Category Archives: Comedy

My favorite episode – ‘The Brady Bunch’ – “Will the Real Jan Brady Please Stand Up?”

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.

Image result for the real jan brady

Picture from CBS/cbs.com

Nostalgia does a weird thing to memories – it can make something awful seem lovely and interesting: case in point, The Brady Bunch. The campy “classic” TV show that ran from 1969 to 1974, it has become legendary in its cheesy badness. It’s difficult to pinpoint its enduring hold on pop culture. Some of it may be explained by nostalgia, but most of the show’s fans were born decades after the show went off the air. So what is it? One explanation is that it was a hermetically-sealed environment that seemed impervious to the turmoils of the outside world. During the run of the show, the country saw Vietnam, race rebellions, the surge of the women’s movement, Watergate. These were troubled times, and yet in the sunny, Day-Glo world of the Bradys, none of this managed to get through. It was really an aggressively-innocent show in which people loved each other, and were able to get past their differences in about twenty minutes.

For detractors, The Brady Bunch was saccharine dreck. That’s why I chose “Will the Real Jan Brady Please Stand Up?” as my favorite episode because it touched upon one of the show’s more complex and interesting characters:  Jan Brady. Unlike supermodel-hot Marcia (Maureen McCormick) or adorable Cindy (Susan Olsen), Jan – played by Eve Plumb – was caught in the middle, forever identified by her relationships with her sisters: she was always “Marcia’s younger sister” or “Cindy’s older sister.” This must’ve fucked up Jan’s head bad because a good source of the show’s actual tension and angst comes from Jan’s search for identity and self-confidence. When Jan fumes “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” in one of the show’s classic lines, it’s a great peek into the frustrated pent-up outrage that resides in Jan Brady.

“Will the Real Jan Brady Please Stand Up?” is great viewing because for once, the show manages to shake off some of its Formica-stiff camp and actually function as a bit of story telling. Now, it’s not great story telling, but it’s solid, mainly because of the performance of Eve Plumb. Though Florence Henderson and Robert Reed did solid work as parents Carol and Mike Brady (and Ann B. Davis was a hoot as Alice), the six kids – the main draw of the show – were a mixed bag when it came to acting. There were some cringey moments throughout the show when the banal scripts pushed the children do to more than just stand there, looking groovy. But Plumb was a dark horse among the Brady bunch, because she actually could act.

The episode made good use of Plumb’s abilities, but it also told her story with surprising sensitivity, despite the central gag being Jan wearing a crazy black wig. Ah, the wig. In the theme song, the kids warble the premise to the show and introduce the girls and their mother as “A lovely lady who was bringing three very lovely girls/All of them had hair of gold.” So immediately, we get that these characters are partly-defined by their looks, mainly their blonde hair. So when Jan feels a crisis of self-identity, it’s natural that she works to destroy the main thing that makes her blend into the background: her hair of gold.

So inspired by a magazine ad, Jan skips over to a wig shop – staffed by future Edna Krabapple/Carol Kester, Marcia Wallace. Wigs are fun for a lot of people because they can put them on, and assume new personas. That’s why it makes sense that Jan turns to wigs to giver her personality a new twist. After looking through various pieces, she settles an on unflattering tight crown of black curls. In the priceless 1995 parody film, the wig is changed from a dowdy short cut to an impressively gargantuan afro.

Once her family catches her wearing the wig, she gets the standard “be yourself” lesson. And I gotta say, all of that is garbage, because being yourself includes altering parts of yourself that you feel need changing. The show was filmed in the early 1970s, so it makes sense that such pat, conservative bromides are spoon fed to its viewers. Folks weren’t encouraged to experiment with identity and appearance – doing so would seem like deception or lie. That’s why “Will the Real Jan Brady Please Stand Up?” feels like such a resolutely queer episode: we want the “real” Jan Brady to stand up, but we’re not quite sure who that is – and more importantly, Jan doesn’t either.

In a telling exchange, when confronted with the ugly wig, Jan insists that she wants to wear her wig all the time. When asked why she fumes, “I wanna be me. I’m tired of looking like everyone else. I wanna be Jan Brady.”

