The New York Times ran a long story yesterday about the challenges faced by “Saturday Night Live,” which is returning to the air tomorrow night after a long absence caused by the writers’ strike.
In the 1970s, “SNL” ruled the airwaves because it had virtually no competition. And in those pre-VCR days, it was genuine “appointment television” for most baby boomers, because if you missed the live broadcast you had to wait until rerun season for another chance to see it.
Now, TV is packed with comedy that seems more creative and more daring than “SNL,” from “South Park” to “Mad TV” to “The Simpsons.”
Earlier this week, I watched the first four episodes of “The Whitest Kids U’ Know,” a very funny sketch comedy series that began its second season on IFC Feb. 10 and will be running for the next two months on Sunday nights at 11 p.m.
Tomorrow night at 11 p.m. IFC is airing a special edition of “Kids” to mark the return of “SNL” a little later that night on NBC.
“The Whitest Kids U’ Know” is looser and fresher and raunchier than anything on network TV because the performer-creators of the series don’t have to deal with a “standards and practices” censor hacking away at anything that is too racy. Network TV has in some ways become squarer that it was 20 years ago, witness the bleeping of some of the dialogue in the PBS airing of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” Wednesday night (a taping of a 38-year-old Broadway show!).
“Whitest Kids” consists of Trevor Moore, Zach Cregger, Sam Brown, Darren Trumpeter, Jr. and Timmy Williams who came together in New York City in 2003 and quickly gained a following on the Internet.
Live comedy venues followed and a TV series was launched last year (the first season has just been released on DVD).
The five performers play female as well as male characters in the sketches, so they are sometimes reminiscent of the “Monty Python” troupe and the Canadian comics who did “Kids in the Hall.”
But, the five Brooklynites display their own mad originality in such impossible-to-describe sketches as “Jack and Oswald” — a musical set in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963 — and “Feeler Doctor,” a comic study of the most delicate moments of a male medical exam.
Some of the sketches are more bizarre than funny, but the members of the “Whitest Kids” company are clearly going places — Moore and Cregger have written and will star in a movie that will be released later this year.
Archive for February, 2008
The New York Times ran a long story yesterday about the challenges faced by “Saturday Night Live,” which is returning to the air tomorrow night after a long absence caused by the writers’ strike.
In a low-tech “now you see it, now you don’t” maneuver characteristic of his slow and steady but not very financially remunerative DIY career so far, New York singer-songwriter Jay Brannan has set off something of an Internet frenzy with his handmade CD, “Disasterpiece,” which the artist made in small lots himself and has sold on the independent CD Baby website for the past several weeks.
As quickly as Brannan could supply the CDs, they sold out, sometimes within minutes of emails saying they were available again.
The “Shortbus” star played his highest profile New York gig to date last weekend — headlining a Saturday night show at the Bowery Ballroom — but he is still in the process of raising the money to record a “real” debut CD.
The CD Baby CDs — with a Polaroid of Brannan pasted to the cover and liner notes hand-written by the artist — are wonderful, one-of-a-kind objects that accurately reflect their maker, but it’s the music inside that has caused the recording to dominate my CD players for the past week.
The six tunes include “Soda Shop” from “Shortbus” along with “26-Hour Day,” “Unstable Boy” and “Body’s a Temple.” This is some of the great material that has moved the singer-songwriter from tiny clubs to one of Manhattan’s best music venues in less than two years’ time.
A growing international fan base has downloaded thousands of copies of the songs Brannan has been offering on iTunes and his own Website (www.jaybrannan.com) — and the fan mail on MySpace and Brannan’s personal site is quite extraordinary.
In his club appearances, Brannan has been hilariously pessimistic about his show business potential, but I think he will soon have to start singing a different tune.
In a recent email about sending out what he says will be the last batch of “Disasterpiece” CDs, Brannan hinted that he is thrilled by the growing support he is receiving for his distinctively-downbeat-but-funny songs.
But, he added, “if you tell anyone i was just optimistic, i’ll kill you.”
The mystery of why recorded-for-TV theatre is almost always a big mistake continues tonight with the national broadcast of “Company” on the PBS series “Great Performances.”
