Q&A with The Improv’s Budd Friedman | Julie Seabaugh
Epix documentary The Improv: 50 Years Behind the Brick Wall — featuring Jerry Seinfeld, Jimmy Fallon, Sarah Silverman and more — debuts tonight at 8 Eastern. Founder Budd Friedman was kind enough to speak with me…for L.A. Weekly, but this being the prime season for leftovers, here are some of his cutting-room thoughts on the film, the chain’s legacy and just who the hell Nerdist is again.
Was there a biggest surprise or greatest hurdle in the process of producing and releasing the documentary?
No real surprises. They did throw a few barbs in my direction, but that’s to be expected. But on the whole it’s a terrifically entertaining show, and we’re very pleased. We can’t wait to get on the air. It’s one thing to see it on my computer, but it’s another thing to see it on my TV.
Well, you know the comedians only kid the ones they love, so…
Oh yeah, sure sure sure. The biggest shock…it wasn’t a shock: I don’t mind being taken apart for a good cause, but one of the Wayans brothers says, “And when Budd introduced you, he’d first tell a joke and think he’s funny. And the audience just sits there; they’re stunned. And then he brings you up. You’ve got a dead audience. Instead of warming up, he warms them down!” That’s pretty funny.
Am I Stoned, or Is Doug Benson the Future of Comedy? | John Wenzel
Watching Doug Benson smoke pot on his video-podcast Getting Doug With High makes my lungs hurt. Dude barely takes a breath between joints, bowls, and bong rips, encouraging his comedian-actor buddies to puff with him for the entirety of the 50-minute show, but also gleefully toking by himself when they decline.
Few people have the superhuman tolerance of Benson, who name is as synonymous with weed these days as he is comedy, and that’s probably for the best. His humor can be rambling, non sequitur and punctuated with awkward moments, and it’s usually more relatable to people who understand pot culture than those who don’t. I wasn’t crazy about either of Benson’s well-meaning but boring stoner documentaries, Super High Me and The Greatest Movie Ever Rolled. And like any comic, some of his live shows fall flat.
But when my non-stoner friends jump at the chance to see him every time he rolls through town, I can’t help but think he’s more than just someone at the right place at the right time, or that he’s simply pandering to an underserved market. His style of humor is fundamentally goofy and open-hearted, and often surprisingly nimble — or at least as nimble as most non-stoned podcasts out there, which could often benefit from the constant self-awareness that comes with being high (or is it just paranoia, MAN?!)
Simply because Benson is talking about (and smoking) pot all the time doesn’t mean he’s inherently lazy. He’s a podcast champ and social media rock star primarily because he’s a gifted riffer and touring juggernaut, not because he’s hitched his wagon to a drug that’s going increasingly mainstream. He’s easy-going and funny, but harsh when called for, and his taste in movies and other comedians is uniformly great. In other words, he’s a comedian first and stoner second, and the format for his open-ended talk show works in spite of its potential to be a druggy trainwreck.
The Fart Machines in Purgatory Are More Realistic | Steve Heisler
“My friends are getting book deals from Twitter and I’m slow dancing with a robot for a case of free salsa. Everything’s just fucking grand.” — Kyle Kinane, a great Twitter warrior
The future has brought about new and exciting ways by which the worth of a comedian, at least among gatekeepers and decision makers, can be quantified. Podcast subscribers, album downloads, page views and, obviously, Twitter followers have replaced Nielsen ratings or focus groups as the way by which comedic impact is measured. Thank God, hard-working funny people will always get a shot—the existence of 30 Rock and Louie are blindingly obvious examples—but I’m talking about taking a risk on scrappy young upstarts with nothing but a niche to their names. There are now more metrics by which to justify the existence of said niche in the old, data-driven way of “making it,” so not all niches are created equal.
Obviously the best possible scenario is when really talented people with fervent fan bases get their due, like how Comedy Bang Bang transitioned from a joyous, friendship-driven podcast into a surreal take on the talk show format. That happens. But not every single time. Never forget Shit My Dad Says.