“But Honey,” Carol says in that plaintive, soothing way that she does. “Jan Brady has blonde hair.”

“Nobody notices that Jan Brady,” is Jan’s poignant response.

Mike pipes in by saying, “A person doesn’t make himself different by just putting on a wig.”

“It’s what’s inside that counts,” Carol practically coos.

It’s here where I think the show really peaks in its queerness. Jan wanting to be different and insisting that changing her outside will make her different, and her conformist parents telling her that her inside and her outside should match.

Look, I know it’s a stretch to say that this show can work as an allegory for drag, trans, gay, or any other queer/non-hetero identities – after all, this is The Brady Bunch, after all. But there are all kinds of queer pings throughout the show’s history and its legacy. Queer people – especially gay men – love schlock, and we embrace it. But there’s subtext, too. Knowing what we know about Robert Reed, it feels weird having him be the mouthpiece of this kind of mainstream, square kind of thinking.

The plot comes to a head in the last third, when Jan debuts her new look at a birthday party. Instead of being wowed by the new Jan Brady, her friends assume it’s a joke, and they laugh. The teasing is the kind of low-level, milquetoast roasting that would pass as bullying in a world as corny as the one depicted in The Brady Bunch. But it stings and Jan leaves (again, Plumb does some great subtle work here, letting her look of pride dissolve into confusion, and then hurt as she runs away).

At home, she tells her parents what happens, and she’s full of self-recrimination. It’s here that the show’s message of conformity really hit home, despite the nudge towards self-expression heralded earlier. Jan admits that she looks like “some kind of freak” in her wig, and blames herself for her friends’ boorish behavior – never mind that it was the kids who were laughing at her and acting like assholes. The narrative constructed is that Jan’s to blame because she was trying to be somebody she’s not.

As if this “lesson” wasn’t enough to bare, we get even further into gendered concerns, when Jan’s friends come to the door, hoping to apologize. Instead of apologizing for acting like jackasses, the girls appeal to Jan’s vanity, admitting that they’re envious of her long blonde hair. And just like that, all’s well in the world, because Jan’s identity as a blonde is affirmed (and is proven to be a source of envy among her clique).

It’s too bad that an episode that starts off so daringly ends up cliff diving into conformity so quickly. It’s too much to ask of The Brady Bunch to question notions of identity, I know. But still, this episode remains the strongest of its run because its problems present a darker, more complex side of the toothy family than what we’re normally shown. In fact, any episode that centers on Jan tends to be a stronger episode. A lot of that is due to Plumb’s distinct qualities as an actress, but a lot of it is also due to the writers seeming free to explore these weirder feelings in that character, instead of trying them in the Barbie-doll pretty Marcia or the Kewpie-doll pretty Cindy.

 

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Lifetime’s remake of ‘Beaches’ is an unfunny joke

Nia Long and Idina Menzel star in ‘Beaches’

Lifetime original movies are really a trip now, aren’t they. Once a haven for out-of-work TV actresses who flexed their acting muscles playing all kinds of abused/victimized women, Lifetime has since branched out, churning out tabloid trash biopics/docudramas and is now also working on remaking campy, soapy melodramas from the 1980s. First we saw a reasonably successful take on Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias, and this past season saw Lifetime’s post-millennial take on Beaches.

The intended audience for this remake will probably have already seen the movie a million times, own the DVD, and the CD, and have memorized every line of “Wind Beneath My Wings,” so I’m still a little unclear as to why there was a need to remake Beaches. Also, the Gary Marshall original – released in 1988 – is an exceedingly mediocre film, and in no way was an update needed, as the original did what it set out to do: make women viewers and gay male viewers cry.

And as absurd, tawdry, and overblown as the original was, it had a major selling point: Bette Midler, in a tailor-made vehicle. She didn’t so much chew the scenery as chop down on it, like Ms. Pacman. The C.C. Bloom character – a raucous, campy, torch singer with a bawdy sense of humor – was a perfect fit for Midler, and really it was just an extension of her concert persona. The movie gave Midler a chance to sing, vamp, crack jokes, and just be a terrifying whirlwind of emotion.

