Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Between the lines of the stories told in “Oops I Did It Again: True Tales of Transgression,” a program of short comedic monologues that followed the Kol Nidre Yom Kippur service at City Winery on September 28, was a universal behavior pattern we’ve probably all experienced.

That’s the feeling of knowing you’re going down the wrong, obsessive path, but being unable to stop yourself even as you’re doing it. Monologist Carl Kissin revealed this in his story of love gone wrong, describing how “I knew I’d gone too far when I was calling her analyst to try to get them to broker a truce between us.”

Comedian and monologist Ophira Eisenberg confessed to multiple calls to an ex, recounting her chirpy “Hi, David!” excitement on the phone then his sigh in response before even talking, and repeating that he still is with another girlfriend now. It still wasn’t enough for her though, she went on to say, adding how she went to a Haitian witch who gave her instructions for how to cast a spell to bring him back. “Because that’ll work,” Eisenberg said, in a knowing tone that only time can bring.

Just to be clear, self-flagellation wasn’t the only topic of the monologues that night. Rob Gorden delivered a vivid tale of craziness at a friend’s wedding ceremony; Mindy Raf peppered her atonement-themed song with Tiny Tim-like vocal flourishes and off-kilter lyrics, proving very entertaining; and Steve Zimmer had the most high concept atonement story about a transgression cheating on a science fair project in grade school, then finding unlikely forgiveness for this long-ago sin years later.

But really, as someone who does their atonement, or at least browbeating, all the time and has trouble summoning the desire to focus on Yom Kippur, the universal truth in this comedy show might have been enough.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Taking Woodstock

When I posted online that I was seeing “Taking ..Woodstock..,” a few people were asking me how it was, and so ... I thought about this originally as a blog item, but it really turned out to be a full fledged review. Will add to www.jesterjournal.com later.

“Taking ..Woodstock..,” seen Aug. 26 in its early release in New York, is an entertaining, light take on the true story of Elliot Tiber, the proprietor of the upstate New York hotel who arranged for the legendary rock festival to come to his town after being run out of a few neighboring towns afraid of a “hippie invasion.” The movie falls a little short of being considered a four-star classic, but is a fun diversion nonetheless.

Dramatically, “Taking Woodstock” could have put a little more real conflict into Tiber’s struggles, as played by Demetri Martin, with trying to help his parents and figuring out his closeted homosexual life back in ....New York City..... The filmmakers and studio deserve credit for not wiping this aspect out of the movie entirely, although the marketing omits that, pitching the movie straight down the line as ....Woodstock.... 40th anniversary nostalgia.

Comedically, the movie sometimes turns to cartoonish slapstick in the form of Elliot’s parents, especially his mom, played by Imelda Staunton, who runs the dilapidated hotel aggressively, pinching pennies at every turn – and gets a lot of laughs in going after a couple of mobsters who attempt a shakedown when they see all the business the hotel is getting because of the festival.

Most other times, the movie’s humor comes out of little line readings here and there, and the characters’ reactions to each other. Liev Schreiber is a fun surprise as Vilma, the imposing transsexual who shows up to provide security, at the ready with a baseball bat to chase off townspeople who are angry with the Tibers for bringing the festival there.

The movie’s best scene, comedically or dramatically (maybe both), comes when Elliot’s dad, played by Henry Goodman as a weary, quiet man, tells him to go off and enjoy a little bit of the festival when it’s underway. It’s probably the one poignant, touching moment in a movie that could have had a couple more.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Montreal Comedy Festival, wrapping up

The Just For Laughs Montreal Comedy Conference had a wealth of panels and discussions of interest to comedy fans, and before closing the book on all Jester's coverage, I'd like to get just two more little pieces out there:

In a panel discussion on the history and activities of the Upright Citizens Brigade, co-founder Ian Roberts pointed to the key selling point for the theatre’s now-vast training program. “We’re not just trying to make money with endless levels of classes,” he said. “The levels that we offer are there because that’s what we have to teach.”

With so many students, not everyone can be a star, even as UCB as a training ground is spawning more and more performers who are making the leap to TV and movies, or at least producing creative web comedy. The UCB training program has even gotten some criticism of “favoritism” or “cliquishness,” Roberts said. “C’mon, why would I be out to get someone? I want the people who are good on our stage. If you’re good, you’ll be up there.”

Also in the conference, Todd Phillips director of the mega-hit "The Hangover," generously gave of his time for a one-hour conversation including a Q&A with conference participants. … A pressing question, at least for this blogger, was how such seemingly different performing styles of the three leads -- Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis and Bradley Cooper all coalesced. Simply a lot of hanging out before shooting, Phillips explained:

“We would all just constantly hang out together all the time, before production,” he said. “… and figure each other out so they could see where their roles fit with the others. … That’s a crucial part of directing when you’re making an ensemble film.”

