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Reese Witherspoon and Sofía Vergara flail and fumble in ‘Hot Pursuit’

Hot PursuitSofía Vergara and Reese Witherspoon are two actresses who have charm and humor to spare. In their best work, they have proven themselves to be bright and capable comediennes. For some reason, together they seem to drain each other of their respective charms. In Anne Fletcher’s 2015 comedy Hot Pursuit, the two are paired for a strangely dour and unfunny comedy that feels as if it works to make the ladies as unlikable as possible.

Witherspoon stars Rose Cooper, a second-generation cop who is assigned to protect the widow of a drug boss (Vergara). It’s a formulaic buddy comedy that hopes to exploit the odd couple pairing of Vergara and Witherspoon. Witherspoon’s Rose Cooper is a priggish, uptight dummy. She’s pathologically by-the-book, and her obsessive attention is supposed to be funny, but it comes off sad, and then there’s Witherspoons Texas twang, which is broad and jokey.

Vergara, on the other hand, is tasked to play the comic foil to Witherspoon’s straight man, and she’s stranded by a terrible script and Fletcher’s lazy direction, which essentially results in Vergara playing a variation on Gloria Pritchett from Modern Family, but without her wit.

The convoluted plot has Rose thrown into a nutso caper in which she and Vergara’s Daniella are running away from members of a drug cartel as well as a band of crooked cops. On their way to Dallas, the two run into episodes of hilarity such as having a semi crash into their convertible setting off a mushroom cloud of cocaine, pretending to be lesbian lovers to distract Jim Gaffigan’s good ole boy, or commandeering a tour bus of seniors to escape from the assassins.

Like most buddy comedies, the energy from the story comes from the relationship between the two leads. And both Witherspoon and Vergara work hard, but because they aren’t reined in by their director, their performances devolve from simply broad mugging to lots of screaming. As the story chugs along, there are some predictable twists that are meant to be shocking, but because the screenplay feels like it’s been spit out of a machine, each turn feels ready made and cued.

Underneath the layers of mess, the script tries to make some point about dismissing women. Daniella is seen as an empty-headed trophy wife, but there are “layers” to her (but the shading of her character is so questionable, that one wonders if it wasn’t better to just maintain her as an empty-headed bimbo). And because Rose is short and pretty, she’s easily written off as a cute nothing. Both women prove to be more than just stereotypes, but they do so by the end of the movie, and at that point, it isn’t really clear if anyone will care.

Aside from the poor pacing and explosive mugging, there’s also questionable choices in the humor. We’re subject to lots of racist stereotypes of Latinx folks, there’s a shot of transphobic humor in the beginning, plus there’s a sprinkling of gay panic, too. In 1987, these jokes wouldn’t feel out of place, but in 2015, they contribute to the general staleness of the film.

The end of the movie has some bloopers – and to be honest, the loose playfulness of the costars on set is far funnier than anything that the two ladies did on screen. It’s too bad that we have to wait to the end of the movie to see Witherspoon and Vergara be funny.

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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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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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Second season of ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ bests first season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jerry Seinfeld  &  Margaret Cho on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Carol Burnett’s ‘An Evening of Laughter and Reflection’ is an evening of fun and laughs

Carol Burnett is a national treasure and a comedy hero, and strode on the stage at The Chicago Theatre with the presence and confidence of a prize fighter. After a montage which showed clips of Burnett answering questions from her audiences from The Carol Burnett Show, the icon was met with rapturous applause from an appreciative audience. What followed was an hour and a half of anecdotes and more flip clips as well as a massive Q&A session, in which hard-working ushers sprinted up and down the aisles thrusting mics into the raised hands of excited fans. The stories Burnett chose to share came up mostly as well-prepared “tangents” inspired by the questions she was fielding – in one instance, early in the show, a fan asked about costar Vicki Lawrence and Burnett, not wanting to give away the store, cheerfully promised to bring up Lawrence later in the program.

In presenting the show with film clips, Burnett was given a chance to do two things: 1) rest, when needed – after all, even though she doesn’t look it, she’s 83-years old and 2) illustrate some of the anecdotes she was sharing. One particularly funny story deal with Tim Conway and the late Harvey Korman (to whom An Evening of Laughter and Reflection was dedicated) in which the former played an inept dentist while the latter was his hapless patient. The point of the sketch was just how masterful Conway was in getting Korman to break. A major hallmark of The Carol Burnett Show was the times the cast members corpsed throughout the show. Burnett explained that even though they tried their best to keep it together, Conway was often able to mess them up, sending his cast mates into paroxysms of laughter.