In the new version, Midler is replaced by Idina Menzel, Tony-Award winning singer-actress, known for her turn as Elphaba in Wicked. And though she has the singing chops, her C.C. is distressingly boring and blah. She lacks Midler’s queer/camp persona and screenwriters Bart Barker and Nikole Beckwith aren’t sure how to figure out their version of C.C. There are visual cues that she’s a misft – her hair is wild and crazy, and her apartment is messy. But otherwise, Menzel’s performance lacks the charisma and star power of Midler’s.

And then there’s the best friend role, Hillary. In the original, poor Barbara Hershey was hired to be beautiful and to bravely brace herself at the onset of Hurricane Midler, before dying to the bathetic strands of “Wind Beneath My Wings.” In the new version, Nia Long gets saddled with the thankless job of being C.C.’s wind beneath her wings, and though the actress tries to inject some life into the role, she’s constantly thwarted by a script that wants to force her into rote cliches.

Besides the blah casting, there’s also the weird fidelity to the original. Very little is done differently in the new version of Beaches, except some shuffling of events from the original. There are even echoes of some of the lines (none of the funny ones, though). The new film does nothing to update the film, save dress its heroines in contemporary clothing and have Minzel belt some already-dated AC/pop tunes (the less said about her reaching cover of “Wind Beneath My Wings” the better)

The theme of the story is about friendship – long-lasting friendship between two women that begins in childhood. The friendship begins on a Venice Beach boardwalk, with a 10 year-old C.C. busking for coins, and an awestruck Hillary watching. In the original, we have Mayim Bialik – who seemed born just to play Bette Midler as a child. Bialik was able to mimic Midler’s Borscht Belt/Catskills schtick perfectly. In the new version, we have the pretty Gabriella Pizzolo, who kinda-sorta looks like Menzel. Pizzolo does what she can but she’s not given much – the writers rush through the childhood scenes, so that we get Menzel and Long right away. In half an hour, so much happens! Childhood, marriage, divorce, and then we finally settle into the meat of the film, in which C.C. and Hillary profess their undying love for each other.

Throughout the film, I wondered just how the producers convinced such classy actresses like Nia Long and Indina Menzel to star in such schlock (I’m hoping each got such a huge payout for this thing that they can now buy private islands). The writing is superficial, glossing over any real examination of the friendship, and there isn’t a trope that the writers can’t resist: even if you haven’t seen the original, the minute Nia Long stops for a second to catch her breath, you know not to get too closely attached to her.

Of course the ending of the movie is supposed to be this huge emotional crescendo – the one where you reach for your Kleenix. But the film as a whole is so manipulative and cheaply-made, that instead of sadness or catharsis, there’s relief – finally, the movie’s over. There’s so little to recommend in this nonredeemable exercise in mediocrity. The actresses – so much better in other projects – flounder and looked confused because of the subpar material. The writing is paper thin and the recycled bits from the original just remind viewers of how much better the older movie was (and that’s not saying a whole lot). The only thing this film has got going for it, is the sets are sometimes pretty (the beach house C.C. and Hillary share is very pretty – the Hollywood mansion C.C. enjoys as a big time pop star is a tacky monstrosity, complete with an even tackier white piano).

The original Beaches is camp – it’s hokum, but camp. The new version – strangely amateurish, and feeling like a cheapo rush job, fails as camp and merely settles into crap.

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Renée Zellweger is incandescent in third installment of ‘Bridget Jones’ franchise

Bridget Jones's BabyIn my opinion, there’s nothing sexier than a beautiful, confident woman basking in middle-age glory. In the third installment of the Bridget Jones series, Bridget Jones’ Baby, Renée Zellweger is a glorious goddess. Beautiful, smart, and witty, this Bridget is far more self-assured than the hapless heroine of Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001) or Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004). And Zellweger plays her with dignity and maturity, even in the more slapstick moments (such as falling face first into a mud puddle, or being carried awkwardly by two men while in labor). While the third film is not the classic the first one was, it’s light years ahead of the mediocre stumble of the second film.

