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.

Laughing Matters — Jerry Seinfeld, on 1981 HBO Young Comedian’s Special

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.

hbo

When I was younger, my appreciation of stand-up comedy approached obsession. It was in the waning heyday of the comedy album, but the real stoker of my fire was the relevant programming on HBO. And few things excited me more than the arrival of the annual Young Comedians Special, which trotted out a half dozen or so newcomers to perform tantalizing slices of their sets. I watched these programs over and over, practically memorizing the acts of my chosen favorites.

One of the comics who I immediately adored was a fellow who in the special is mistakenly introduced by co-host Dick Smothers as “Jerry Steinfeld.” Tommy Smothers had to offer a quick correction as the fresh-faced comic strode out to the stage. Seinfeld’s material wasn’t daring. It didn’t offer the jolt of surprise that could launch a performer immediately to the stratosphere on one of these shows (as was the case a few years later with Sam Kinison). Instead, it was perfectly structured amused observation, a classic routine polished to its ideal form. I never would have predicted comedy superstardom for him (then again, I was eleven years old when this aired, so no one was clamoring for my entertainment career forecasts), but he did seem like someone whose craft was so airtight that he’d be able to ply this odd trade forever.

 

Laughing Matters — Inside Amy Schumer, “The Foodroom”

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.

It is obviously going to take a some time before discerning pop culture consumers can shake the pain caused by this year’s victor for the Academy Awards’ top prize. That’s understandable, especially since it breaks a string of better-than-expected outcomes in the same category. As part of the healing, it’s important to focus on the positive. For example, at least the return of another mediocrity lauded with inexplicable industry praise was averted when Aaron Sorkin mercifully ended the brief speculation about the revival of his HBO series, The Newsroom.

In a just universe, any even marginally admiring discussion about The Newsroom would have been struck from the universe the moment Amy Schumer and her cohorts at the Comedy Central program that bore her name released this viciously precise parody.

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.

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.

Laughing Matters — The Kids in the Hall, “Into the Doors”

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.

“Greatest hits albums are for housewives and little girls!”

I’m fairly certain I’ve visited the sister shop of this particular business establishment.

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

Laughing Matters — Jake Johannsen, in 1989

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 much as I’m always keen to share the comedic efforts that provide sharp commentary on the world, exposing the absurdities of the human condition as only punchlines can, I’m maybe most impressed by those stand-ups who effectively ply their craft with material unconnected to the news of the day and the outrage of the moment. There’s something classic about a routine crafted with sharp observations of the mundane and artfully precise language to describe those brainstorms. I appreciate a comedian who understands that properly using the word “fracas” is going to heighten the humor all by itself.

Much as I’m ready to celebrate edgy and transformative comics, I think there’s no one working in the field today who makes me laugh more heartily and more dependably than Jake Johannsen. And that’s been the case for a very, very long time now, since he started making his first late night national television appearances in the late nineteen-eighties. It’s no surprise to me that at least one of those, shot in 1989, still holds up now. Freed of topical references or anything else that locks it to a specific calendar year, he could take a stage today and deliver this same routine with only the slightest of changes. In the very best way, this is timeless comedy.