Laughing Matters — Robin Williams, “Come Inside My Mind”

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.

robin reality

Lately I’ve been reading Robin, the new book from Dave Itzkoff. A biography of Robin Williams, it is an odd experience for me, swerving between details that are true discoveries for me and material that I know as well as (or better than, really) my own personal history. I was seven years old when the character Mork made his network television debut, on an episode of Happy Days, and it imprinted on me deeply. I responded to his cartoonish manic energy, I suppose. That’s the age I was at. But I like to think I somehow recognized something more intricate and unique there, too, that some instinctual part of my being saw wild genius.

It was Itzkoff’s recapping of the first comedy album by Williams, Reality…What a Concept, that reminded me of a routine that had long ago escaped my memory, but which also illuminates a major part of why his approach was so unique. Williams was first and foremost an actor. Before he launched to fame as a stand-up comedian who had a sitcom tailored to his talents, he’s studied at Juilliard and had appeared in multiple stage productions, including several Shakespeare plays. The bit, titled “Come Inside My Mind” on record, is a minor masterwork of character study, with Williams playing out the competing impulses of a performer.

It’s no wonder it provided the title for a new documentary about Williams. In addition to being a perfect title for a biographical effort, the routine itself hints at the complex totality of Williams. Better yet, it reveals his gift for tapping into those complexities to convey emotion, precisely the quality that made him an Oscar-worthy actor. He was funny, and in boom years of rock star comedy that was the nineteen-seventies, his manic energy made him stand out. There was so much more to him than frenetic japery, though. “Come Inside My Mind” proved it.

 

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

From the Archive — My Writers: Anthony Bourdain

bourdain
(via)

I occasionally write remembrances of famed individuals after they die, if the performer or writer of figure of some other note held a certain significance for me. Anthony Bourdain qualifies, mightily, and yet I’ve struggled with the idea of alchemizing my thoughts into words on a digital page. This is partially attributable to the shock of his death. Also, I’ve encountered so many others with far better stories to tell (or at least capability to summarize the importance of his most recent work with admirable succinctness). I feel I have so little of worth to add, especially since I would largely be reiterating what I wrote about him in the “My Writers” series, a post that went up exactly two years ago tomorrow. But I also feel compelled to not let the moment fully past without sharing. For the record, this is the passage of Kitchen Confidential that relates to the opening line:

global

It’s a small matter, far less important or profound that any of the stories I link to above. This passage relates to the directness and clarity of Bourdain as a writer, qualities he never relinquished, even when he employed more muscular, heated, and complicated language, often in the name of ferocious explications of injustice. He was a good person, and he relentlessly worked to be yet better, a growing process that he willingly experienced in a very public fashion.

Anyway, this is what I once wrote. It is woefully inadequate as a celebration and commemoration of his complicated contribution to the greater culture, but it’s what I have today.

I own a Global kitchen knife because of Anthony Bourdain. Kitchen Confidential, originally published in 2000, was one of those rare books that became a sensation, stirring up interest among a wide range of readers, most of them charged up by the sense they were receiving a glimpse of something wonderfully secretive about the restaurant industry. At the time, Bourdain was the head chef at New York’s Brasserie Les Halles, but he was also an accomplished enough writer that he had a couple food-themed crime novels under his belt. Kitchen Confidential was his coming out as a nonfiction writer, providing a memoirish examination of the hardscrabble romanticism of a life in professional kitchens interspersed with some gut-level philosophizing over what was and wasn’t legit in the booming foodie and celebrity chef cultures. His disdain over the mush that emanates from a garlic press caused me to drive that tool out of our household kitchen, and his discussion of kitchen knives, insisting the gauntlets toted in black cloth bags by many chefs were entirely unnecessary when one good, sharp blade of Japanese steel would do for the vast majority of tasks, was enough to make us seek out one of offering of his suggested brand. That Global knife still resides in our kitchen, getting use most every night.

The success of Kitchen Confidential changed everything for Bourdain, most notably precipitating a television career that’s nabbed him a load of Emmy nominations and two of the actual trophies, not to mention leading to his current status as a near-savior of CNN. It also led to him (or essentially him) being played by Bradley Cooper. Bourdain also became a favorite interview subject, which often involved others trying to provoke him into reviving his withering commentary on other famous culinary figures, particularly those drawing some sort of paycheck from Food Network, a favorite early target. He played along for awhile before eventually starting to demure, partially out of a recognition that he was unmistakably joining their celebrity ranks, but also as an extension of the pointed thoughtfulness that informed his writing in the first place. Now that he was no longer the anonymous loudmouth in the back tossing out invective, he had a clear instinct to be properly informed in his assessments, thus he had an episode of one of his shows in which he sat with former target Emeril Lagasse, ate his food, and tried to understand the man who he once reduced to a clown spouting catch phrases. Not only did Bourdain acknowledge the skill of the fare put before him, he grew fascinated and impressed enough with this former adversary to write him a scene of high dignity in HBO’s Treme.

