thing going for the show is Ellie Kemper, who proves with the show that she’s the greatest tragicomic comedienne working today. She’s an expressive actress, and her takes, even if she’s in the background are a wonder. But what works best is when she has to portray the anger or despair behind the smile. In one particularly affecting scene, Kimmy has to confront the fact that she may lose a close friend, someone whom she protected in the bunker. The thought drives her into panic mode and she starts to cry – something we’ve never seen Kimmy do. And it’s alarming and unnerving to see her break down. It’s this kind of blend of loopy humor and heartbreaking sadness that makes me wonder how Kemper hasn’t been festooned with awards for her work.

And though Kemper is easily the best of the bunch, Burgess, Karkowski, and Kane all do great, sometimes incredible work. Krakowski in particular is given some wonderful scenes, and though Burgess is an easy stand-out, she should be given the MVP title for this season’s show. Recurring guest star Tina Fey also is superb – she’s not the most versatile or natural of actresses, but she gives probably her best onscreen performance as the wildly inebriated Andrea. Lisa Kudrow, the master of combining light and dark, also does personable work. Other guest stars include David Cross, Fred Armisen, Ice-T, Judy Gold, Jeff Goldblum, Josh Charles, Joshua Jackson, Zosia Mamet, and Kenan Thompson. It’s a testament to the writing, directing, and acting, that none of these feel like stunt casting (Martin Short’s cameo last season as Dr. Grant felt a little spotlighted), and the actors manage to blend into the crazy world of the show.

The tagline of the second season is “making the world a Kimmier place.” In one of the adverts, Kimmy is walking blindly through the streets, making everything pretty and cute while mayhem ensues in her wake. I don’t think the ad is a good representation of the show because Kimmy is not blind or oblivious to what’s happening around her. And while Kemper’s smiling visage would imply that making the world a “Kimmier” place would mean making it light, airy, and fun – the truth is Kimmy’s no Pollyanna. And though Pollyanna played the Glad Game with shot got tough, Kimmy’s 10-second rule (if she’s going through something, she counts to 10, reasoning that one can stand anything for 10 seconds) is no Glad Game because it’s a way of coping with something that is terrible. It’s a credit to the writers that they refuse to soft peddle what Kimmie went through – it was awful. But the genius of the show is that it portrays something so terrible, but does it with so much humor and funny.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, Nonfiction, Sitcom, Television, TV, Writing

Discovering Oxford Circus

This is a picture from Oxford Circus, probably my favorite part of London. I remember the first time I saw it…It was years ago – 2003. I stepped out from the Underground and walked on to a glorious and cacophonous mess of people all rushing, moving, having some place to be. London has lots of museums, parks, theaters, but this is my favorite spot. To me this is London. Loud. Vital. Crazy. Multicultural. During my trip, I explored Chinatown, hung out in Soho, and ate dinner at a Polish restaurant in Kensington. All of these experiences felt incredibly British to me because Britain signified a wonderful amalgam of races, cultures, genders, experiences. London was a hub of all of that – that wonderful mixture – not a melting pot, because we don’t meld into one soupy oneness, but instead a weird and clashing salad.

When I walked the streets at Oxford Circle, I felt the alive – a true citizen of the world, because that’s what London meant to me: it was a city of the world. A true global city. As I walked through the streets, I caught snatches of Polish, French, Urdu, Spanish, and American-inflected English. I knew I wanted in.

When I returned to the States, I started my MA work, and worked on my thesis. I wrote about the African and Asian diaspora in London. I looked at literature of postcolonial heroes like V.S. Naipul and Sam Selvon. Contemporary icons like Hanif Kureishi and Salman Rushdie occupied my reading. I loved their work because they exposed the London I romanticized for its complex messiness. My privileged view of the city was evolving and deepening. I loved it more because of Kureishi and Rushdie. One could say I became obsessed with black and Asian Britain. My research expanded to film, television, and music. Again, the scrubbed, shiny, glossy surface of London was lifted to show a far more interesting and urgent place, one that is continuously trying reconcile and include.

In one of my classes during my postgraduate work, I studied the literature of Virginia Woolf, a literary hero of mine. I read Mrs. Dalloway at least fifty times. I loved Mrs. Dalloway’s love of the city. I started to read Woolf’s diaries and saw that she, like me, loved London. She had a prickly, complex relationship with the city, though. A lot of it angered it, but a lot of it inspired her. I felt slightly closer to this literary giant because we had something in common, no matter how slight or tenuous.

