Archive for the Comedy Category

Real Just Got Shit

Posted in Comedy, TV with tags , , , , , on October 16, 2011 by Tim Lee

This isn’t so much a moan about naturalism as a comedic tool, more the trend in recent years that any single camera sitcom with no laugh track, semi-improvised dialogue and preferably some swearing, seems to get an automatic critical pass and is deemed somehow more worthy. Spot these Bafta baiting atrocities by playing Critic Bingo and scouring your average broadsheet review for words and phrases like ‘dark’, ‘brave’, ‘realistic‘, ‘beautifully observed’ and ‘dead clever’.

So when did this all begin? Well the Year Zero as far as most reviewers seem to be concerned would be the advent of The Office. Sure, the mockumentary format was already a bit old hat by this point –  having been used in The Pool sketches in The Day Today, People Like Us and so on – and The Royle Family had already proven that longueurs were no barrier to mainstream success, but The Office was probably the one that has pretty much become the template for this is how it’s done. Now I’m not here to argue that those two aren’t classic shows – I’ve not gone totally wang-waving mental – but what seems to have got lost in subsequent years is that it wasn’t the form that made these shows funny, but the writing. What primarily made The Office so good was its brilliant execution – grafting dramatic, almost soapy storylines onto a sitcom format and making the whole damn thing work. Its stylistic quirks were just the icing rather than the cake.

The most noticeable trend in the last decade, particularly in UK sitcoms, has been the slow death of the laugh track (be it canned or studio). I won’t be dancing on its grave like some – in a few cases, such as It’s Garry Shandling’s Show or even Seinfeld, it really adds to the energy of the performances – but in general it’s a fairly inessential addition to a show. Having said that, a rerun of Father Ted or I’m Alan Partridge is in no way ruined for me by its presence, and I don’t see its absence as a signifier of some higher artistic worth. But you know who begs to differ? Sam Wollaston of course – a man for whom words fall from Macbook Air like shit from arse (c. Spartacus: Gods of the Arena).  Here he is on the execrable Roger And Val Have Just Got In: ‘I began by appreciating the lack of canned laughter.’ Oh brilliant. So now you’re sat there enjoying what isn’t in the show. What else did you enjoy not being there? A car chase? An uplifting Glee-style song and dance number? FFS. Griping about the presence of a laugh track seems to have become lazy reviewer shorthand for having a refined comic palate.

So, when I start my bi-weekly moan on this topic and the pub immediately empties or Friend X is no longer online, the show that inevitably crops up is The Trip. It’s a show which I thought had its moments, but its numerous self-indulgences signify for me where realism ends and onanism begins. The US show you’ll most commonly see cited by UK comedians is the undeniably great Curb Your Enthusiasm. The thing that most people seem to take away from Curb is that it’s semi-improvised, to the point where script has almost become a dirty word. Well yes, Curb is semi-improvised. It also has a cast comprised of some of the best improvisational comics in the US – plus Cheryl ‘why would you do that Larry?’ Hines – and storylines that are tighter than a gnat’s chuff. A Curb show outline will have around five liberally annotated pages but that’s solid plot, and takes can go into the thirties with LD suggesting key lines as jumping off points for the scene.

Compare this to The Trip which often played out more like Lost In Translation meets Groundhog Day, the cycle being starter, impression-off, repeat. And the pauses weren’t so much as pregnant as birthed, went through an awkward goth phase and then buggered off to university before the joke was eventually delivered. Yeah, that might be naturalistic, but entertaining? Debatable. As for the show staking a claim to realism, Coogan’s problems are real alright: ennui-laden multimillionaire comic ears-deep in muff can’t find true love, Hollywood acclaim or a really good crème brulee; but the general yearning for something better aside, I didn’t find these problems particularly gripping or relatable. Apparently the comedy had ‘real edge’ and it took ‘a lot of guts’ for them to make it. Personally I found as far as being realistic goes, ‘Steve Coogan’ was a far more sanitised, sympathetic creation than the coke snorting fuckmonkey of tabloid lore. Tommy Saxondale was a much more interesting, nuanced character.

However, the show that really pisses on my porridge, the one that’s taken the very worst that comedy vérité has to offer and combined it in one moribund Gagasaki of a half hour, is Him & Her. The premise of the show, if you’re lucky enough to have avoided it, is that the most tedious, unlikeable unemployed couple in the world hang around in their flat and do nothing. Absolutely nothing. Seinfeld ain’t got nothing on this shit. Of course the critics spaffed all over it saying that it’s yep, beautifully observed, to which my response is ‘oh that makes it good, does it?’ For a long time the last great taboo in television has been seeing characters on the can – well Him & Her breaks down the fourth (toilet) wall on this one when one of them opines ‘Can you make me some toast? I just done a wee. I fink I done a poo as well.’

Now I’ve had mornings on the mercy seat packed with more tension than a Hitchcock drama and parked my breakfast in many a meaningful way, but I’ve never thought it would add a deeper level of understanding to a character – to see man, trousers down, vulnerable and de-clenched, is to see the true essence of what it is to be human. Also, in line with so much realistic dialogue, nobody would actually say this. Even somebody with the most spastic of colons is pretty certain whether they’ve dropped the brown shark or not. But Him & Her really plays the full deck: mumbled, dramatically inert dialogue, quizzical rise and fall intonation, and interminable silences. We’re getting dangerously close to ‘comedy is like jazz’ territory here – it isn’t so much about the jokes as the space between the jokes. I wouldn’t want to spend thirty minutes with these enervating DSS fucks, so why would I want them beamed into my living room either?