It’s that level of intellectual integrity that keeps me coming back to Bourdain’s words, whether on the page or for his shows, for which he’s usually the sole credited writer. There’s consistently great material in the collection The Nasty Bits, much of it openly wrestling with the misgivings Bourdain has about his elevated stature or the conflicted feelings he has when a place, a person, or a plate of food challenges his firmly-held preconceptions. He’s an opinionated person who allows himself to be convinced otherwise, at least if the about face is earned. (Granted, by his own accounting he’ll just cave sometimes, as when he claimed he softened his stance on Rachael Ray because she sent him a fruit basket.) Sometimes that can lead him down an unfortunate avenue, as with his unapologetic championing of The Taste, the cooking competition show he co-produced and co-hosted which was as shammy and contrived as any food television program not involved manufactured drama over the baking and decoration of cakes. Overall, though, the quality of openness to different viewpoints and experiences makes his writing and commentary smarter and better. And seriously, that Global knife is fantastic.

Last Call — The Americans

Sometimes in pop culture there are clear end points, and — effective or not — they can provide insights to a whole series, oeuvre, or discography.

paige

In a beautiful convergence of historical fact and playful narrative irony, the FX series The Americans concluded its six season, seventy-five episode run with an episode titled “START.” Reminiscent of The Sopranos finale from a decade ago, the creators behind The Americans remained true to their firmly established voice, resisting any exterior pressure — real or imagined — to deliver bombast and resolute closure. They instead trafficked in the aching ambiguity that was a hallmark of the entire series. In the real world, stories don’t really end. Some branches simply wither away as others sprout. Certain implicit promises needed to be kept, and in this The Americans did not disappoint, notably with a lengthy set piece in the stark chill of a parking garage. But it faded to black with as many questions lingering as answered.

In general, the final season of The Americans revived a series that had just barely started to sag. Blessed and cursed at once with a renewal order from FX that laid out a clear, decisive, two-season pathway to the final episode, the creative team started quietly folding up chairs in the back of the room in the middle of the fifth season, and it could feel a little bit like they were biding time. In retrospect, I still believe in the fairness of that impression, but the fifth season also minutely recalibrated expectations about how catastrophic events would become. Earlier, The Americans was ruthless enough that it was the sort of series where it was advisable to not become overly attached to certain characters as they waded deeper into the swamps of Cold War espionage. With a mischievous wit, the show stirred anxiety about the fates of fictional beings, and often proved those worries to be founded. The nervous viewing instinct lingered, even as the body count plateaued, at least when it came to major characters.

The change was so slight as to be nearly indiscernible, and yet the effect was profound, heightening the tension by playing to prolonged stillness bursting with woozy expectation. Watching much of the last season — especially the back half of it — was a compulsive exercise in breath holding, waiting for the bang that would deliver harsh justice. Rather than commit to a mad rush of incidents, The Americans doubled down on themes that ran through the whole series: the precariousness of family, the pliability of identity, the rickety nature of institutions, and the prevailing uncertainty of it all. Abetted by actors who excelled at nuance (Keri Russell, in particular, gave a long-form performance for the ages, and Matthew Rhys and Noah Emmerich each had quietly staggering moments in the finale), showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields built a series around spy trappings — disguises, deadly missions, complicated assignments — and tethered it to the most recognizable human conflicts.

The Americans was magnificent, all the way to its fitting, moving, tender end.

That Championship Season — How I Met Your Mother, Season Two

himym

Plenty of television series have hung on longer than they should have, the dictates of commerce outweighing storytelling considerations at nearly every turn in the business of doing a show. But I don’t know if any long-running program so thoroughly demolished the goodwill it had built up as How I Met Your Mother did. The creation of former Late Show with David Letterman writers Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, the sitcom was built on a novel, hooky premise. In the future, a father (voiced by Bob Saget) relays to his two children (Lyndsy Fonseca and David Henrie, couch-bound and staring placidly with marginal interest for nine seasons) the story of his first encounter with his wife, the woman who birthed them. Conveniently, the long story unfolded in hijinks-filled, episodic adventures with the father’s cluster of distinctive friends in New York City in the early two-thousands.

In the present day, the father, Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor), was a struggling architect, living in a modest apartment with his old college roommate, aspiring lawyer Marshall Eriksen (Jason Segel) and his fiancée, kindergarten teacher Lily Aldrin (Alyson Hannigan). Their nights at the neighborhood bar are often commandeered by besuited Lothario Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris, in a crucial part of the professional journey that freed him from having to good-naturedly smile as people called him “Doogie”). Into the mix comes Robin Scherbatsky, a fledgling broadcast journalist with whom Ted falls for, but who, the viewer is informed early on, is not “the mother.”