I write this on June 24, 2016, the day after the referendum that voted the UK out of the EU. The repercussions of this vote are yet to be seen. So much has been written – most of it exaggerated and designed to be polarizing and frightening. I’m not sure what my future will be with London – much of it is now hanging precariously as we learn more about what’s going to happen to the millions of Brits living in the EU and the millions of EU nationals living in the UK. I don’t want to be angry at the Leave supporters – they’re not all xenophobic racists. Though race and immigration played an ugly part in the Leave push, it doesn’t account for everyone who voted to leave, nor does it rightly describe or represent those who supported the Brexit.

It’s easy to fall into the sniping and snark – at the height of Remain’s stunning loss last night, I indulged in some of that myself – but I’m not going to. I’ll just think about that first day when I climbed the steps from the Underground and emerged onto Oxford Circle. I’ll think about the blinding lights of all the competing neon signs, each trying to outdo the other. I’ll think about the kids, all in imaginative and expressive clothing and hairstyle. I’ll think about Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, a monumental book in my literary upbringing. In it, Selvon’s hero, Moses goes through a stream-of-conscious rant about London – how much it means to him, despite all of the grinding hardships of poverty, racism, isolationism, and alienation – the rant still ends with his love of London:

“Always, from the first time he went there to see Eros and the lights, that circus have a magnet for him, that circus represent life, that circus is the beginning and the ending of the world. Every time he go there, he have the same feeling like when he see it the first night, drink coca-cola, any time is guinness time, bovril and the fireworks, a million flashing lights, gay laughter, the wide doors of theatres, the huge posters, everready batteries, rich people going into tall hotels, people going to the theatre, people sitting and standing and walking and talking and laughing and buses and cars and Galahad Esquire, in all this, standing there in the big city, in London.”

Leave a comment

Filed under commentary, Nonfiction, politics, Writing

Jerry Seinfeld and Margaret Cho chat on ‘Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee’

Jerry Seinfeld  &  Margaret Cho on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee

In the second episode of this season’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Jerry Seinfeld gets political. Well, almost. His guest is Margaret Cho, someone who is known for her politically-charged material – she’s sort of the anti-Seinfeld. But you wouldn’t know that from watching the way the two interact. Seinfeld is posited as some kind of fairy godfather of sorts – someone who helped Cho early in her career and then swooped in to do it again later on.

A little back story: Margaret Cho had a bad night back in March at the Stress Factory in New Jersey. The crowd wasn’t feeling Cho’s material, which included some righteous anger towards sexual predators and rapists. Cho is a survivor of rape and sexual abuse so the material is very personal to her. Those familiar with Cho’s work know that her comedy has always been dark. Not only does she cover rape, but her shows include work on AIDS, homophobia, suicide, depression, racism, sexism, abuse, war. I’m still a little confused about her audience’s rage that night, as going to a Margaret Cho concert means witnessing taboos being dismantled and upended.

But Cho is taking responsibility, saying she didn’t “do her job” that night in making the work, well, work. So her episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is sort of predicated on her return to the Stress Factory for a do-over. Seinfeld is on hand to give her his stamp of approval, and there’s no greater stamper than Seinfeld – a beloved, across-the-board well-liked comic who probably is the least offensive comedian in the world.

The specter of Cho’s bombed night looms over this episode of Comedians as does Seinfeld’s own aversion to political comedy. That makes for a strange, if fascinating 20 minutes, when we watch these two pros, who are so, so different come together. Seinfeld takes a back seat (no pun intended) to Cho, whose comic voice is far more urgent. Whenever identity politics pop up during the conversations, Seinfeld looked a combination of bored and overwhelmed – at one point, Seinfeld stumbled on the concept of intersectionality, repeatedly flubbing the word by saying “intersextuality.” The video makes Seinfeld look uncomfortable and disinterested in a lot of the issues that Cho brings up – though the two share a hearty laugh when Cho references Genesis P-Orridge and Lady Jane Breyer, specifically P-Orridge and Breyer’s extensive surgery to not only look like each other but to transition. Trying to wrap his mind around the idea, Seinfeld muses, “we need a new word” for when couples “transgender” and then settles on do-si-do.

