Every smart thing I can write down in the last hour of 2015

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Because humans love round numbers and artificial markers in our lives, here’s everything I can think of noting in the last 60 minutes of 2015.

I am now a full time writer. Sure, I had to wait until getting kicked out of the nest (see #2) instead of striding manfully into my lifelong dream like a manly man. Still, since August my only source of income (and thus sustenance, money, and food, and stuff) has been what comes out of my own head (that I can get people to pay me for). It’s gone well enough, especially since I don’t spend much, and my bank account sits about where it was in August. So, win, Dennis. Keep it up, tiger.

Videoport died. I worked at a great indie video store for 15 years. I loved it, despite the million daily indignities that go along with working when you’re not just typing away at home in your underpants all day. I met my incalculably amazing wife and life-wife, and partner-in-life, Emily there, when I wowed her with movie knowledge and she decided she liked my butt. (She tells me that all the time, still.) I even got paid, and got some serious, brain-career-aiding publicity out of the deal, writing about how much it sucked when Videoport died.

Everyone I love lived through 2015. Let’s keep it up, people.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 is coming back in 2016. That’s a good thing. I donated to the Kickstarter. I’m oddly prideful about that.

On the brain-money front, I’m still writing at the AV Club, which is still, some three-plus years in, incredibly, bewilderingly flattering. It also builds up my self-esteem on a daily basis, which takes some of the edge off.

And thanks to the Portland Press Herald, which has employed me to write even longer. I always think I’m going to run out of Maine movie news to write about, but those crazy kids in the Maine film scene just aren’t gonna stop.

Emily and I are making a shockingly good go of it living in the same apartment literally 24 hours a day, every day. At least since August. If you knew the size of our apartment, you’d be asking us to host a marriage advice podcast, or flooding us with desperate emails and letters begging us to give out our secret. My take: We like each other, we both have our own work to do (Emily’s a writer too—also at the AV Club most of the time—and she’s much better at it than I am even though she started much later), and our individual crazinesses generally synch up so that there’s at least one sane person around at any one time. She also has a great butt, so we agree on that point, all around.

Therapy’s a good, helpful thing. I feel more together than I ever have, ever. So, thanks, Doc. I’m still fucking nuts (depression isn’t going anywhere, despite your efforts), but I feel better equipped to handle it than at any time in my life.

Thanks to Twitter mostly, I’ve better gotten to know a lot of my AV Club colleagues, and various other smart and talented people better this year. It’s made me feel more like I belong, both at the AV Club and as a writer in general. I was worried (a euphemism for fucking petrified) of the transition. There was the fear that Emily and I would drive each other crazy (a euphemism for Emily realizing that having me underfoot every day is far too much Dennis in life), and the equal fear that I wouldn’t be able to harness enough discipline to write as much as I had to to stay alive. Oh, and let’s not forget the ever-present terror of everyone realizing I’m a hack and all work drying up forever. But I’ve loved living what I call being “a gentleman of leisure” but what I really picture, especially when I’m in the middle of a ten-day streaming series binge-review, is this:

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I do have things I want and plan to do better in 2016. I want to see my friends more, especially now that I—theoretically—have so much more free time. (I don’t actually have that much free time, even as a full time writer-guy, which baffles me, really. I was working full time at Videoport and doing all this writing? Really? Was everything I wrote just hastily scribbled nonsense? Don’t answer that.) I want to use my theoretical free time more wisely, getting outside more instead of allowing the life of the mind to completely envelop the life of the body. I have this picture in my head of the ideal writer’s life—John Irving got imprinted pretty early on—and I want to get on that. A busy writing life, spread over a number of disciplines and projects, coupled with sport and friends and life and love! (See any John Irving author photo for a sense of what I’m getting at.)

Carrying on the 2016 tip, there’s always the idea of making dumbass New Year’s Eve promises to myself, so here are a few, dumbass! Starting a file of memorable moments from movies/TV/books to aid in year-end lists and broader, overarching, and lucrative thinkpiece articles. Watch more movies—I’m not complaining, but all this AV Club TV reviewing has made me TV boy. I used to be,  almost exclusively, movie boy. I miss movie boy. Learn to cook new things (I have a few solid standbys, but I want to expand the repertoire. (I’m sure Emily will appreciate that.) I want to read more, too, but who are we kidding.

In general, I want to be more engaged in my life. It’s always been my safe little shell, cultivated and protected, of scurrying out into the world to do all the things that it or “they” (whoever I imaged they are) had set out for me and then scurrying back home again where I could do… nothing. It’s not a way to live, born as I’ve come to understand it is of some childish, fearful need for isolation, and safety. I want to live like the person I feel like I could be. I’ve taken steps this year, my hand forced or not, and I’ve derived no insignificant slice of courage and self-regard from what I’ve done. I don’t imagine—the good Doctor’s best efforts notwithstanding—that I’ll ever see myself as a “grown-up” (a loaded term ever in my head). I feel like the awkward goof, the overachieving faker who’s run too far out and is waiting for the ice to crack. But I’m here, and I’m better, and I’m making a living as a writer. That’s been my dream since I was twelve—and I talked a librarian into letting me take The World According To Garp out of the grown-up library. It’s take a long time, much longer than it should have, maybe. But I’m here. It’s 2016, and I’m a writer. I like that.