HIMYM bar

Remarkably, for a show that lasted nearly a decade, How I Met Your Mother was never much of a hit, and accordingly it spent much of its run in a constant state of uncertainty. Most years, the announcement of its renewal came with a whisper of relief and surprise. And the size of its viewership never really changed over the years, until the final season when interest in closure put it into the Nielsen Top 40 for the first time. Instead, the business landscape for television changed all around it, and the show’s devoted viewers looked more and more appealing in a rapidly stratifying culture.

The bank accounts of the show creators and stars undoubtedly benefitted from the lengthy run of How I Met Your Mother, but the story it told was stretched unbearably thin as seasons mounted. The ingenuity of the program was the presence of a series-long through line built upon an internal mystery, increasingly a mandate for hour-long dramas at the point of the show’s premiere, in 2005, but still a rarity for sitcoms, which were supposed to be endlessly renewable to better suit syndication, then holding as the true jackpot of television production. Although How I Met Your Mother would rake in some chips thanks to reruns on superstations and cable networks, it was also one of the first shows to benefit from prime placement on Netflix, where excavations of its clues invited pinpoint repeat viewings. Looking at the overall structure of the full series, it probably would have benefitted from shorter seasons and fewer years, letting the elusiveness of the mother’s identity remain a clever gimmick rather than an unbearably coy tease. That quality alone is a major part of the reason the show’s strongest season was its second.

HIMYM car

At its core, How I Met Your Mother was about growing up. Ted’s wounded puppy pining for true love was simply one expression of moving from carefree youth to the responsibilities of adulthood, often fulfilled by compromises to secure career progress or letting go of sentimental artifacts, like a first car with the same cassingle eternal trapped in the tape deck. Exploiting its retrospective structure, the show allowed itself to bounce back and forth in time, sometimes letting an individual episode’s plot spill out as jumbled fragments, the ruptured chronology allowing for a more complex and comedically satisfying punchlines.

And since it was about growing up, finding the characters still early in that trajectory was more satisfying. Back and forth fretting meant to prolong conflicts necessary for drama hadn’t yet become tiresome, and there was no need yet to overly indulge in the constant shuffling of relationships required to inject something new into the series. The need to keep circling Ted into new romances, each one meant to tantalize that it could finally payoff the promise of the title, was particularly problematic. Well before the series drew to its conclusion, he seemed less like a hopeful romantic and more like a fickle basket case so saddled with issues that he repelled potential partners.

None of those issues weighed on How I Met Your Mother in the second season, but it had also overcome its natural growing pains. The writers and actors built characters so strong that the mere introduction of a comic premise could be effective because of how it fed into established personality rhythms. Nothing exemplifies that better than the second season episode “Slap Bet,” which remarkably introduced the show’s two very best recurring bits: a wager that allowed Marshall to deliver five surprise physical assaults to Barney, as well as the Robin’s secret shame as Canadian teen pop sensation Robin Sparkles.

HIMYM sparkles

The strong and satisfying second season found its complete opposite in the ninth and final season of How I Met Your Mother. It foolishly spread twenty-four episodes across the weekend of Robin and Barney’s wedding, in part to further delay Ted’s first encounter with the mother, who was revealed — in the form of actress Cristin Millioti — in the prior season’s finale. The voice of the series was already growing weak and raspy. In the ninth season, it completely gave out. The tone became shrill, and the pace was frenetic in individual episodes and yet glacial in the season-long arc. Putting a dreadful punctuation mark on the whole series, Bays and Carter insisted on sticking with the overall ending they’d originally conceived, though by that point they had spun so many contradicting side tales that it was now emotionally unworkable.

Dogged in my completionist tendencies, I stuck with How I Met Your Mother to the extra-bitter end. Kids, I should have stopped when I could still keep all the memories happy.

HIMYM wedding

 

Previously…

An Introduction
Buffy the Vampire SlayerSeason Five
CheersSeason Five
The SopranosSeason One
St. ElsewhereSeason Four
Veronica MarsSeason One
The OfficeSeason Two
The Ben Stiller ShowSeason One
Gilmore GirlsSeason Three
SeinfeldSeason Four
JustifiedSeason Two
Parks and RecreationSeason Three
LouieSeason Two
TogethernessSeason One
BraindeadSeason One
CommunitySeason Two
Agent CarterSeason Two
The Leftovers, Season Three
Treme, Season One

Laughing Matters — Muppets Tonight, “Sid Knishes and His Mosh-Pit-atoes”