Bridget Jones fans will realize that unlike the first two films, the third isn’t based on a novel. Helen Fielding’s third Bridget Jones novel, Mad About the Boy has a different tone and plot surprises that may alienate some fans. Instead, Fielding teams up with comedic writer Dan Mazer and Renaissance woman Emma Thompson (who has a hilarious cameo as Bridget’s dry ob/gyn) for a wholly new story that has Bridget dealing with pregnancy and romance.

Colin Firth returns as the taciturn and terse Mark Darcy, the man that seems so right for Bridget, yet so wrong. As in the first two films, Mark is often frustratingly stiff and uptight. Like Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice (the inspiration for Fielding’s works), Mark hides his feelings beneath a hard shell, constructed for self-preservation.

After a chance meeting at a funeral, Bridget learns that Mark is engaged to be married. We learn that in the ensuing decade after Edge of Reason, Bridget and Mark had an on again/off again relationship which has ended sadly. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, as she would’ve done in the first film, Bridget moves on with her life, partying with her work chum, TV host Miranda (Sarah Solemani), at a music festival. It’s here that we get most of Zellweger’s flair for physical comedy, as she stomps through sodden fields of mud in inappropriate white pumps, before face planting in a field of mud, only to be rescued by handsome American Jack Qwant (Patrick Demspey, charming). The two have a one-night stand, and Bridget leaves happy.

The rom-com gods have Bridget reunite again with Mark at a christening, in which she discovers that he’s leaving his wife. The two share a magical night and make love, and it’s lovely.

That is until she finds out she’s pregnant. The big mystery of the film is who is Bridget’s baby daddy, Mark or Jack? Both men are dreamy candidates and for Bridget it’s an embarrassment of riches.

Fielding, Mazer, and Thompson put together a funny film that manages to be appealing and light, despite its potentially-appalling premise. Though the summary sounds like a British take on Maury, it’s all handled with grace and dignity. And the movie’s funny. Funny as hell. There are great one-liners and even the most absurd situations (Bridget going into labor) are written with humor that we can overlook some of the implausibility.

At the center of it all is Renée Zellweger, who is gifted with a fantastic role, and matches it with a beautiful performance. Her Bridget is slightly bruised and her maturity gives her a hard-earned gravitas. There’s also a lovely poignancy to the performance – Bridget is going through a lot, being pregnant and single (and going through a “geriatric” pregnancy as she’s reminded repeatedly throughout the film), and there’s a slight feeling of melancholy to a middle-aged Bridget. She’s lived a lot and seen a lot and is better for it.

Being a thoroughly British comedy set in contemporary times, there are gentle nods toward the current climate in the UK – most notably in the characterization of Bridget’s mum, Pamela (Gemma Jones). Running for local office as a conservative, she quickly shifts to the left when learning of her daughter’s situation, embracing diversity and becoming a liberal candidate instead. This feels a bit like wishful thinking, but it’s a good way to remind viewers that Bridget Jones is a symbol and heroine for the underdogs: for the single girls, for the heavy girls, for the queer boys, for anyone who feels a bit left out.

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John Cena has fun in a so-so episode of ‘SNL’

John Cena and Maren Morris Bumper PhotosWhen John Cena exposed his arms during his monologue, I gasped. But not in lust like Leslie Jones, but in shock (and curiosity). They weren’t arms so much as lumpy pillars of marble. It was a scary sight. In fact, John Cena is a sight. The wrestler-turned-actor follows in the tradition of Hulk Hogan, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, as the muscle man-turned comedic film actor. Cena has proven that he has solid comic chops (see his great turn in the Amy Poehler/Tina Fey starrer Sisters). He gets a lot of comic mileage from his mountainous physique, go-for-broke attitude, and smirky good looks.

