Laughing Matters: The Ben Stiller Show, “Low Budget Tales of Cliched Horror”

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.

I swear I’m not going to make this recurring feature into nothing but a showcase for comedy sketches from The Ben Stiller Show.

Well, I’ll try not to. That might be a more realistic promise.

I spent much of today gradually, reluctantly coming down from the high of being on the radio at my broadcasting alma mater, WWSP-90FMWWSP-90FM, the student-run radio station at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. My mental acuity dulled and wistfully directed elsewhere, I flailed around a bit for what to put here in my little corner of the digital world today. Eventually, I started thinking of instances of radio in pop culture, for which I’ve long had a strong affinity. Seeing a radio station turn up in a movie or a television show, no matter how ridiculously, always gave me a little thrill.

That joy included the sketch “Low Budget Tales of Cliched Horror” on The Ben Stiller Show, even though the radio setting was hardly the target of the satire. Instead, it expertly mocks the syndicated horror anthology television series that were weirdly prominent for a stretch in the late-nineteen-eighties and early-nineteen-nineties. And it takes a little swipe at Talk Radio while it’s at it, which I also greatly appreciated at the time.

And he’s actually wearing headphones while on the air, a detail most visual depictions of the medium opt to omit. It’s no wonder I enjoy it as much as I do.

That Championship Season: Agent Carter, Season Two

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Dominant as Marvel Studios have been on the movie landscape the past decade or so — without a doubt, the success of their model of narrative interconnectivity has completely transformed how most of commercial filmmaking works — their ride has been far more wobbly on the television side. The entertainment conglomerate’s first true foray into small screen fare, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., may be heading —shockingly — into its fifth season, but no one mistakes it for a sensation or anything more than a modest success, artistically or in terms of its ratings. Similarly, the bevy of Netflix shows mining the comic book publisher’s stable of darker, more street-level heroes have met with a decidedly mixed reception.

A major contributor to the problem is a sense of undue seriousness, which primarily manifests as an overt commitment to heaping melodrama. Most of the series give off an aura of ponderous gloom, even when delivering some snappy moments and appealing characters. As they stretch on, those qualities are further burdened by compounding convolution, which make the various storylines instantly exhausting.

There is one Marvel live-action show that strayed from this norm, becoming, in my eyes anyway, the studio’s clearest creative success in the series format. Of course, it’s also the one ongoing series that has officially faced the dreaded judgment of cancellation.

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Although Agent Carter aped the origin of Agents in S.H.I.E.L.D. in spinning off directly from the Marvel movies, it was different in every other substantive way. The show picked up with Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) shortly after the events of Captain America: The First Avenger, so it was set in the years immediately following World War II. It followed her as she began work with the Strategic Scientific Reserve — the precursor to S.H.I.E.L.D. — facing down adversaries fighting for the forces of evil even as she had to contend will colleagues who caused a whole other set of hardships through their era-appropriate withering sexism.

Agent Carter was flawed in its first season, but it had its strengths, chief among them the performance of Atwell. She took a character who sometimes struggled to transcend the plucky love interest trope in her film introduction and made her into a layered figure, strong-willed but also vulnerable, all without succumbing to cliche. And the series had a point of view. Underneath the eager cash-in motivation, it was gratifyingly purposeful.

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In the second season, the creators of Agent Carter expertly retained what was already strong in the show and showed they’d been paying close attention to what they’d be. They downplayed the more muddled through lines and accentuated the smaller portions that proved winning. This working methodology practically bangs pans together and announces itself as the most logical approach for any showrunners to employ as a series progresses, but its amazing how often the opposite tack is taken, including, it must be said, by many of the other Marvel outings.

Peggy was liberated from the more dour environs of the first season’s New York City setting and whisked off to sunny California, a shift orchestrated with the ease of giving her a West Coast case to work. Since the Marvel movie mythos had already established Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) as a Howard Hughes avatar, it was similarly simple to wind Peggy’s exploits into the land of Hollywood, setting her against a megalomaniacal movie star named Whitney Frost (Wynn Everett).

The change of scenery was already enough to give Atwell more zingy moments to play, letting her be loose and charming as well as strident and strong. To further facilitate that, the second season gave plenty of screen time to Peggy’s interactions with Jarvis (James D’Arcy), devoted butler to Howard Stark. Again, this was no flailing attempt at ginning up some choice material. Atwell and D’Arcy demonstrated marvelous chemistry in their comparatively limited interactions in the first season. Collaborative showrunners Tara Butters, Michele Fazekas, and Chris Dingess recognized and exploited a good thing.

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In the earlier season, Agent Carter could feel a little bound to its period setting without fully taking advantage of its possibilities. After the retro sets were built and the smashing costumes draped over the actors, there was little else to truly distinguish it as a piece of a fine fictional past. That’s also corrected in the second season, as the old Hollywood glamor is further stirred up by bullish gangsters straight of the film noir gems of the era. The show embraced and adapted the more stylish sensibility of the earlier creative era, giving it more texture, even if the obvious budget limitations meant there could only be so much panache to the visuals. Still, the tribute was pure and warm, as best exemplified by a dream sequence dance number that played out the various conflicts Peggy was going through.