A lot of these shows are often labelled as ambitious, but I think in many cases the reliance on naturalistic tropes belies exactly the opposite – celebrating rough cut amateurism for its own sake. The Observer’s recent review of  Fresh Meat warns that it ‘risks becoming as sparkling as 30 Rock.’ A long-running, successful, consistently funny gag a minute sitcom? How awful. Of course there are plenty of examples of this kind of thing being done well, like Marion & Geoff and even Peep Show in the UK to the cruelly cancelled Party Down in the US, but it’s the snobbery and unthinking blanket approval that really grates.

There are many more shows on my shitlist – Pulling, Lizzie and Sarah – shows where people behaving universally appallingly is somehow more real and therefore funnier, as if the recognition and laughter reflexes have the same trigger. But ultimately it should come down to this: when assessing a sitcom’s worth, funny should come before form. Realism is just another form of stylistic technique.

Fringe Benefits

Posted in Comedy, TV with tags , , , on September 18, 2011 by Tim Lee

[TV show] New Girl

Zooey and I have been through a lot together over the years. I’ve watched The Village. Twice. I sat through (500) Days Of Summer. Seemingly in real-time. That film where she runs a hipster cereal bar? Flipped the bird at the Feds and downloaded it due to the inexplicable lack of a UK release. Seriously, that shit had Oscar written all over it.

It even took me longer than the 10 seconds listening strictly necessary to determine that She & Him were a bucket of tepid folk wank; the aural equivalent of drowning in a ball pool full of kittens. That is to say, I thought it was time to move on – the cycle of abuse had to end. I even started perving over other women with fringes. *Logs on to fuckyeahgirlswithbangs.tumblr.com*

So it was purely in the spirit of inquiry that I decided to give her new sitcom New Girl a chance. Any actor will tell you that all the best writing in Hollywood at the moment is on television, especially those who need another hit like Pete Doherty, so it’s no real surprise to see Zooey turn up in Fox’s ‘adorkable’ (yup, that’s how they’re promoting it. Jesus) latest offering. But before you crank up the CRAP KLAXON it should be noted that the series is created by Elizabeth Meriwether, whose previous credits include Childrens Hospital. Less promisingly, she also wrote No Strings Attached. *Fire up the klaxon*

The premise is as slight as one of the floaty summer dresses I picture the winsome Ms Deschanel wearing as she gambols through a meadow towards me in my dreams. But hey, this isn’t Zooey fap fiction I’m writing here – if it was it would consist mainly of us shopping in the stores she wants to shop in, to a vegan café for soya lattes all round, then maybe some light sex afterwards if we’re not too tuckered out. *Cough* Sorry to digress. In it she plays Jess, a geeky teacher who’s just been ditched by her boyfriend and ends up moving into an improbably swish loft with three regular guys. Beamed into their apartment like Mawk from Ork, they’re not so keen at first due to her admission that she watches Dirty Dancing six times a day and sings to herself. A lot. But the discovery that all her friends are models mean that she’s on the washing up rota quicker than you can say ‘six month shorthold agreement.’

Okay, so the show may have been custom-tooled to make bedwetting fringe-blind fucks like myself lose all use of our critical faculties – its métier being less ‘set up, joke’ and more ‘set up, mope’ – but you know what? It ain’t half bad. Things don’t get off to a great start when, with grim predictability, Zooey sings the theme tune like the schmindie Anthropologie wearing Dennis Waterman she so clearly is. Christ, her uniquely mellifluous atonal honk could RIP even the most resolute hipster boners from the other side of a vinyl fair. On the plus side, at least it didn’t have any titting ukulele on it. But if you can get over that the writing is pretty sharp and the twee tart is genuinely funny and charming in it (translation: I totally would. But she really is quite good). The opening scene where Jess outlines to a friend how she’s going to seduce her (soon to be ex) boyfriend is a case in point:

Jess: He says he has a fantasy where I’m a stripper and I have a heart of gold and he’s helping me through college.

Hannah: He didn’t say the college part did he?

Jess: No. I wanted to create a three dimensional sex character.

Hannah: So what’s your stripper name?

Jess: Rebecca Johnson. No, Boobies Johnson. Two Boobs Johnson.

Look, it’s all in the delivery, okay. Also, she was wearing a trench coat and horn rims when she said it. But as strong as Deschanel’s performance is, the supporting cast are pretty weak. Her trifecta of turd roommates consists of Nick, a recently dumped, ennui-laden barman who will obviously at some point realise he can look beyond Jess’s dungarees and Lord of the Rings references to see her inner beauty; Schmidt, an allegedly loveable douche; and Coach, a stereotypical emotionally repressed black guy. None of these J Crew models really adds too much to the show and in the long run it’s debatable whether Jess’s story arc – socially inept geek can’t get a date – is really going to sustain the show.

She’s okay in small doses, and has plenty of funny lines, such as when she triumphantly announces she’s been asked out on a date: ‘Dinner. With food’ (remember, delivery) but she’s essentially 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon minus the self-awareness, snark or kick-ass job. And without a Jack Donaghy to bounce off it’s difficult to see where the character can go. The majority of the comedy supposedly stems from the guys’ increasing exasperation at Jess’s relentless girly kookiness – they’re like chalk and cheese! And boy, is there a lot of cheese – even more than you’d find in Alex James’s Cotswolds farmhouse kitchen.

But, for all these reservations, there’s the germ of a decent show here with a girl who rocks a mean up ‘do at its heart. And for that reason, I’m prepared to give it another shot. Which is big of me.

I thought I was out. But she pulled me back in.

