comedy, tv

Farewell to a great SNL group

Once upon a time, Saturday Night Live went through waves of wholesale changes, allowing us to divide the show into several eras.

Original

1975-80: The original Not Ready for Prime Time Players dwindled from their 1975 debut to the end of their fifth season in 1980. Chevy Chase left after one season and change, later replaced by Bill Murray. Next out were John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, leaving the core of Murray, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman and Gilda Radner to be supplemented by the quirky duo of Al Franken and Tom Davis, later joined by Harry Shearer and some cast appearances by band member Paul Shaffer and an array of bit players.

(Coincidentally, as chronicled last week in a marvelous WaPo oral history, Radner, Shaffer, future SNL cast member Martin Short and Short’s SCTV castmates Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin had all appeared together in a 1972 production of Godspell.)

Lorne-less

1980-84: Lorne Michaels, the man now synonymous with his show, departed after that 1979-80 season along with the entire cast. Enter a new group that couldn’t carry the torch aside from a young featured player named Eddie Murphy, though Gilbert Gottfried went on to an entertaining career. Only Murphy and Joe Piscopo survived the 1981 clearout. The cast overhauls were a little less drastic the next couple of years, and four 1982 and 1983 arrivals — including Jim Belushi and a very young Julia Louis-Dreyfuss — carried over to the next season …

1984-85: Producer Dick Ebersol, best known for his distinguished career in sports, swung for the fences in this unique season packed with established talents such as Short, Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, Rich Hall, Pamela Stephenson and the prodigal Harry Shearer.

Carvey/Hartman to Sandler/Farley (via Myers)

1985-86: Michaels returned in 1985 and started from scratch, building around the hot-at-the-time Anthony Michael Hall and some people who would eventually be huge — Robert Downey Jr., Randy Quaid, Damon Wayans and Dennis Miller. It sucked.

1986-95: So on top of the complete overhauls in 1980, 1981 and 1985, SNL had a near-total clean slate, keeping only Miller, Jon Lovitz and Nora Dunn. Then, just as Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski saw the benefits of his job-saving class in 1986, Michaels brought in a show-saving class — Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, Kevin Nealon and Victoria Jackson. Add Mike Myers (and briefly Ben Stiller) in 1989, and you have a strong case for the show’s all-time best cast.

That group evolved slowly over the next few years. Departing (in order, more or less, though some cast members returned for occasional appearances): Dunn, Lovitz, Miller, Hooks, Jackson, Carvey, Hartman. But the cast kept swelling with the additions of (among others) Chris Rock, Chris Farley, Julia Sweeney, Tim Meadows, David Spade and Adam Sandler. (Most of the others were women, and unfortunately, this was not a time in which women were developed into stars on the show.)

The loss of Hartman in 1994 nearly destroyed the show. Myers stuck around for increasingly infrequent appearances, and Michaels once again reached out to get some veterans who were, to some extent or another, already recognizable — Michael McKean, Mark McKinney, Chris Elliott, Norm Macdonald and Janeane Garofalo. Unfortunately, no one told Sandler, Spade and Farley that they weren’t in charge of the show, and they ran it into the ground. Garofalo fled after a few months of being underused, citing a sexist atmosphere.

Time for another clearout. McKinney and Macdonald stuck around along with lower-profile castmates Tim Meadows and the recently added Molly Shannon.

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comedy

No signs of intelligent life out there (and don’t mention ours)

So remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth;
And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere out in space,
‘Cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth!
— Monty Python

A recent post making the rounds: “NASA spokeswoman Trish Chamberson has publicly acknowledged the existence of alien civilizations, noting that the state agency is currently in contact with four alien races.”

A few problems with that, as illuminated by USA TODAY’s awesome fact-checking staff:

  1. NASA has no spokeswoman named Trish Chamberson.
  2. The site that carried the article is clearly identified as satire.
  3. NASA has, in fact, found no credible evidence of extraterrestrial life.

