Showing posts with label Comedy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Comedy. Show all posts

Friday, July 25, 2014

Chatting with The Big Bang Theory Screenwriters on Geekerati

Sometimes I forget how blessed my life is, living as I do in beautiful southern California. There are times when I need to take a break from grumbling that not enough people listen to the Geekerati podcast I do with Shawna Benson, or wondering why no one has spontaneously noticed that I would be perfect as a voice on their latest animated series. Today is one of those times when I remind myself that no matter how challenging and intimidating my life might be I pretty much live in "Pops Town" as depicted in one of the Hallmark puzzles by Robert Blair Martin. A heavily populated version of Pops Town, to be sure, but one none the less. The Los Angeles area can be a scary place if you don't know anyone, but it also happens to be filled with wonderful people who can make this megalopolis feel like it's just the right size.

Let me walk you on a brief tangent about this aspect of L.A. before we get back to the main point of this post...getting you to listen to the Big Bang Theory interviews Shawna and I did on Geekerati.

My wife Jody and I moved down here so that she could attend film school at USC and I could begin pursuing graduate education. We moved to Los Angeles from Reno and we immediately experienced culture shock. Let me tell you, unless you are from a big city it is quite shocking to be surrounded by so many people. The Reno/Sparks Metropolitan Statistical Area has a population of roughly 425,000... or roughly 3 Comic-Cons. The Los Angeles Combined Statistical Area - or as someone who lives in Glendale and commutes to Riverside for my Ph.D. classes calls "L.A." - has roughly 18 million. That's roughly 120 Comic-Cons. That is a lot of people and when Jody and I first moved down here it was mind-boggling. We lived in Crenshaw at the time, and finding any place that wasn't crowded was a quest suitable for 16th level Rangers and not wide eyed newbs from the Sierras. Though we did discover that the "vacant lot" where Elizabeth Short' body was found is a 9 minute walk from the Crenshaw Krispy Kreme.

How crowded is Los Angeles you ask?

There is so much light pollution in the area that Jody and I describe the Los Angeles day as having two parts, "Day and Dim." There is no night, only dim. There are so few stars visible that we wondered why they bothered to maintain the Griffith Observatory, though at the time the Observatory was closed for renovation.

Our first Christmas in Los Angeles, we made the mistake of heading over to Universal City Walk to get a feel of L.A. at Christmas-time. For Jody, who grew up in Nevada City where they have Cornish Christmas/Victorian Christmas every year, venturing into a pseudo-mall that has a Santa hat wearing King Kong as its only acknowledgement of the season was horrifying. It was anti-Christmas for her. There was no snow. There were no Christmas carols. It was 70 degrees. We later learned that the Southland celebrates Christmas - and so many other wonderful celebrations - magnificently, it's only Universal City Walk that is terrible...except at Halloween when it is appropriately horrifying.

For our first year, we were very lonely in a very large place. Then something magical happened. We wandered from our cave and managed to meet some Angelinos. Some where natives, but most - like us - were transplants. Some of them were semi-famous, but most were normal people getting by. I'd like to take a moment to highlight a couple of lynch pin people who have made our day to day lives in L.A. wonderful: Bill Cunningham, Shawna Benson, Wes Kobernick, Joel Allan, Eric Lytle, Luke Y. Thompson, David N. Scott, Julie Scott, Kate Coe, Dale Launer, Scott Kaufer, Caryn Mamrack, Kevin Burke and Nicholas Santillan. These names only scratch the surface of people who have been more than generous with their time and energy to both Jody and me...and are people I can name without feeling like I am "name dropping." I would mention some of the people in my gaming group, but it is my hope that I have been able to do for them what the above people have done for me and Jody.

These people make Los Angeles feel like a very small town. Small in the cozy way and not in the gossipy loss of privacy way.

It is through these people, and some of un-named individuals, that I have had the ability to get some great guests on the Geekerati podcast that Shawna Benson, Bill Cunningham, Wes Kobernick, Eric Lytle, and I started in 2007. Of the many great guests, the "gets" that most surprised me in that I was able to get them at all were writers from the biggest comedy on television...The Big Bang Theory. There are really only three "gets" that I would geek out more over, William Shatner, Bruce Campbell, and Nathan Fillion. I'll add them to my bucket list.