The TV show is a recording of a live performance of the fine revival of the 1970 Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical last season at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
The score is a marvel, as always — packed with great Sondheim tunes such as “Another Hundred People” and “The Ladies Who Lunch” — but as a stand-alone piece of entertainment the PBS presentation is a fizzle.
It is very tough work to make a movie out of a musical, but it has been done well in recent years in the cases of “Chicago” and “Hairspray.” What made those films successful, however, was the fact that the pieces were completely reconceived for the new medium.
The folks behind “Company” on PBS made the mistake of recording the show in front of an overcharged live audience that interferes with our own response to the material and the characters — it sounds as jarring as canned laughter and applause.
“Company” is tricky to revive on stage because the piece is such a product of the New York pop culture and morality of the late 1960s. The not-so-happily unmarried 35-year-old central figure — Bobby (Raul Esparza, above) — reads as gay in the 21st century (something never addressed in the revisions of the book George Furth has made over the years).
The show has always felt a bit sterile in its portrayal of this bachelor because we get almost no sense of his work or his relationships with anyone other than a few brittle married couples. Even in 1970, many of us wondered what kind of life Bobby led away from the couples and the two or three ditzy “girlfriends” who appear briefly.
What carried the show in 1970 and continues to make it score in revival are the brilliant Sondheim songs — each one a mini-play about Manhattan life and lifestyles.
“Company” demands strong actor-singers and the 2006 revival had them in abundance — from Esparza (the best Bobby I’ve ever seen) to Barbara Walsh to Connecticut’s own Kristin Huffman.
Recording the show in front of a packed Ethel Barrymore Theatre left the cast in the terrible position of playing to two audiences simultaneously — the one in front of them laughing and cheering, and the future (and silent) audience that would be watching them months later on television.
One of the obvious and great things about live theatre — versus film and TV — is the freedom to shift your gaze from place to place and character to character, depending on what might interest you at each particular moment.
For TV, “Company” has been boiled down to close-ups and dissolves that distort director John Doyle’s stage pictures and the subtle choreography. The close-ups are fine during the solo numbers — such as Tony nominee Esparza’s spectacular rendition of “Being Alive” at the end — but the cutting in the ensemble sequences is almost always an irritation.
(PBS is airing “Company” on most of its afilliates tonight at 9 p.m.)
Few film actresses have burst on the scene as dramatically as Julie Christie did in 1965 when she went from a virtual unknown to a superstar, based on the release of “Darling” and “Doctor Zhivago.”
The actress had drawn attention for her beauty and charm in the small role she played as Tom Courtenay’s dream girl in “Billy Liar” (1963), but no one knew what a powerful (and mysterious) screen presence she was about to become, or that 42 years later she would still be a star, competing for a best actress Oscar (for “Away from Her).”
Tonight at the Fairfield Theatre Company, I’m hosting a “Martini and a Movie” screening of “Darling,” the John Schlesinger drama about the manufacturing of celebrities that won Christie the best actress Oscar in March of 1966.
The movie is a rather scathing look at a pretty young thing’s rise from obscurity to tabloid and fashion magazine fame based almost entirely on her face and figure. The movie is rooted in London pop culture of the mid-1960s, that brief period when England became the style center of the whole world, thanks to The Beatles, James Bond, “Tom Jones,” and, yes, Julie Christie.
A woman who could be perceived as the Paris Hilton of her time becomes a more sympathetic figure thanks to Christie’s charisma and natural warmth.
In retrospect, some critics have suggested that the casting of Christie softened the material.
“Either it should have been a more astringently moral film or she should have been a more defiantly amoral person,” Alexander Walker writes in “Hollywood, England” (Harrap), his excellent study of British filmmaking in the 1960s.
“The film caught the compromising, opportunistic infection of the very times it was trying to diagnose. But what it also captured, this time very successfully, was a picture of the compulsive promiscuity, professional as well as sexual, of a figure of the times, the freelance female whose ambition barely outlasts her attention span and who moves from bed to bed on the presumption that fidelity means having only one man at a time,” Walker adds.
“Darling” was a sizeable box-office hit on both sides of the Atlantic and received several Oscar nominations including one for best picture (“The Sound of Music” won in most categories that year).
