Category Archives: Sitcom

Celebrating the strange legacy of Tim Allen’s ‘Last Man Standing’

When ABC announced it was canceling Tim Allen’s sitcom Last Man Standing after six seasons, conservative viewers cried foul, insisting that the show was being canceled for its conservative point of view. It’s true – Hollywood tends to skew liberal (at least when it comes to the creative side), but we’re also looking at a season that saw the end of The Real O’Neals, a coming-of-age sitcom about a queer teen. Last Man Standing‘s cancellation is all the more surprising because even though it was a sleepy performer in its Friday night time slot, it was still pulling in an average of about 8 million viewers per season. ABC also canceled Dr. Ken, the other Friday night sitcom, which may mean that the network is looking to revamp its Friday night schedule.

Allen, the star and one of the executive producers of the show, has been an outspoken conservative in the last few years. He also discussed the difficulty in being conservative in Hollywood. He likened it to 1930s Germany, which goes to show you that though he’s a funny guy, he isn’t necessarily a smart guy. But Last Man Standing, which produced 130 episodes will now live in syndication on basic cable, alongside his other long-running sitcom Home Improvement, and will probably easily forgotten.

It’s easy to see why. It’s not a great sitcom. It’s an old-fashioned multi-camera sitcom, filmed live in front of an audience, with a laugh track. The actors march onto the set, hit their marks, and announce their punch lines to the merriment of the studio audience. In light of single-camera sitcoms like Modern Family and The Middle, watching Last Man Standing can be a jarring experience. The laughter – which is probably genuine with just a touch of sweetening – feels aggressive and rote. The acting is broad. The sets are laid out so that everyone is facing the audience. There’s an artificiality to Last Man Standing that feels disruptive, and the show’s limits cannot transcend the issue.

Still, it wasn’t a terrible show, and it deserves some recognition of what it was trying to do. Tim Allen’s character, Mike Baxter, wasn’t the first conservative on a TV sitcom. Two of the most famous examples would be Archie Bunker on All in the Family and Alex Keaton on Family TiesAll in the Family aired for nine seasons, from 1971 to 1979. During that time the country saw three presidents: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter. For the bulk of the show’s run, Archie Bunker became a voice of the reactionary American conservative during the Nixon and Ford administrations. When show creator Norman Lear created Archie, he wanted to lampoon the knee-jerk response to the growing progressive movement. His show aimed to ridicule the backlash to anti-war movement, feminism, gay rights, and civil rights. But the writers and star Carroll O’Connor took what could’ve been a toxic character and imbued him with dignity and appeal. His conservatism was played for laughs, and the scripts always made sure that the audience knows that Archie was wrong, but he evolved into a nuanced and complicated character, who was able to outclass Lear’s oft-preachy tone.

But Tim Allen is no Carroll O’Connor. One of the main debits of the show was its star. On Home Improvement, Allen was able to parlay his comedic persona – the grunting, wannabe Alpha-male – into an appealing sitcom character. Home Improvement was a smash hit, lodged permanently in the top 10 for all of its 8 seasons (peaking at an incredible number 2 in season three). At one point in the show’s history, over 20 million people watched Tim Allen’s Tim Taylor hurt himself in a variety of ways by misusing and abusing power tools. Even though the show was a ratings hit, critics were dismissive, and though it pops up form time to time in syndication (often paired with Last Man Standing), it’s barely remembered as an important program of the 1990s.

Despite Allen’s presence, the show still manages to say something, despite its deadening blandness. Those who defend the show’s conservatism – and those who lambaste it – are missing the point. Yeah, Mike Baxter was a conservative and he hated Obama and Hillary Clinton, but the anti-liberal jokes were incredibly soft (this could be because as Allen pointed out, most of the writers were liberals) When Mike Baxter got on a rant against something – whether it’s political correctness, gender, or taxes – he morphed into the archetypal cranky old white guy. There was little bite to what he was saying, because he wasn’t saying all that much.

