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.

strange planet trust.jpg

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?

 

Laughing Matters — “Weird Al” Yankovic, “Word Crimes”

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.

Offered as a reminder to myself that I need to do far better at putting words together in the next few days.

Laughing Matters — Jonathan Coulton, “Nobody’s Above the Law”

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.

Although my inability and aversion to sign up for every last streaming video option concocted by the entertainment corporations of the globe has decisively put the series The Good Fight beyond my reach for the time being, I’ve casually followed the various heaping helpings of praise upended on the creation of Michelle and Robert King in response to its various headline-mirroring stories of modern liberal exasperation. My exposure to to The Good Wife — the CBS drama which spawned The Good Fight — was similarly limited, but I flatly adored the King series in between the two, the loopy, giddily inventive Braindead. From what I can tell, some of that odd political satire’s sensibility spilled over to the new endeavor.

And I’ve recently learned that one of my favorite contributors to Braindead was invited to participate in The Good Fight. Indie rock singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton handled “Previously on Braindead” duties for the bygone series, penning and performing quick ditties that piled dense recap information into jauntily rhyming couplets. (In one instance, the plot contrivances overwhelmed Coulton, leading to a summary of an old Gunsmoke episode instead.) For the new gig, it seems Coulton is offering wry, weary commentary on relevant current event, catchy education accompanied by animation for a sort of Schoolhouse Rock for adults.

In one recent episode, Coulton offered “Nobody’s Above the Law,” which is a pointed, timely reminder that there is a constitutional process built right into U.S. government meant to deal with morally bankrupt individuals who ascend to places of power. For obvious reasons, I’ve been thinking of this number a lot lately. Maybe this video needs to be screened for elected officials over in the legislative branch. It’s only a couple minutes long. They should be able to sit through it, and maybe even process its message.

 

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

Laughing Matters — Key and Peele, “Non-Scary Movie”

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 Jordan Peele continues apace in his emergence as today’s preeminent impresario of visual horror storytelling, I’m glad his past has little nuggets of his sensibility to mine.