Despite Cho and Seinfeld existing in different lanes, he does a major solid by opening for her at her re-do at the Stress Factory. It’s an interesting part of the episode because it moves away from the usual setting of Seinfeld, his guest, and a coffee house. Instead, Cho and Seinfeld are sitting in front of a group of people – comprised largely of the walk-outs from Cho’s bad night in March. Though the segment is heavily edited, the folks in the audience seem very receptive and cool – one lady pointed out that rape is not a subject to make fun of, and Cho again took the blame for the previous show’s meltdown. Right after, a guy made the astute point that folks who go to a Margaret Cho concert have to expect to be uncomfortable and challenged. Which is what I’m talking about. I guess a lot of people wish Margaret Cho stuck to funny impersonations of her mother, but I like when she digs deep. As Cho pointed out earlier, comedy is all about rage.

This episode wasn’t a normal Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. And like the Jim Gaffigan episode, there is a strange disconnect between Seinfeld and Cho. Some of it may be generational and a lot of it is due to the comedians’ disparate style of humor and outlook on comedy. Still, it’s clear that Seinfeld had a huge influence on Cho’s career, and the mutual admiration society works out nicely. It’d be good if Seinfeld booked more guests like Cho – comedians who are prickly and aren’t necessarily concerned with being “nice” or “just funny.” I’d love to see Seinfeld spar with Kathy Griffin or Sandra Bernhard.

Leave a comment

Filed under Biography, Celeb, celebrity, Comedy, commentary, Nonfiction, Sitcom, Television, TV, Writing

‘Head Over Heels’ was Paula Abdul’s last-ditch effort to reclaim her pop music throne – and a great segue into her second career

Head Over HeelsPaula Abdul’s career is a strange and patchy mess. A former Laker Girl who graduated to an Emmy-winning career as a choreographer, Abdul parlayed her pop music connections into a multi-platinum pop music career. From 1988 to 1992 Abdul was one of the biggest pop divas in the music industry, scoring ten top 20 pop hits, six of which went number one. Her debut album Forever Your Girl (1988) was a smash hit that sold over 12 million copies world wide. Her sophomore effort, Spellbound (1991) was almost as successful, selling over 7 million copies worldwide. Then Abdul’s pop music career – a seemingly unstoppable force suddenly stopped. She stepped away from the music industry, battled some health issues, and tried her hand at acting. By the time she was ready to reacquaint herself with the music industry, it had changed greatly. Her third album, Head Over Heels dropped in 1995 – a time when shiny, sparkly dance music lost its favor for more hip-hop inflected pop music. Abdul’s cheif colleagues, Madonna and Janet Jackson were able to adapt to 1995-era pop music, but Abdul seemed like a creature from the past. Head Over Heels was a dogged attempt at being contemporary and up-to-date. After its failure, Abdul all but left the music business until joining the panel of judges on American Idol in 2002. And a star was reborn. Abdul’s second bat at fame consisted of her judging struggling and up-and-coming singers (many of whom were better singers than Abdul ever was), while her public image changed from a sexy pop diva to the wacky, slightly-loopy nurturing salve to Simon Cowell’s mean, barbed critic. Once she was known as a Madonna wannabe, now she’s famous for being the female answer to Ed McMahon.

Head Over Heels is a time capsule of pop music in 1995, but it also shows just how difficult it is for a past-her-prime pop star to remain relevant. Taking cues from Janet Jackson, a woman she once taught how to dance and who she would model her career after, Head Over Heels sounds like a dogged and game effort to recreate Jackson’s blockbuster 1993 album janet. Jackson faced a similarly-changed music landscape in 1993 which moved away from the thick-heavy beats of late 80s/early 90s dance-pop to grunge music and hip-hop. So she smartly toned down some of the more military-style clipped beats of her sound and injected some sexier, rougher tones. janet. was a huge hit and Jackson was rewarded with an album that sold over 20 million copies.

Abdul wasn’t as lucky. Head Over Heels peaked at a solid, if unspectacular number 18 on the album chart, eventually going gold (which in the current pop market, even Jackson can’t reach). The album was Abdul’s way of growing and adapting to mid 90s urban dance-pop. And she certainly did her best. First, she assembled a crowd of songwriters – a whopping twenty-three songwriters were involved in putting together an album that had 14 tracks. The folks tapped to produce the album also comprised of a large and unsteady group. The result was a patchwork quilt of disparate styles, all trying to mold Abdul from chirpy pop thrush into a sensual sex goddess, which was a Sisyphean task.