Friday, July 24, 2009

Hijacked Panel

At this morning's panel in the Just For Laughs Montreal Comedy Conference, on "Adult Animation Grows Up," Dino Stamatopoulos, creator and writer of the obscure show "Moral Orel," deftly hijacked the entire panel from the start (which included Dave Willis, co-creator of 'Aqua Teen Hunger Force'), snoring audibly into his microphone as the helpless moderator, Athena Gerogaklis, a Canadian TV animation production manager posed her first question on how all the animation show creators first pitched their ideas.

Stamatopoulos then proceeded to stroll off into the audience with his mike, rambling about a car accident and some other oddities, before getting around to his answer, without failing to note that before pitching, he had been drunk around the pool of the trendy L.A. hotel, the Standard. For all his unkempt appearance, Stamatopoulos did grasp inherently how panel discussions can get dull and sought to shake this one up. He didn't always quite succeed but at least got one laugh with the comment, "That's how DaVinci sold his 'Mona Lisa' show."

Montreal Comedy Festival report

I thought at first I would break these all up into separate blog entries, but it may just end up being multiple stream-of-consciousness entries -- when it comes to covering the non-public business-side events and panels billed as the Just For Laughs Comedy Conference here in Montreal this week, that complement all the evening performances for the industry's participants.

In the first panel today, concerning comedy writing and how changing economics and distribution, especially through the Internet, are affecting how comedy writers do their work, I heard a word used I normally only hear in my other life as a financial industry trade publication journalist, and that is "fragmentation." The industry professionals on this panel, including the writer of "Tropic Thunder" and "Madagascar 2," a producer for the "Sarah Silverman Program," and Tami Sahger, a writer for "30 Rock" and respected improv performer, expressed and explored concerns about "audience fragmentation," as a result of the seemingly infinite choices of cable channels and the Web for comedic entertaiment.

The panelists debated the depth of comedy on video as a result of having to capture and cater to ever shorter attention spans. But they did have kind words for the technological advances' affect on comedy for making it easier for performers to gain exposure by shooting material on their own and on the cheap, just to get it out there.

Running out of steam a little right now, but will likely follow up on this entry with a look at the second panel heard today, which delved further into the Internet's potential as a new frontier for comedy.

Sunday, July 12, 2009


Occasionally, passing by all the bills posted on scaffolding around the city, something sinks in as worth checking out. In the past couple weeks, I saw all these intriguing posters touting "ComedyFetish.com." Thinking this was a new comedy site, along the lines of Funny or Die, or SuperDeluxe, I finally got around to checking it out, and was disappointed.

ComedyFetish.com is just a collection of clips from various HBO comedy series, grouped by themes such as "Huge Misunderstandings," "Tantalizing Truths" and "Foreign Exposure." The whole thing is basically just one big promo for HBO series on DVDs, done under the very dishonest bait-and-switch of setting the whole thing up to look like it's new original content. Thumbs down, or 'boo,' or nominate them for Keith Olbermann's "Worst Person in the World" award, or however you want to pan the site.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Whatever Works

I can't really put this up as a full review because it's already been out a couple weeks, but I do want to give a quick take on "Whatever Works," the Woody Allen movie starring Larry David, momentous for being a meeting of comedic minds.

I enjoyed a lot of the film, but I have to say, that especially for those who are more fans of David, it really loses steam after the first half, when David's character gets sidelined for awhile as Allen's script gets more into the machinations involving the other characters. This is after David, with his trademark dark comic bile, has thoroughly energized and sparked the movie, especially with a few long rants delivered directly into the camera, speaking purposefully to the audience with a knowing wink.

What could have been a four or five-star movie starts to fall a bit short of that, and closer to the category of being a more minor Woody Allen work, as the focus strays away from David. It turns out to be more of an entertaining experiment and less momentous as a movie than "Vicky Christina Barcelona" or "Match Point," out of Allen's recent films.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

"The Hangover" for Best Picture

Now this may sound like a joke to you, but I'm throwing my hat in the ring early by saying "The Hangover" deserves to win Best Picture at the Oscars next year.

Here's my argument: Why does it always have to be the multi-hour-long prestige films with serious drama, lofty takes on history or tearjerking dying/misunderstood saint-like character performances that always win these awards? Why can't the Best Picture be a movie that is purely entertaining through and through, and yes, a comedy, and funny?