Meanwhile, Arizona astronomy professor Chris Impey has reiterated the academic stance that we might not want to connect with our intergalactic neighbors. Or so NASA and Impey would like you to believe … 

But just for fun, should we tell Texas Gov. Greg Abbott that aliens are coming in from space? I’m sure his response to fortify an atmospheric border would cost Texas taxpayers a lot of money, but it would be less destructive to the rest of us than the extra layer of border security he added before realizing, “Oh, right! Food comes across the border!” Total cost to Texas: roughly $4,000,000,000. And the rest of us need to pay a bit more for produce, thanks to this self-inflicted knot in the supply chain. The word for that is “inflation.” Or, as some people might say, “Damn, these avocados are expensive.”

comedy, movies

How to fix “Love Actually” (and enjoy it for all its flaws)

It’s one of the best Christmas movies ever, along with Christmas Vacation.

It’s also one of the most hated and the most scrutinized.

Love Actually does a lot of things right. It has many indelible moments. Colin Firth mangling the Portuguese language as most of the neighborhood watches him propose. Laura Linney’s happy dance. God Only Knows playing as dozens of families happily greet each other at Heathrow.

The cue-card scene alone is the subject of multiple Saturday Night Live parodies, the best of which was oddly cut for time but has more than 14m YouTube views.

On the other hand, it’s unrealistic, it’s over the top, and it doesn’t portray women all that well. The older or professional women (Emma Thompson and Laura Linney) are hard done by. The youngest women land the smart, handsome, older men.

As much as I love this film and watch it most Decembers, I can’t argue against the Honest Trailer:

You can say parts of it haven’t aged well. But honestly, even 20 years ago, we knew it wasn’t OK to have relationships with such skewed power dynamics.

So as a thought experiment, let’s see how we’d remake each storyline, ranked here from worst to best. I’m not the first person to do this, but I might be the first man. Because, apparently, films in which the women who fare the best are scantily clad subordinates really go over well with women.

9. The office temptress and Alan Rickman

Maybe it’s actually worse when the employee goes after the boss, especially when he’s married to Emma Freaking Thompson and has adorable kids. This is one you’ll probably skip when viewing the film for the fifth or 10th time.

What doesn’t work: The seductress is so disgustingly awful that you wonder what Alan Rickman even sees in her.

What works: Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson. You can see the conflict on Rickman’s face. We don’t even see confirmation that he and the serpent ever consummated their … what would you call this? Not a relationship. Not anything, really. And Emma Thompson forcing a smile around everyone else and breaking down by herself is an acting master class.

How to fix it: Make what’s-her-face at least a little bit two-dimensional.

8. Going to America

Yes, an English accent is an aphrodisiac, so much so that even a loser who isn’t particularly attractive can go to the USA and immediately end up in a supermodel sandwich.

What doesn’t work: The guy doesn’t exactly ooze charisma.

What works: A lot of people would say this one is over the top. I’d argue that it wouldn’t work if it wasn’t. The sheer absurdity is its saving grace.

How to fix it: Give the guy some personality.

7. Laura Linney’s dream date ruined

Tip for first-time viewers: When Laura Linney and Hot Co-worker Dude are in bed, you can start fast-forwarding when the phone rings.

What doesn’t work: Hot Co-worker Dude proves to be a short-sighted idiot who runs away upon discovering that the woman with whom he was about to make sweet love has a mentally ill relative.

What works: Laura Linney’s range of emotions. Her conversation with Alan Rickman is dry English wit at its best. She has her happy dance. Then she breaks down. We’ve been rooting for her, which makes it all the more poignant that things don’t work out for her.

How to fix it: While she’s crying at the end, Karl comes back into the office: “Look, I don’t care if your brother is at the only mental hospital that gives its patients 24/7 access to phones rather than treating them, which is a poor statement on the NHS. You’re beautiful, you’re smart, you’re charming, and I’ll understand if you have to take a bloody phone call.” They proceed to carry on like crazed college kids.

6. Prime Minister Hugh Grant and Natalie

So did his approval rating go up or down when their relationship went public the minute it truly began?

In the brief sequel made for Red Nose Day in 2017, the prime minister has just returned to office, thanks to the fickle British electorate, and he resumes dancing around 10 Downing Street. Natalie is now more of an equal, which is nice.

What doesn’t work: The power imbalance. She’s an employee and clearly much younger.

What works: “Eight is a lot of legs, David” is one of the best lines of the film, and it’s the high point of Grant’s wonderful search on Natalie’s street that includes the discovery that his driver has an amazing voice on Good King Wenceslas, to the delight of the kids down the street.