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I squeeze the last penny out of the video store I loved

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Thanks to the nice people at Vox.com (and especially the great Todd VanDerWerff who hooked me up) for giving me the last chance I imagine I’ll get to whine about how the video rental industry (and Videoport, the store where I worked for an unconscionably long time) is dying. I got a lot of very kind words (and about 200 Twitter followers) from this, so thanks, Vox. And thanks, Videoport.

From the thing:

Over the years, we’d come to know our customers’ tastes, their pet peeves, and their soft spots. Our experience and movie expertise helped us make informed, intuitive leaps to find and fulfill entertainment needs they didn’t even always know they had. I’ve had parents hug me for introducing their kids to Miyazaki and The Iron Giant. Nice old ladies have baked me cookies for starting them off on The Wire. People knew they could come in with the vaguest description — “This guy has an eye patch, and I think there’s a mariachi band” — and we’d figure out they were looking for Cutter’s Way. Other times, they’d take a recommendation for Walking and Talking and come back saying, “Just give me everything Nicole Holofcener’s ever done.” If someone asked me for a great comedy, my first question was invariably, “What’s one comedy you’ve seen that you think is hilarious?” I’ve spent 20 minutes refining exactly how scary was too scary when picking out a horror movie. It’s a skill set you develop, a sensitivity to just the right vibrations of interest and aversion.

If you still have a video store near you, rent a damned movie. They’ll appreciate it, and you, more than you can know.

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The time I got to interview three MST3k-ers (and didn’t even geek out that much)

Just because the news of the impending new Mystery Science Theater 3000 is consuming my brain at the moment, here’s the time I got to interview Mary Jo Pehl, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy for the Portland Press Herald. They were in town for a comicon and were as nice and funny and gracious as you imagine they would be. I count it as a personal victory that I got Mary Jo to laugh (she has a delightful giggle), and that I kept it together in the face of talking to three of my favorite entertainers of all time, on the outside at least.

And yes, they all confirm that Manos is officially the worst movie that they’ve ever done.

Here’s a link to my article, that combines all their MST3k bad movie wisdom into an pitifully short space. And hey, here’s the whole article below, just for you, you knuckleknobs.

 The Coast City Comicon boasts a convention-hall full of great guests this weekend, but for me, the real draw was the chance to talk on the phone with Mary Jo Pehl, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett. For MiSTies (fans of the cult classic TV series “Mystery Science Theater 3000”), like me, those names (also known as, respectively, Pearl Forrester, Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot) are comedy gods. Cracking courageously wise at the expense of the worst movies ever made on “MST3k” until 1999, and continuing to the present day in movie-mashing crews like Cinematic Titanic (www.cinematictitanic.com) and Rifftrax (www.rifftrax.com), these three have, alongside their “MST3k” colleagues, mined the cinematic landscape for unlikely laughs for decades. Before their trip to Portland, they were kind enough to share some with us:

Q: What are the essential qualities that make a movie ripe for the MST3k treatment?

MARY JO PEHL: Winnowing down the bad movies became an art form. You needed technical things – like you have to be able to see it, and hear it, for example. Also there needs to be a je ne sais quoi – such as maybe John Agar in tiny, tiny swim trunks (in “Revenge Of The Creature.”) Something to sink your teeth into, so to speak.

KEVIN MURPHY: The best ones are the ones that take themselves really seriously – no matter how competent or incompetent, that’s when we can really have have fun with it. Anything from “Twilight” to “Plan 9 From Outer Space.”

Q: Is there a special kind of wisdom that the MST treatment provides that traditional reviewing does not?

BILL CORBETT: I think we spend more time with a movie than a reviewer does. Sometimes I come to resent it, but maybe respect it more than I would otherwise – it’s an intensive way to approach it. And these experiences are not all the same. Seeing the umpteenth “Transformers” movie (for Rifftrax) makes us belligerent, frankly. But a cheesy local filmmaker – I have a little more affection for those things. At least they’re a little more sincere or grassroots.

MJP: I think what it did for me was to start analyzing films a little bit more – you can give a movie so much power because they are so self-serious (and I am so impressionable).

KM: We do a really close reading of the film – for hours and hours. So putting just about any film on the autopsy table like that, it changes it.

Q: Do you find yourself providing commentary even on things you do like?

MJP: Oh yes. Sometimes you can point out something dumb to deflate the intensity of a specific scene. My husband and I might look each other and made some crack – sort of leavening it or deflating the intensity of it

KM: On Rifftrax, we’ve done good movies like “Lord Of The Rings” or “Casablanca”, or “Jaws,” but we approach them more like a roast than a execution. We use the film as a foil to make jokes about ourselves, the world at large. The films end up being our Margaret Dumont.

BC: With Rifftrax, we all operate under premise that something good and classic will not be harmed by what we do – we’re just gnats nibbling at it. We have to be nimble about how we go about it – it’s like doing jazz riffs, but it’s all about the joke. It has to be funny.

Q: The movie-mockery formula MST3k created has proven incredibly durable. What’s so attractive that almost everyone involved is still doing it after all these years?

BC: First – it’s still fun to do and satisfying knowing a lot of people like it. At a certain point, I imagine we’ll be too decrepit for people to want to look at us, but for now we have parents bringing their kids, college students – it’s a narrow slice, but people still respond to this form of comedy.

MJP: For me, I just have a limited skill set. When the opportunity arises, I have to take advantage of it. I get to work with people who are tremendously funny, super smart, and whom I adore, and I get to make the funny with them.