We had Executive Producer David Goetsch on our show in early 2008. In that episode we discussed a number of topics, but I remember one thing fairly distinctly. It was Goetsch's kind tolerance of me telling him that TBBT had better not commit a BOSTON COMMON. For those who don't know, BOSTON COMMON was a sit com starring Anthony Clark who played a geeky hick who is madly in love with much cooler Traylor Howard. Needless to say, they get together in Romantic Comedy fashion at the end of the short - due to it being a mid-season pick up - season. The show was picked up for another season, which apparently made the writers panic because they broke the couple up in order to "recapture the magic." As an aside, Traylor Howard went on to star in TWO GUYS, A GIRL, AND A PIZZA JOINT which starred two geek favorites (Nathan Fillion and Julius Carry), someone geeks love to hate (Ryan Reynolds), and a highly under appreciated comic actor (Richard Ruccolo).

Since its launch, TBBT has been Jody and my favorite modern sit com, it falls somewhere behind FRAZIER and THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW on the all-time list. Jody has even written a spec screenplay for it, which is a double edged sword for a struggling screenwriter. You've written for what you love, but you don't tend to have people read specs for their own show. This isn't for "IP" reasons. It's more due to the fact that if you don't get the characterization perfect - in the minds of the shows creators - they might be very resistant to your interpretation. This is true even if your screenplay is funny. That's one of the reasons writers submit screenplays for similar shows, or other popular shows. You want to demonstrate you can write in the genre, but you don't want to claim you understand the characters better than the show's creators.

Anyway, enough of the build up. You will find the two episodes we interview TBBT writers embedded below. If you need any proof of the show's geek cred, just think about the fact that they were willing to spend time with a fellow geek to chat for over an hour...twice...and hopefully again.

Interview with David Goetsch

Find Additional Blogcritics Podcasts with Geekerati Radio on BlogTalkRadio

Interview with Maria Ferrari

Online Entertainment Radio at Blog Talk Radio with Geekerati Radio on BlogTalkRadio

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Greatest Event In Television History

Jeff Probst, Paul Rudd, Jon Hamm, and Adam Scott team up to do a send up of the "greatest event" specials of the 1980s.  The key to getting this kind of parody correct is to have the parody be a good version of what is being made fun of and this is damn near perfect.

RIP Jon Hamm.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Jim Beaver (Supernatural) Discusses Buster Keaton's OUR HOSPITALITY

It's hard to describe in words the brilliance of the comedic stunt work of early Hollywood action-comedians like Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd.  Their willingness to risk life and limb to entertain audiences -- even with the safety procedures they did use -- is mind boggling. The best way to use words to describe their endeavors are usually names, names of artists who have attempted similarly insane comedic stunts. You can tell a modern audience that many of Jackie Chan's stunts were inspired by the work of Keaton, and that does a pretty effective job.  But for my generation, who encountered Jackie Chan as he entered the American Market with THE BIG BRAWL, a better comparison is Disney's character Goofy.  Many of the animated stunt comedy shorts that feature Goofy are based on the comedic endeavors of Keaton and Lloyd.

Think about that for a minute. Animation, with its infinite ability to show the unreal, was used to tell stories inspired by the real world stunt work of real world comedians.

Actor Jim Beaver has a column over at IndieWire entitled "Beaver's Lodge," and in his most recent (and second) installment he discusses Buster Keaton's film OUR HOSPITALITY.  Watch his discussion and tell me you don't want to watch this film.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

[Film Review] THE TRIP: Commentary and Cuisine

In 2010, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon starred in an award winning BBC sit-com entitled The Trip. The show lasted for six critically acclaimed episodes. The show was nominated for a BAFTA for best situation comedy and Steve Coogan won a BAFTA for best male performance in a comedy role. In 2011, the television series was edited into a feature film distributed in the United States by IFC films.

The movie, like the television series, is a mockumentary about two comedic actors named Steve and Rob whose careers and lives bear a striking resemblance to those of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon.

The film opens with Steve calling Rob to ask if Rob would be available for a trip critiquing a number of high end restaurants in the north of England.  Steven has accepted a commission from The Observer newspaper to do a travelogue and review column of the locations along the trip.  When he had initially taken the commission Steven had planned to have his gourmand girlfriend Mischa accompany him, but their relationship has been put "on hold" as she has traveled to the United States in the hopes of getting some journalistic commissions of her own.  Steven has run out of options for companions, and so he asks his co-worker of 11 years Rob to join him on the trip.

The movie is a delightfully buddy comedy which takes advantage of the Steven's and Rob's comfortable friendship to create a touching and believable narrative.  While one can enjoy the film just for the buddy comedy that it is, it is also a film that works on two other distinct levels.