Update, 6th January 2012. The show is now going to shit. In one episode she taught bell ringing to troubled teens. FFS. But episode 8 – Bad In Bed – is a total keeper.

A Blaffair To Rememblack

Posted in Books, Comedy with tags , on August 30, 2010 by Tim Lee

[Book] I Am the New Black by Tracy Morgan (abridged version)

Every story starts at the very beginning, because like that white lady said in The Sound Of Music, it’s a very good place to start. In the 1950s America decided it was a good idea to try and fight Communism in tropical jungles on the other side of the world. The Russians were supposed to be some kind of new Hitler, and if we didn’t get that Communism out of ‘Nam, we’d be eating Kremlin Nuggets in McDonald’s. They had their ideals, and Lenin and Marx were like their Biggie and Tupac. When my dad got on the army transporter headed to Vietnam he sat next to an Irish guy named Tracy and they spent 24 hours talking. A day later and Tracy was dead – stepped on a landmine. And that’s how I got my name. I was sad to hear that story but glad too. Because let’s face it – Tracy Morgan? That’s an Irish female’s name. With a name like that I should have red hair, blue eyes and big titties. I should be in a green bikini on a float every March.

That is the heart and soul of my story. It’s not a very good place to start. You hear me, Julie Andrews? I learned how to become a man from my father. And because of what life had done to him, my father picked up bad habits over the years, just like I picked up bad habits in show business. Show business is my Vietnam and life is the war that I’m fighting.

So I’m strolling with my dad one day and I’m waiting for him to drop some science. “I’m going to show you something,” he said as we walked onto the high school field. He stopped in front of a set of metal bleachers at the side of the field. “You see these, son? This is where I busted a nut inside your mother and made you. I had your mother doggy-style and I gave it to her good too.” Nine months later on November 10 1968, I came into the world.

From an early age I took my humour as far as it could go, and sometimes that took me too far. Like one summer at the public pool, somebody stole my Pumas. I didn’t know who stole them, but I knew that whoever did must love swimming, so the only thing that made sense to me was to shut that pool down. I swam to the middle and took a shit the size of a Milky Way. They shut that place down like the beach in Jaws. I had gotten my revenge, but something else happened that I hadn’t planned on. I liked the feeling of shitting in that pool. This became a problem for me. I started shitting everywhere there was water after that. If I saw an open fire hydrant, I’d shit there. I had no shame, if the water was flowing hard enough, I’d drop the brown shark. This continued for two years, but once I got my first taste of pussy, my focus changed.

At the age of eight, I experienced sex firsthand. My brother Jim was ten and we had a babysitter who gave us both a piece. She was fourteen and while she was in the bath she told my brother to get on top of her. I watched him put his ding-a-ling in her and after that I got on and did the same. I actually cried after that. I remember she gave me a stack of Oreos to keep me quiet. Damn. Memories. From the age of twelve, I always had a piece of pussy around.

My mother was an amazing woman. But by my early teens she had been broken by three men – her father, who was very strict; my father, who let her down and broke her heart with his drug addiction; and Sonny, who was a married man. Sonny wasn’t the straw that broke the camel’s back, but he was the straw that sent it to the chiropractor. Mom just gave up after that point. That’s when I started fighting with her all the time. I moved in with my father and he was like a black General Patton. He made sure we were in the house early every night, and since I was playing sports, it was like I’d enrolled in his personal army. He had me lifting weights, running stairs, and when it came to my grades, he was even tougher on me.

I learned about life in the Bronx; it’s where I learned to get my mack on, how to get my comedy on. My friends and I would have these intense snapping sessions. We’d sit there in the lunchroom just snapping. If anything we were like battle rappers. Like 8 Mile. My comedy style was to elevate my insult by acting it out. It was some next level shit. In my stand-up I used to contour my body and bend it around like a crippled person because I grew up with a crippled person. But that wasn’t enough to make me laugh, so on top of that I’d act retarded. Then it was funny!

My father was diagnosed with AIDS in my senior year and his rapid decline in health altered my path. Once he was gone there was nobody to tell me what I was doing right and wrong. So I thought fuck it. In the end I quit school and I never looked back. After I dropped out, I learned a few lessons right away. The most important one was that in high school, pussy was free. That’s why they call lunch hour at a public school a box lunch. Out in the real world there was one thing that spelled P-U-S-S-Y and that was M-O-N-E-Y, so I turned to dealing drugs. There were parts of selling crack that I really liked. It was great for developing my comedy skills. I took to selling crack like it was an open mic night, and I was pretty good at it. After a year of standing on the corner I realised that I was following the herd – and if you follow the herd, you’re bound to step in shit. For me, the murder of my friend Spoon was a smack in the face.

A man can’t live without a woman. Any straight man will do what he needs to do to get himself some pussy. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the love of a woman. When a woman truly loves a man, he knows it. Pussy is just one part of it. Pussy and ass and titties are the frosting on that cake. A woman possesses the power to transform a man into something better that he would ever be on his own. When they do, that shit is magic.

I met Sabina when we were just kids. The last thing I wanted to do is settle down. Nineteen year old men are like farmers staring down a field of corn at harvest, and their dick is the tractor. Once I met Sabina everything changed. She put up a good fight, but no woman can resist me. Give me enough time and it’s a done deal, as long as she’s got ears, eyes and a pussy. She told me years later that the first time we did it, in a hotel, she’d been impressed that I washed out my drawers in the sink. Sabina made me wait three weeks before she gave me the good stuff. I wanted it so bad, I couldn’t even masturbate. I had three weeks of sperm backed up. And that’s where Tracy Junior came from – my big-ass nuts.