KM: It can either be that we’re experts on subject, or we have bleak, lonely lives. It’s fun, we’re pretty good at it, and it’s a unique world to be the true only experts at it. And there’s still a demand.

Q: OK, what’s the single worst movie you ever did on “MST3k?”

KM: I really hate “Manos. The Hands Of Fate.” It’s just really hard to watch. We’ve done it on “MST3k” and Rifftrax and I’m happy I never have to see it again. Ray Dennis Steckler’s “The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies” might be second. It’s almost unwatchable and not in a fun way. Also “Red Zone Cuba,” which is so depraved – it doesn’t have even the stylistic verve of “Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer.”

MJP: I hate to jump on the bandwagon but “Manos” was pretty unbelievable. Just incomprehensible and weird – but not in a good way. At least it has something compelling about it, though. Some, like “Radar Secret Service,” with guys in their big ‘40s suits are just incredibly boring.

BC: “Manos.” We re-riffed on it for Rifftrax. It’s not only bad, it’s so depressing to spend time with.

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The Wire, Tamir Rice, and how art’s instructive and useless

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I wrote this soon after the Tamir Rice shooting. You know, when a 12-year old black kid with a toy gun got shot at distance from a police car when a cop thought he was in so much danger that he had no choice but to gun the boy down. You know—just to be safe. I re-read it today, when Cleveland prosecutor Tim McGinty, in declining to pursue a case against the police officers Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback, said in his statement, “We don’t second guess police officers.”

Well, somebody fucking should.

I’m white. I won’t know what I’m talking about. Not really. A lot of cops fit that description, too.

From the thing:

Great art captures the complexities of the human condition — just as all art is almost ludicrously rendered irrelevant by the awfulness of the real life it tries to give meaning. It’s a disheartening collision of hope and reality brought into too-stark relief by a recent TV marathon, of all things.

When HBO ran its marathon of all 60 hours of The Wire last month, it came at a time when the public’s relationship to law enforcement was (and is) as fractious and divided as any time in recent memory. The controversial deaths of unarmed black men like Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice (who was 12), and a disheartening number of others have brought the issue of police violence (especially against minorities) into the open. Predictably, the fringes of the debate teem with the worst of us. Racists, opportunists, and careerists all use complex human tragedy to further their own ends and transform public discourse to the polar opposite of The Wire’s layered, nuanced, and deeply humanistic examination of cause and effect.

It did such a good job that it’s almost enough to think that there are real world answers to be found there. It’s like a blueprint for a better society, even though the characters within the show, almost without fail, end up just as lost and disillusioned as they were at the start. It’s a fool’s errand to look to fiction for real life solutions, but if you’re going to do it, The Wire’s complex examination of America’s most seemingly intractable problems is as good a place to start as any.

The idea of looking to The Wire for a critical analysis of the police seems foolish, because at first glance there’s no quality series more sentimental about being a cop. Indeed, the highest compliment paid to any dead or retiring law enforcement official is to be eulogized as “natural born po-lice,” and it’s an admiration the series clearly shares — up to a point.

 

The rest is here. I honestly have no idea what else to do.

 

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TV Review: F Is For Family

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The pre-air PR for this Netflix animated series did the show no favors, focusing as it did ad nauseam on star and co-creator Bill Burr’s appeal as “a warrior against PC culture” and so on in the sort of proudly strident terms guaranteed to make me not want to watch it, ever. Luckily, those knuckleknobs at The AV Club paid me to review all six episodes of the first season, and I was pleasantly surprised at how much more thoughtful and interesting it was.

In retrospect, Netflix’s ad strategy might have been smart (most likely by accident), pulling in fans of, say, Family Guy, or just plain assholery and letting placating them with the undeniably incessant profanity and inappropriateness of Burr’s 1970s blue-collar dad and husband Frank Murphy while the show (from Burr and Simpsons writer Mike Price) went in a more interesting (if, again, undeniably crude and foul-mouthed) direction.

There are some significant weaknesses here—the characters outside the Murphy family are pretty poorly imagined (except for Sam Rockwell’s McConaughey-esque neighbor), and the show isn’t especially funny. But it’s aiming more for a sort of Bojack Horseman sitcom of quiet (or in this case boorish) despair, something that costar Laura Dern plied so devastatingly on Enlightened. And that it does pretty well indeed. Anyway, it’s a good show. Here’s a link to my AV Club reviews of the whole season. And here’s a clip from one of the reviews to get a taste of what you’re in for:

In a six-episode season, things are going to feel rushed, especially on a sitcom, where, by definition, situations drive character. But what’s become clear now that we’re two-thirds of the way through, is that we’ve been dropped into the midst of the Murphy family’s story at a crisis point. And, sure, the cliché about ”crisis” and “opportunity” might apply, but at this point, each member of the family is at a juncture that could go either way. As the season’s gone on, Burr and Price have made it clear that we’re witnessing a family on the verge of major changes, a fact that serves to smooth out some of the character shorthand.

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That Time MST3k Saved My Life

My friend Tom introduced me to Mystery Science Theater 3000 via a snowy VHS tape right after college in 1993 or so. The first one I saw was Jungle Goddess (which he’d only managed to tape half of back home in Seattle) and I was confused, then intrigued and giggly. Then the next episode—a full one—started (it was Master Ninja 1) and I was obsessed, and giddy.