First, as a visual representation of the north of England it is beautiful.  The cinematographer captured the moors, mountains, and pastures magnificently and the picturesque representations of bucolic England are one of the best advertisements for a vacation to the country that one could imagine.  Add to the visual beauty food that ranges from the exquisite to the weird, and a nice touch of history, and you have a film that works as a proxy for the travelogue that the Steven character is supposed to be writing.  In making a film depicting a writer journeying to acquire material, the film has managed to visually tell the tale as the character might well be writing.

The second, and more profound, level of the film is the nature of the lives of Steven and Rob and the social commentary contained therein.  Steven represents the urban sophisticate and Rob the bourgeois. 

Steven is the more "internationally famous" actor who has starred in American films and who is seeking more work in America, and who tells his British agent that he doesn't want to do any more British television.  He wants to star in important independent films, and doesn't have time to star as the "baddie" in an upcoming episode of Doctor Who.  Steven is not content with his professional life, and seeks to do something "important." 

Rob's work has mostly been in British television where he is known for his uncanny impressions and for a particular vocal gimmick called "small man trapped in a box."  Before I continue describing Rob's life, you really must experience the small man bit.  It is remarkable, and I couldn't believe it wasn't done with post-production tricks -- but it is something very real.

Rob is portrayed as a working class actor who is quite content with his career and who deeply appreciates the respect and admiration he receives from his fans.  Where Steven is dour, Rob is cheerful -- infectiously so.

It isn't merely creatively that Steven is frustrated.  His personal life is also the shambles.  His girlfriend has just left him, though he is trying to keep a connection to her, and his divorce has had a predictable affect on his relationship with his son -- a son who is rebelling a bit and who is in need of a positive role model.  Steven can't maintain a long term relationship, and he cannot quite keep track of the one night stands he has had.  He is so caught up in the life of the "artiste" and trying to be a kind of tragic artist in personality, that it is hard for him to truly connect with another person.  There is a wonderful moment in the film where he is getting high in a room once used by Coleridge.  Steven is trying his best to affect a kind of moody poetic persona, that it creates a powerful yet muted comedic moment. 

The opposite is true of Rob's life.  He and his wife have only recently had a baby.  They have a strong and delightful relationship filled with laughs.  Where Steven's phone calls end in sighs and "I have to go nows," Rob's conversations don't end on screen.  One can imagine that the playful dialogue between Rob and his wife continues until either they both fall asleep or until the baby awakens in need of some care.  The moments where Rob converses and flirts with his wife on the phone are some of the most personal and magical in the film.

It should be noted that all of Steven's phone calls take place via cell phone, and that his quest for cell phone signals is a humorous sub-plot on its own, while all of Rob's phone calls are on land line.  The cell phone is presented as cold and distant and never really allows the people on either end of the phone to "connect," whereas the land line is portrayed intimately and conversations via land line are akin to cuddling.

Once more the "urban sophisticate" is contrasted to the simpler "bourgeois," a major theme of the film that is portrayed in a number of ways -- always with the "sophistication"/elitism being shown as failing or inappropriate.  Steven rents a Land Rover because "the north has hills," he has accepted a commission to write about food without any real knowledge of food, and so on.

Two of my favorite moments (displayed below) are the very much talked about "Dueling Michael Caines" scene and the "We Rise at Dawn" scene. The "We Rise" scene is maybe one of my favorite comic bits ever. It ranks with "Who's on First" in my mind.

Witty, subtle, beautiful, and rewatchable.  The Trip is one of those rare films that makes a short trip seem like an epic journey, all while never being anything other than a small trip.  It praises family over fame and friendship over facade.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Marketing is Hard: Paul Rudd Pitches "Our Idiot Brother"

Since Clueless, Paul Rudd has been among my favorite comedic actors. He has a great sense of timing, is a good writer, and a very likable personality. In this Funny or Die skit, Rudd pitches potential marketing campaigns for his upcoming film Our Idiot Brother. "What if we put our Trailer in the Middle of the Movie?!"
HT: Anne Thompson's Essential "Thompson on Hollywood!"

Allie Goertz is Better than Rebecca Black -- D&D Tonight is Better than Friday!

The internet is filled with many wonders and perils.  It is a place where one can find beauty and horror, and one doesn't even have to look to far to find either.  It is also a place where a person can inexplicably go from moderately talented high school student to pop music sensation in nanoseconds.