So what’s left is for great comics to sit in purgatory as their passion projects are put on hold in favor of taking calculated risks. (I get that Kyle Kinane’s travel pilot might not be for everybody, but at least Comedy Central gave us Adam Devine’s House Party!) Having a few irons in the proverbial not-lit fire seems to be the mark of a working comic nowadays, sitting around in the great, nebulous unknown between Joe Annoyance Theatre Level 1 and Lenny Bruce.
I am beyond thrilled to report that I have figured out HOLLYWOOD, and the secret is to invent a fart machine that sounds much more like an actual fart than what traditional fart machines can produce. Yes, the future is now. This is how I know for sure:
Turkey Day calleth, and we answereth with sighs
We could say something here about how we meant to put this up on Monday and regretfully inform you we won’t be posting during Thanskgiving week, thus depriving you of your incisive comedy writing for a period of seven excruciating days.
We could also move to Alaska and stalk Sarah Palin’s relatives in the hopes of a getting a wacky photo with them while dressed as a robot, but we’re not going to do that either because really, who would benefit?
We’ll be back next week with more tidings of great chuckle-tude and openly-roasted chesnuts of something or other, but in the meantime why not peruse our archives or move to Alaska and stalk Sarah Palin’s relatives while dressed as a robot? Happy Thanksgiving, Scratchers.
Mr. Show, Seinfeld and the Comfort of Misanthropy | John Wenzel
The proliferation of ads featuring cars wrapped in giant red bows means the holiday season is upon us, and what better way to simulate the warm familiarity of a yule log DVD than by listing my favorite funnies to wrap up Comedy Comfort Food Week?
Like Stove Top stuffing or a delivery pizza, this comfort food is usually high in calories and best enjoyed on the couch while wearing buffet pants, so put down that literary sensation and turn on the glowbox, you elitist dick!
Mr. Show with Bob and David
The 1995-1998 run of Mr. Show is the most perfect and straightforward example of sketch comedy I’ve ever seen. My wife and I have forced ourselves to not watch it so much over the years since we’ve memorized every word, but when I want the fuzzy embrace of rampant misanthropy and suffocating sarcasm, this is the first place I look. I shudder to think of the influence David Cross and Bob Odenkirk’s unholy union has had on my personality. See also: Kids in the Hall
Like you, your neighbor, her imprisoned brother, and everyone else in this Target, I grew up watching Seinfeld so its comfort factor is not surprising. But I also grew up with plenty of other sitcoms I don’t feel the need to watch from start to finish each time they come on TV. (And I own everything but the first couple season of Seinfeld on DVD, so it’s not like I’m hurting for it.) Seinfeld’s casting and acting are the perfect complement to its brilliant writing, making the best episodes feel somehow inevitable. When I’m watching a great episode I feel like I’m in The Zone. See also (to a much lesser extent): Curb Your Enthusiasm, 30 Rock
Mel Brooks’ 1974 Western parody works so splendidly on so many levels that it’s tough to pinpoint what makes it so soothing. Beyond the clever race and class commentary, or the brilliantly cartoonish meta-ending, there’s a well-written, well-directed core of sweetness and nostalgia that betrays Brooks’ innate love of show business. My dad also introduced me to the film at a young age, so it has the golden smack of childhood to it — however littered with profanity and sexy-sex some scenes may be. And anyway, who wouldn’t want to spend an hour and a half with the gentle Zen of Alcoholic Gene Wilder? See also: Annie Hall, Harold and Maude
Stolen Memories of Cedric and Salt-N-PeppAH | Matthew Love
Snippets of my favorite bits of comedy spin through my mind all the time. So when I seek refuge in familiar laughs, I don’t generally sit to watch the entirety of Ghostbusters or read Cat’s Cradle. Nope, I just quietly luxuriate in fragments of things I love entirely out of context, their original dimensions warped by time and then blown up, poster-size. I stare at them as I stroll through the grand humor museum in my brain; sometimes, I’ll lean over and say to the unfortunate soul next to me, “Ray, the next time someone asks you if you’re a God, you say… yes!” and wait for him or her to reciprocate my excitement. Something in me knows the quote is not exact, and I don’t care.