"The Hangover" had all of this. Yes, it's rude, transgressive, dirty-minded but consistently and constantly surprising and funny all the way through. That's good screenwriting too. In fact, it's probably harder to pull off. [Spoiler alert]: And what other movie are you going to see this year that would have an effeminate naked Asian crime boss pop out of a car trunk and start viciously assaulting the main characters?

And where other comedies may have great dialogue and scenes for about three-quarters of the way, they tend to fall into the last act trap of neatly tying everything up so the nominal hero has everything work out for them. "The Hangover" does have everything working out in a way, but not in the pat way you would expect, maintaining the surprises and the fun right into its closing credits.

So, a memo to the Academy, come nomination time, put aside your Benjamin Buttons, your Sean Penns -- and the need to reward, as Kate Winslet once famously put it on "Extras," "playing a retard" -- and give "The Hangover" its due. I'll bet you won't find a more solid, re-watchable movie in all the high-minded stuff that hits this fall.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Forbidden Kiss

Caught the "Forbidden Kiss" erotica series at Stage Left Studios last night, especially because a few of the pieces in it are comedy. One especially notable piece was Brian Longwell's stand-up comedy-type piece, "How Not To Be An Online Dating Loser." Longwell had Cosby-like cadences in his voice -- whether those are affected or just how he naturally talks, it's hard to know. But nonetheless, Longwell had his own persona, presenting hand-drawn slides of flowcharts of how losers and winners navigate the online dating scene.

Another highlight on the bill of eight separate pieces was Katie Northlich's sex therapist character, a manic and brassy bundle of energy, who seemed to revel in being lewd and shocking. Northlich was once profiled on Jester in 2005 for her character showcase show (see http://www.jesterjournal.com/Northlich.htm).

But my favorite piece of the night was The Bitter Poet -- still have to find out his name -- whose electric guitar accompanied heartbreak songs were definitely laugh out loud funny. His closing song of three featured a long John Cale-like half-spoken, half-sung monologue about Marg, an Eastern European lover who meets him for a week in Amsterdam, and how they tour the Rijksmuseum together. Great stuff.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

James Ellroy

Didn't think I would get a comedy-related blog item directly out of attending the Book Expo this weekend, but a great moment happened out of going for crime novelist James Ellroy's autograph at his publisher's booth yesterday.

Unlike a lot of the other authors who sign at the convention, Ellroy, by the time I made it up to him in the line, seemed to be conducting an hour-long stand-up act/profane circus barker monologue where signing was beside the point. Gesturing with a twinkle in his eye, he said, "Do you want to hear a joke?" as he invited booth staff and everyone near the head of the line to listen in:

A lion is fucking a zebra in the jungle, and the zebra's husband comes along. 'Quick,' the zebra tells the lion, 'pretend you're killing me.'

A pause settles as everyone realizes that's the drier-than-dry punchline. An apt joke coming from the author of such dark fiction.

Not to knock authors without such animated patter -- grateful that they do sign -- but a close second to Ellroy in booth patter was Elliot Tiber, author of "Taking Woodstock," his true-life story that is the subject of an upcoming movie starrting Demetri Martin. Tiber seemed to have running jokes going with two staff members working in the booth with him, and spying me, asked if I was sure I was over 18 and old enough to be reading what's in the book. "Don't look at page 46!" With a smile, I told him I'd be sure to turn to that page first.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Romantic misadventures

Nearly a year ago now, I dabbled not so successfully in stand-up comedy at open mike nights, but it was valuable for trying my hand at writing my own personal stand-up material, inspired by my own experiences and perceptions, just like many stand-ups do.

I'm not actively writing this stuff now, but every once in awhile have a thought or two that could be worked out on a stage, and I just had a couple I thought I'd put out there.

I guess I'll never understand the objections some dates had. These were sort of in-between relationships, not just one blind date that didn't click, or a full-fledged relationship of some months or more, but one of those little pseudo stillborn things that took a little longer to not click. In one, I should have known when I tried to hold hands on a date -- not a first date -- and got an objection, "what are you doing?" Yea, I'm trying to hold your hand and be romantic, that's so terrible ...

Another time I saw a date into a cab, and kissed her goodbye, and she said, bland and businesslike, "thank you." Who reacts that way? I didn't get it.

Anyway, those are the two bits. I don't know if they would be helped or hurt by delivery in person, or if they play well in print, but consider them a few stray pieces of that stand-up career that never was.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Parks & Recreation

The pseduo spin-off of "The Office" on NBC, "Parks & Recreation," is getting a faster start than that show did, as it spent its first several episodes simply recreating what happened on the BBC original.