The next few years went fast—first well, then very, very badly. In love, married, new job, rental house, purchased house, divorce. Then isolation—in the worst possible place I could have chosen. Ever been to Richmond, Maine? If I may.

I’m sure there are lovely people spread out over the woodsy, field-y expanses of the place, but I lived downtown, so-called. Shambling after that divorce, I scanned local papers in a desperate rush, mustering all the concentration I could to the task at hand, which was about 30 per cent capacity in the whirl of pain and self-loathing and fear and so on. I picked an apartment in a house in Richmond because it was halfway between my two jobs. Which is nonsense, as it meant that I was always halfway away from home at the end of the long days, no matter which job I ended up at. Again, 30 per cent. Maybe 25. The place was cheap and big, with a second bedroom I never used except for stacking boxes I’d never unpack in the whole time I lived there.

The downtown of Richmond was (and may still be) the single most desolate place in Maine, a nothing of windblown nothing, and, therefore, an external representation of the inside of my head. The single, long main street sweeps down a hill, running straight into an icy river. In the winter, the wind hurtles straight down, eddying blown snow with a moaning howl that’s pitched just right on a sleepless night to echo (and enhance) bad thoughts. There was one mini grocery, two convenience stores (one with gas pumps), a hardware store, an auto garage, a laundromat, and one bar. I went, at times and not to be overdramatic, intermittently mad there. (Richmond could be the setting for any Stephen King short story ever.)

I had no internet (no money, plus it was still something of a novelty), but the school where I taught every weekday did, and I found, one day, a guy in Canada who promised to dub MST3k episodes for six or seven bucks apiece. My love affair with the show had endured as a constant pleasure through it all, with the few commercially available ones from Rhino Home Video being watched to pieces. (I took them home from the video store that was my other job—Mitchell, The Amazing Colossal Man, I Accuse My Parents, a few more.) They made me happy in a way no other comedy could—maybe it was the humanity at the heart of the silliness I responded to. And here, of course, I fully admit to lending the show a lot of resonances that were truly about me, but there’s no one more self-obsessed than someone constantly thinking about how worthless he feels.

Joel got shot into space by some psychos and, finding himself trapped in a lonely, cavernous place in the middle of nowhere, he rechristened it “The Satellite Of Love.” And then he made himself some friends. I wasn’t in outer space, but I was in Richmond, Maine. As Crow T. Robot himself said in that same Master Ninja 1, “The parallels…are inescapable.”

So I agonized over my bank account, carefully selected 20 episodes (Master Ninja among them, naturally) and sent a personal check to some guy in Canada, half assuming that I’d just gone to a great deal of trouble to scam myself. And then I waited for two months. When the tapes actually showed up, I was filled with relief, joy, and a gnawing greed so acute that I considered calling out of work for as long as it’d take to devour every last minute of every episode (most of which I’d never seen).

I didn’t call out—crazy though I may have been going, I’ve always been diligent to the point of paranoia. What I did instead was go through those unlabeled VHS tapes one by one on my TV/VCR combination unit on the floor of my cold, drafty, undecorated apartment and lovingly label them with each episode’s name and number and stack them all up next to the TV and stare at the 19 of them while I watched the one playing.

I spoke briefly of the why. I don’t know the why, not really. The silly little puppet show spoke to me almost immediately, and it’s never let go, not in two-plus decades. I suspect it never will. There’s the movie geek appeal, of course—that’s what I’ve always been, and, again, I suspect what I’ll always be. And, as long as I’ve loved movies, I’ve been drawn to obscure movies—and bad ones. I seek out bad movies still, having a hoard of bulk, clearinghouse collections of sleaze and nonsense and marginalia alongside the movies I actually love on their actual merits. The show made fun of such cinematic scraps, but it, like me, did so with the love of those who understood. Like me, with my carefully highlighted Psychotronic Video Guide and Danny Peary’s Guide For The Film Fanatic and Cult Movies (1,2, & 3), their jibes at the expense of these goofy, often wretched movie miscalculations came from the inside. And that insider perspective informed the jokes which made them funnier—at least to people who just knew they were on the inside, too.

Then there was the relationship aspect. I know that sounds like a lot to lay on a scrappy little puppet show, but I think it’s a crucial part of MST3k‘s appeal, at least for me. I remember when the then-shocking changeover happened, as Joel (of the sleepy eyes and rolling, drawling delivery) gave way to the blonde, bland-looking Mike (who turned out to be just as hilarious in the end), I was unsettled beyond all proportion. This was before my precious cache of tapes, so I asked a coworker who’d seen Mike’s first episode, with no small tinge of sheepishness, “How… did the robots, um, take it?” Thankfully, he, a fan (although not to my still-secret extent) understood the question and answered reassuringly, “It’s all going to be fine.”

(It was, thankfully, fine. All I’ll say on the Joel-Mike front is that they’re different, but their different strengths serve the same purpose, anchoring the show’s voice to the human element that makes it work. Call me a fence-sitter, but true’s true.)