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 past several days, I’ve taken great delight in the Emmet’s Otter’s Jugband Christmas outtakes making the rounds, and I’ve done everything I can to avoid the new trailers for The Happytime Murders, convinced to the pit of my stomach that a deliberately edgy, R-rated adventure populated by Muppets is a bad idea, even if a Henson scion is behind it. The brand of character crafted into life by Jim Henson and his compatriots haven’t been nearly as durable and adaptable as their less-than-benevolent corporate overlords at Disney surely hoped. Jason Segel’s valiant effort to return them to the big screen was enjoyable, if only because his clear affection cast a golden glow on the entire endeavor. Most other attempts has been messy, rife with evidence that no one quite knows what to do with these frolicking, felt vaudevillians

Although I’m must sure the answer truly lies there, as a lifelong fan I’ll note my enduring affection for the mid-nineteen-nineties stab at securing them a spot on television, a program called Muppets Tonight. Following the rough template of the original The Muppet Show, but with the conceit of a theatrical performance replaced overtly replaced with that of a television show, Muppets Tonight at least recaptured some of the joyously maniacal idea-flinging of the earlier success. Some of the best bits were over in a snap. The most recent prime time series tried to hard to wedge the Muppets into a sitcom template, with ongoing story lines that were an ill fit. In an era that thrives on shareable chunks of content, the little throwaways did far better.

Muppets Tonight wasn’t comprised of nothing but throwaways, by any means, but I could imagine the show thriving if it had existed at a time when people were eager to log into social media so they could share their favorite new discoveries. One of the bits from the episode of the show featuring Prince as a guest star even made the rounds not so long ago (though sadly not the sketch that should’ve taken off). I know this for sure: had I the means at the time, I would have cross-posted the live performance of Sid Knishes and His Mosh-Pit-atoes onto every digital platform available to me.

The Art of the Sell — “You and Me and ABC”

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

By now, we are well past the point that television programming is a sad, forlorn cousin of other pop culture art forms. There are simply too many offerings that approach the level of true genius, especially across cable and streaming platforms. The broadcast networks still lag behind, in part because of the dampening limits that come with currying the favor of the churlish, fickle FCC and in part due to the squeamishness of commercial advertisers who still provide a sizable chunk of the revenue. I also think a certain tepidness might be so firmly embedded in the networks’ respective DNA strands that a certain flatness is hard to shake.

This week, the networks are engaging in the spectacle of the upfronts, in which they eagerly pitch their fall lineup to potential sponsors. The basic concept is antiquated, fully disconnected from the yearlong process of releasing new programs. That mustiness makes it charming to me, stirring a nostalgia for my distant boyhood, when no single publication was more exciting than the annual “Fall Preview” issue of TV Guide. A insatiable consumer of television, I was enthralled by every bit of promotion that celebrated the broadcast entertainment to come.

And back then, they really knew how to pull out the razzle-dazzle to sell a network lineup. Modern upfronts might have a dose of showmanship to them, but they’re nothing like the campaigns of yesteryear. I’d like to see one of the current networks pull off something like the “You and Me and ABC” production number that placed a bevy of stars from across the schedule on a garishly adorned stage for a song and dance number.

 

The Art of the Sell — Mojo Nixon for MTV

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

In the most recent College Countdown entry, I became reacquainted with the Dead Kennedys, including some of the more eye-rolling aspects of Jello Biafra’s posturing. Chief among the more insipid rages against the machine on the album Frankenchrist is the track “MTV — Get Off the Air,” which takes aim at the cable channel that once stood for “Music Television.” At the time, the network was a familiar target for anyone with an indier-than-thou attitude. The animosity wasn’t entirely unearned, but I hearing that Dead Kennedys song again stirred me to think about how many amazing artists I encountered for the first time through MTV. Living in a place well away from college radio or any other FM outlets with a sense of daring, MTV likely provided my first exposure to a legion of vital performers: The Cure, the Jesus and Mary Chain, R.E.M., The Smiths, Robyn Hitchcock, and countless more.

And I know for certain that MTV introduced me to Mojo Nixon, although his music was, at best. a secondary component. Around the time “Elvis is Everywhere” became a novelty hit, MTV enlisted Nixon to star in some interstitial bumpers. Seemingly delivered as improvisational sermons on his various obsessions, the segments were riveting cornpone, unpolished and delivered with verve. When Nixon expounded on his personal Holy Trinity of Elvis Presley, Foghorn Leghorn, and Otis Campbell (or, as Nixon more clearly put it, “Otis, the drunk from The Andy Griffith Show“), his conviction was admirable.

When I finally did make it to a place with a first-rate college radio station, I thankfully found my way into the studio. And I routinely sought out Nixon’s album with his partner, Skid Roper. I had a few catalysts to that particular playlist choice, including peers and rave reviews in favored music magazines. Almost every time I played one of his songs, though, I realized the genesis of my interest started deep on the cable dial.