Laughing Matters — Saturday Night Live, “Colon Blow”

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.

Due to an earlier social media exchange, this particular vintage Saturday Night Live sketch has been on my mind all day. Since I don’t have time to write much else tonight, let this serve as my humble means of expunging it.

Never forget that any list of the greatest cast members of NBC’s venerable weekend late night comedy show must begin with Phil Hartman to be legitimate.

From the Archive — Friends

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On the occasion of Netflix sending about seventeen boxcars crammed with small bills in the direction of WarnerMedia to keep streaming rights to Friends, this was my attempt a few years ago at writing about the bygone hit sitcom, as part of the “Flashback Fridays” series at my former digital home. This, I must note, was a precarious task for me, since any assertions I made faced the sure scrutiny of a true expert. I don’t remember what she though of this brief consideration. In truth, I’m a little afraid to ask.

1994: Friends debuts

I was about a year out of college when the TV series Friends made its debut, making me a twenty-something just beginning to figure out my place in the world and leaning on my closest compatriots when things got too challenging and confusing. And that’s exactly what I saw when I looked at this show. Maybe I was projecting a little bit. After all, about half the characters were toiling in occupations that implied a certain amount of settled stature — upscale chef, paleontologist, indeterminate business executive — and they were all subsisting with few indications of strife. They lived in the safest, smallest version of New York City imaginable. It looked more like the clean-scrubbed capital city I lived in than any iteration of the biggest metropolis in the nation I’d ever seen on screen before. They drank coffee and traded jokes and wondered about how their romantic prospects might pan out. Add in a little more beer and a tendency to spend weekend nights watching They Live and it could have been my clan.

As I recall, one of the most common complaints when the show premiered and started racing up to the top of the ratings was that the characters didn’t talk like real people, as if the gag machines on other sitcoms were somehow the height of verisimilitude. Thing was, at the height of their verbal one-upmanship, the characters in Friends sounded exactly like my friends. The happy irony, offbeat absurdism, media savvy, and collegial jabs were the grammar of our banter. Some of the push back against the tone and tenor of Friends was the commonplace animosity my generation voiced anytime a piece of entertainment was said to represent our norms and behaviorsFriends got reflexively dumped into that category for a time, but in short order it transcended that to become a sitcom institution, maybe the last of its kind.

There have been other hit shows since, of course, and even other comedies that captured attention, but I think Friends arguably represents the last gasp of hip, appointment television, the sort of thing that NBC could accurately label “Must See TV.” The show didn’t exactly have an edge to lose, but it certainly got more comfortable in the manner of all long-running shows, playing on the most familiar elements of the characters and their tried and true situations rather than springing the unexpected on the audience. It was reliable, warm, dependable. It was there for us. And we were there for it, too.

Laughing Matters — Rita Rudner on The Tonight Show

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.

Earlier this week, I became reacquainted with a longtime favorite comedian when Rita Rudner appeared on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast. When Rudner started appearing on television, I was in the prime of my devotion to catching every comedian I could, and she was immediately one of the standouts. A crack joke writer with a smooth, sedate delivery, she was, it seemed to me, an undeniable talent. Her conversation with Maron reminded me that there were plenty of people, for the worst of reasons, who found ways to deny it.

Unlike other stand-up comics of her generation, Rudner didn’t a lucrative jump to sitcoms, but it turns out that wasn’t for lack of trying. She detailed a couple separate attempts, including one featuring three women leads that was stopped at the starting gate by CBS head Les Moonves. That tale of showbiz woe immediately called to mind the recent Hollywood Reporter essay by Linda Bloodworth Thomason in which she recounted the clear glee Moonves took in turning down her various projects, a curious professional choice considering the showrunner was responsible for major comedy hits for the network. The only feasible explanation is the one posited by Bloodworth Thomason: that he had an instinctual contempt for women he couldn’t own, which resulted in choices that turned arguably the most prestigious broadcast network in the country into a monolithic business that boxed out the contributions of female creators.

Yet more bizarrely, Rudner spent years ostracized by the the bookers of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, then the undisputed professional peak for stand-up comics. I assumed I’d seen her on that stage much earlier than I had. Rudner didn’t make her first appearance with Carson until 1988, a full three years after she appeared on a famed HBO Young Comedians Special (which also Louie Anderson, Sam Kinison, and Bob Saget, among others), another HBO special, and countless additional television appearances. According to Rudner, who discussed the long-ago setback with a remarkable lack of lingering bitterness, Carson’s main booker of comics simply didn’t like her. She doesn’t put a name to it, but it was surely more sexism at work.

Adding to the indignity, Rudner was bumped from her scheduled first appearance on The Tonight Show, and not at the end of the program because it was unexpectedly running long. Carson made the announcement during his opening monologue, while Rudner was backstage, with no forewarning of the cancellation. And Carson mispronounced her name.