The most famous case of this phenomenon is Rebecca Black, whose Autotuned voice can be heard singing two songs that are so cliche that they border on being a parody of modern pop music.  One can listen to Rebecca Black's song "Friday" back to back with Katy Perry's pop hit "Firework" and wonder where the real difference is.  Both are products of a pop-industrial machine that produces things that have a pleasant sound, but are almost completely lacking in "heart" -- even when they are attempting to be inspirational.

While Rebecca Black has been successful in promoting herself on the internet, she has also been the target of much scorn.  This is partly due to envy, and partly due to the trivial and formulaic nature of the songs she sings. It is also because there are people of greater talent, but less exposure, who put forth their artistic creations on the internet in the hopes that others will appreciate their efforts.  We aren't talking about people seeking to make a dollar, rather those who wish to share their creations.  It takes a lot of courage to promote yourself on the internet -- this applies to Rebecca as well -- it can be a cruel place.

While I was flying toward that wonderful -- and geeky -- annual celebration of hobby gaming called Gen Con, another young voice was being uploaded to the internet.  It is a wonderful voice.  Where Rebecca Black's song is formulaic with industry-esque production values and Autotuned vocals, this new artist's song is recorded by a microphone attached directly to the computer with a video recorded by a webcam.  Where Rebecca Black's song was written by professionals and sounds as if it were programmed by a "pop song writing machine," the new artist wrote her own song about something she enjoys.

That new artist is Allie Goertz.  Her voice sounds like a combination of Xenia and Dia Frampton of NBC's "The Voice."  Her lyrics combine her own love for Hobby Gaming with a touch of Tom Lehrer.

So give a listen to Allie Goertz's song "Tonight."  She's an artist so humble that she apologizes for sounding too pretentious when she says the word "essentially."  Though I think that's just her being a little "punny" regarding the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Cinerati Book Review: The Mall of Cthulhu by Seamus Cooper

In the movie My Favorite Year, Alan Swann (Peter O'Toole), in quoting another actor, claims that "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." While the origins of the quote are relatively unknown -- being attributed to several sources -- the spirit of the quote is none the less true. It is very difficult to write an engaging work of comedy of any length. Nowhere is this more evident than in comedic Science Fiction and Fantasy writers.

While there are those like Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, and Ernest Bramah who have written what many consider to be consistently high quality SF/F books of a humorous nature, the majority of genre humor writers fall into a trap that Jo Walton succinctly describes in a blog post on her love hate relationship with humor fiction. Walton argues that the majority of humor writing tries to hard to be funny and doesn't let the humor rise organically from the material, and she finds this very frustrating as a reader. As she puts it, "I hate things that are trying to be funny, rather than letting the humour bubble up from underneath." I agree with her sentiment, and I agree that this is a pratfall that too many writers fall into too easily.

It is a pratfall that Seamus Cooper risked falling into in his recent novel The Mall of Cthulhu. The novel, published by Night Shade Books this past June, attempts to use comedy to synthesize the mystery procedural with weird fiction.

The book's plot is relatively simple. Ten years ago, a college student named Laura Harker was saved from being turned into a vampire when a geeky folklore student named Ted charged into the vampire's den -- the Omega Alpha sorority -- and slew all of the undead occupants therein. This act of heroism shattered Ted's sanity, and led Laura to pursue a career in the FBI. Ted now works at a chain coffeehouse named Queequeg's hoping that the mind numbing routine of a service job will help him remain sane, and allow him to lead a normal life. Alas, Ted's fate -- and Laura's -- is not destined to be one of day to day doldrums. Ted has accidentally stumbled upon a group of modern day Cthulhu cultists who wish to use a shopping mall in Providence, Rhode Island as a nexus of power to summon the Old Ones to wreak havoc on the world.

As the back of the book describes it, "[Ted] and Laura must spring into action, traveling from Boston to the seemingly-peaceful suburbs of Providence and beyond, all the way to the sanity-shattering non-Euclideian alleyways and towers of dread R'lyeh itself, in order to prevent an innocent shopping center from turning into...The Mall of Cthulhu.

The book is an entertaining read that hits all of the right plot points for a first novel in a series of comedic weird tale procedurals. The two main characters, Laura and Ted, are extremely likable and Cooper's writing has us empathizing with them as real people in relatively quick order. Especially engaging, for me, was Cooper's ability to convey just how mentally damaging slaying an entire pack of vampires might be -- particularly when the person doing the slaying is an everyday kind of guy. Laura is also affected by the night of mayhem. Nearly being turned into a vampire by someone she was attracted to has had lingering affects on her ability to form long term romantic relationships -- she has a hard time trusting the women she meets.