As host of Saturday Night Live, he proves to be a genial presence who seems to have a lot of fun playing off his macho man image. The writing on this episode wasn’t on par with the last three excellent episodes, so it’s a testament to Cena’s considerable likability that this episode wasn’t a total dud.

The cold open wasn’t a Donald Trump bit, which is good because as great as Alec Baldwin in, the show is running out of ideas on what to do with the character. There’s only so much you can do with the two-dimensional Trump that the writers boxed Baldwin in, and maybe a couple weeks off will let the writers come up with stronger stuff (and there will probably be more Trump-related news stories, ripe for satire). Instead, we get a great cameo from Bryan Cranston as Walter White, who is the new head of DEA. It’s a great joke, as all of Trump’s cabinet appointments feel like they’re out to destroy the very agencies they’re in charge of. Having Walter White be the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration is a great gag that unfortunately doesn’t get taken to its potential, because before we get settled into the joke of Trump’s asinine choices, Cranston-as-White shouts out, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!”

As a monologist, Cena did well, supported by an incredible Bobby Moynihan, who challenges the real-life Adonis to a wrestling match (he’s easily vanquished). Of course when Leslie Jones enters the stage, she’s a worthy opponent, but is quickly undone by her attraction to Cena (she slips him her room key card). Kenan Thompson also slips by, with a sly move, slamming a folding chair across Cena’s back (which turns the chair into toothpicks). Cena coasts on his charm and easy sense of humor, and the heavy lifting (no pun intended) is left to Thompson, Jones, and Moynihan, and it’s a nice monologue.

In fact, that’s how the show worked for the most part. Cena is thrown into a sketch – primarily as a sight gag or straight man – and the other performers graciously do the hard work. I’m not writing this to imply that Cena is a lazy performer, just a limited one, but one that knows how to work within his limits. And though the writers hewed too close to the “big lug” theme, Cena seemed to transcend any hackiness of the material with his good attitude.

The best sketch of the mixed big is “Hook a Hunk” a fake MTV dating show that has Cecily Strong’s babe choosing from three hunks: Beck Bennett, Kyle Mooney, and Mikey Day. Cena pops up as the hunky host, and before we know what’s happening Strong and Cena find themselves attracted to each other, much to the consternation of the other guys. Cena’s smiley goofiness works well with Strong’s increasingly besotted and committed character. And as a neat and sweet twist, Bennett and Mooney find themselves in each others arms. It’s a surprisingly nice ending (that shows how far SNL progressed from the bro queer-baiting humor of the early 1990s).

The other great sketch – which wasn’t funny out loud, but well written was the Through Donald’s Eyes sketch that allows for us the viewers to see the world the way Donald Trump does – and it’s as messed as you’d imagine. Trump’s world is filled with syncophantic loved ones, his triumphs, and most importantly, gigantic hands and the chiseled looks of He-Man Cena.

The other great moments happened during the Weekend Update with Kate McKinnon as Angela Merkel and Strong as her recurring  Cathy Anne character, and the recurring Dyke & Fats sketch with McKinnon and Aidy Bryant. I’m not a huge fan of recurring sketches – often they lean hard on catch phrases, but what’s great about the aforementioned sketches is the strong writing and the committed performances. McKinnon as Merkel is great because it has shades of her Clinton – a frustrated, brilliant woman in a man’s world (though Merkel’s vulnerable while Clinton’s a shark – at least according to McKinnon’s performances). McKinnon’s Merkel is still pining for President Obama and is lamenting the lost opportunities of working with Clinton (she imagines the two having slumber parties – can you imagine?) As Kathy Anne, Strong slides up to the Update desk to decry the decline of American civility since the election, grousing about the rise of the Alt-Right. The joke, of course, is Kathy Anne’s sour look at the world, coupled with her malapropism. Strong’s physicality often has her playing beauties, so it’s great to have her play a grotesque.