As fellow Scratcher S. Heisler pointed out, the exercise of engaging these comedic gems has changed now that the internet has most of them readily available in some form. Given that this is the case, here’s how technology is prodding its way into my nostalgic brain.
You Shoulda Hung Out, Maaan: Revisiting Dave Attell’s “Skanks for the Memories” | Julie Seabaugh
The other night I had the lonely bug. So I went out to this bar. I see a beautiful woman alone. I’m thinking, “She’s alone; I’m alone. Why not annoy the shit out of her?” So I walk over…I’m walking…I’m wearing clogs…and I notice she’s got a black eye. She’s got a shiner. I’m thinking, “Great, she doesn’t listen!”
Well, a couple of McNuggets and lies later, we’re back at my house. And we’re having sex doggy style. Now I didn’t plan on it; that’s just how she passed out. Thank you, slow gas leak! Fellas, have you ever had the experience of a woman yelling another man’s name out in the height of passion? Well this woman was yelling out names of men who have never ever lived; fantasy men. She’s like, “Give it to me, Chewbacca! C’mon now, give it! Work it, Spiderman! Not in my eye, Papa Smurf! And I’m thinking, “Is she crazy, like it says on her bracelet? Or is she just looking at my sheets? I dunno!”
But sex is not that important. You know what’s really important? That afterwards part, when you’re both naked and it’s warm and you’re watching the sun come up through the windshield. And you look in her eyes—you look in her good eye—and you know: you fucked a pirate.
Comedy Central Records released Dave Attell’s Skanks for the Memories on February 4, 2003. The artwork featured bleary-eyed, disposable-camera selfies of the then-Insomniac host surrounded by shirt-raising, tongue-protruding young ladies he’d encountered during his late-night visits to dive bars, after-hours eateries and seedy sex clubs. Track titles included “The Unf**kables,” “Midget Friend,” “Shaved Pubes,” “Sex Store,” “Amish Sex” and “Sex With Animals.” The liner notes included special thanks to “everyone else who has ever bought me a drink.”
Attell’s half-hour travelogue would air its third-season finale (“Long Island”) two days later, on Thursday the 6th. Going out with a bang while simultaneously offering product to sate fans through the four-month hiatus, Comedy Central timed the Best of Insomniac Uncensored: Volume 1 DVD to release the same day as Skanks, promoting the pair that evening with a signing at the Times Square Virgin Records.
Comedy Comfort Food | Steve Heisler
Thanks to the Internet and the exponential rise of the tech curve, comedy is easier than ever to produce and distribute. There is more now than ever before, not as much as there will be tomorrow. I could watch something new every day and never catch up. So naturally I just consume these things over and over instead.
WELCOME, TO CHICKEN SCRATCH’S COMEDY COMFORT FOOD WEEK, ALL WEEK!!!
This is one of the purest joke vehicles I’ve ever seen on television—but not only are there killer one-liners about Shaquille O’Neal and Tracy Jordan having squid sex in space, the show’s got some heart. Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy began as enemies, but over time became platonic pals who epitomized the sort of genuine, heartfelt, pure friendship I strive to have with everyone I know. I love Arrested Development and Louie as much as the next person who won’t shut up on Facebook, but 30 Rock is such a compelling blend of tragedy and comedy, sadness and joy, other dichotomous things. I can pop in any episode and find something to like.
“You ever fall asleep on your couch just so it feels like you’re laying next to someone?” That’s my favorite joke by my favorite misanthropic teddy bear Kyle Kinane, and it perfectly captures everything that makes him distinct. It’s unexpected, speaks directly to his ongoing struggles with the basic human condition, and makes mirth out of that sadness. Sets by the Chicago-born stand-up take the form of rambling (though only the appearance of such) monologues and stories, each wrestling with depression and loneliness until Kinane emerges victorious, giving them a noogie.
Should You Be Laughing at This? by Hugleikur Dagsson
This is an Icelandic cartoon book my old cubemate Jonathan Messinger shared with me one day. We laughed and laughed. If you do the same, you are probably a great person.