How to fix it: Instead of the prime minister, the man in question is a young wunderkind like George Stephanopoulos in the Clinton administration. The power imbalance problem is thereby erased. The prime minister helps him find Natalie, so we still have our delightful street scenes.

5. Unrequited love via cue cards

Having a crush on a friend’s significant other is a well-worn trope that’s usually tedious. The exceptions are this storyline and Jessie’s Girl.

What doesn’t work: It’s uncomfortable knowing that two of the three characters here will have to keep this secret for the rest of their lives.

What works: The cue-card scene is rightfully legendary, but the church scene with the flash mob playing All You Need Is Love and the scene of Andrew Lincoln venting his pent-up emotion while a Dido song plays are also must-sees.

How to fix it: Nothing to “fix,” necessarily. This is surely the best the filmmakers could do with this angle.

4. Jamie and Aurelia

Now the choices are getting difficult. Critics complain that the film has two storylines with an older man and younger subordinate, but we don’t really know the age gap here.

What doesn’t work: Things are cheapened a bit when she strips down to her underwear. The film requires us to suspend our disbelief in many ways, but Jamie and Aurelia learning each other’s languages this quickly seems more unrealistic than the others.

What works: The scenes in which Jamie and Aurelia try to communicate despite the language barrier.

How to fix it: Maybe a little more time elapsing?

3. The porn stand-ins

Or is it a porn film? Maybe just an R-rated film with some graphic sex scenes? Anyway, this is the simplest storyline of the bunch, but the irony of people meeting under such circumstances is played brilliantly.

What doesn’t work: The forced “all I want for Christmas is you” line.

What works: Every bit of dialogue aside from that.

How to fix it: Maybe more interplay with other storylines?

2. Play drums, impress girl

“Your story thread in Love Actually is the second worst!”

“You better take that back!”

“No way your son would learn the drums in that amount of time!”

Speaking as a drummer, I’d take issue with Peter Griffin here. Learning a basic beat is a hell of a lot easier than learning Portuguese.

What doesn’t work: Why would Titanic be a good film choice to show a young boy with what he’s sure is an unrequited crush? Also, having the girl and the mom both named Joanna is kinda creepy. You have to suspend your disbelief about Heathrow security letting Sam get that far through the airport, but the distractions that creep in from other storylines (Rowan Atkinson’s time-sucking vortex, Bill Nighy performing nude as promised) account for his window of opportunity.

What works: Everything else. Liam Neeson, in accordance with his wife’s wishes, playing the Bay City Rollers at her funeral. Liam’s aching look at said funeral. His concern for Sam and his efforts to break through. Emma Thompson telling him to shape up or no one will want to shag him. Sam’s mad dash through Heathrow. Sam’s drumming, which is competent but just clumsy enough to remind us that he’s a beginner.

And one bit of trivia: Thomas Brodie-Sangster, who plays Sam here, is the voice of Ferb on Phineas and Ferb. In that show, Ferb has a crush of Vanessa, who’s voiced by Olivia Olson … who plays Joanna in Love Actually! One of many clever twists in one of the best children’s shows ever.

How to fix it: Don’t name Olivia Olson’s character Joanna.

1. The aging rock star comeback

You can tell Bill Nighy had the time of his life playing this wildly entertaining character, a rock star who realizes that the best way to promote his horrible Christmas comeback song is to lean into how bad it is. He’s a self-parodying celebrity who’s in on the joke, and every bit of the joke lands perfectly.

What doesn’t work: Are you kidding? OK, maybe he should’ve taken his manager to Elton John’s party instead of going to his place to get drunk and watch porn.

What works: Every time I watch English soccer and hear the name “Watford,” I think of Radio Watford. “Well, Ant or Dec” is even funnier when you know the two real-life TV personalities involved. Nighy’s timing on his “kids, don’t buy drugs” line is masterful. In a film full of storylines that tug at the heart strings, it’s nice to have one that’s just flat-out fun.

How to fix it: More screen time. A spinoff film.