The Dyke & Fats sketch is great because again, like with the gay twist in the Hook a Hunk sketch, it wouldn’t happen before. It’s great for the fictitious Chicago cops to embrace labels that would’ve normally been slurs – and Cena’s chief avoids insulting them, before condescending to them by offering the backhanded compliment that they’re great cops “for women” which sends both Dyke and Fats on a righteous tirade. It looks like a lot went into these sketches, production wise, so it’s a bit strange, that they’re so brief – I’d like to see these sketches extended.

The rest of the show was a solid C+ effort. Cena was the brightest spot in all of the sketches that exploited his looks and physical presence. The Science Fair sketch was alright – we get it, colleges reward athletes at the expense of academic integrity, with Cena’s college athlete putting together a dismal science project (tacking bananas onto a board), while the other students offer real projects, only to be shot down by the panel.

Another judging sketch – an America’s Got Talent-like sketch – has Cena and Day as a pair of falconers, except they’re using an owl, instead, who just keeps vomiting in their faces. Thompson has some nice moments as the befuddled judge, but otherwise, this sketch is a bit of a did.

There was also a couple ho-hum sketches in which Cena was merely a prop – an office Christmas party sketch and a romance bookstore sketch. Both benefited immensely from Aidy Bryant’s committed character work – in the former, she’s hanging on the ledge of her building by the tips of her fingers, while gripping the office Christmas tree. Instead of being concerned for her safety, her office mates are more worried about the Christmas tree. In the romance bookstore sketch, Bryant’s bookstore clerk scurries to a bookstack, where she meets up with her Fabio-like bodice-ripper romance hero, Cena, done up with a long, flowing wig and a puffy white dress shirt. Both sketches are nothing sketches – not bad, exactly, but very funny, though they prove that even in mediocre muck, Bryant is a find.

As far as pre-taped segments go, the aforementioned Dyke & Fats ruled, but there was a solid, if unspectacular, Karate Kid parody that went on for too long, and hammered the joke (Cena’s bully blasted Day’s Karate Kid through a succession of walls so hard, that Day flew out of his pants) relentlessly which diluted the impact of the joke. Still, Thompson was on hand to provide some nice, underplayed comic relief.

Random thoughts:

  • It’s funny that the show parodied America’s Got Talent – cast member Melissa Villaseñor was a contestant on the show. BTW, she was chosen because of her mimicking skills, and she’s not being used very well.
  • Even though McKinnon slayed as usual, Strong and Thompson were right up there, proving their mettle,too.
  • In the game show sketch, Thompson as Charles Barkley, showed that he is filling in nicely for Bill Hader’s former job of hosting fake game shows.
  • Next week, Casey Affleck, out doing the awards circuit right now for his new film Manchester by the Sea will be hosting. Brother Ben is an SNL vet, so we’ll see if humor runs in the family.

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Emma Stone makes a triumphant return to ‘SNL’

Emma Stone and Shawn Mendes Bumper Photos

Along with Justin Timberlake, Melissa McCarthy, Tom Hanks, and John Goodman, Emma Stone is a cast member that is so good at sketch comedy and hosting Saturday Night Live, that it’s curious that she didn’t pay her dues as a sketch comedienne before becoming an Oscar-nominated superstar.

Stone is funny, beautiful, and smart – a killer combination, and she got to show off all sides of her hilarious persona on last week’s show. Unlike a lot of gorgeous hosts, she doesn’t get marginalized by being shunted off into straight man roles (i.e. the exasperated mom, the exasperated girlfriend, the exasperated wife).

During her cute monologue, Stone informed her audience that it’s her third time hosting, and she called herself a vet of the show – I found it interesting that it was only her third time. Her monologue looked like it was going to be a musical – so I braced myself, but instead it was a funny riff on how SNL is like a high school. As she wandered the halls of the studio, she ran into cast mates who played the roles of high school archetypes (Vanessa Bayer was a mean girl, Kenan Thompson was a stoner, Bobby Moynihan was the brooding hunk).