With Amy Poehler in the lead, P&R uses the same documentary and interview style as The Office, and its creators are already having a lot of fun with the incompetence of some of the characters. Supporting player Nick Offerman makes an impression as Poehler's boss, a right-wing anti-government true believer who just happens to work for a government. Jester noted his gift as a completely different type of character on the short lived Comedy Central show, American Body Shop, where he played a spacey savant mechanic and was the only good thing about that show.

Also, Aziz Ansari, another Upright Citizens Brigade-spawned performer, gets more screen time and gets to do much more than on his brief stint in the final season of "Scrubs," as a subordinate who enjoys undermining Poehler and sucking up to Offerman. And UCB player Lennon Parham (see interview: http://www.jesterjournal.com/IntParham.htm) had a memorable cameo on the show recently, as an opponent of Poehler's park plans.

Just as great Daily Show and UCB players have added to "The Office," "Parks & Recreation" benefits from a premise and situations that might be spawned in improv performances that the UCB is known for.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Finding Bliss

A couple years ago, Jester really ripped into Jamie Kennedy for his documentary, "Heckler," (see review, 4/29/07) that was a response to critical drubbings some of his movies got.

But with a small role in the as-yet-undistributed "Finding Bliss," which closed the Gen Art Film Festival tonight, Kennedy redeems himself by delivering with smart timing the dialogue he has playing a dumb porn star. It's the little things he does, like mistaking 'thrust' for 'trust' and deflating the naive hero of the movie, played by Leelee Sobieski, when she talks up the delayed sexual gratification that is the subject of her character's film within the film -- by summarily dismissing that as "blue balls."

"Finding Bliss" may not be the most substantial movie or greatest comedy classic ever, partly because of some obvious turns in the story, but it's a fun flick. Jamie Kennedy's part in it contributes to that sense of fun and sense of play seen onscreen.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

God of Carnage

"God of Carnage," the new play on Broadway by Yasmina Reza, featuring Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden, like Reza's previous long-running hit, "Art," seen years ago, takes a seemingly simple conflict and spirals it out into illuminating dark comedy. In "Art," it was three middle-aged friends' debate over an abstract painting one bought, and in "Carnage," it's two sets of parents trying to resolve an incident where one's son knocked out the others' son's teeth.

Reza uses the premise to unwind the inevitable differences between couples, no matter how good they might seem together. The cast puts so much physical energy into their performances that you feel not just the words, but their impact. Gandolfini and Gay Harden draw a little bit on previous characters -- maybe this production is a bit tailored to them -- Gandolfini the obvious one and Gay Harden, very similar to the harpy she played in "The Mist" -- perhaps by design.

The show's dark comedy comes from the way the husbands and wives alternate both going at each other and the other couple, and at times siding with their own mate in the arguments and at other times, the others' spouse. Reza's lines, coupled with the actors' commitment, makes it all come alive and brings out that wry humor all at once.

Bill Hader

I do like to or tend to critique or rant about SNL, but here's a recent bit, where they really get it right, in no small part due to Bill Hader's talent. This sketch takes a simple tone of voice and inflection and gets all the absurdity possible out of that -- and doesn't drag or overdo it. It's written economically & compactly. Enjoy.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Seeing Tom Davis recall what he could of his years as a key writer for Saturday Night Live, both in the 1970s and in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in an appearance promoting his memoir "39 Years of Short-Term Memory Loss: The Early Days of SNL from Someone Who Was There," at the 92Y Tribeca tonight, really reinforced a critic's conviction that Lorne Michaels really does sometimes suck all the air out of comedy on the show.

Case in point -- Tracy Morgan's recent return as host, in which the opening sketch where he has trouble clearing security to get into 30 Rock was probably the only good piece Morgan was in. Morgan's old recurring character -- this points to Michaels' penchant for recurring characters ad nauseum -- Brian Fellows, was never all that funny. Since Morgan's part on "30 Rock" and that show itself, became a hit, it's become all the more evident that Tina Fey knew far better how to tap Morgan's ability to be absurd. Morgan also shines when he's a guest on Letterman as well. It almost seems like everybody but Michaels knows what to do with him.

Anyway, back to Davis. He did note Michaels' love of recurring characters, adding that he much preferred having the cast serve the idea of a sketch rather than the other way around, which is what happens with character pieces showcasing a performer instead. And in a couple old clips Davis had as part of his appearance, one saw the perfect case in point -- one of the "Franken & Davis Show" segments Davis wrote with old partner Al Franken, which imagined a male beauty pageant featuring the duo, with Belushi, Aykroyd and Bill Murray interspersed among several extras, all as contestants. Belushi had one little line thanking the host -- albeit delivered as if he were a kid thanking his mommy; and Aykroyd and Bill Murray had no lines at all, merely holding a punching bag for Franken to run into repeatedly, acting like a football player for his talent.