Burnett also used the film clips to remind viewers of some of the most iconic moments of The Carol Burnett Show including the famed Gone with the Wind parody, that had Burnett – as Scarlett O’Hara – descend down a grand staircase with the curtain rod dress. The audience on TV laughed uproariously, as did the audience in the theater. Slightly less-known, but equally funny is Burnett’s take on Sunset Boulevard, with her boozy, tragic Norma Desmond (in a cute aside, the comedienne boasted about Gloria Swanson once guesting on the show). Other clips reeled off all of the great guest stars that stood next to Burnett on her stage – Cher, Liza Minnelli, Ray Charles, Ethel Merman, Lucille Ball – but the biggest reactions came when Karen Carpenter appeared sadly warbling a Bacharach tune (we all awwwwed sadly) and when a still-beautiful Rita Hayworth popped up in full 70s glamor. When asked by an audience member if any superstar was a hard get, Burnett said no, and assured her fans that every superstar that was asked appeared.

The subject of women in comedy came up, as well. First in a story about Lucille Ball, who, freshly divorced from Desi Arnaz, found herself president of Desilu Productions, and in charge of shooting down bad ideas. In the story the legendary comedienne found her inner strength and started issuing orders and edicts, and proudly admitted to Burnett that it was then that they added an “s” to her last name. Though, not an explicitly feminist comic, Burnett still holds a giant place in female comedy, and she acknowledged it, not by embracing feminist politics, but by name-checking Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, and Melissa McCarthy throughout the evening.

The (great) problem with having an historic show like The Carol Burnett Show, is that it tends to overshadow everything else. After the show’s ending in 1978, Burnett continued a long and accomplished career in television, stage, and film, though nothing came close to the success of that show (she tried her hand at variety TV again in the early 90s with a pair of anthology series that didn’t last very long). As a result, the lion’s share of the evening was spent on The Carol Burnett Show at the expense of the comedienne’s other projects. She did squeeze in a cute story about Annie, and how because the shooting of the film was so long and protracted, she found herself in a pickle when she had to come back for a reshoot after having had minor plastic surgery. Someone in the rafters of the theaters shouted a question about Law & Order, and Burnett took the time to joyfully admit that though comedy was her love, she did enjoy playing villains, too.

But even though she liked playing villains, Burnett’s stock-in-trade is her likability. She comes across as a genuinely nice person. Throughout the evening, peppered among the good questions, were goofy requests for hugs – which Burnett tactfully postponed for after the show; a couple kids got into the act, too, garbling adorably incoherent questions which the star handled like a pro. Her star power coupled with her genial manner made for a lovely and hilarious evening that more than lived up to its title.

Click here to buy tickets and to see the schedule for Carol Burnett: An Evening of Laughter and Reflection.

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Fred Armisen brings some pals to close a spotty season of ‘SNL’

Fred Armisen and Courtney Barnett Bumper PhotosFred Armisen is the sixth former SNL cast member to return to Studio 8H as a host and he did not disappoint. Armisen’s style of comedy is super old school – and owes a lot to Martin Short (who is starring in an upcoming variety show with fellow SNL alumni Maya Rudolph), and no where is Short’s influence more apparent than in Armisen’s excellent monologue that had the comedian share a bit of his fake one-man show with the audience. Armisen expertly pivoted from hackey voices to smarmy schmaltz, all while peddling a cliched tale of leaving Long Island for Manhattan, and becoming a star. It’s exactly the kind of thing Martin Short excelled at, and it’s exactly the kind of thing that Armisen’s so fantastic at: smarmy showbizzyness that has a simmering layer of devastating irony – five minutes of Armisen is more potent at Hollywood-deflating than an hour of Ricky Gervais’ increasingly-toxic material. The straighter Armisen played the scene, imbuing it with calculated/crass pathos, the funnier it became. To drive the point home, Armisen has to micromanage everything, from an audience member’s reaction to the dimming of the lights at the close of his monologue. A terrific start to a mostly-terrific show.