And there was so much potential. The show ran during the Obama Administration when so much of the country was divided by a backlash against his progressive policies and against the fact that a Black man was running the country. Mike Baxter could’ve been a voice for that backlash – a humanizing voice that would complicated the image of the eccentric and violent yahoos who burned effigies of Obama at protests. Because the show is centered on an upper-middle class family, none of the economic issues that the country faced, namely the crawling recovery from the Great Recession, are handled in any sort of meaningful manner. During the Obama administration, queer rights had made some startling leaps forward, and the show barely mentioned queer people. The reason for this is probably because Friday nights on ABC tend to skew to family-oriented shows. In its salad days, ABC marketed Friday nights with a bloc of family sitcoms, TGIF. Such classics of mediorcrity like Family Matters, Perfect Strangers, My Two Dads, and the magnus opus of suckitude, Full House were event watching for a lot of 80s kids. So the real estate probably wasn’t the most hospitable for a hard-hitting, socially relevant sitcom.

But there’s another show in Last Man Standing, a far more interesting show that hardly anyone looks at: and that show stars Nancy Travis. Travis is TV’s most appealing character actress/comedienne, whose career is marked by an inability to find a sustaining vehicle for her abundant talents. The fact that Last Man Standing gave her work for six straight years is reason enough to praise the show because Travis is a find.

On the show, Travis played  Vanessa Baxter, a geologist who is married to Allen’s sporting goods store exec. It’s with Vanessa that the show starts to gel into something somewhat interesting. The story of how a moderately progressive, intelligent scientist can stand being married to a sometimes-blowhard like Mike Baxter makes for some solid TV watching. Unfortunately, despite Travis’ lovely presence, too often, she was pushed into the role of the straight man to Allen’s grumpy goof. Her politics skew center-left, and she supported Hillary Clinton – though her liberalism is treated much like Mike’s conservatism, it’s a trait, like “blonde” or “pretty” and there is precious little exploration into why Vanessa likes Clinton outside of her being a woman and a Democrat. One episode decent episode explored Vanessa’s personal convictions well. In it, she had to defend her support of fracking to a group of high school kids. Fracking is indefensible, and I think this was probably Allen’s influence, but it gave Vanessa some shading – something that doesn’t exist in the fictional world of Last Man Standing. If Travis was spun off into her own show, one of say, a recently widowed Vanessa Baxter working as a geologist or high school teacher, and juggling the demands of motherhood (and grandmotherhood), then I’d probably watch that show.

But Allen was the star of Last Man Standing and his comedic fingerprints are everywhere. He never worked to challenge his audiences, nor did he want them to question their assumptions. Instead, he was a genial, if slightly insufferable, dad who would grouse  about how weird kids are nowadays. Last Man Standing could’ve been a good show if it found a strong voice and stuck to it and was committed to it; instead, it coasted on being mildly dickish, sticking it to liberals, when really, they weren’t watching it anyways.

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‘Veep’ predicts the horror that was the 2016 presidential election in its 5th season

Veep‘s 5th season aired from April to June in 2016, three months before the horrifying election day that turned our political landscape into one long, unending Saturday Night Live sketch. In its fifth season, Veep managed to survive the departure of its showrunner, creator Armando Iannucci, intact and deliver 10 satisfying and hilarious episodes. Watching the show after the election takes on added irony, poignancy, and just sheer feelings of the uncanny and just how prescient the show would prove to be.

In the fourth season, President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) found herself in a strange situation on election night. She was tied with her rival (though she won the popular vote – the Electoral College screws over pioneering female presidential candidates even in fiction), which set forth an obscure and arcane set of rules that meant congress would vote for the next president of the United States. Much of season five concerns itself with Selina’s campaign in wooing members of congress to back her.

Throughout the season, Selina is not only trying to hold on to her position as president, she’s also trying to enact legislation that would leave a legacy (she even wants to push forward talks between Tibet and China in hopes of a Nobel Peace Prize). The problem is, as always, Selina and her band of misfits are incapable of not screwing up. In the reality of Veep, a narcissistic nincompoop like Selina Meyer can be president, which is a hilarious conceit. While she has drive and ambition, she’s also lazy, distracted, and extremely self-serving. And it doesn’t help that she’s assembled what is probably the most inefficient team in presidential history. While all of this politicking is going on, Selina’s daughter Catherine is filming Selina’s annus horribilis for a student film.

While Selina’s story takes center stage,  supporting characters have minor arcs, as well. Mike (Matt Walsh) is in the process of adopting a baby from China; Amy (Anna Chlumsky) and Dan (Reid Scott) are going through a will-they/won’t they; and Jonah (Timothy Simons, brilliant and deserving of some serious Emmy love) runs for congress. These stories provide background and often act as white noise for the main plot, which focuses on Selina’s desperate and oft-foiled fight to stay president.