Which brings me back to that empty place in Richmond. A mattress on the floor, a stack of tapes, a VCR. Lots of bad beer—unending cubes of cylinders of the cheapest American beer drunk from the moment I got home ’til I succumbed to sleep, usually long after midnight. Before the tapes, it was endless movies—either brought home from the video store, or from my own, endlessly re-watched collection of comfortable favorites. After the tapes, it was all Mystery Science Theater all the time. With three episodes on each tape, I could pop one in, pop the first of the evening’s beers, and lie in bed (my cat Baldrick curling up contentedly on my chest or at my feet) and watch and watch and watch. Some nights, one tape would finish and I’d start another six-hour block, only to fall asleep (or pass out, if you like) and wake up with the tape still playing the last episode of the three in the morning. Those MST3k episodes were what I looked forward to all day, and what I climbed into all the long winter nights like a blanket. I soon knew every joke, every reading of every joke, every pause, every riff and every song. I even got to know the commercials—local Canadian TV spots for tire stores and weather updates, inextricably bound to the shows like the skips and crackles on a favorite vinyl record you’d played again and again.

Eventually, things got better. While things can always get worse, I know, I also know, for me, they’d have to get better in that place. New girlfriend, then another—regardless of how both relationships ended, I still have bewildered gratitude to them for seeing worthwhile things where I saw virtually none. The tapes slowed to something less than nightly rotation, at least until, after I’d moved out of there and in with the second of those women, I sent another check and waited two months for another bundle.

Now I’ve got my DVD sets, and the internet (mandatory to all in 2015) makes seeing almost any MST3k episode as easy as opening my laptop, and I take advantage of that happy ubiquity, less out of obsessive need for comfort or solace (for the most part), and more like visiting with an old friend who’s always welcome. So when Joel announced the rebirth of the show, I donated money (although less than the hundreds I’d spent on my tapes back in the day) to help make sure that happened. The uproar over the recasting of all the roles, the fact that the rest of the old casts are sniping at Joel’s effrontery on Twitter, the uncertainty of how well this new iteration will click into place in the ongoing riff that is the show—it’s all worrisome and a little sad. But I also know none of that matters.

I only know that I’m looking forward to it. I miss it. I miss it in the way you miss something you know in your heart is going to make you feel happy, and comforted. Like you’re back inside.

 

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Saturday Night Live’s biggest failure of all time

Well, that happened.

Oft-busted plutocrat, reality show laughingstock, loudmouthed misogynist and bigot, and bafflingly viable Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump hosted SNL. You know, despite being a legitimate and regular target of the show’s often watery political humor for decades, and despite the fact that, mere months ago, his “controversial” (meaning reprehensible) campaign rhetoric got him banned from NBC entirely. Since his booking was announced—and met with unsurprising outrage from people not reprehensible—I spent a lot of time wondering how SNL would navigate this seemingly no-win situation.

In the end, it did the worst it could possibly do.

I’ve already spent way too much time thinking and writing about this episode, and this man. Here’s and excerpt from the first AV Club piece I did, in advance of the show.

But that’s not to say that SNL should be more conservative than it is. In his career, Michaels has been shown to be as left-leaning as a pampered multi-millionaire mogul can be, and while SNL was never the bastion of radicalism conservative critics or rose-colored hindsight would have it be, it’s hardly a haven for right-wingers. The show’s humor consistently veers left. Why that traditionally remains true of most good comedy is a fight for another day, but SNL has remained successful for so long because it seeks the heat wherever it lives that week. But if the hot target is of the left, the tone of the comedy is different than if, say, a Republican presidential candidate comes out and states that Mexican people coming to America are “criminals, drug dealers, [and] rapists,” or mentions immigrants within the same breath as the statement “tremendous infectious disease is pouring across the border.” (Just a tip for political candidates: If you start a statement like “Mexicans are…” and end with anything but “…from Mexico,” you’re saying something racist.) A public figure saying something racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic—that’s when SNL, for all its often-tepid social satire, will traditionally hold up that person for scorn. Donald Trump is guilty of all of those things. Whether he truly believes them or is saying them to pick up votes from those who do (and which is worse?) is beside the point when the show is giving him a platform.

And here’s a chunk of the review itself, which bore out literally every horrible suspicion I had about how SNL would approach this mess.

After the first third of the show revealed just how irrelevantly sycophantic the episode was going to be to the Republican front-runner (who was disavowed by NBC as recently as June), I recall thinking that, if the show were going to engage in any meaningful satire, or, indeed, do anything but allow Donald Trump to preen and brag for 90 minutes (minus commercials and two soporifically similar Sia songs), then the stand would be made there. Look, it’s obvious that the guy reviewing this episode is not a fan of this particular host, but if Saturday Night Live is going to remain a player in televised political satire, then it has to take advantage of the opportunities it’s presented. And having a front-running Republican candidate in their own house was the biggest opportunity the show would have to show it still meant… anything. Instead, apart from Michael Che—who looked like he would rather be anywhere else, to his credit—jabbing Trump’s history as a “birther,” and a line about conservatives longing for “the good old days” which predated any and all civil rights reforms, Weekend Update was essentially a checklist of Trump targets. Ben Carson slams—four. Jeb Bush slams—two. President Obama slam, China slam, Iran slam—one each (plus a stereotypical “Asians are good at math” extra credit joke for good measure). Tina Fey has talked about her disdain for perhaps-even-worse SNL host Paris Hilton’s desire to use the show to make fun of her “enemies,” and it’s like Trump (and his people) presented the writers with a similar checklist of targets to pick from. (Notably absent from that list—Donald Trump.)

I took precisely no pleasure in being proved 100% right, by the way. No show has been a part of my life as vitally as has SNL. This just sucked all over.

