Laughing Matters — Saturday Night Live, “Common Knowledge”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

common knowledge

Saturday Night Live long ago crossed over into the status of institution, which cemented all of the longtime criticisms leveled against it and simultaneously made them beside the point. I’m not sure how often anyone still bothers to drag out the well-worn lament about the writers’ lazy tendency to default to game show and talk show parodies. It’s probably a little less now since one of the best, most pointed recurring sketches current running falls into that category.

And then there’s simply the pesky detail that sometimes the familiar format of a game show, in particular, provides the best entryway to truly inspired comedic commentary. I believe that’s the case with “Common Knowledge,” easily one of my favorite sketches in the program’s multi-decade history. Practically any other conceivable method of mining the same sad truth about U.S. culture for laughs would be sure to end up didactic and mean-spirited. Instead, “Common Knowledge” makes its points with sly deftness, helped by the patience that holds back its motivating premise until almost two full minutes in, giving it a touch of happy puzzlement.

Usually, I’d embed the sketch here, but NBC video doesn’t like to play that way, so I’ll opt for a hyperlink instead.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

The Art of the Sell — “I Want My MTV”

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

“Just moments ago, all of the VJs and the crew here at MTV collectively hit our executive producer, Sue Steinberg, over the head with a bottle of champagne and behold: a new concept is born,” Mark Goodman said to a camera shortly after midnight on Saturday, August 1, 1981. He promised the new cable network would deliver to viewers “the best of TV combined with the best of radio.” I suppose it’s up for debate whether it truly delivered the optimal qualities of the name mediums, but across the next decade there’s no question it propelled a revolution in the music business.

Before MTV could change all the rules of why and how songs became hits, it had to actually get in front of viewers. As opposed to the endless landscape of minutely targeted networks that make us the average channel lineup now (not to mention the streaming options that deliver programming on demand), space on the dial — not really proverbial at the time  — was at a high premium. MTV was ready to rock, but it was reaching precious few sets.

Network executives knew the only way MTV would expand its reach was through viewer demand. Cable operators didn’t care about the cajoling by the people running the network, but if the households footing the monthly bill for pay television called up and demanded the addition of MTV to their channel lineups, then things could change. MTV hired the ad agency run by the famed George Lois, and he essentially recycled a concept from one of his cereal commercials made a couple decades earlier. Instead of a child angrily demanding Maypo, there would be a procession of rock stars yelling, “I want my MTV!”

The campaign was deployed strategically to different major media markets. According to Tom Freston, the president of MTV’s parent company Viacom at the cable channel’s launch, the response was immediate.

“Within three weeks, every cable operator in the market would call up and say, ‘Okay, I give up. I’ll take it,'” Freston remembered.

Before long, MTV was just about everywhere, and — for a time, anyway — it was practically impossible to turn a song into a hit without an accompanying eye-catching video. I doubt even the more optimistic early adopters of the channel saw that coming. Outcomes can be surprising when you give the people what they want.


Laughing Matters — The Ben Stiller Show, “Tom Cruise: Dress Casual”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

This production looks like a better and better idea with each passing year.

Laughing Matters — Hannah Gadsby, “Nanette”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.


When the most generous and laudatory assessments of stand-up comedy are presented, a view of the form as a habitat for uncommonly bold truth-telling is usually part of the conversation. That theory only looks more compelling as the various descendants of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show spread out use the heaping sugar spoons of raunchy punchlines to sweeten the medicine of their aggravated assemblages of investigative journalism that are otherwise likely to be missed by enormous chunks of the population. But most of the time, a heavy caution is obviously in place. These comedians might issue diatribes against a broken system, but they’re largely parroting the simplest social grievances. When the substance is really examined, there are few hard truths to be found, the sort that challenge the status quo rather than merely offer complaints.

Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, which recently made its debut on Netflix, is an entirely different matter. It is bracing, transformational, inventive, defiant, and — a word I feel I must now reserve for creative art on this level — revelatory. Gadsby succinctly identifies the core reason for the show’s success. “I broke the contract, and that’s what made this work,” Gadsby recently told The Guardian.