It’s not that Abdul isn’t sexy – she is. But the problem is the voice. Abdul’s voice, at its best, is an extremely limited instrument, one with little range, and a strange, tinny sound that sounds as if she’s singing from the back of her throat. It’s also a tiny voice, so when she’s trying to sing the sexier numbers on Head Over Heels, there’s an unintended ickiness because it sounds at times, as if a kid is warbling some of the lewd lyrics. Not that Head Over Heels sounds anything like Madonna’s Erotica, because it doesn’t. This is the kind of sexy that may raise an eyebrow or two if the music is played on top 40. The effect is a bit like playing grownup.

The album did have some bright spots – the singles, were predictably solid – “Crazy Cool,” the set’s second single was a decent stab at a summer pop hit. It managed to grow up Abdul’s perky signature sound without alienating her (dwindling) fan base. It’s all rumbly bass and wah-wah guitars and there’s even some charming nonsensical psychedelia, too. The lyrics were silly and dumb, but that’s okay – so what if we have to hear Abdul’s  yearning – if strained – vocals pine about “sexy feelings” that come over her as she compares her lover to a “long, cool glass of lemonade.” And if the more sexed up lyrics weren’t enough to herald in the new Paula Abdul, the song’s video has our diva tarted up, slithering on a stripper’s pole, or riding a mechanical bull and dousing herself with beer froth. It all screams calculation and effort, right down to Abdul’s smokey eye makeup and very 90s Rachael haircut, but all is seemingly forgiven because Abdul is giving it her all.

The other song on the album that deserved to be a hit “My Love Is for Real,” which almost became a hit. It was Abdul’s first single in three years, and was supposed to welcome her back to the pop charts, but the welcome was rather muted. A shame, because song’s an underrated bit of urban-pop heaven. With haunting guest vocals by Israeli pop diva Ofra Haza, “My Love Is for Real” is a mischmash of world music cliches – Middle Eastern instruments like sitars clashing gloriously with pre-programmed percussion and drum machines. It’s all colonial nonsense, but it works. The song is well-written with a catchy beat, and Abdul herself delivers a performance as close to smoldering as she can manage (though truth be told, Haza steals the show). The song should’ve been a big hit (it climbed up to a so-so number 28), and its failure essentially sealed the album’s fate.

But the problem is most of the album is just a hodgepodge of pop cliches circa 1995. There’s watered-down New Jack Swing, brushes of big bang swing (which was making an improbable – but thankfully brief – comeback in the 1990s), by-the-numbers pop-soul, ersatz Latin flourishes, and spirited if deflated stabs at house. Though the producers craft material that works to fit into a wide variety of radio formats, the effect isn’t diverse or wide-ranging, just haphazard and fitful. But all of that could be forgiven, if it wasn’t for the inclusion of the ballads. Abdul can sound kicky and fun during a high-octane dance number, one that hides her massive vocal flaws with a cascading waterfall of synths, keyboards, and drum machines. But Abdul’s pitchy keening is hard to listen through. On “If I Were Your Girl,” the singer seems hopelessly out of her depth, trying to play the part of the soulful balladeer, but she has too few vocal resources.

The failure of Head Over Heels essentially put an end to Abdul’s pop music career. From 1996 to 2002, Abdul slid unsteadily into b-list territory. During that time she was credited with co-penning a few singles for other artists (most notably for Kylie Minogue’s number one hit “Spinning Around”), she also attempted an acting career, and went back to choreographing for films. Then American Idol premiered and Abdul became more famous than ever, judging up-and-coming pop talent. Her heightened profile suggested a return to music, and there were a few one-off singles, but it seems like Head Over Heels is a definite close to an exciting, if too-brief, pop career.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Celeb, celebrity, music, Television, TV, Writing

Eight seasons in, Jerry Seinfeld’s ‘Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee’ is growing

Jerry Seinfeld  &  Jim Gaffigan on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee

Once Seinfeld ended, comedian and newly-minted curmudgeon Jerry Seinfeld could’ve drifted off into the sunset to sleep on his stacks of billions. And though he avoided anything even coming close to the scope and scale of Seinfeld, he hasn’t been invisible, either. Among his ventures – which includes stand-up, sporadic films, and professional talk show guest – is his Web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. In it’s eight season (relax, the Internet has different rules about what constitutes a season), the show has become a nice little side gig, almost a hobby for the legendary comic.