Before, the monologue, we were treated to an Alec Baldwin as Trump sketch. I like his impression, and the sketch’s joke – that Trump will retweet anything – is salient and funny, but there needs to be more to the joke than what the writers are doing so far. Baldwin’s performance is brilliant and savage, but the writing is still weirdly soft. McKinnon’s wonderful Kellyanne Conway is great – and just like her Hillary Clinton, McKinnon is able to create a real, three-dimensional character instead of an accurate imitation (truth be told, McKinnon’s a virtuoso at characters, but not really all that great a mimic). The opener was funny, and I laughed (the Stephen Bannon as Grim Reaper sight gag was good), but it’s pointing to a future of softball lobs at the President-Elect.

The show’s first sketch was the recurring high school theater show. Lots of people are down on this sketch,and when it first came out, I didn’t like it much, either, but have since warmed up to it. The strident, myopic views of these supposedly progressive high school kids is a great parody of the dangers of forming one’s opinion in an echo chamber. Armed only with memes, Facebook posts, and buzz words, these kids are putting together a serious show, but undo any of their good intentions by being woefully misinformed (the kids think protesters at Standing Rock want the pipeline) or grossly inept at proving their point (shaming the audience into not being bilingual, the kids spoke Mandarin, but of course, it wasn’t really Mandarin). Aidy Bryant’s student then gets a monologue about HIV/AIDS in which her character starts off with an empowering message about the importance of destigmatizing AIDS (so far, so good), before her message gets away with her, and she urges everyone in the world to have AIDS before she announces  that “AIDS rocks!” (with triumphant fist in the air). As always, Kenan Thompson and Vanessa Bryant as two disgusted parents do some great, understated work.

Another great recurring tradition is to fit the hosts into funny music videos. Cameron Diaz, Anna Kendrick, and Elizabeth Banks starred in some memorable music video parodies during their stints, and Stone this time stars in a 90’s Christian Contemporary music video with Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon. As per usual, the visuals are spot-on: the big hair, the oversized dress shirts, the vests – the faux snow scene (check out Vanessa Williams’ “Save the Best for Last”). The song is about regifting a lame-ass candle from one coworker to another. McKinnon, Bryant, and Strong are great and sell the song despite the inanity of the lyrics.

Another Stone-heavy sketch has Pete Davidson as a high school kid having trouble with his math homework, and being inspired by the people in his posters, including McKinnon’s video game heroine, Mikey Day’s snowboarder, Thompson’s stand-up comic, and Stone’s bikini babe, all who lecture him about the importance of school and math. She dominates the sketch with a comically-porn squeal of a voice, as her character undermines the efforts of the other posters, who are sincerely trying to help Davidson.

As far as political sketches go, aside from the cold opener, we have a nothing sketch about a reality show that is looking to catch Hillary Clinton, as if she were Big Foot. Social media after the election has been peppered with stories of hikers and passersby spotting Clinton in the woods. It’s a pretty old joke that Twitter users already made, and the sketch – probably the bummer of the evening – didn’t do anything new with the joke (still, it was nice to see McKinnon as Clinton, even if all she did was stalk the forest).

I don’t like Weekend Update anymore – I just watch it for the correspondents. Leslie Jones didn’t disappoint, using her time to encourage men to be okay with the size of their endowments. She’s an ebullient, smart, and joyful presence and she’s a fantastic storyteller. The other correspondent was Bayer pulling out her great Jennifer-Aniston-as-Rachel-from-Friends impression, which was interrupted by the real Jennifer Aniston, who’s promoting a movie (in which Bayer is a costar). It’s a silly thing when the real person pops up next to the impressionist, but it was funny to see both Aniston and Bayer to a Rachel-off in which both descend into that high-pitched squawk of disbelief (at one point, Bayer seems to have some sort of Rachel meltdown as she sputters).

The rest of the show breezed through on the strength of the solid material and Stone’s great hosting skills. As a singing office cleaner with Jones and Cecily Strong (absent for most of the evening), Stone shone as the three cleaners guilted the office drones in their building to listen to their Christmas tunes, only to unveil a repertoire of holiday ditties that cast Santa as a big ole lech. The songs get dirtier and dirtier as the office workers get more confused and appalled as our trio belt out songs about how their chimneys only gone one way or that a line of elves are waiting for their turn after Old Saint Nick is done with them. A great bonus as Bayer’s clueless worker call the cleaners “Miss Thing” in a transparent attempt to hide that she doesn’t know their names.