Right across the street from our apartment there was a chicken shop. It was open all night and out front I would get upward of thirty people standing around listening to me make fun of shit. I thought this could be my ticket out of the Bronx. I started rocking things at workshops, and within two weeks I was getting regular spots at clubs and killing there too. There was a hot scene and a guy from Fox decided to develop a show called Uptown Comedy Club. It launched a few careers, namely mine and Chris Tucker’s. I was kinda fat back then, so I used it in my act. Fuck sexy, I bought chubby back. It made me even cuter onstage than I already was. Today my stand-up material is based on observations, but back then I made bits up based on my daydreams, and came up with Fat Michael Jackson. I did all that “hee-hee!” stuff Michael did, and they loved it.

One night on Def Comedy Jam I met Martin Lawrence. He wasn’t my idol, but he was an inspiration to me. From the very first time I met him, I’ve always been able to make Martin laugh and I got a job playing Hustle Man on his sitcom, Martin. Whenever he came to New York, we’d hook up. I’d be the one to pick him up a couple of ravioli bags, if you know what I mean (I’m talking about weed.) After Martin, I went back to doing stand-up full-time, and got an audition for Saturday Night Live. For my audition tape I did some material about when I got arrested. This man my aunt Brenda was dating was beating on her, so I went and found him, and pointed an empty gun at his head. He called the cops and they took me away. I was scared to death, so once I was sitting in the squad car I just started farting. I blew that fucking car up with farts, because the night before I’d had pork and beans and franks. I was farting so much they had to roll the back windows down.

Landing a spot as a cast member on SNL was a gift from God, but staying there was something else altogether. When opportunity knocked, I pulled out the .44 Mag and said “Get in the fucking basement, bitch!” Opportunity’s still down there, ball-gagged and duct-taped up. If you listen hard, you can hear him whimper. I had my finger on the pulse of urban comedy, but when I brought Fat Michael Jackson to SNL, those motherfuckers couldn’t see a future for me. They were all a bunch of Ivy League faggots and I’d taken it to the street. All I have to say about that is where’s Chris Kattan now? That bitch can’t get arrested.

Doors had started to open for me thanks to SNL, but I was no Adam Sandler, so I developed the idea for The Tracy Morgan Show. The formula was perfect: it would be true-life funny, set against the backdrop of a low income family. In the end, the Tracy Morgan Show that aired wasn’t my show anymore. The producers took it out of my hands because they thought the original version would damage my career. They also reminded me they had more experience than I did. It was just like what the Republicans tried to do to Obama during the election.

My wife and my sons were my whole world for my entire adult life. That’s why, even when it was done between Sabina and me, I still didn’t really understand what I was losing. I had let alcohol rule my life and paid the price. I was the kind of drunk who was a completely different man to when he was sober. And the guy I turned into had a name: Chico Divine. Chico was the motherfucker who came out of the depths of my mind and took over my body after about three drinks. When Chico came out, somebody might get hurt and there was a chance somebody’s sister might get pregnant too. One time Chico threw up on the shoes of the lady who was the William Morris Agency’s publicity director.

When I started on 30 Rock, my life on and off camera became strangely similar for a while. I was going out, partying all night and acting crazy, and then showing up to shoot 30 Rock and portray a guy who acted crazy all the time. But I don’t have to be drinking and partying to play somebody like that – it’s called acting. I’m a comedian – everything in my life is material. My comedy today isn’t based on my imagination – it’s all real. It’s like a giant turkey that I cook onstage, keeping it nice and moist by basting it in reality. My success on 30 Rock allowed me to go back and guest host SNL – the pinnacle of my career. There are only twenty-five of us who’ve done that in thirty-four years. I’m up there with the greats – Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Chevy Chase. And Damon Wayans.

One thing that comes with success is money. I’ve always liked exotic pets, and now I can afford to fill my luxury apartment with them. I’ve got a jellyfish tank, tarantulas, eels, snakes, piranhas and sharks. I’m like Michael Jackson! I once asked my wife why she thought Michael Jackson liked to walk around with a fucking diaper-wearing monkey. Know what she said? “Because he’s a genius.” Having a jellyfish makes me a genius.

This point in my life is like the end of the second act. It’s not the end, because I’m far from over. If my life was the Star Wars trilogy, which is really a sixology, we’d just be getting going. Right now, the Ewoks would be dancing.

Morris Minor

Posted in Comedy, Film with tags , on May 17, 2010 by Tim Lee

[Film] Four Lions

As divisive a character as always, Chris Morris’ feature film debut has drawn uncritical spaffing from the fanboys and contrarian sneering in equal measure. Predictably, I’m sat somewhere on the fence, with my laptop.

The film centres on the actions of a group of wannabe suicide bombers in Sheffield. Omar is the ringleader, the brightest of the bunch, with a loving wife and son. Waj is his vacant, but loyal best friend. Faisal is harmless, seemingly borderline mentally challenged and Barry is a white, militant convert, the most self-righteous of the lot. With no plan yet in place, other than a few hastily filmed YouTube videos, Omar and Waj head off to a training camp in Pakistan. As with all their other endeavours, this is an unmitigated failure, and they soon return home. In the meantime Barry has recruited a fifth Lion, Hassan, impressed more by his access to a van than any bomb-making credentials.

All five are depicted as bumbling, inept and possessed with very little of the insurgent fervour one might imagine. Most of their time is spent having petty arguments about the minutiae of everyday terrorism, and how best to exact revenge on western society. These plans variously involve trained exploding crows, using an ‘IRA voice’ to buy bleach, and Barry’s plan to bomb a mosque in order to frame their enemies. It’s these trivial exchanges which are often the most comedically successful. Eventually, after several mis-steps and one major mishap, four of them head on down to London, intent on wreaking havoc on the London Marathon.