The format is pretty rigid: Seinfeld opens the show by highlighting the car he’ll be driving during the episode. There is always some fun trivia about the history of the vehicle or its maker. Then Seinfeld introduces his guest. The two stand around for a bit, laugh, then get in the car. Often there’s some business of Seinfeld’s iffy driving. Then the two sit for coffee and discuss, well, anything. Sometimes there’s some forced comedy about branding and sponsorship, and then the episode ends.

Nothing too revolutionary nor trend setting. Still when Seinfeld is paired with an engaging and funny guest, then the show manages to rise above the “Rich White Guy Talks with Rich Friends” premise.  In the show’s eight seasons, Seinfeld has talked to a lot of comedians. And one president. The majority of the comedians are white and male. Not surprising, given Seinfeld’s professed color blindness when it comes to funny (Sarah Silverman was the first female guest and she didn’t pop up until season 2; Mario Joyner who joined Colin Quinn’s episode was the first season’s sole person of color).

Still, identity politics be damned. Funny is funny, right? And for the most part. Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is pretty funny. In the season 8 opener, Seinfeld invites Jim Gaffigan on his show, and I’m wondering why it took so long. If anyone comic working right now encapsulates the cozy comfort of Seinfeld is Jim Gaffigan (who stars in his own eponymous sitcom on TV Land). But like Seinfeld, Gaffigan’s seemingly milquetoast persona often masks some deeper, darker humor. And though the two had a shared sense of humor in observing the absurdity of the mundane, one never forgot whose show this was and who was the bigger/richer star.

On the Gaffigan episode, the two men tool around in a 1977 VW Bus, shooting the shit and talking about comedy. They stop at a park and muse about the sun bathers – it’s all very Seinfeldesque in that it’s a lot of nothing. Gaffigan’s aggressively Midwestern demeanor clashes a bit with his adopted status as a New Yorker. When Seinfeld asks if Gaffigan could ever leave New York, the latter says no, “There’s an efficiency here…When you do go other places, and you’re like ‘Is this the first day for everyone?'” What’s interesting about the exchange is that Seinfeld is a New York comic whose iconic show is about New York (and cartoonish New Yorker misanthropes). Gaffigan is the genial corn-fed family man from Indiana, who likes to muse about food. And Seinfeld, the prototypical New Yorker lives in Los Angeles now.

It’s important to note Seinfeld’s Hollywood status because it permeates the show. We never forget that we’re listening to two very successful and very wealthy men. But there’s a nagging quality to Seinfeld’s current humor that has bled into his public persona (which may be why at times he comes off as a touch crotchety). Case in point, when Seinfeld wanted to make fun of Gaffigan’s voice, he called it “high and gay,” but then said, “can I say that?” In another part of the episode, Gaffigan tries to do a bit about the ubiquity of pizza at children’s parties. Given that Gaffigan’s a father of five and a lover of food, the bit seemed classic Gaffigan, but it never got to develop, because Seinfeld quickly pounced on the joke and shut it down. And Seinfeld’s interaction with the Second Avenue Deli waiter was depressingly predictable in its condescension.

Still, some of the conversation between the two (over amazing pastrami sandwiches) is interesting. When Gaffigan isn’t playing up to Seinfeld’s ego or being self-deprecating, he is a commanding storyteller. His account of his stint opening for Pope Francis at the Festival of Families in Philadelphia is great – Gaffigan’s a devout Catholic, so meeting the pope is a bfd. Also, when he gets the chance, his thoughts on comedy, comedians, and laughter is great to hear – for instance, he does a lovely bit where he describes the different expectations of laughter and comedy when going to see a movie, a play, or a stand-up special.

In the past episodes, when Seinfeld shares space with the comedians, there’s a feeling of colleagues engaging in shop talk. Even someone like Miranda Sings held her own because the character is so well-defined, that it’s impossible to shout it down. But Gaffigan’s so nice and he seems so intent on pleasing his comedy hero, that the imbalance is palpable. Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee works best when Seinfeld isn’t talking down to someone – something that happened a few times during the Gaffigan episode (there’s a mean montage at the end the compiles every instance of Gaffigan’s vocal tic of saying, “Right?”). Gaffigan is no wallflower, and he was probably fine during the episode and didn’t feel at all put out. But Seinfeld’s new steely persona works better when he’s paired with a comic who is caustic and frank, thereby avoiding the kind of tilt that occurred in the Gaffigan episode. For Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee to work, its host needs a guest that won’t be marginalized by his fame or legend.

Leave a comment

Filed under celebrity, Comedy, Sitcom, Television, TV, Writing