Laughing Matters — How Lord of the Rings Should Have Ended

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.

Without delving into the particulars, I had cause today to recall director Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved literary epics. Although I will still gladly champion at least twothirds of the first trilogy the filmmaker brought to the screen, my nostalgic appreciation of its virtues is always accompanied by — and tempered by — persistent thoughts of this expert comedic exposure of a major plot problem. I can’t claim to have watched every tidbit crafted by the commendably prolific people behind How It Should Have Ended, but I’m skeptical they ever topped the ingenious simplicity of this early entry in their canon.

Laughing Matters — Leslie Jones on Alabama’s Abortion Ban

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.

The institutional heft that’s been taken on by Saturday Night Live in recent years means that the comings and goings of cast members have evolved from mundane showbiz machinations to momentous occurrences akin to changes in heads of state. Excepting the underperforming short-timers who never find their footing on the Studio 8H stage, every departure of a SNL troupe member feels like the end of an era.

Leslie Jones joined the variety show’s writing staff in the midst of the 2013-2014 television season, in part because producer Lorne Michaels was publicly — and properly — shamed over the absence of black women in the cast. It makes sense that Jones wasn’t initially offered a performing role. Especially in her early tenure on the show, Jones struggled with the basic mechanics of sketch work, missing marks and fumbling cues. She was a clear force of nature, though, fierce and charismatic and commanding. She made her SNL on-camera debut as herself, delivering a riotous monologue as a guest commentator on Weekend Update. As black women often have to do in the field of entertainment, she forced her way in.

Now that its been made official that Jones will not return for the forthcoming forty-fourth season of Saturday Night Live, retrospection confirms her final words as a regular in her strongest show role were railing against regressive politics of female oppression spreading like a toxin. The instigating news item was Alabama’s knowing passage of an unconstitutional anti-abortion law as an act of judicial provocation, part of the right wing’s long game to overturn Roe V. Wade, a court case that’s been on the books and repeatedly reaffirmed for nearly fifty years. Jones’s commentary takes aim at the specifics of the fresh news, but it’s more broadly about an assertion of autonomy for all women in all ways. Whether or not she already suspected she wouldn’t return, Jones delivered a perfect closing argument.

Laughing Matters — Garfunkel and Oates, “What’s Gonna Happen to Chris”

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.

The Sunday New York Times that landed on my doorstep yesterday included a nice surprise on the front of the business section. In the space usually reserved for a disheartening trend pieces that unwittingly exposed the unchecked cruelty of modern capitalism or a dreadfully boring profile of puffy CEO there sat a story about the ongoing resistance to female comic voices in the realm of television, despite the colossal need for content. The article took a reasonably broad view of the state of the industry, but it fully won my affection by expending a significant number of column inches on the endless hustling of Riki Lindhome and Kate Micucci, known together as Garfunkel and Oates.

Among the many pleasures I derived from the article, it called my attention to the most recent Garfunkel and Oates song, which someone escaped my attention when it debuted last November. Employing their usual deft songwriting, the duo aim their satire at the cries of persecution issued by mewling males in response to earnest, long-delayed attempts at redressing inequities in society. They level their feminist ire with thrilled ingenuity and, as a bonus, manage to slip in a deft and rare successful instance of rhyming the word “orange.” The song contains feats aplenty.

Also, the web presence of the Gray Lady now includes a hyperlink to “The Loophole,” as brilliant and filthy of a comedic song as I’ve ever encounter. I think the construction of that particular information superhighway on-ramp is absolutely delightful.

Laughing Matters — Documentary Now!, “Cocaine Tonight”

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 am a latecomer to Documentary Now!, and for that I feel shame. Well, that might be too strong. I do admit it sheepishly, though. The co-creation of a cluster of Saturday Night Live pals, the series spoofs classic nonfiction films with an astounding level of specificity. And that precision leads to individual episodes simultaneously standing as expert comic explications of individual documentaries and the broader styles they represent. The series is unabashedly esoteric, funny enough without a working knowledge of the contextual references, I suppose, but also clearly comfortable with leaving huge portions of its potential audience blinking in uncomprehending silence.