The cold open was as usual, a political sketch, with Larry David returning as Bernie Sanders, and Kate McKinnon back as Hillary Clinton. David and McKinnon are pros are great – it’s interesting to see how McKinnon has had to develop her character, as Clinton’s road to the nomination seems harder and harder to get. No longer is she gliding towards the White House with entitled confidence, but she’s dragging a bloated and lumbering campaign, while Sanders keeps adding more weight to it. It’s also nice to see the writers ding Clinton – pointing out that despite her lead in the delegate count, she’s losing states to Sanders. Sanders’ position as a populist also gets tweaked and there’s something so endearingly silly about the Vermont Senator’s dream of having a tuna fish sandwich…on a croissant, like the fancy people do. SNL will never be known as a devastating source of trenchant political comedy – the Sarah Palin stuff notwithstanding, most of what passes for political humor on the show is decent impressions, catch phrases, and mining tabloids for supposedly topical material. That in this season David and McKinnon are called upon to create real characters is impressive.

Anyways, on with the rest of the show.

It felt like a good episode from Armisen’s tenure. The best sketches used Armisen to the best of his abilities, and despite his singular talent, he’s also a great team player, rarely ever showboating or showing up his teammates.

The sketch that’s getting the most attention is the pretaped Dead Poets Society spoof, “Farewell Mr. Bunting” that has Armisen playing a beloved teacher who is leaving his classroom – but instead of the “Oh Captain, my Captain” recital that took place in the Robin Williams weepie, we get an orgy of decapitations, as Pete Davidson’s student climbs on his chair to join in on the goodbye Mr. Chips moment, he stands too close to a ceiling fan slicing his head off, which leads to a gruesome game of hot potato as the head is tossed from one screaming student to another. While I’m not as enamored with it as everyone else in America, it’s a funny sketch.

Another pretaped sketch that scored was the return of Andy Samberg and Lonely Island. It’s obviously a plug for Samberg’s new movie Popstar, but the short – “Finest Girl” – is just the sort of thing that Lonely Island is great at: a Justin Timberlake/Justin Bieber amalgam of top 40 pop with some seriously f’d up lyrics, this time about a young lady who has a “killing Osama bin Laden fetish.” Samberg’s pop star alter ego (again a weird mashup of Timberlake and Bieber and every other whimpering wannabe soul man) is great fun and even he – as self-involved and deluded as he is – takes pause at his paramours obsession with Bin Laden.

Popping in for a well-received cameo was Jason Sudeikis in a Regine sketch. I never found drag terribly  funny, but I do like the perennially-put upon Regine who is reduced to a pile of quivering flesh whenever Sudeikis shows her any physical affection. Sudeikis is totally committed to his character, plowing through, despite Armisen’s Regine writhing and turning all over the place.

Another recurring sketch, the Student Theater Showcase, scored points. Some find this sketch one note, but I like it. The kids are always doing their best to be politically correct and they strenuously try to expand the minds of their audiences. As funny as the kids are, it’s the parents – particularly Vanessa Bayer – who are the best, reacting to their kids’ nonsense with annoyance and shame.

The Weekend Update was okay – but notable for the fantastic return of Maya Rudolph as recently-impeached Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff. Brazilian readers can school me if Rudolph’s accent was credible (I suspect not), but yet again, she brings the funny by portraying the embattled politico as someone who couldn’t give any fucks about losing her job, and sees her impeachment as an excuse to party. Just as Samberg was appearing to promote Popstar, I suspect that Rudolph’s appearance was killing two birds with one stone: honoring her friend Fred Armisen’s return as well as reminding folks of her upcoming show with Martin Short. Either way, we don’t need an excuse to see Maya Rudolph, and she needs to come back to host.

There was an escape pod sketch that worked solely because of Arimsen’s needling comic persona – and for its attention to strange details (i.e. Armisen’s  character picks City Slickers 2 as his movie of choice when escaping a doomed space ship). The writing wasn’t anything special, but the scribes must’ve realized that having Armisen play one of his nudniks would be enough.

The only bad sketch – and it was pretty bad, with a noxious premise – was the Lewis & Clark sketch. Kyle Mooney and Cecily Strong join Armisen as an acting troupe that is hired by Aidy Bryant’s middle school teacher to perform the Lewis & Clark story. The performance devolves into some ugliness about Mooney’s character being raped by Armisen – I don’t know how many times comics will blunder to try and make rape funny. It was a dark and unnecessary moment in an otherwise bright show.

So, the 41st season of SNL was so-so. I’m thinking that it will be the final season for Sasheer Zamata, which is a shame because she is a bright and funny comic, but was woefully underused. New guy Jon Rudnitsky should also look around for a new job as his inaugural season seemed rather in auspicious. Leslie Jones, Pete Davidson, and Michael Che should all be bumped up to the main cast – each proved to be invaluable. I’m also thinking that Kate McKinnon’s star is on the rise, and it won’t be long before she follows Kirsten Wiig’s trajectory.


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