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Book Review: Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, as Told By Its Stars, Writers and Guests

Everyone should read Live From New York: An Uncensored History of ‘Saturday Night Live‘. I’ve read it about ten times*. You can borrow mine, but it’s also good bathroom reading. I’ll understand if you prefer to buy your own.
I love SNL.** Everyone who knows me knows this, and almost everyone makes fun of me for it. I understand…to a point. They point out the garbage sketches, the usually flabby political satire, the elevation of pretty boy stars like Jimmy Fallon***, the repeating of characters ad nauseum, the booking of lame WB stars and crappy musical acts. Blah, blah, blah, haters. SNL makes me happy, and the idea of a bunch of young, anarchic, funny people all living in this sort of desperate comedy bunker, trying, again desperately, to put together a new, 90 minute LIVE comedy show every single week has always been my secret ideal of a place to work and a thing to aspire to. Legendary film critic Pauline Kael used to invite friends over to watch SNL, and if people complained, she always said, “Oh, they’re just having a bad night.” That’s how I look at it too. In the book, Tom Shales and some other dude collect interviews from almost every living person ever associated with the show and chop them up, grouping the pieces into a loose approximation of a theme, subject or person. There are funny anecdotes, axes are ground, tales are told out of class, and everyone hates Chevy Chase. Compulsively readable.

Who comes off the worst:

Probably about to say something terrible.

1. Chevy Chase. Oh my God. From the early days, where he was something of a prima donna and left after the first year. To the time he came back to host and Bill Murray goaded him into a fistfight by saying “Why don’t you go fuck your wife, I hear she needs it”, which was, thankfully for Chase, broken up before he was. (Chevy goes on at length in recounting this about how he had a rougher childhood than people realize and how he could actually have beaten up Murray. It’s pretty sad, after all this time). Every time Chevy came within a hundred yards of the show, he offended and horrified almost everyone. He told openly gay cast member Terry Sweeney SNL should have a running gag where he has AIDS and they weigh him on the show every month, and, when asked by Sweeney in a writer’s meeting, “what can I do for you/”, replied, “you can start by licking my balls”. He offended a female writer in a similar fashion later when he replied to her with “you can give me a hand job later”. Yup, everyone agrees, Chevy is a dick.****
2. Dick Ebersol. He was the NBC suit who co-created the show with Lorne Michaels, and then took it over a year after Lorne left and kept it running for five years, wherein the show became a safe, bland, dumbed-down version of itself while, not surprisingly maybe, becoming more popular. He is also, in the book, portrayed by most as a weasel. He whines about not getting enough credit for the show. He is roundly criticized for having absolutely no sense of humor. He responded to one novice writer’s challenge to him with “that’s big talk for someone who was making $90 a week last year”. He was an ass-kisser to his biggest star Eddie Murphy, who was contemptuous of him, and a “publicity hog” according to many. Openly called a liar by about six people.
3. Don Ohlmeyer. NBC West Coast president. Actively pursued more control over the show in the 90’s, despite having no connection to the show directly, not being a writer or producer of comedy, and making everyone’s lives miserable, especially Lorne’s (whose control over his show was made to seem weak), and Norm MacDonald’s (whom Ohlmeyer unilaterally decided wasn’t funny as anchor of Weekend Update, and whose ouster was publicly demanded by Ohlmeyer). This one’s just plain weird. As one executive in the book puts it, “Don loses perspective sometimes”. This guy just decided he could “fix” SNL from his Los Angeles office and tried to wrest control from Lorne Michaels. This caused no end of misery for Lorne, and anyone creatively connected to the show. He ordered the universally respected writer Jim Downey fired. He ordered Norm MacDonald ditched from Update. The fact that those two were responsible for all of the truly vicious and funny “OJ is guilty” material is not lost on anyone as OJ Simpson’s best golf buddy for 25 years was…Don Ohlmeyer. Ohlmeyer denying that had anything to do with it is, well, unconvincing. A weird, creepy chapter in SNL history.
4. Janeane Garofalo. Look, I think she’s a pretty funny person and a pretty good actress. But, through her comments here (and her audio commentary for the film Wet Hot American Summer), she is also a didactic, humorless bore. In her brief tenure at SNL, apparently Garofalo chose to snipe to the press about the show being “a boy’s club” and unfunny, rather than use her talents (which are considerable), to maybe, crazily, write good sketches and make the show better. Sure, it was the Sandler/Farley era, and that’s obviously not her sense of humor, but when the show is down (which, to some extent it was), then the field is wide open to make your mark. According to Fred Wolf, the writer (and friend of hers) who got her the job, “It was all such a crock of shit”.  She never spent an all-nighter…she never got with the writers and worked on a sketch she was dying to have on the air…all she did was glom on to the host and tear the show apart for the week.” Described by Lorne (although not by name) as an “injustice collector”, Garofalo says, upon seeing how good things were at the show with the current cast, “someone must have performed an exorcism or something”. Well, according to everyone who worked with her, a whiny, manipulative, humor-impaired malcontent sounds like just the sort of evil spirit to get rid of.
5. Joe Piscopo. This seems like beating a dead, shticky horse, but Piscopo, who is well represented in the book, seems to have lost his mind at some point. Egotistical without apparent cause, and possessive of his Frank Sinatra impression to the point of creepy schizophrenia, Piscopo alienated writers by repeatedly asserting to their Sinatra sketch ideas “Frank wouldn’t do that”. He talks about his closeness with the Sinatra family, about how proud he was to have been chosen to do Sinatra’s voice in a Brisk iced tea commercial a few years ago, and about how Phil Hartman’s Sinatra was not respectful enough of his idol. As writer/producer Bob Tischler says, “it was sick”. He also, as one person puts it, “Let Eddie Murphy’s success go to his head”.