In Nanette, comedy is not a means to soothe or to escape. A remarkable amount of the time, comedy is not even a tool to extract laughter. Instead, comedy — its rhythms, its structure, its basic presentation — is there as a vehicle for the rawest emotions, identifying pain and betrayal, not just on a personal level, but across the expanse of the shared, misbegotten culture. It shares some DNA with the more theatrical comedian shows on the nineteen-nineties, when there was a tendency to claim a veneer of added legitimacy by declaring barely modified stand-up sets as one-person shows. But those relied on rickety appropriations of stage plays. Gadsby’s Nanette is pure stand-up, from beginning to end.

Gadsby employs deconstructionist technique, calling attention to the grammar or stand-up while simultaneously mastering and demolishing it. The art history degree Gadsby holds is drawn upon brilliantly in a counter to the fallacy that emotional misery is necessary ingredient to the production great art, but it also informs the entirety of Nanette. It is the treatise of someone who’s been trained to the understand the patterns, subtext, and nuance of art, and who has further learned to adapt that knowledge to a myriad of forms.

Despite proclamations to the contrary, I don’t believe Gadsby’s Nanette is the sort of performance that can change everything about the form of stand-up comedy. I think it’s too great to achieve that. It’s beyond the grasp of other practitioners, more akin to the unhinged monologues of Lenny Bruce or the pure honesty of Richard Pryor. It’s an astonishing peak that can’t be reached again, even — somewhat by design — for the person made it there in the first place.

Top Ten Television, 2017-2018 season

As per tradition, the eve of the annual Emmy nominations announcement brings me to my own opinionated assertion of which program represent the best that the expansively defined medium of television has to offer. As always, I must offer the slight caveat that so much exists in this corner of the pop culture universe that I know I am likely missing some wondrous creation. (The household DVR is teetering on the brink of collapse due in large part to the accumulated episodes of well-loved series that await there.)

Still, I think this is ultimately a solid group of ten. I follow the eligibility timelines rules given to the Emmy voters, so specific seasons are noted for clarity’s sake.


#1 — Atlanta, season 2 (FX). Donald Glover’s ingenious series improbably got weirder, darker, funnier, and more insightful in its second season. Each episode was a discovery, forging a new path while remaining firmly tethered to everything that was previously established about the characters and the world in which they toil. Honestly, this could have topped the list for the “Teddy Perkins” episode alone.


#2 — The Americans, season 6 (FX). With characteristics stealth, subtlety, and emotional power, The Americans closed out its run in stellar fashion. At times, the tension was beautifully excruciating as the entire creative team came together to offer a master class in narrative storytelling. Keri Russell deserves to mentioned among the greats in any discussion of extended television acting feats.


#3 — Insecure, season 2 (HBO). Following a promising but uneven first season, Issa Rae’s creation became magnificent, delivering pathos and hilarity in equal measure. Her creative voice sharpened in the depiction of black women navigating romance, complicated friendships, and a working world that keeps changing the rules. Rae was an engaging presence in the first season, but she became a standout actress in the second.

good place

#4 — The Good Place, season 2 (NBC). Michael Schur and his cohorts evidently never tire of painting themselves into seemingly impossible narrative corners. Luckily, they also never flag in flashing dazzling escape artist abilities. A comedy this high concept can get quickly worn down by the novelty of its very premise. The Good Place avoids that by existing in a constant state of reinvention.


#5 — GLOW, season 1 (Netflix). The creation of Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch could have used its depiction of the nineteen-eighties all women wrestling program as an easy route to comedy through mockery. Instead, they developed something smart, moving, and , yes, funny, largely because they so clearly afford dignity and purpose to every person onscreen. And Alison Brie is a true marvel as dissatisfied actress Ruth Wilder.


#6 — Better Things, season 2 (FX). Pamela Adlon’s autobiographical series is almost granular in its attention to detail, taking simple scenarios and spinning endless complexities out of them. Every last episode of the second season was directed by Adlon, and she showed great skill for letting the structure of the visuals layer emotion into scenes. The show is woolly, uncompromising, and bruisingly comic.