Nearly everyone connected with the film was launched into the Hollywood stratosphere. Schlesinger would go on to make the ground-breaking “Midnight Cowboy” in 1969 (for which he won an Oscar). Frederic Raphael, who won the best original screenplay Oscar for “Darling,” would go on to write the scripts for the 1967 Audrey Hepburn-Albert Finney classic, “Two for the Road,” and the controversial 1999 Stanley Kubrick swan song, “Eyes Wide Shut.”
And, Julie Christie went on to become one of the most popular (and enduring) stars of her time.
(The free screening of “Darling” is tonight at 7 p.m. at the Fairfield Theatre Company, 70 Sanford St. For more information, call 259-1036 or visit www.fairfieldtheatre.org.)
Hadley Freeman covers fashion for The Guardian and British Vogue, but she writes with hilarious objectivity about her beat in the new book, “The Meaning of Sunglasses” (Viking).
An informal “encyclopedia” dedicated to the huge international business of fashion, the book features entries ranging from “Accessories: going to hell in a handbag” to “Yoga, detoxes, and other euphemisms for exercise and diets.”
In between that start and finish come such choice chapters as “Jacobs, Marc: genius or what?,” “Prada: the frumpy but fashionable,” and “Velvet, and why it should be banned.”
Freeman walks a very fine line between endorsing fashion as fun, important global commerce and empowerment for women and then nailing every excess of a world she admits is slightly batty.
The author is also aware of the special language of fashion writers and how to tell positive comments from negative in a medium where advertisers call many of the shots and where nary a negative word can be written.
Here’s a bit from the “Fashionspeak” chapter:
“‘Witty’ is a polite word for ‘so gimmicky even Andre 3000 could balk at wearing it,’ as in ‘Moschino’s take on French coquettes, replete with striped T-shirts, petticoats and berets, was wonderfully witty.’ ‘Daring’ is the synonym for ‘unwearable,’ as in ‘a certain British designer’s collection of balloon clothes was excitingly daring.’”
Freeman gives only one model — Kate Moss (above, with beau Pete Doherty) — a chapter of her own: “Moss, Kate, and how she ruined your wardrobe.”
“What Moss does is find something that would look terrible on most people but looks good on her,” Freeman writes.
“Gather close, children, because here is an important lesson: that is why she is a model and you are not,” the author adds.
Funny and full of good reporting as well as satire, “The Meaning of Sunglasses” is fun from start to finish. You don’t have to be a follower of fashion to enjoy Freeman’s witty insights.
The Romanian drama, “4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days,” was showered with praise and prizes on the international film festival circuit last year.
Writer-director Cristian Mungiu took home Canne’s grand prize — the Palme D’Or — as the well as the top prize in the European Film Awards competition and the Best Foreign Film award of our own National Society of Film Critics.
For reasons that are not clear, this unanimously praised picture is not one of the five nominees for the best foreign language film Oscar that will be given out on Feb. 24, so the U.S, distribution is likely to be slow and spotty.
The movie opened today at the Cine 1-4 in New Haven and is expected to expand to more theaters during the next few weeks (I’ll be doing a review in next week’s Preview section of the Connecticut Post).
It’s too bad the film is not in the Oscar race because it acts as a strong corrective to the best picture nominee “Juno,” that bizarre but hugely successful comedy about teenage pregnancy.
“Juno” never addresses the issues of teen pregnancy, adoption or abortion with any seriousness — which is probably one of the reasons it has been so successful in a movie season dominated by downers like the fellow best picture nominees “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood.”
I wish that the teen girls who have taken “Juno” to heart would also take a look at “4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days” which follows two Romanian college students — in the final days of that country’s Communist regime — as they try to arrange an illegal abortion for one of the girls.
Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) has tried to ignore her condition for four months — and in good times would probably be a blithe charmer like Juno — but decides on an abortion rather than the financial and emotional disaster of carrying her baby to term.
Gabita is aided in her quest by college roommate and best friend Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) who doesn’t realize what she is getting into when she agrees to stay with her friend during the experience of meeting the abortionist (Vlad Ivanov) in a hotel and going through the procedure there.