Delightfully stupid as this bit was, it had way more laughs than anything misusing Tracy Morgan. Davis in his middle age does give a sense that he could have been a cantankerous pain-in-the-ass to Michaels as a writer, but Davis' convictions about comedy could have been more on the mark.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Jimmy Fallon

Caught up to the premiere of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon from last night, and it's actually a lot more promising than I thought it would be. The only segment that was really weak was the "Lick It for Ten," that had three audience members licking a lawnmower, a copy machine and a bowl of goldfish (not even the inside of the bowl) to win $10. And all three licked pretty tame surfaces, like the outside of the mower and the copy glass -- it wasn't like Jimmy made them get in there with the toner or the engine oil.

Also in the gags at the top of the show was a bit about blonde Connecticut moms, that was also just O.K. ... The strongest parts of the show came largely through its guests, namely a classically awkward cameo at the beginning by Conan O'Brien, still around to clean out his office; and guest Robert De Niro mocking Jimmy with his own impersonation. Another highlight was actually provided by Justin Timberlake, taking Fallon's Barry Gibb as a jumping off point for a few musical impersonations -- of John Mayer and Michael McDonald -- that were dead-on. It reminded viewers of Kevin Spacey's appearance on SNL parroting Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Christopher Walken and others.

The Roots, who have gotten a lot of press for becoming the house band for Fallon's show actually very nearly saved the "Lick It for Ten" segment, playing some sexy funk music under the action. And in backing Timberlake's impressions, and at other points in the premiere episode, showed they can pull from a vast repetoire to complement the host.

Fallon's show isn't quite as good as Conan O'Brien became over the years, but it's definitely not a Chevy Chase crash-and-burn train wreck. (Anybody remember that?)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Louis C.K.

A quick note or recommendation -- Louis C.K.'s most recent stand-up special, "Chewed Up," now on DVD, is quite masterful. Right from the start, the comedian, who also created the unique but short-lived HBO sitcom, "Lucky Louie," (see review: http://www.jesterjournal.com/site%20pages/LuckyLouie.htm), dives into forbidden words in an intelligent way. Beyond that, Louis C.K. gives an insightful every-guy's take on being married and raising kids, amazed at the quantity of poop to be cleaned, for one thing. ... He may be mining the usual observational humor staples, but Louis C.K. goes at each and every one of them in an original way.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

50 First Jokes

For a few years, I've gone and checked out the Poetry Project's New Year's Day poetry marathon, but this year I guess I just wasn't up to it. But a good repeat from last year was the 3rd annual 50 First Jokes performance on January 3 produced by Claudia Cogan, Jiwon Lee and John F. O'Donnell, upgraded from the Creek and the Cave venue in Astoria, Queens, to the downstairs room at Webster Hall in Manhattan this year.

With 50 comedians each delivering the first joke they wrote for the new year (the rules ostensibly are that their bit has to be written only after the stroke of midnight on January 1), naturally there's a wide range of types of performers, but one that truly stood out, yet again, is Kumail Nanjiani, last seen just a few weeks ago opening for Zach Galifianakis at 92Y Tribeca (see http://www.jesterjournal.com/ZachG92Ytribeca.htm). Similar to a bit abut horror movieshe delivered then, Nanjiani now had his take on the new movie "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."

Referring to the fact that Cate Blanchett's character in the movie is only telling the story finally from her deathbed to her granddaughter, about Benjamin Button, the character who aged backward, being the love of her life, Nanjiani exclaimed, "And she's waited till she's dying to tell anybody about this? I would tell everyone I met, all the time! 'Hey, I'm Kumail. ... I know this guy who ages backward! Look at this Polaroid from 10 years ago! And this is him now!' "

I don't think I'm alone in appreciating his stand-up either. Nanjiani got one of the strongest reactions from the audience of any of the comics. Others certainly are accomplished and made their own marks on the show -- Livia Scott (see interview from 6/18/07: http://www.jesterjournal.com/IntScott1.htm) debut a new character, a vapid pop singer; Tom Shillue had his own take on "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus;" Matt McCarthy got physical in acting out rock music he thought would be a better score for conspiracy theory videos; and Sara Benincasa told a short story joke about a dying gay uncle who worked in a diaphragm factory (only in New Jersey could that happen, possibly).

But the "takeaway" from the night is definitely that Nanjiani has got something special. The kid is going places.