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That willingness to play around — to upend expectations just slightly, as if inviting the audience in on the joke rather than trying to leave them rattled — was fully representative of one of the most vital qualities elevating the whole season. Agent Carter operated with a crackling joy at dressing up boundless imagination with just enough plausibility. In other words, the show felt like a really great old school Marvel comic book, right down to the jaunty pseudo-science built around goofy, imposing contraptions.

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Once more acknowledging that I’m about to deliver a compliment that indicates more creator thinking that should be commonplace but is actually somewhat revolutionary, the second season of Agent Carter committed itself to being fun. It is striking and a little sad that such a mindset qualifies as novel, but there it is. At nearly every turn — the bittersweet romantic entanglements, the mounting mania of the villains, the clever incorporation of first season villain Dottie Underwood (Bridget Regan) into various schemes — the storytelling is sure-footed and inviting.

Reminiscent of some of the better Marvel Cinematic Universe entries, the second season of Agent Carter serves it corporate obligations while simultaneously  — maybe miraculously — coming across as an earnest realization of the more personal aspirations of those assembled for the singular project, as if every question that began “Wouldn’t it be great if…” was met with a resounding and cheerful, “Let’s do it!”

Previously…

An Introduction
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five
Cheers, Season Five
The Sopranos, Season One
St. Elsewhere, Season Four
Veronica Mars, Season One
The Office, Season Two
The Ben Stiller Show, Season One
Gilmore Girls, Season Three
Seinfeld, Season Four
Justified, Season Two
Parks and Recreation, Season Three
Louie, Season Two
Togetherness, Season One
Braindead, Season One
Community, Season Two

Laughing Matters: The Ben Stiller Show, “A Few Good Scouts”

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.

For reasons that are probably obvious, a certain sketch from The Ben Stiller Show has been on my mind today.

Since I have previously written about precisely why this sketch — and everything from the one and only season of The Ben Stiller Show — delights me so, I will let the splendid parody speak for itself.

Top Ten Television, 2016-2017 season

The Emmy nominations will be offered up tomorrow morning. As per tradition, I carve out some room at my little corner of the digital world to weigh on those series that I consider to be the best of episodic storytelling from the span of time that Academy of Television Arts and Sciences have roped off in setting the rules for awards eligibility.

As usual, while I am well-versed in the various offerings that fall under the increasingly ill-fitting designation of “television,” I will readily concede there are loads of shows and productions that I have missed. There is simply too much out there to be exhaustive in my viewing. Previously, I’ve sheepishly presented a list of acclaimed series and one-off productions I couldn’t quite make my way through in time for this list. Instead, I’ll only note some amount of regret that I am too early in the season of Better Call Saul to pass judgment, since the prior years were heartily celebrated in this space.

Enough caveats. Here are my selections for the best of television for the 2016-2017 season.

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#1 — The Leftovers, season 3 (HBO). This beautifully bleak, visually inventive, and wildly creative series was a prime example of a show I didn’t catch up quickly enough when constructing past lists. (For the record, I doubt season one would have made my top ten list, but season two certainly would have.) For the final season, the longterm themes exploded into an ingenious and often wickedly funny considerations of faith, personal reinvention, and the heroic perseverance of simply being.

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#2 — Atlanta, season 1 (FX). Donald Glover crosses over from fascinatingly multi-faceted performer to full-blown auteur with this sharply observational series that alternated between explosively funny, piercingly poignant, and off-handedly unreal with astonishing ease. As up-and-coming rapper Paper Boi, Brian Tyree Henry gives one of the year’s slyest performances, tinged with a weariness with the rigors of a rough culture.

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#3 — O.J.: Made in America (ESPN). The winner of the most recent Best Documentary Feature Academy Award had no business even being invited to that ceremony. Its clear structure and intent is as episodic non-fiction series, and it’s achievement is how well it uses that mode of storytelling. It repels tabloid expectations to thoroughly examine sociological history that preceded the infamous O.J. Simpson murder trial, and it bravely reasserts the brutality of the initial crime.

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#4 — The Good Place, season 1 (NBC). Michael Schur’s latest comedy series played like a bit of good fun with an inventive premise, riffing on the endless series of twists and cliffhangers that are the lifeblood of the more fantastical television dramas. Then the season’s last episode — and its massive plot twist — arrived, and the whole endeavor was suddenly, marvelously transformed into something that retroactively appeared borderline brilliant. In an era of spoilers and rigorous fan speculation, Schur delivered that rarest of gems: a true surprise.

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#5 — Fargo, season 3 (FX). Crime, human pettiness, and a little bit of money converge once again in the ongoing tonal companion piece to the Coen brothers’ oeuvre. Noah Hawley’s continually rejuvenating, loosely connecting series may have been a little more ragged around the edge in its third iteration, but it remained consistently daring and engaging.