Because all three of the major characters are subject to severe criminal charges if anyone figures out what they are doing in the hotel, “4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days” turns into a suspense film as well as a strong human drama.
As the story progresses, the friend Otilia becomes the central character and Marinca’s performance is quite stunning (her intense work is made even more impressive by the fact that many key scenes are done without any cuts and run for several minutes).
In a weird bit of synchronicity, I received a notice for a March 29 Metropolitan Museum lecture on “What is Too Taboo in Contemporary Art?” the same day that my email brought me an invitation to tonight’s opening of a new exhibit at Los Angeles’ Antebellum Gallery that is bringing together the work of a large group of iconoclastic (and controversial) artists including Robert Mapplethorpe (left), Joel-Peter Witkin, Steven Meisel and the great Italian poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini.
An old New York City pal of mine, Adam Kozik — who has been making a name for himself in Chicago as a photographer over the past several years — is part of the show, so I wish I was one of those people with the means and the free time to jet around the country, attending cutting-edge art events.
Like Mapplethorpe and Witkin, Kozik has been out there on the edge finding beauty in the most unexpected places and subjects — including areas that we might not want to venture into ourselves.
Kozik’s growing portfolio features everything from flowers to faces to architectural studies, but the work in the L.A. show falls into that sexually explicit area that some people term “erotica” and others dismiss as porn.
It’s fascinating to me that the roadblocks faced by Mapplethorpe and Pasolini in the 20th century are still in place for adventurous contemporary artists who would like to move into commercial galleries and theaters.
These artists were and are recorders of the culture around them as well as aesthetes — what they’ve seen is what they explore in the art, so there is a journalistic/documentary aspect to the photos, paintings and films that shouldn’t be underestimated. Mapplethorpe’s work as a documenter of the New York underground of the 1970s and ’80s has become a part of that city’s historical record.
In a recent email, Kozik asked, “Why does everything have to be…happy art?” and it’s a key question of our time, whether you’re talking about movies like “There Will Be Blood” or art exhibits that take us to the darker side of contemporary culture.
When Roy Scheider died on Sunday at the age of 75, many obit writers identified him simply as “the sheriff from ‘Jaws’” and, if they had some space, it was also noted that the actor appeared in “All That Jazz” and “The French Connection.”
The star gave very strong performances in all three of those classics, but I think my favorite Scheider character was the adulterous businessman he played in a virtually unseen 1986 John Frankenheimer drama, “52 Pick-Up.”
Based on an Elmore Leonard novel, the film is a tough and rather nasty look at the intersection of high life and low life in Los Angeles two decades ago. It’s a crime drama that packs an unusually strong emotional punch.
The Scheider character is married to a rising politician (Ann-Margret), but has been having an affair with a pretty young actress (Kelly Preston), new to L.A., who is falling into the porn/prostitution underworld.
A porn director/pimp (played with ferocious force by John Glover) decides to blackmail the industrialist with a hidden camera video showing Scheider having sex with the actress.
When the man says “no” and finally confesses to his wife about the affair, the blackmailer ups the ante by killing the mistress and pinning the murder on the businessman.
Scheider manages to make us care about a morally dubious man without ever trying to sugar coat what the adulterer has done to his wife.
When Scheider tells his wife about the affair, the result is one of the best acted scenes to be found in any 1980s Hollywood movie. Scheider’s nervous guilt turns to pain as he watches his wife react to the bombshell revelation (Ann-Margret is simply sensational in this scene).
It was clear watching “52 Pick-Up” that Scheider didn’t care if we “liked” the man he played, but he takes us so far into the character’s dilemma that the empathy factor is strong (when the industrialist is shown a tape of his mistress’ murder, we can see that the man is both horrified by what happened to a girl he cared for and terrified that he has walked right into a trap that will probably destroy him).
“52 Pick-Up” was one of the very few good movies produced by the 1980s schlock production company, Golan-Globus — best known for Chuck Norris epics and break dance musicals — and it opened and closed almost simultaneously.
For many years, Frankenheimer was vocal in his pain over the mishandling of the film and the fact that his co-workers Scheider and Glover and Ann-Margret had some of their best screen work go unseen.
“52 Pick-Up” is a lost gem worth searching out.