The Simpsons seasons 3-10ish
I like to pretend that The Simpsons got cancelled after 10 seasons, and every episode after that is part of a new show, called The Sampsons. That particular program is okay; it’s like a spin-off. But under those terms, The Simpsons is the greatest television show to ever exist. Moreso than even 30 Rock (but losing a point or two for not being on Netflix for watching at any second of any day), The Simpsons magically adds gravitas to even the stupidest of rake-stepping-on gags, and makes me laugh because I love every member of the family, and the town, so dearly.
Improvised Shakespeare Company
For all these reasons, and more.
The Broken Mic Stand: Bill Burr in Philly | Matthew Love
This past weekend, stand-up Bill Burr made a tour stop at the Tower Theater in Philadelphia; if comedy connoisseurs, or even fans of heckling videos, felt their Spidey-Sense tingling on Saturday, this was the reason. Though he has visited the City of Brotherly Love since his infamous appearance in Camden on the Opie and Anthony Traveling Virus tour of 2006, some odd anticipation of his visits there will probably always remain…
The circumstances of the O&A show are these: The crowd had been there for hours, they were drunk, rowdy, and had been booing many of Burr’s fellow comics—including tough cookies Bobby Kelly and Philly’s own Dom Irerra. [Secondarily, it’s useful to note that Philadelphians love booing and Burr himself insisted that he wasn’t going to stand for the same sort of treatment before he went on.] Burr took the stage and after a few unsatisfying attempts to tell jokes, the comic unleashed a torrent of foulmouthed invective on the crowd like nothing on record. Though Burr may not have realized it, after more than twelve minutes of eviscerating Philadelphians and all they held dear, he’d spawned a legend.
Burr’s Saturday show went down without incident. Still, the occasion made me think about the insanity of that appearance on the O&A tour, and how much transpired in one set. Here’s a breakdown of some significant moments in Burr’s epic rant, and what they meant to me while reviewing them:
For Thine Own Self, Be Producing | Steve Heisler
(Drysdale, left, with Susan Messing)
“Why is our ego so fucking fragile, that something that happens to someone else, has anything to do with us at all?”
Rebecca Drysdale, a brilliant improviser and a writer on Key & Peele, posted a missive on the eve of what she calls the “Harold Moon”—basically, when the Upright Citizens Brigade theaters on both coasts choose the two or three improvisers out of 500 to join house teams, called Harold teams, that have weekly performance slots. It’s a blissful time when normally sane and rational people lose their fucking minds because somebody else gets the opportunity to do fake-surgery on stage in front of 12 people. And THEY can’t! They were not cast! When there was no ladder rung to reach for, suddenly one appeared, and they didn’t reach it!
Drysdale, who was never on a Harold team herself, essentially says there is no one achievement that will magically thrust a comedy career upon you. There is no one road to success, and placing emphasis on Harold auditions—or on industry showcase, being asked to be on a podcast, whatever—is just adding undue stress to what’s already the vaguest and most anxiety-ridden profession out there. It’s all about perspective, man, and the dangling Harold team carrot brings out the ferocious sides of people.
“Decide whether you are going to be a person who wants to be genuinely happy when good things happen to the people that you love…or not,” she writes. “If you are one of those people, someone who can have backs instead of watching your own, someone who can support the people around you on and offstage, those people who do get cast, nominated and signed will bring you with them. Those touchdowns count for the whole team, so be on it.”
Drysdale encourages people to remember there’s a reason they got involved with the arts in the first place. It wasn’t about achieving arbitrary or strictly financial goals, but creative ones first and foremost. She also acknowledges the push-pull of wanting to get on stage a lot so you can get better, and relying on Harold teams for automatic, hassle-free guaranteed performance slots.
The thing that struck me the most is that odd cart-before-the-horse conundrum she describes, because even though it’s clearly the byproduct of an imperfect system, and probably doomed to be problematic in one form or another for a while, there’s actually a solution. A solution so horrifying—because it involves WORK—I dare only speak its name after a colon: self-production.