The promised episode that caused me to break the seal on Documentary Now was “Original Cast Album: Co-Op,” a loving tweak of a similarly titled 1970 D. A. Pennebaker documentary about the in-studio efforts to capture the Stephen Sondheim songs featured in the Broadway production Company. I will admit to only the barest knowledge of Sondheim’s work, but even I recognized the absolute brilliance in rendering his hyperverbal approach to lyrics as a racing admission of ingesting a heavy duty stimulant. “Cocaine Tonight,” written by Eli Bolin, John Mulaney, and Seth Meyers is a wonderful piece of apery, reasserting what’s deeply special about a work of art by embracing it with cheerful, brattish exaggeration.

And Alex Brightman and Renée Elise Goldsberry deserve some sort of gleaming award for their performances on the song. It’s one thing to write a song like this, it’s a whole other dizzying pirouette to sing it.

 

Laughing Matters — Mad Magazine

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.

MAD-Magazine-34-Fireworks-Cover

By the time I was cognizant of the offerings arrayed on the magazine rack at the local grocery store, Mad was already an institution. Of course it was. The publication had been around for about twenty years longer than little ol’ me. I grew up with Mad as the North Star of insolent humor, juvenile in its outlook, but also invested with a commensurate youthfulness in its zingy freedom. Absolutely anything was open to mockery, and the greatest arched-eyebrow derision was reserved for the most imposing pillars of authority. If you can’t beat ’em, joke ’em.

I don’t remember that many issues of the magazine ever passing through my hands, yet Mad was somehow everywhere. Paperback collections were strewn about and the proper closet shelf held spin-off games, which were more fun to browse through than actually play. At school, a kid who smuggled in a copy of Mad was briefly a hero, subject to jostling as classmates clamored to get a giggly dose of Don Martin or Sergio Aragonés or Al Jaffee’s Fold-in. I begged to read Antonio Prohías’s “Spy vs. Spy,” marveling at the pantomime slapstick without quite being able to articulate what was vividly unique about it. At the time, I just knew it was funny to me. That was plenty.

Laughing Matters — Strange Planet, by Nathan W. Pyle

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.

strange planet coffee

I’ve tried to think of a way to describe the abundant pleasures of Nathan W. Pyle’s webcomic Strange Planet, but everything I come up with is merely explaining the reason its humor works, which, to be fair, is a very Strange Planet way to approach the task. Instead, I’ll just share a couple of my favorite here and include a link to the comic’s home on Instagram. The only thing I’d like to add is that the final punchline on the birthday party strip below elegantly, perfectly captures my animosity toward pranks of all kinds, even well-meaning ones and especially those I’ve personally perpetrated over the years. And it delivers this ingenious observation in only two words. This comic is a joy, and it’s absolutely brilliant.

A book collecting the strips arrives later this year.

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Laughing Matters — The Carol Burnett Show, “The Oldest Man: The Doctor”

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 feel like I grew up in a true golden age of syndicated comedy reruns, when the handful of channels had a stomach-rumbling need to fill the hours of the day, and the booming industries of daytime talk shows and phony courtrooms presided over by eye-rolling judges was still pending. By the late nineteen-seventies and early nineteen-eighties, there simply wasn’t that much material available, and just enough discernment among programmers and the viewership that the best generally locked into regular rotation while subpar shows drifted to the deeper recesses of the vault. There was no need to dig, dig, dig through a miles-long menu of options. A recent classic such as The Carol Burnett Show just arrived every day, which the clock struck a certain hour.

Even as a whippersnapper, I had some level of recognition that I was watching an icon when the star who lent her name to the program was on the screen. Even so, I watched reruns of The Carol Burnett Show with devotion because I wanted to see Tim Conway’s inspired, playful comedy stylings. (I was even one of the very few people who eagerly tuned in for the short-lived 1980 sketch comedy effort The Tim Conway Show.) His characterizations, especially on recurring characters such as the Oldest Man, were feats of detailed silliness, physical precision, and remarkable patience in drawing out jokes.

Conway often had me in hysterics, and I certainly wasn’t the only one. Most notably, his fellow performers were often helpless, especially when Conway clearly targeted them with gags. In the Oldest Man skit in which the character is a doctor paying a house call, there’s a joyful glint in Conway’s eyes as he leads up to the curvaceous line reading of the word “koala,” obviously certain it will cause Harvey Korman to break. Korman did, as he was often the case in the many instances he shared the stage with Conway. Really, who could blame him?