As you’ll probably know by now, most of the comedy is more slapstick and whimsical, in the mould of Dad’s Army, or even Last Of The Summer Wine than Morris’ more acclaimed work. Presumably the result of his desire try something new,  he’s admitted that he’s no longer interested in exposing the mechanism of a moral panic: ‘Once you’ve done that, why on earth would you think of doing that again? So to me the many moral panics surrounding Islam are the least interesting aspect of what is going on now.’ But if that’s not what’s going on, then what is? Yes, mockery can be the most lethal form of satire, but it begins to feel somewhat one-note. Cheerleaders of the film claim that Morris is ‘saying the unsayable. Most terrorists are inept.’ Well if you ever had the misfortune to see Mock The Weak after the failed attack on Glasgow Airport, this is clearly not the case.

Now I have no problem with the film being a pure comedy, but that requires it to be consistently funny, which it isn’t. There are plenty of laughs, Barry reasoning ‘Islam‘s lost it’s way. We got people playing stringed instruments!’ And (writers) Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong sure know their way around a creative insult. Likewise, the film doesn’t work as a serious meditation on the causes of Islamic fundamentalism. In one sense this is entirely justifiable as a 100 minute comedy is never going to scratch the surface, and indeed might give undue credence to these alleged ‘root causes.’ But a few anti-TK Maxx rants make Omar’s acolytes willingness to follow him blindly into death seem somewhat inexplicable. Sure, he exposes the hypocrisy of Islamic terrorists railing against Western society whilst listening to Toploader, but whilst funny, these seem like easy targets.

The central theme, that terrorists should be seen as humans rather than cartoon bogeymen is commendable, and rarely said in mainstream media. There’s an argument that it’s a satire of all of us – the terrorist who most resembles our IQ levels and values, and is most settled in a family sense, is also most dangerous. This is true to a degree, yet still doesn’t give any inkling as to why Omar takes a route most people do not. Morris’ raison d’être is to treat everyone with equal disdain – from the terrorists to the security forces. But the most savage humour is reserved for the police, rather than those who seek to kill indiscriminately.

In probably the stand-out scene of a strong finale, Kevin Eldon’s police marksman shoots an innocent man, but reasons with certain demented logic, ‘It must be the target, I shot it.’ Here Morris either doesn’t know what the target is, or more likely, given the religious sensitivity, daren’t aim for it, so he was never going to hit the bullseye. It is this tension between social commentary and out-and-out comedy, which punctures its chances of being an unequivocal success. Ultimately, whilst providing regular belly laughs and memorable lines, I found it kind of depressing and pointless. Which as metaphors for suicide bombing go, is bang on the money. Morris, you clever fuck.

Tache Of A Titan

Posted in Comedy, Gigs with tags , on April 10, 2010 by Tim Lee

[Live] Richard Herring, Hitler Moustache, Norwich Playhouse, 3rd April 2010

Now that the whole New Offensives row has reared its ugly head yet again, it’s an apt time to see the show which helped kick the whole thing off. Well okay, I’m about a year late on this but I need an in for this blog post somehow. Following on from the chucklesome, if somewhat introspective and nostalgic Headmaster’s Son, this show sees Herring move into distinctly more edgy territory. And not a knob gag in sight.

The nascent premise of the show is Herring growing a toothbrush moustache in order to reclaim it as the Charlie Chaplin moustache and disassociate it from its Nazi connotations. Of course Herring is bright enough to know that was never really going to happen and admits so from the start. But what begins as a fairly rambling discourse about his intentions  and the very nature of writing a comedy show soon moves into a much more thoughtful discussion of race, politics and what defines the term ‘offensive.’

Herring’s original intention was allegedly to see what people’s reactions to ‘a dick with a Hitler moustache’ would be, but it soon became apparent nobody gave a solitary shit about it. His friends didn’t mention it, a black security guard who searched his bag and found it to be full of BNP leaflets rose above it, and even the policeman who helped him try to recover his iPhone didn’t question it – in fact he couldn’t have been more helpful; read into that what you will. The only negativity he encountered came from sportscaster Jim Rosenthal, who remarked to his wife “Is that a man with a Hitler moustache? Oh dear.” All this was evidence of what an essentially tolerant country we live in, but didn’t really help when he had 90 minutes of stage time to fill.

But no matter as Herring is on much stronger ground when he starts playing with the preconceptions of the presumably liberal audience. When describing the aim of equality as “treating everyone as if they are the same” he points out that racists are actually much closer to this ideal as they reduce humanity down to four types of people: “white, black, Chinese and ‘anyone who can be played by the actor Nadim Sawalha,'” as apposed to the 190 or so distinct countries most of us divide the globe into. “If only the people of India and Pakistan could see themselves as the racists see them – Pakis, they’d have nothing to fight about.” The joke-heavy first half gives way to a surprisingly serious second half where Herring rants against the rise of the BNP and makes an impassioned plea for voters to get off their arses and stop it – if just 5,000 more people had voted for any other party during the European elections, the BNP wouldn’t have gained their two seats and be representing us on the world stage. Then going full circle, he reintroduces Chaplin – whose moustache Hitler copied – and uses his film The Great Dictator as an example of how we should all be brave and challenge racism in whatever small way we can.