I may have been the only person Googling “Joe Piscopo” at this moment.

6. Nora Dunn. Look, I know it seems like I’m picking on the “outspoken feminist” element is SNL’s history (Jane Curtin’s entry to follow), but I’m just looking at facts, and the facts are that Dunn (who was pretty funny on the show), apart from making sure everyone knew she was sleeping with Lorne at some point, blindsided the show, and, especially, the other female cast members with her highly (self)-publicized walkout over the booking of unfunny, misogynist jackass Andrew Dice Clay. I find myself put in the abhorrent position of seeming to defend aforementioned unfunny misogynist jackass, but I think Dunn is the real asshole on this one. Sure, she objected to him being on the show. Fine. I can’t stand him either (and his “I’m just a comic playing a role” defense does nothing to convince me he doesn’t know exactly to what audience he is playing). But to call a press conference about her boycotting the show without telling anyone on the show, and without voicing her complaints to anyone on the show was manipulative, self-serving and unprofessional. Especially to Jan Hooks and Victoria Jackson who were suddenly receiving death threats from women who accused them of selling out, of supporting Clay, and of basically being cowards for not standing up for women like brave, brave Nora Dunn. The infinitely more talented Hooks and the very annoying Jackson***** talk pretty persuasively about feeling betrayed by Dunn. It comes across.
7. Jane Curtin. Maybe I’m just brainwashed into this romantic ideal of the show, but Jane (who, again, I liked on the show) and her detached, isolationist disapproval turns me off. She just comes off as a killjoy.
8. Steven Seagal. Even before I read the book, my candidate for the worst guest host ever, Seagal was apparently a completely humorless creep. He pitched sketch ideas (like one where he plays a shrink counseling rape victim Victoria Jackson and he tries to sleep with her, “because that’s how shrinks fucking are…they just want your money”) so bad that Julia Sweeney said, “it was like Candid Camera”.
9. Robert Blake. Yet another celebrity murderer, Blake wadded up the script for a Gary Kroeger-written sketch and bounced it off Kroeger’s face, saying, “I hope you’ve got a tough asshole, pal, ’cause your gonna be wiping your a** with that one”. As Tim Kazurinsky succinctly puts it, “a dick”.
10. Harry Shearer. This one kills me, because I am in awe of Shearer’s talents. But he is, by unanimous account, a dick. Hired twice, Shearer left by mutual decision twice, once under Lorne, once under Ebersol. While its hard to disagree with someone so talented who says that the show is badly run, too safe, and that neither Ebersol nor Michaels are easy to work for, the consensus, from literally everyone, is that Shearer, for all his talent, is not worth the trouble he causes. Arrogant, mean, standoffish and manipulative.

11. Jean Doumanian. Talk about beating dead horses, Doumanian’s disastrous tenure replacing Michaels is old, well-covered news. She really was ill-suited for the job, and therefore, doomed, which isn’t her fault, for what that’s worth. That being said, there’s no debate about how bad she was at the job, pitting writers against each other (also an Ebersol trait), and being completely unable to inspire the slightest confidence in her (admittedly lousy) staff. Doumanian’s repeated assertions here that being a woman in charge was the primary cause of her downfall (undoubtedly a factor) aren’t to be discarded, but Jean hits the theme pretty hard as excuse for her failure at the helm. What’s most damning in the book is her claims to be the one pushing for Eddie Murphy to be more prominent on the show, when literally everyone else involved counters that Doumanian thought little of Murphy and that she had to be convinced that the obvious superstar on her bench was worth more than the role of a glorified extra.

Who comes off the best:

1. Lorne. Call him a one trick pony. Call him arrogant, aloof, and snobbish. Say (as most do) he’s a star-fucker. But, as Chris Rock says, “is he arrogant? sure he is. but I know arrogant hot dog guys…when you look at what he’s accomplished, he’s entitled”. Lorne just comes off well, despite the fact that every single person in the book has something negative to say about him. There are also a lot of nice stories about his generosity, and his talent, and even his most critical detractors (except maybe Garofalo and Shearer) have some grudging respect for him. It’s Lorne’s show, and we’re all just living in it.
2. Chris Rock. He didn’t make much of a mark on SNL, and that makes sense; Rock’s not really an actor…he’s one of the most brilliant stand-ups of our time, and a very smart man. His insight (on Michaels, on being a black actor on the show, on his favorite sketch writers) is funny, concise and convincing. His affection for his friends Sandler, Spade and, especially Farley, is touching and funny (especially his reminiscences of Farley). He’s clearsighted about the show’s shortcomings, yet generous and gracious for what it gave him.
3. Bob Odenkirk. Not a fan of the show, really, Odenkirk’s time there was frustrating for him, and he left in pretty short order. When he speaks about it, though, Odenkirk is, again,

Just a cool guy.