In the end, it worked out. Rudner returned a few weeks later and Carson, wisely, liked her material. She returned many times over Carson’s remaining few years at the desk. And, the consummate pro, Rudner came up with a splendid opening gag based around the preemption. Rudner broke through, despite the poorly motivated indifference and other impediments put in her way by a broken, unjust system posing as a meritocracy. Others didn’t, for all the wrong reasons, and that’s a lousy shame.

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

The Long Haul — Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation

These posts are about great acting performances sustained across the full run of a television series.

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Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope in Parks and Recreation (2009 – 2015)

Sometimes I feel like Parks and Recreation was single-handedly saved by the intense dedication of its lead character. In positing this, I don’t mean Leslie Knope, played by Amy Poehler, somehow toiled away, overstuffed binders at the ready, to whip the series into shape, in some meta creative magic. Instead, I think there was something very special in the character that carried the program away from what seemed to be its original intention, replicating the withered cynicism of The Office in a civic government workplace. For much of the show’s short first season, the depiction of Knope was problematically close to Steve Carell’s take on Dunder Mifflin manager Michael Scott. Leslie’s enthusiasm for excelling in her low stakes job was simply another version of Michael’s intense neediness, positioned in the narrative as fodder for mockery.

As was the case within the fictional municipal office, where Leslie’s earnest devotion to improving her community gradually won over her coworkers, so too did the creative team behind Parks and Recreation come to realize — more quickly, praise be — that the central Type A tsunami of accomplishment with the smart pantsuits was a figure worthy of admiration. The wry assessment of haplessness and snickering piercing of uncompromising certainty that served Parks and Recreation creators Michael Schur and Greg Daniels well on The Office was out of place in Pawnee, Indiana, at least when it was directed at the main characters (other, more obscure denizens of the town were fair game for this brand of comedy, especially if those characters didn’t properly recognize the charms of Leslie and her crew). Without jettisoning the need for conflict to drive story and perks of judgment in bolstering comedy, Parks and Recreation prospered when it shifted from the bleating lament of perpetual defeat to resounding pride for jobs well done.

Poehler, it seems, understand that from the jump. She’s written about the immediate connection she felt with Leslie. Out in the real world, Poehler is known for sharp opinions and an emotionally generous brand of pragmatic kindness. Self-assurance is a virtue, even if — perhaps pointedly because — it is not always easy to come by. Social forces are continually pushing back against those who assert themselves, with women often getting the worst of it. But the personal progress that is earned shouldn’t be denied just because opponents of change are yelling louder through faces scrunched like fists. In Parks and Recreation, Leslie faces down more than her fair share of those moral miscreants. Poehler shows the fire that sustains the character and the grace that usually wins the day, even if the day appears to be officially tallied as a setback.

Leslie isn’t portrayed as some paragon of virtue. She can be impatient, obstinate, and inconsiderate in her rush to keep scratching checkmarks onto her to-do list. All those impulses are given there due by Poehler, with the confidence that the more nettlesome qualities of the character make her more complete, and therefore bring added heft to her triumphs. They, too, are part of the ongoing effort to improve herself, her department, her community.

When Leslie finally fulfills a longed for goal, casting a vote for herself in a hotly contested local election, the wash of emotion that comes over her is beautifully truthful, a proper culmination of character’s experiences to that point. Poehler plays it to perfection, conveying the collapsing relief at crossing a certain finish line, as well as how even hope can carry a heavy weight. The moment might work fine on its own, but its hammer blow effect is because of the long, artful journey Poehler has taken with the character, the life she’s injected to the role.

In the early episodes of Parks and Recreation, the validity of Leslie’s perspective sometimes got obscured by the natural instinct — very much in keeping with the prevailing comedic voices of the time — to layer on the snark. Poehler helped shift those winds. Her emphatic, empathetic performance gave the series something truly special: a open-hearted embrace of the sheer value in belief.

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Previously….

Keri Russell in The Americans

The Art of the Sell — Dark Tower commercial

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

The U.S. movie industry has a long history of cruelly casting off figures who were once titans, but there is likely no more cruelly humiliating outcome than that delivered to Orson Welles. By the early nineteen-eighties, Welles’s debut feature, Citizen Kane, was already cemented in conventional wisdom as the greatest movie ever made. Even dissenters had to concede it was one of the most important and influential, creating a pliability and dynamism in narrative that sent shimmers across everything that followed. And despite impediments thrown up by skeptical entertainment executives, Welles signed his name to at least another dozen boldly impressive stage, film, and broadcast projects.