As a procedural, the story works its way through the mystery at a nice pace and we get to see how Ted's impulsiveness -- and laziness -- interacts with Laura's trained professionalism and adherence to routine. It makes for some nice narrative tension when Ted gets into trouble and Laura comes running to help. Is she too late? The only real problem with the underlying mystery is that it opens feeling like a grand conspiracy and ends as what feels like a few guys with a chip on their shoulder acting out. I understand that mass conspiracies are implausible and unsatisfying, but so is a small group who don't seem capable of some of the tricks they pull early in the plot. I didn't need a huge conspiracy, but one that was a little bigger would have been beneficial. With that small complaint, the book's procedural elements were interesting enough to keep the reader engaged.

The book has a good pace, likable characters, and is an entertaining procedural. it funny or does it fall into the trap of trying to hard to be funny? The short answer is both. At times Cooper has me laughing inside my head at one joke or another. It's pretty amusing to read about a character so disturbed by the mind numbing timelessness of R'lyeh that he begins kicking Cthulhu in the head in the hopes that the Old One will awaken. It's also funny reading about someone sitting in a dumpster, using a milk filled garbage bag as a pillow, while reading a version of the Necronomicon through the eyes of a character in a Sims-like video game. The book also avoids an over-abundance of puns. There are "easter eggs," to be sure, but Cooper refrains from making every other line of the book a pun.

The comedy does break down a little bit in three distinct ways.

First, there are both too many, and not enough, internet porn references in the book. Had Cooper used only a couple such references, they would have remained funny. Had Cooper tossed one out every couple of pages, they would have become funny again. Sadly, Cooper used them to the point where they lose comic value, without using them enough to where they become funny again -- though the foot fetish porn comment was in itself amusing.

Second, the commentary about Lovecraft's racism, and his "ambiguity," became tiresome. No one who has read any Lovecraft can walk away from his fiction without the strong feeling that Lovecraft had some peculiar ideas about race -- and likely eugenics -- but readers don't need to be reminded every chapter. Cooper attempted to use this conversation, as well as a couple of rough asides about role playing games, as witty banter -- banter that also served as an important connection between Lovecraft and the cultists -- but it gets a little over played. It might have seemed less overplayed if Cooper had included more specific examples of Lovecraft's racism by including quotes from stories where Lovecraft's racism really shines through. This is a place where it would have been nice to have been shown rather than told. Give the reader a couple of passages from Dunwich Horror and have your characters talk about how disturbing they were. The same can be said for the mocking of Lovecraft's use of "indescribable." Though it should be noted that Cooper does have a good comedic moment in R'yleh which is only made possible due to previous complaints regarding Lovecraft's prose. Once again, it would have been nice to get some more actual Lovecraftian passages. The purple prose might have been comedy enough all by itself.

Third, Seamus Cooper's attempts at political humor largely fall flat. The best political comedians skewer both those they agree with and those with whom they disagree fervently. Cooper's political jabs can be summed up as simply as Republicans underfund paranormal defense and Democrats fund it appropriately. Their was one gem of a joke where the post-94 Congress wanted to restrict a certain agency to using only "Biblical Based Defenses." Anyone who has read a Chick tract should get a good chuckle from that conversation, but by and large Cooper misses a couple of real opportunities for humor. For example, why wasn't Nancy Reagan's use of an Astrologer included? One can easily imagine a dozen jokes stemming from that concept alone.

What if Ronald Reagan, after he fired the striking Air Traffic Controllers, had the replacement military controllers have planes fly paths prescribed by the Astrologer? And what if those paths corresponded to a particularly dangerous summoning ritual? One could have a field day with that, as one could also have had a field day with Clinton needed a special anti-Succubus Secret Service Agent, or how Tipper Gore's anti-D&D statements in her book Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society led to some D&D obsessed "occultists" using a ritual they thought was fake against her? There is no limit to where these jokes could go.

Were I Cooper's editor, I would have had him unpack a lot of the political comments and have him transform them into more specific jokes. There's a lot of humor, on both sides of the aisle, to toss around and the book would have been better for it.

These complaints aside, The Mall of Cthulhu was exactly the book I needed when I read it. The book is an enjoyable and light-hearted yarn where underfunded, and under-powered, good guys have to fight against larger than life enemies -- including a hundred plus year-old sorority member vampire priestess named Bitsy.