Screen Shot 2018-07-10 at 7.07.14 PM

#7 — Barry, season 1 (HBO). The quick description of a hitman who starts to find his humanity when he stumbles into an acting class barely hints at the compounding cleverness of this series that is structured like a comedy, but is shaded by deep, dark instincts. Collaborating with HBO ringer Alec Berg, Bill Hader delivered a series that built to such a perfect season-ender that it felt finite and self-contained. The cable network still called for an encore.


#8 — Speechless, season 2 (ABC). This series about a working class family in which one member has cerebral palsy that keeps him confined to a wheelchair and relying on others to speak for him manages to reinvigorate a familiar sitcom template with its specificity. It’s honest about the challenges the family faces without giving up on spirited play and smart punchlines.


#9 — Stranger Things, season 2 (Netflix). The Duffer brothers’ homage to their genre favorites of the nineteen-eighties didn’t hold the same jolt of happy surprise in its second season, but it remained as compulsively consumable as Halloween candy.


#10 — “USS Callister,” Black Mirror episode (Netflix). If Netflix can cheat a little bit and pretend individual Black Mirror episodes are standalone TV movie for Emmy purposes, so can I. The first episode of the modern Twilight Zone‘s fourth season uses a vividly imagined Star Trek stand-in to explicate and the savage the toxicity of modern fan culture overly dominated by stunted men prone to vicious tantrums whenever they can’t get exactly what they want.


2016-2017 season
— 2015-2016 season
— 2014-2015 season
— 2013-2014 season
— 2012-2013 season
— 2011-2012 season

Laughing Matters — Parks and Recreation, “The Cones of Dunshire”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

In the era of endless reboots, the teeniest rumblings have started about getting the Parks and Recreation gang back together. I’d personally rather they leave the show to history rather than risk the tarnish of an inadequate revival.

Although I have to admit that — especially on fairly glum days like today — I do miss Ben Wyatt.

Laughing Matters — George Carlin, “The American Dream”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

We recently slipped past the ten year anniversary of George Carlin’s death. I was reminded of his absence as the social and political discussion turned — briefly, tactically, disingenuously — to the concept of civility. Carlin famously went through several iterations in his long, duly venerated comedy career, but its his final chapters that deserve to still reverberate today. Although he never fully abandoned wordplay and making light of the mundane foibles that are the common denominator of most stand-ups, Carlin devoted increasing portions of his sets to caustic assessments of the state of the nation.

I used to have routines like “A Place for My Stuff” and “Baseball vs. Football” devoted to memory. And yet none of that sticks to my psyche with the same ferocity than a chunk of a larger piece called “Dumb Americans,” which was captured in his 2005 HBO Special, Life is Worth Losing. It’s class latter-day Carlin. He spends several minutes delivering mildly sophomoric lines directed at easy targets (there’s a lot of fat jokes in this stretch), before making a hard pivot into a brilliantly caustic explication of the strategic maneuvers of the U.S. power structure to keep the citizenry devoid of power.

“I’ll tell you what they don’t want,” Carlin says of the moneyed class exerting control over politicians and the media. “They don’t want a population of citizen capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interest in that. That doesn’t help them. That’s against their interest.”

Carlin continues on to name what the wealthy overlords actually want: “obedient workers.” I think about that particular piece of phrasing all the time. “Obedient workers.” As the media and politicians of all stripes again expend mortifying amounts of time and energy defending the supposedly persecuted members of the ruling class, with nary a thought for the workers at the modest Virginia restaurant who felt uncomfortable providing service to someone who’s regularly taken and advocated political stances that opportunistically painted them as less deserving of the basic rights and opportunities afforded U.S. citizens.

The word “civility” strikes me as synonymous with “obedience” in the current usage. In the few striking minutes that have been carved out the larger Carlin routine — dubbed “The American Dream” due to the wry, bleak punchline at the end — there is barely anything that can be called a joke, even if it occasionally follows the rough cadence of setup and payoff. There is, however, a whole lot of hard truth.


Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.