clearsighted about the faults (I generally agree with everything he says) but never comes off as vindictive or meanspirited. While he doesn’t worship at the altar of Michaels, he respects his abilities and is complimentary about how Lorne tried to help his good friend Chris Farley. His bad experience at SNL does not preclude him giving credit to those he feels deserve it, like Phil Hartman, Robert Smigel, Adam Sandler, and Conan O’Brien.
4. Conan O’Brien. Just a funny, funny bastard. Lots of great, funny anecdotes and nothing but love from everyone who talks about him.
5. Gilda. Everyone loved Gilda.
6. Adam Sandler. Just comes of as a nice, humble guy. Lots of props to Rock, the writers. Still seems genuinely bemused that he has the success he does. As much as they are responsible for some truly atrocious movies, the stories of he, Spade, Rock and Farley being this gang of unruly friends backstage, going out for Chinese food and making each other laugh gives me a warm fuzzy.
7. Bill Murray. Apart from being the most talented person to come out of the show, Murray appears here as the wisest of elder statesmen. Brutally honest, but never vindictive, Murray holds forth on all subjects and you just listen. Uncompromising and brilliant.
8. Al Franken. Always a ballsy, annoying, funny dick. The story of the prank with his newborn daughter and a roomful of screaming women worth the cover price alone.
9. Phil Hartman. A little distant personally, Hartman is praised by everyone. Hardworking, generous and guaranteed to kill on air, everyone loved him.
10. Dan Aykroyd. Humble, full of great stories. Hardly a bad word for anyone.

So there you go.

*Make that about 20 times. The updated edition really jump-started things again. 

**This article was originally written for my own amusement (the concept of anyone paying me to write stuff wasn’t a twitch in my fingers at the time). It was on my Myspace page, if that gives you any idea. So the idea that I’d be the SNL reviewer of record at the AV Club would have spun my head around like Beetlejuice. I still love SNL, though.

***Thus explaining the Jimmy Fallon slam.

****And this was all before Chevy went Chevy all over Community.

*****This written before “very annoying” graduated to “apocalyptically annoying and ludicrously uninformed as a Fox News correspondent.”

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TV Review: The Simpsons— “Halloween Of Horror”

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As a guy whose comic sensibilities have been shaped by The Simpsons as much as by anyone or anything else, writing reviews for the present day Simpsons can be something akin to punching Homer repeatedly in the face—you know his extra layers of skull are going to keep you from ever knocking him out, but it’s no fun beating on a defenseless, out-of-shape slob. (Yes, I am the TV critic equivalent of Drederick Tatum in this analogy.) So when a new episode comes out that is genuinely, unqualifiedly, no-joking-around great, I get suspicious. I examined my reaction to this episode pretty damned carefully, wary of being accused of overrating it like the first sip of grainy, lukewarm oasis water.

Nope. It’s great.

Sure, it being great raises the question of why The Simpsons can’t be great again—and I maintain that there’s nothing stopping that from happening—but that’s a complaint for another time. “Halloween Of Horrors” is a great episode of The Simpsons, regardless of the era.

From my AV Club review:

It’s a sweet, funny (especially thanks to the prime Homer-ism “I may not be the smartest dad, or the bravest, or the smartest…), and moving moment, and it’s just what Lisa needs to come up with a plan (they use Homer’s massive stash of holiday decorations to signal for help), and to finally give up Tailee so that Homer can light the bottle rockets they need to call for help. Yeardley Smith hasn’t won an Emmy for Outstanding Voice-Over Performance since “Lisa The Greek,” but she has never been better than here, Lisa’s emotional arc in the episode giving Smith the best chance in years to show what depths she can bring to her most famous role. Handing over the one thing she’s clung to to make the world safe, Lisa’s line, “This ratty piece of polyester has been soaking in face oil for eight years. Light him up. Goodbye, Tailee” is, in Smith’s delivery, everything you need to know about Lisa Simpson in just a few words. It’s Lisa, and Smith, at her best.

Contrary to popular (commenter) belief, I love The Simpsons. Episodes like this help remind me why.

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TV Review: Paul F. Tompkins—Crying And Driving

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Remember how great Mr. Show was? And how nondescript and sort of forgettable that supporting player—the chubby one with the gap teeth—was? Well, now that guy—slimmed down and always impeccably dressed—is one of the best standup comedians (not to mention podcasters) in the world. (I’m not attributing Paul F. Tompkins’ hilariousness to his weight loss—just a descriptor.)

Got to review PFT’s latest standup special for the AV Club and it was outstanding, as ever. Here’s from the thing:

“My name is Paul F. Tompkins and I do Paul F. Tompkins-based comedy.” Thus Paul F. Tompkins introduces himself at the beginning of his new standup special “Crying And Driving,” in which the ever-dapper Tompkins (sporting a black velvet jacket and violet bow tie for the evening) continues his hot streak of mining personal history for hilarious anecdotes, impeccably told. Always possessed of a nimble, original mind, Tompkins has, in turning his self-effacing, deeply sensible gaze inward, become one of the best comic storytellers around. As he did in 2012’s“Laboring Under Delusions” (one of the funniest, most assured standup specials in years), “Crying And Driving” sees Tompkins holding himself up as an example of how not to be a functional adult, an assertion seemingly belied by his ever-natty appearance and showbiz success, but feelingly reinforced by his perpetual bemusement at his own failings. (And those of others, naturally.)

Trust me, his standup is funnier than that description. But that only makes sense—we’re really doing different things here.

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