Overall

We’ve finally stopped watching this film every Christmas Eve, and we had gotten to where we skipped a few scenes each year, anyway. But if you’ve never checked this out after leaving the cookies out for Santa, please do. By the time you see all the families at Heathrow while God Only Knows plays, you’ll feel a bit better about the world. (Unless you’re a hard-hearted cynic, in which case you should do us all a favor and just sleep through the holidays.)

Which is why I’ve decided, even though I don’t need to see the whole film this year, to watch and share the heartwarming conclusion:

To all a good night …

comedy, movies

The “Life of Brian” debate, nearly 40 years later

Having spent a day on the soccer fields and being ready to think about anything other than soccer, I watched something I’ve been meaning to watch for years — a legendary BBC program in which John Cleese and Michael Palin of Monty Python defend the film Life of Brian in a debate with satirist and Christian convert Malcolm Muggeridge and Anglican bishop Mervyn Stockwood.

I watched it in four parts, then found that someone else posted the whole hour intact:

It’s equal parts fascinating and irritating.

Fascinating in the sense that it’s the sort of the discussion we simply can’t imagine having today. The participants are given plenty of time to speak. For the most part, it’s a genteel discussion that seems utterly foreign to anyone who has watched modern cable “news” for five minutes.

Irritating in the sense that the “Christian” guys are virtually caricatures. They make smug comments about the “10th-rate” film, and they insist on a rather narrow interpretation of the film. When Palin insists that they are not ridiculing Christ, their idea of a response is “humbug.”

 

What I love about Life of Brian is the same thing I love about a lot of my favorite comedies, including most of my favorite Simpsons episodes. It’s about the absurdity of the mob. It’s about groups that yell, “Yes, we are all individuals!” It’s about the splintering between the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea.

It’s about us. Not Jesus.

comedy, music, philosophy, Uncategorized

Link Dump, 5-22-16: Emerson/Tufnel, the death of facts

If I shared everything I read, I would have such a high volume of social media output that no one would follow me any more.

So, on occasion, I’m going to do what I’m calling “Link Dump.” It’s a potpourri of … stuff I found online and enjoyed. Or found interesting. Or stupid.

Here goes:

FACTS, SCHMACTS

Fact-checking in a “post-fact world”The question of what is propaganda and what is truth has plagued politics since politics began. But the nature of information in the social media age means it keeps getting easier for politicians, partisans, computerized “bots” and foreign governments to manipulate news, and it keeps getting harder to correct this.

Why Are the Highly Educated So Liberal?Raises a better question — why are academics so terrible at explaining facts?

How Philosophers at Stanford Have Mastered the Online EncyclopediaWikipedia with a little less vandalism.

Why Wikipedia cannot claim the earth is not flat: A Wikipedia guide to editing fringe beliefs on Wikipedia.

BUT WE MEAN WELL …

The end of empathy: I’m not convinced empathy is dead. I just think people feel more entitled to be as mean as they wanna be.

Can the Christian Left Be a Real Political Force?: I kind of doubt it, but it’s interesting.

CLIMATE CHANGE WILL BE REAL WHEN WE CAN MAKE A BUCK ON IT

Atlantic City Gambles on Rising SeasThe casinos will be fine. But if you live there …

Miami businesses say it’s a moneymaker to adapt for warmingBy a fellow News & Record alum

YE NAIRN LABBE … WAIT, THOSE ARE SOCCER PLAYERS

17 Utterly Charming Articles on Scots Wikipedia: I still have no idea whether this is real.

AND A MUSIC BREAK …

A Brief History of the Devil’s TritoneC to F-sharp? Heresy!

Are Algorithms Ruining How We Discover Music?Not really, but I’d still argue Launch was better at algorithms than Spotify and Pandora are.

When I met Clint EastwoodSort of. The Chronicle has more archives online now. Check page 3.

Independent Label CEO Still Very Dependent on Mom Making DinnerDateline — Athens, Ga.! (Not real.)

Echobelly – now it feels right!At least, that’s what the translation from Russian says. Includes clips of this charming Britpop band, now making a comeback of sorts.

Run-DMC/Aerosmith oral historyThough it’s pretty clear that some of the people involved did a few things to alter their memories.

Meet the Moog: Video of Keith Emerson demonstrating his complex gear while channeling Spinal Tap …