Of course the real reason nobody has a Hitler moustache is because it makes you look like a cunt – literally, as Herring says – but that was never really the point. At the beginning of the show he poses the question “Will a toothbrush moustache make me more successful? It worked for Hitler.” On this evidence, it deserves to.

Chasebook (part 2)

Posted in Books, Comedy with tags , , on February 7, 2010 by Tim Lee

Continued from part 1

A bevy of Chevy

An unusual prospect for a cult movie, Caddyshack is a movie whose lines have become very familiar, often quoted by Tiger Woods. Presumably either the line “You’re a lot of woman. You wanna earn $14 the hard way?” or “Wait up girls, I got a salami I gotta hide” are his personal favourites. Ironically he spoofed it in an American Express advert with the tagline “The official card of happy endings.” I’ll bet it is.

With Chevy there was always something funny happening on set, if not on camera. Executive producer Jon Peters demanded “We’ve gotta have a scene with Chevy and Billy together.” It was a scene which was very much the forerunner of De Niro and Pacino in Heat.

1980 was a busy year for Chevy. In Oh Heavenly Dog he showed his versatility by playing a private eye who is killed while on a job and is sent back to earth to solve his own murder. In the body of a dog! It’s a lost classic in the Chase canon, unlike Seems Like Old Times which even Chase concedes “wasn’t one of my favourite movies.” Although it did give him the chance to ‘team up’ with Goldie Hawn again. What a hawndog.

By 1980 Chevy’s marriage to Jackie was long since over, but it wasn’t long before the incorrigible Chevy was Chasing skirt again. He had his eye on a production assistant named Jayni and soon ensnared her with his silver tongue: “Tonight is the premiere of my movie. Goldie is in Paris and Jaqueline Bissett has the flu. I’m wondering if you’d go with me.” The seduction assured, the couple were soon married.

Chevy weather

Already suffering severe back pain due to years of highbrow pratfalls, Chevy was to endure further medical woes on the set of Modern Problems, a film whose high concept plot involves an air traffic controller who develops telekinetic powers after being exposed the radioactive soap suds. During a dream sequence Chase had stage lights strapped to his arms. When the lights were turned on Chevy juddered violently and screamed for them to be turned off. Of course the crew thought renowned prankster Chase was joking and thus left them on – a story they’ve stuck to in subsequent years. This near death experience left Chase weak and depressed for two years, much like those who viewed the finished film.

1982 saw an upturn in fortunes. Not only did he welcome the birth of his first daughter, but filming was completed on the first of the now seminal Vacation franchise, which in Chase’s estimation is “the funniest film of the franchise.” Bold claim. The script (!) had undergone a hasty rewrite by Chase and Harold Ramis because, as they put it, “John Hughes was obsessed with adolescent sex.” Of Chevy’s acting talents, Beverly D’Angelo reported, “Chevy worked in a way unlike any other actor. No-one ever gives Chevy credit for having anything to do with acting.” According to Chase the film is a misunderstood classic. “It was satire. The public saw itself in these characters instead of seeing a satire.”

Chasing the dragon

The pressure of fame was taking an increasing toll on Chase. “First I was the observer, then I was the observed.” Not only was he now battling an addiction to cocaine and painkillers, but he had a near debilitating obsession with the career trajectory of Martin Short. “I’m thinking, the funniest guy in the room is Martin Short, but where is he? He’s not a movie star. How many actors go through that struggle?” He needn’t of worried as Short would go on to star in Innerspace, Father of the Bride and The Santa Clause 3, amongst others.

In 1986 he finally took the step of secretly checking into the Betty Ford clinic, but he was soon exposed after a telephone call from a journalist posing as Timothy Hutton. Journalists. Despite this betrayal Chevy stayed for three weeks, finally leaving after an argument over the centre’s interpretation of the term “leisure time.”

Chasing box office

Despite these personal problems Chase was still surfing a wave of commercial and critical success. Fletch gave him the opportunity to showcase his talent for assuming many identities. Including a black basketball player. Warners took advantage of the ever-affable Chase though, as he would often do movies for them as a ‘favour’. One such favour was Fletch Lives, which Chevy wasn’t happy with. “Universal assumed that me in different costumes made Fletch work. In this one they put me in ridiculous looking costumes.” As opposed to the blacked-up basketball player in Fletch, clearly.

Chevy’s creative growth was now being restricted by the demands of the studios. Whilst he was keen to do more political hot dog material, Warners continued to put him in lowbrow, slapstick fare. Funny Farm is, according to Chase, his best film and one “with many quite good reviews.” But even here he had to bow to the demands of his fan base. “In one scene, I’m rushing and my wife is rushing. They each grab one part of the door and he gets hit in the groin. It was a big slapstick Chevy Chase moment and the audience laughed out of relief: ‘Okay, so this will be a slapstick Vacation type film.’ It became clear that the public didn’t want to see me do more conceptual stuff.” Of European Vacation he said, “It’s rather astonishing and kind of sad, isn’t it?” Yes, but continuing, “I thought it was pretty lame but it grossed $100m worldwide.”

Feelings about sequels aside, his Vacation co-star Beverly D’Angelo said, “Christmas Vacation was one I know Chevy loved and a lot of people think it’s the best one. It is outstanding in general, beautifully shot. The director kept telling everyone he was going to elevate the franchise, like the Vacation movies were dog turds that he was going to polish into pure gold.” In the end no amount of buffing could save it. It did however, mark the high point of Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ career, before she had to slum it for nine years in Seinfeld.