I imagine that the writers of Veep had a field day creating outlandish and ridiculous scenarios to put their characters in – whether it’s in Camp David, where Selina tricks Catherine into thinking they’re sharing a family Christmas (when really, she’s hosting the Chinese president); or in a hospital bed, cheering over her mother’s deathbed because she got good news about her campaign – but watching Veep now feels scary in its accuracy. Selina is not meant to be president and doesn’t want the position out of patriotism or sense of duty. She sees it as a source of power, influence, and wealth. None of that would be so terrible if Selina was good at her job, but she’s a series of blunders and fuck ups, one more catastrophic than the next. And like any seasoned politician, Selina lacks empathy and self-awareness and cannot acknowledge her role in her downfall.

But despite her many flaws and faults, Selina remains a compelling anti-heroine that viewers will want to watch (though I’m not sure how many would root for her). She’s not a stupid woman, nor is she without any political instinct or know how. The problem is she doesn’t have an internal filter – she merely works off her id. And when her blunders result in some devastating loss or setback, her instinct isn’t to have a postmortem to figure out where she went wrong; instead, she lashes out at those around her.

Part of what makes Selina so interesting and fascinating to watch is the furious comedic energy Julia Louis-Dreyfus brings to the role. Veep is a wonderful opportunity for the comedienne to show off not only her genius for savage one liners, but also her estimable skills as a physical comic. Selina Meyer is a monster and there’s something subversive and awesome in watching a female sitcom lead not be likable or adorable. Even in moments when we are naturally drawn toward sympathy, like during the moments when Selina’s mother is dying, Selina still manages to reward our momentary lapses of judgement by doing something heinous and awful, thereby restoring order.

The sixth season started with Selina humbled and bruised. She’s a mere private citizen now, being buried underneath the shadow of the second female president of the United States, Laura Montez, who quickly swallowed up any lasting imprint that Selina left in Washington. The show has taken on unintended shading, given the state of world politics at the moment. It’s satire, but it’s satire that hits uncomfortably close to home. Veep has evolved over its six seasons into a gallows, whistling past the graveyard kind of show. It’s no longer just funny ha-ha, but also funny OhMyGodWhatIsGoingOn. And right now, we could all use some laughs.

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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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Dreaming about being BFFs with Leah Remini

I must have had Leah Remini on my mind a lot lately, because I had a very vivid dream about being friends with TV comedienne and Scientology whistle blower, Leah Remini. It was a very vivid dream. So vivid in fact, that when I woke up, I realized that I hadn’t yet written a Christmas card for Leah. And I realized that I didn’t have her address, but still, in the fog of just waking up, I made the strange connection that Leah and I shared a mutual friend who lives in Atlanta (we don’t), and so I would send Leah’s Christmas card, addressing it to Leah, but in c/o of my friend.

In my dream, Leah had a gorgeous ranch home, somewhere warm. I’ll assume it was L.A., but I’m not completely sure – it could’ve been Phoenix (I flew out there to visit in-laws a few times). She was very sweet. In my dream, she still had her thick New York accent, but she wasn’t as surly as her comedic persona. Not surprisingly, she was gorgeous and funny – just like she seems to be in real life.

This isn’t the first time that I had a celebrity dream that felt so real that I was still confused waking up. Once I dreamed that I was spring cleaning my apartment with Sharon Stone (who was, like 6″ in my dream) and I had the television on in the background, and the promos for the final season of Sex and the City came on, and suddenly, in the dream, I got very upset because when Kristin Davis came on the screen, I started to rant to Sharon Stone, “Oh my god, I’ve been calling Kristen for days, and she hasn’t gotten back to me. I don’t know what’s going on. She’s my best friend, and she hasn’t gotten back to me in days.” And I woke up and was actually upset that Kristin Davis was shining me on.

Celebrity dreams are weird – a boss of mine used to have a Website in which he compiled emails by contributors. These emails were stories of celebrity dreams. I was still working with him when I had the Sharon Stone/Kristen Davis dream, so he included it in his site (with a neat caricature of Sharon Stone).

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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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