Although Welles clearly still wanted to work, he wasn’t able to complete a feature-length project in his lifetime after 1973’s tricky documentary F is for Fake. Instead, he was relegated to odd cameos, voiceovers, and other mildly demeaning cash grabs. One of his last credits on the big screen entailed voicing Unicron in the 1986 Transformers movie. And Welles did a lot of commercials. It was one thing when he shilled for wine, which at least had an air of sophistication about it. (And it seems the sponsor let him sample the wares during shoots.) It was quite another when he had to feign enthusiasm for a board game that tried to combine the bare trappings of Dungeons and Dragons with rudimentary electronic technology.

Dark Tower was simultaneously a state of the art product and a blatant stab at the nascent market of eager geeks with disposable income (or parents willing to make relatively significant investments in the name of placation). Despite his commercial closing declaration, delivered with pleasant surprise, of “I was victorious,” it’s inconceivable that the master filmmaker ever engaged in the game’s desperate quest for keys or virtual battles with brigands. But pretending he did helped keep his humidor stocked, no doubt.

And, I must admit, his endorsement worked on me. I didn’t know anything about Welles’s storied cinematic legacy at the time. My frame of reference for the man was almost entirely limited to other commercials and his forays to various daytime talk shows, kibbitzing with Merv Griffin and his ilk about Hollywood in the old days. But Welles carried gravitas on him, even in the waning, aching era of his career. I may have found my way to the game through other means, but the commercial provided assurance that this contraption of sword and sorcery was worthy of my time and, more importantly, the familial capital I would expend agitating for it over other potential playthings. In a time when there was a new fleet of Star Wars figures angling for attention every Christmas, this was no small feat.

 

Golden Words — “Baggage”

Since great television comedy always begins with the script, this series of posts considers the individual episodes that have claimed the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series over the years.

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To the degree that Everybody Loves Raymond retains a place in the cultural consciousness, I suspect it’s viewed as precisely the sort of staid family sitcom that represents the more fuddy-duddy tastes of Emmy voters past and present. The basics of its set-up — bedraggled husband, highly competent and routinely perturbed wife, sad sack brother, colorfully cantankerous grandparents — does strike familiar tones, accentuated by the multi-camera presentation and guffawing studio audience.

In terms of innovation, Everybody Loves Raymond has been lapped many times over since it went off the air, in 2005, but when the sitcom launched nine seasons earlier, its spectacle of family members in constant combat, often with the sharpest of verbal barbs, caused it to be viewed with high skepticism. CBS didn’t know what to do with it, initially hiding it on Friday nights. Television Academy voters were similarly unimpressed at first. Everybody Loves Raymond won an impressive fifteen Emmy awards across its run, but it couldn’t even garner a single nomination in its first two seasons.

By season seven, Everybody Loves Raymond was an Emmy mainstay. Every principal cast member except Peter Boyle had at least one acting Emmy to their credit. Prizes bestowed apart from the performances remained elusive. The breakthrough was delivered by writer Tucker Cawley, with a script that perfectly encapsulated the shrewd, simple strengths of the series. The episode is entitled “Luggage.”

In accepting his Emmy, Cawley acknowledge the premise of the episode came from his own relationship. Ray Barone (Ray Romano) and his wife, Debra (Patricia Heaton), return home from a weekend vacation. Exhausted, they leave the trip’s sole piece of luggage on the landing of their house’s stairwell. Weeks later, it remains in place as the Barones wage a silent war, each convinced the other should take the initiative to complete the process of hauling it upstairs and unpacking. That’s the whole of it. It is not the clicking intricacies of the plot that drive the half-hour, but instead the knowing precision in the psychological give and take in the couple’s battle of wills. As is the case with much of the best writing, the specificity of the conflict makes it universal, becoming a stand-in for any instance of foolhardy stubbornness in a long-term relationship.

By this point in the run of the series, the characters and scenarios were so well-established that the writers could sometimes engage in the rough equivalent of batting practice, lobbing in easy tosses that they knew their cast could smash into the upper deck. Some of the biggest laughs in the episode come from lines without an overt punchline: Raymond acknowledging Debra’s response to his gambit of agitation was “Nuthin’,” Frank (Boyle) excusing himself from the room, Robert (Ray’s brother, played by Brad Garrett) asking, with exquisite timing, “How’s the suitcase thing going?” Taking further advantage of the show’s longevity, Cawley ingeniously incorporates a previously indistinct bit of set dressing into the story, as Marie (Roberts) recounts her own household cold war over decorative items hanging in the kitchen.

I think “Luggage” helped distinguish Everybody Loves Raymond as a better overall series that Emmy voters previously allowed. In addition to the writing win and more acting trophies, this year was the first time the program prevailed in the Outstanding Comedy Series category. Everybody Loves Raymond also won in comedy’s biggest category two years later, for its ninth and final season. Somewhat confirming the theory that the series belongs to a different era, no other single-camera sitcom has earned that top honor in the decade-plus since.