Another highlight of Chevy’s career was filming Three Amigos, not so much for the quality of the work but for the friendships he forged. Starring Chase, Steve Martin and Martin Short, it was very much the Ocean’s 11 of its day. Roger Ebert, however, wasn’t so keen, writing “The ideas to make Three Amigos into a good comedy are here, but the madness is missing. The movie is too confident, too relaxed, too clever to be really funny.” Foiled by his own pesky intellectual humour again; humour which was much in evidence at the premiere when he placed a pair of glasses on the back of ‘super agent’ Swifty Lazar’s head, causing “an explosion of laughter” in the auditorium.

Chasing rainbows

Despite hosting The Oscars in 1987 as part of the non-more 80s triumvirate of Goldie Hawn and Paul Hogan, Chase himself has never won one. There were rumours that Chevy was being considered for an Oscar for his uncredited guest appearance in Hero, but Oscar rules dictate that an uncredited actor cannot be nominated. Conversely, another rule dictates a film with Chevy Chase in the credits can’t be nominated either. He did finally receive the recognition he deserved in 1991, when he won a Razzie for Dan Aykroyd’s directorial debut, Nothing But Trouble. Chase’s acting style apparently ‘clashed’ with that of Striptease star Demi Moore and The Washington Post described it as “toxically unfunny” and “nothing but miserable.”

Although apparently no longer doing coke, Chevy was still inexplicably positive about the state of his career, and felt sure Memoirs Of An Invisible Man would give it the shot in the arm required. The film languished in development hell for five years and arguments about the comedic tone of the film (zero, apparently) meant its early promise was unfulfilled. The strain on his relationship with Warners was beginning to show and its termination was cemented after an argument with Warners head Terry Semel over the place settings at the Christmas party.

A change of Chase

The stagnation of Chevy’s film career was to mark the beginning of an exciting new chapter in his life: his own Fox chat show. However, he wasn’t in the right frame of mind to do the show and often went on air depressed; feelings which transmitted to the viewers. Despite the innovation of introducing a basketball hoop to proceedings, the show was not a success and was canned after five weeks.

Chevy’s increased free time has allowed him to become more politically active and has also given him time to enjoy the finer things in life. While guesting at Clinton’s inauguration he was able to observe Warren Beatty constructing a bagel. “So there he was, carefully, fastidiously preparing his bagel… a layer of cream cheese, the smoked salmon, next the capers and a little egg yolk. Now carefully placing a slice of tomato, a slice of onion, and closing up the toasted bagel. It looked beautiful.” And when not answering the oft asked question, “Where were you when Warren Beatty was constructing his bagel?” Chevy would retire to Clinton’s private quarters to discuss Bosnia or other pressing issues of the day, like Clinton’s joke about a threesome between “a black guy, an Arab and a Jew.” With those two guys at the helm, it’s a wonder the Republicans ever got back in.

With film roles now drying up Chevy moved the family back to New York in 1995. After moving there he began seeing a therapist to get to the root of why his chat show, which should have been a big success, did so poorly. How long have you got? His family are also much happier there, although daughter Caley confides, “I don’t tell anybody who my father is. Sometimes it’s appropriate to share it, but if people don’t ask, I don’t share.”

Chasebook (part 1)

Posted in Books, Comedy with tags , , on February 5, 2010 by Tim Lee

[Book] I’m Chevy Chase… And You’re Not by Rena Fruchter

It’s that time again; yet another abridged version of an execrable celebrity biography. This one is in two parts because reading the whole thing has proved more challenging than watching the National Lampoon’s boxset in one sitting. As even the author noted, “One might assume that interviewing one of the world’s top comedians might be a barrel of laughs. But it was only half a barrel.”

 He ain’t Chevy

Born October 8 1943, Cornelius Crane Chase was the son of wealthy New York couple, Cathalene Vanderbilt Crane and Edward Cornelius Chase. His parents divorced when he was young and his mother then married Dr John Cederquist. Growing up in a wealthy neighbourhood, he often saw Marlene Dietrich walking with her grandchildren. “She wore a white nurse’s uniform and white hoes.” So far, so Gossip Girl, but Chevy and his brother Ned were often beaten by their parents. On one occasion Chevy was locked in the basement for a week, where his only contact with the outside world was the occasional glimpse of Marlene Dietrich’s shins on the street above.

Chevy was also often in trouble at school, in one instance biting a bully who pulled his hair while he stood at a urinal. “Apparently I had bit him so hard that when I saw him 20 years later at a cocktail party he showed me the scar… I don’t remember knowing any biters, I never hung out with the biters, and I’m against it!” In short, he’s a lover not a biter.

Rumour has it that Chevy’s Haverford College career ended abruptly when college officials had to deal with a cow on the second floor of a dormitory building. Whether they ever got it downstairs again has been lost in the annals of history. His early education had been spotty, and the discrepancy between the brilliance of his mind and the quality of his work continued for many years (about 50). It was at school, however, that his keen comic sensibility developed; he was endlessly amused by the fact that his French teacher Mr Shultz – get this! – wasn’t very French!

Chevy Chaste

Chevy‘s early romantic encounters were somewhat bumbling. Of one early date he recalls, “She had all this experience and the only thing I could think of was to pull her collar forward and peer down her dress. I saw her bra and she was quite developed.” After that she broke up with him. On another occasion he was found hiding in the closet by his then girlfriend‘s mother. “Finally she came to the closet and opened the door. I didn’t move – I was frozen in place, eyes staring straight ahead. The woman let out a bloodcurdling scream and raced out of the room shouting in French.” Nobody knows if she even was French but it was an incident that would go on to inspire his good friend R Kelly. Possibly.