From that winner comes one of the strongest of the evening – McKinnon’s return as Debette Goldry, an old Hollywood vet who recounts horror tales of Hollywood of yesteryear when women were treated as little more than objects (in fact, according to Debette, women were part of the prop budget and she sat on a table, labeled “woman). Stone, Jones, and Aniston appear as themselves and Zamata is the moderator of a panel of women in Hollywood, and while the three actresses talk about the challenges of being women in Hollywood, Debette trumps them with wretched tales of abuse at the hands of old time Hollywood studio execs, such as taking arsenic to keep her skin beautiful, or having pancake batter injected into her skin instead of Botox. Because she’s such a relic, Debette’s amazed when Aniston talks about sitting in the director’s chair – I loved Debette’s awed shock at this bit of news, which means a lot to her because she comes from a time when women were “just lying on a track waiting to get run over.” It would be nice if the stakes were heightened in the case of Stones, Aniston, and especially Jones, who actually did suffer from sexism and misogyny (her true experiences would give the scripted stuff thrown at Debette a run for its money). For many, the sketch feels like a way to say “Hey, actresses of today – you don’t have it so bad. Just look at how bad it was long ago.” And in a sense, that sentiment is correct: we rarely hear stories like that of Marilyn Monroe or Judy Garland, thank god, and these sketches are a nice way to bring some much-needed perspective, especially when we hear Patricia Arquette talk about the wage gap in Hollywood (though, again, to counter any of that, the writers should’ve just let Jones talk about her summer, and Debette would’ve probably been like, “Yeah, you’re right…you win, I fold”).

The other pre-taped segment was a funny fake toy commercial. SNL has a long history of great fake ads – it’s one of the show’s highlights (back in the day, there was even a compilation show of the program’s greatest fake commercial hits). In this one, Fisher-Price has a new toy out for the holidays, a plastic well for sensitive little boys. While girls are playing with Barbies and other boys are playing with toy guns, what are the sensitive, melancholy boys supposed to do? Play with their plastic well, which gives them hours of fun, leaning against its side, running their fingers through the water, and being thoughtful. The kid who plays the pensive little tyke in the sketch is funny, as is his fiercely protective – and let’s just say it, awesome – mother, Stone is a hoot (“Everything is for you!” she rages at a little bully. “This one thing is for him!”)

And it’s fitting that a December episode would have a nativity sketch, with Stone playing Mary, who’s understandably irritated, tired, and undone by all of the guests marching into her manger to visit the baby. It’s not a funny ha-ha sketch – it makes total sense that’s shoved way at the end – but it’s very well-played by Stone and the message is pretty cool. For all eternity, we get the story of Mary being perfect, luminescent, meek, and compliant, and it’s great that in this sketch, Mary’s kind of a badass and totally relatable and sympathetic. It’s also funny that Kyle Mooney gets to be Joseph, but a total bro-ey Joseph, who doesn’t get why Mary may not want kings and wise men to traipse around her just after she gave birth (he even asks her to get them some drinks). Even if we’re meant to see Mary as “difficult” and a touch bratty, it’s a surprisingly feminist sketch, with Stone aces, conveying both the frustration of having to hold her shit together as well as the exhaustion of just giving birth and being a new mom. And the ending is fantastic with the Angel Gabriel’s condescending insensitivity when he asks, “Are you okay?  You look tired,” to which Mary fumes perfectly.

Following Dave Chappelle’s near-perfect episode and Kristen Wiig’s excellent outing, this is the third great show in a row. The next episode features John Cena, the wrestler-turned action star who has proven that he has decent comic chops (Sisters), and SNL has a history of doing right by these kinds of performers (The Rock has had a solid turn at hosting).

A random thought:

I love Cecily Strong’s Planned Parenthood t-shirt at the goodbyes – speaking of Strong, usually a heavy hitter, was quite absent

 

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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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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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