Laughing Matters: MST3K, “Here Comes the Circus”

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 I was in college, videotapes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 may as well have been bricks of gold. Airing on Comedy Central (including a couple years in its initial guise of Comedy Channel, ahead of a merger with rival network Ha!), the ingenious elevation of bad movie heckling into delirious art spoke to our snide, ironic sensibilities. The cable network wasn’t available on our local systems, and most us couldn’t afford the hook-up in our rundown apartments anyway. We knew of it, we read about it, and we even took a local pride in it (creator and star Joel Hodgson was born in our college town of Stevens Point and played one of his last standup gigs at the university before taking MST3K national). But we usually couldn’t watch it.

Then, in 1991, a small miracle happened. Comedy Central turned over a huge chunk of its Thanksgiving Day programming to Hodgson’s endeavor, airing a marathon of MST3K episodes. Invariably, some fellow student would go home for the holidays and return with a stack of VHS tapes, loaded down with MST3K episodes, probably recorded in some basement rec room as the rest of family gorged themselves on turkey and football upstairs.

From then on, even as the show became more readily available through a variety of means, my warmest memories of it are accompanied by thoughts of eagerly sitting before one of those screenings, with wavered tracking and the breathless insistence to maybe watch just one more before closing out the evening. It almost felt illicit, which matched perfectly with the sharpened insolence of the comedy.

The first time I saw Here Comes the Circus, it played off of one of those videotapes. Over two decades later, it’s still hysterical.

 

Laughing Matters — Jerry Seinfeld on Halloween candy

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.

“What is this? What did you say? So what did you say about giving out candy? Who is giving out candy? Everyone that we know is just giving out candy?

Laughing Matter — Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, “One Leg Too Few”

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 currently in the midst of listening to Marc Maron’s interview with Tracey Ullman on his podcast, WTF. While Ullman is generous and gracious throughout, she reserves her highest praise — thus far, anyway — for Peter Cook, quickly and emphatically calling him a genius.

For most in the U.S., Cook’s reputation probably extends no further than his brief but memorable (to say the least) turn as “The Impressive Clergyman” in The Princess Bride, those in his homeland undoubtedly view him with more reverence, thanks to his work with Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller, and, most notably, Dudley Moore in Beyond the Fringe. I don’t claim to be a true and proper scholar of comedy, but I am prepared to say that the sketch “One Leg Too Few,” featuring an eager actor arriving for an audition, is one of the best sketches ever delivered, practically perfect in conception and execution.

If nothing else, there are few better, smart entries in the pantheon of set-up-and-punchlines than the one that begins “I’ve got nothing against your right leg.”

 

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

Laughing Matters — The Onion, ‘No Way to Prevent This’

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.

onion

Today, The Onion posted a story headlined “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens,” accompanied by a photo of emergency response vehicles below the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, the site of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Except for the details in the story’s lede, the photograph, and a couple other details, every word is the same. They have posted the repeating story on at least four prior heartbreaking occasions. It is an act of bleak comic genius and bruising social satire. It is the only exhibit needed to demonstrate the invaluable contribution The Onion makes to the discourse.

“At press time, residents of the only economically advanced nation in the world where roughly two mass shootings have occurred every month for the past eight years were referring to themselves and their situation as ‘helpless,'” the article concludes.

I hope The Onion never has cause to use this piece again. I wouldn’t bet on it, though.

 

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

Laughing Matters — George Carlin, “It’s the old American double standard….”

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 snippet of a longer George Carlin routine was recorded nearly thirty years ago, as part of the 1988 comedy special What Am I Doing in New Jersey? All that’s missing is a reference to football — a subject that the master comedian of course covered ingeniously elsewhere — to make these couple of minutes shockingly pertinent for the current moment.

“We got the only national anthem that mentions rockets and bombs in the goddamn thing.”

It’s tempting to speculate about what commentary Carlin would have crafted about the politics of today. But even a cursory examination of his material shows that Carlin has long recognized, understood, and convincingly challenged the portion of the national character that has come to the forefront in our misbegotten current era.

 

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

Laughing Matters — Bloom County: Hunting Wild Liberals

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 I was still living in my humble little Central Wisconsin college town, in the first half of the nineteen-nineties, my favorite record store (which, it should be noted, is still my favorite record store), stocked print copies of Village Voice among its outlay of music magazines. Its newsprint meatiness was recognizable from the weekly alternative paper that I routinely picked up when I was a high schooler in Madison, Wisconsin, but it was mapping out a whole different cultural and political world. I bought Village Voice when I could, marveling at the wonders of New York City from a distance.

It’s been ages since I held a print copy, but I imagine it’s shrunk down the way that all newspapers have. Today’s news that the venerable publication isn’t all that surprising, but it’s heartbreaking, heralding an occurrence that somehow feels even more significant than the end of an era.

In a fantastic New Yorker piece on the rise and influence of Village Voice, journalist I.F. Stone is quoted in reference to the haphazard distribution scheme in the early days of the newspaper. “I’d like to read you, but I can’t find you,” he told one of the Voice columnists. Sadly, that sentiment is about to become even more true.

Also, it’s about to become much tougher to hunt liberals.

bloom county

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