A keen jazz musician, Chevy picked up his first drum kit in unorthodox fashion. There was a pool party at the home of an older married woman who invited Chevy to use her shower. She was wealthy and beautiful and Chevy had no second thoughts when he realised this might lead to some Chevy petting. “I just did my job. At that age I had learned nothing about the beauty and intricacy of the female body, and what gives her pleasure. It couldn’t have been that great for her, but it sure sounded like it was.” Chevy met with her numerous times at her apartment in Manhattan. She always offered money, which Chevy always refused. So instead she bought him a $600 drum kit. Even to this day Chevy associates sex with jazz drumming and can only climax to the sound of a 3/4 beat.

Chevy metal

Chevy’s love of music has been a constant throughout his life. One of his early jobs was at Tanglewood Music Centre where he was in charge of the morning coffee and remembers “spilling hot coffee on Pete Seger’s left hand.” Unfortunately this was a mishap not repeated when he met Paul Simon years later for the recording of You Can Call Me Al.

A short time later Chevy played drums in a group with Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, who went on to form Steely Dan, but they pretty much sank without trace after Chevy left the group. His other musical projects, including Chameleon Church, Orpheus and Ultimate Spinach were equally unsuccessful, owing mostly to Chevy’s frustration at always being drowned out by violins – ironically a sound that would be key to the success of contemporary bands such as Arcade Fire.

In later years he has used his celebrity status for good, becoming an active member The Jazz Foundation (AKA the centre for jazz musicians who can’t read good and want to learn to do other stuff good too), a charity which helps elderly jazz musicians pay their rent and get hospital treatment. Won’t somebody please think of the jazz musicians?!

Chasing fame

It was 1967 and Chevy had graduated from Bard College. It was a turbulent time politically and socially – good fodder for someone with Chevy’s astute political mind and satirical sense of humour. One of his earliest jobs was on Channel One, “A combination of forms: parodies of programs and commercials recorded on videotape, shown on TVs suspended above the audience. The audience on a hot Sunday night included a number of hip types, many girls in pants and a cat.” Pants. Only in New York, eh?

Stints writing for Mad magazine and National Lampoon eventually led to Chevy working with Christopher Guest and John Belushi in the stage show Lemmings. The second half of the show was a Woodstock parody in which Chevy played a Hell’s Angel with Tourette’s. Showcasing the intelligent, satirical comedy for which he would become known, Chevy would pretend an audience member had hit him and, falling hard, would shout “Ifuckyoushitpissprickpussycockfart.” This was the start of Chevy’s ‘falling career’. Later he would start every Saturday Night Live show with a fall.

Chevy recalls standing in line for a midnight showing of The Holy Grail. He ran into several friends and was “funny while waiting.” “One of the people near me was Rob Reiner and he was stood with (SNL producer) Lorne Michaels. Lorne asked Rob, ‘Who is that guy?’ and Rob told him I was a writer.” Chevy soon got a call asking him to meet with Lorne. Conversely, whilst most comedians make a career of pointing out the inherent hilarity of queuing etiquette, it was Chevy’s ability to be funny whilst in a queue that got him his big break.

The SNL team clicked, and everyone was shocked by Chevy’s success. Nothing is sacred in parody and satire. Chevy’s sketches hit every target, from Watergate to the Middle East, to hot dogs. His presence increased with each show and his “I’m Chevy Chase, and you’re not” line during Weekend Update became legendary.

Chased out of New York

Chevy left SNL on October 30 1976 after just one year to be with wife Jackie in LA. Chevy was very upset that when he returned to the set later, his photo had been removed from the large cast pictures of the first year and replaced by Bill Murray’s. This caused a wound which has still not healed, most believing Chevy bailed out to Chase the big bucks in Hollywood.

On one infamous return to the set Bill Murray made rude and provocative comments to Chevy about his wife. Chevy retorted with equally mean comments about Bill’s pockmarked face. “I said ‘I’m gonna land Neil Armstrong on your face if you don’t shut up.’” Bill, angered by this, fired back “Why don’t you go fuck your wife?” A scuffle broke out, but was defused by that renowned voice of reason, John Belushi. “Bill had assumed I was a rich kid and he was from the other side of the tracks and could just blow me away. I said to him after the show ‘I’ll eat you.’” Murray retorted by calling Chase a ‘medium talent.’ *Cat sound*

The once frosty relationship has since thawed. At a party Chevy walked over to Bill and fell to his knees. “I began to unzip his pants, like I was going to give him a blow job, and Bill laughed. He laughed and I laughed. I didn’t want to fight. But that didn’t mean I shouldn’t be careful – on Caddyshack, I never turned my back.”

Chevy’s management were marketing him as ‘the new Cary Grant’ so a role opposite Goldie Hawn (with whom he started a tawdry affair) in the romantic comedy Foul Play was ideal. Goldie was equally enthusiastic, “I knew I had to meet the guy. I had seen SNL a bit and loved the show. But I didn’t know which guy Chevy was.” The first of many memorable Chase performances.

The commercial success of the film made Chevy slightly uneasy. “To go from current events, politics affecting the votes in this country (ergo, the hot dog material) to a B-level light romantic comedy to me felt like a scud. One of the problems with making movies out there – what could I do that would have an impact on the audience, that would affect things now?” Of course Chevy would go on to produce life-changing work, although his ‘next Cary Grant’ status was imperilled when he was sued by Grant for referring to him as a homo on Tomorrow. But as Chase reasoned, “The word ‘homo’ is funny to me… an anachronism.” More biting political satire there.

This first toe dipped in the Hollywood waters was to be just the beginning of a stellar Hollywood career.

Continue to part 2