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#6 — Stranger Things, season 1 (Netflix). Providing a glimpse of what it would have looked like had Stephen King and Steven Spielberg merged into a single creator in the early nineteen-eighties, the out-of-nowhere sensation created by brothers Matt and Ross Duffer was arguably the most addictive show in years. And that’s in an era when binge-ability is a front-of-the-mind goal for many creators.

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#7 — Legion, season 1 (FX). More of Noah Hawley’s handiwork, this time taking the loose prompt of an obscure Marvel Comics character and spinning it into a visually startling deconstruction of human perception. Aubrey Plaza’s performance is the embodiment of riveting performance freedom.

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#8 — The Americans, season 5 (FX). The espionage family drama lost some of its headlong momentum in its penultimate season. Of course, that only made it seem like it was tensing itself for agonies to come. It remains as exquisitely precise and resolutely intelligent as anything else currently airing.

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#9 — Baskets, season 2 (FX). This showcase for Zach Galifianakis improved markedly in its second season, largely because the star allowed his main character — Chip Baskets — to become more realistic, which in turn made him more sympathetic. The creative team also wisely capitalized on the warm, insightful performance of Louie Anderson as the Basket family matriarch. Given more to do in the second season, Anderson proved the worthiness of his Emmy win for the role.

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#10 — Westworld, season 1 (HBO). It is unquestionably a mess sometimes, and its narrative shatters at the gentlest of scrutiny. But I can’t deny the pleasures I had when submitting to its rickety joyride. The production values are grand, the performances roundly marvelous, and the dialogue snaps with caustic assurance. For a time, nothing more clearly signaled it was Sunday night in our household than one member of our viewing party feeling compelled to utter, “Poor Teddy.”

Previously…
2015-2016 season
2014-2015 season
2013-2014 season
2012-2013 season
2011-2012 season

Laughing Matters: Sniglets

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.

I would be overjoyed to report that my formative experiences with comedy were edgy and cool. There were certainly some personally favored selections that skewed to the countercultural — Andy Kaufman, Richard Pryor, Saturday Night Live when it still fit into that category — but I was often responding to some embedded silliness rather than anything truly subversive. In short, I was always a dork.

Few things prove that premise more decisively than one of the recurring comedy bits I committed to most fervently in the early nineteen-eighties. Not Necessarily the News was a surprisingly long-lived sketch comedy show on HBO. Amidst the usual parodies, character-driven bits, and simple skewering of the events of the day, the show provided a platform for comedian Rich Hall to introduce “sniglets,” which he defined as words that don’t appear in the dictionary, but should. In practice, they were sort of like malaprops infused with logic and applied to the minutiae of life.

When I confess I was all in on sniglets, I’m not kidding. It was one thing to eagerly await the appearance of the inevitable sniglets segment on each episode of NNTN. I took what little money I had and directed it towards acquiring all of the slim paperbacks that assembled the various made-up words into mini-compendiums, tediously regaling my classmates with personal favorites.

I still have a lot of affection for the sniglets, if only because the bit speaks to the little word addict inside of me. Much as I admire the politically ferocious boundary-pushers, more gentle, punny humor has its place, too.

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

Laughing Matters: Portlandia, “The Dream of the Nineties”

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.

I can’t claim that I stuck through Portlandia through it’s entire run — including the pending final season — but I have tremendous affection for the comedy series co-stewarded by Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein. Although I didn’t have intimate knowledge of the scruffy metropolitan area it satirized when the program launched, I recognized a generational identity within the comedy.

My swath of the American experience — largely forgotten about in the social energy around both the arrogant authority of the baby Boomers and the misplaced scorn heaped upon the millennials — was briefly known as “the slacker generation” before “generation X” took hold. I always thought the former designation was more telling. We were the ones who formulated the dream of the nineties. Like a lot of the music that Brownstein signed her name upon, I sometimes felt like this early Portlandia sketch was written just for me and my people.

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

Laughing Matters: Eddie Izzard, “Cake or Death?”

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..

As I recall it, the first time I ever encountered Eddie Izzard’s name was in a piece at the online magazine Salon, when online magazines were still the height of novelty. The comedy performances touted in the article were still devilishly hard to come by, so I simply filed the name away, deeply intrigued by the excited celebration of a comic mind that approached the world in a decidedly different way. And that was even without any consideration of Izzard’s self-identification as an “executive transvestite,” terminology still wildly foreign in the wilds of the late nineteen-nineties.

As is the cast with many, I suspect, my first true exposure to Izzard came in the special dubbed Dress to Kill, as perfect of an introduction as any performer could hope to have. I’ve now seen several Izzard performances — including, on a splendid night, a live show in Chicago — and I’m confident Dress to Kill is a grand comic mind at its most inspired.

Izzard has a loose style that recalls the improvisational sparking of Robin Williams, but there’s a deep, inquisitive intellect at play. That quality is rarely more evident than in the stretches in which Izzard — unlike practically any other person who makes a reasonable living standing on a stage and making people laugh — mines the strangeness of global history for his material.

There have been other bits that have made me laugh louder and harder — Darth Vader in the Death Star canteen comes to mind — but nothing exemplifies to me the unique brilliance of Izzard than when he finds a way to pose a deceptively simple question; “Cake or death?”

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