homeaboutarchives + tagsshopmembership!
aboutarchivesshopmembership!
aboutarchivesmembers!

kottke.org posts about comedy

An appreciation of Norm MacDonald’s comedy

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 15, 2017

In a new video, Evan Puschak explores the comedy of Norm MacDonald. Even if you don’t care for MacDonald’s work, you may come away from this with more respect for his comedy and craft. Me? I can’t even tell if MacDonald is funny anymore…I hear that deadpan-but-smiling voice and I just start to laugh in a purely Pavlovian way.

The web’s funniest stories

posted by Tim Carmody   Apr 20, 2017

I asked Kottke readers to tell me the funniest stories they’d ever read on the web.

Now let me say this: I like to think I have a pretty eclectic sense of humor. I can go high or low, folksy or surreal, G-rated puns or X-rated filth. But some of you… let’s just say a few of you surprised me with some of this. This is some seriously weird shit.

NOTE: To narrow things down, I knocked out anything that didn’t resemble a story. I knocked out videos and focused on text. People who suggested comedy specials on Netflix — I didn’t watch those. I eliminated anything that seemed downright stupid, mean, or just not funny. And I probably dropped a few other links here and there because I closed the tab instead of saving it, or some other reason. This isn’t a scientific survey; this is a blog.

There’s still something to be said about the kind of humor that the web makes possible, or at least rewards disproportionately to other kinds of media. There’s definitely more short-form, densely-referential bits that somehow fuse tweeness and gallows humor than you see on television, or even in magazines, which might be their nearest successor. Some savage blend of The New Yorker and underground zines.

It’s a little like what happened to television comedy after The Simpsons showed up. Animation opened up the possibility space for other kinds of comedy, found a way for the weirdest bits of Get Smart and Monty Python to exist in their own separate universe.

The web had a similar effect. You could write anything. You could do anything. No sets to build, no pages that had to be filled. You had endless reflections by comics on podcasts and interviews and their own blogs and social media feeds about what made the funniest things funny. There were all sorts of new media genres you could lampoon, pillory, and steal from on the sly. You had greater collisions than ever before of different people from all over the world and every walk of life who brought their own traditions of humor and storytelling. Amateur and up-and-coming jokesters desperate to connect with friends and strangers. And an audience chained to their desks or stuck on a train or a doctor’s office looking to laugh. That’s just good gumbo.

Best of Kottke: Groundhog Day Liveblog

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 02, 2017

It’s Groundhog Day — again. Once a year, our nation turns its eyes to an offbeat existential romantic comedy that thoroughly outperforms its sharpie-on-an-index-card premise, thanks to a brilliant collection of character actors, a thoroughly memorizable script, and the then-underrated, now-maybe-a-smidge-overrated acting talents of Bill Murray.

Four years ago, Jason hosted a 20th anniversary Groundhog Day liveblog with three of his regular guest editors: me, Sarah Pavis, and Aaron Cohen. It was a lot of fun. (I talked too much.)

Some of the questions we considered:

The answer to that last question is almost definitely yes.

The new rhetoric of television politics

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 31, 2017

Politics happens in (at least) three places:

These categories all bleed into each other and still leave a whole lot out, but for a quick and dirty chop-job of the universe, well, I’ve seen worse. (And done worse.)

It helps to focus on one but not forget about the others. Keep your head on a swivel, like my football coach used to say. And each sphere has its own grammar, its invisible rules.

Some of the best writing about the Trump regime has been on the second, imaginary sphere, by TV critics on the politics of media. You might think this is the easiest of the three to tell stories about, but the degree of difficulty is absurdly high if you aim to do more than just summarize or react to the thing we’ve all just seen. Help me see. Change my vocabulary. Show me how it works. Show me why it works.

Lili Loofbourow’s glossary of Kellyanne Conway’s rhetorical moves helps you see.

Concept scrabble

“Most Americans are very focused on what their tax returns will look like while President Trump is in office, not what his look like.”

Conway frequently takes the words from the question — tax returns, Trump, Americans — and recombines them. It gives the impression of straightforwardness. The question, you’ll recall, was how Trump will respond to a petition signed by 200,000 Americans demanding that he release his tax returns. Conway takes those concepts — “the people,” “tax return” — and reshuffles them in a way that a) denies the premise (the 200,000 Americans who signed that petition fall out of her framing — let me tell you what the people care about, she says), and b) removes Trump from the sentence as an agent called upon to respond.

Besides “concept scrabble,” there’s “faux frankness,” “impatience signaling,” “Cool girling,” “Agenda Mad Libs,” and more, all illustrated with examples.

Emily Nussbaum’s “How Jokes Won the Election” helps you see — in this case, how many of Trump’s outrageous statements during the campaign had the structure of jokes. A lot of people have made a lot hay out of the “seriously”/”literally” dichotomy breaking down, but Nussbaum focuses instead on how it limits your ability to react, especially when you’re the subject of the “joke”:

The political journalist Rebecca Traister described this phenomenon to me as “the finger trap.” You are placed loosely within the joke, which is so playful, so light—why protest? It’s only when you pull back—show that you’re hurt, or get angry, or try to argue that the joke is a lie, or, worse, deny that the joke is funny—that the joke tightens. If you object, you’re a censor. If you show pain, you’re a weakling. It’s a dynamic that goes back to the rude, rule-breaking Groucho Marx—destroyer of elites!—and Margaret Dumont, pop culture’s primal pearl-clutcher.

When Hillary described half of Trump’s followers as “deplorables,” she wasn’t wrong. But she’d walked right into the finger trap. Trump was the hot comic; Obama the cool one. Hillary had the skill to be hard-funny, too, when it was called for: she killed at the Al Smith charity dinner, in New York, while Trump bombed. It didn’t matter, though, because that was not the role she fit in the popular imagination. Trump might be thin-skinned and easily offended, a grifter C.E.O. on a literal golden throne. But Hillary matched the look and the feel of Margaret Dumont: the rich bitch, Nurse Ratched, the buzzkill, the no-fun mom, the one who shut the joke down.

Conway can float in and out of different modes than Clinton can, partly because she has different political talents, but partly because she’s under different rhetorical constraints. These things are all imaginary, yes — but they work.

Still, Conway can be wrongfooted, too — here’s Loofbourow again:

In thinking about how to transcend the Conway effect, it’s instructive to study the people who’ve effectively interviewed her. Seth Meyers turned out to be a master at it: Comedians have a lot of experience quickly analyzing and calling out behaviors and tricks in ways that scan as funny rather than aggressive…

Meyers took Conway’s statement — meant to discredit a press report — and took its interpretation away from her. In his hands, her statement became the terrifying story of a president-elect who couldn’t be bothered to read his own intelligence briefs, even when they were about him. And he did it by using a more complex version of Conway’s multifactorial rhetoric.

There are limits to what we can learn about politics from comedians and comedy tropes — most of the time, the battles over laws and bodies exceed anybody’s ability to turn a phrase. But this imaginative sphere, too, is all part of the bigger combat, and there are still so many things we can learn about how the fight is fought.

Patton Oswalt: “I’ll Never Be at 100 Percent Again”

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 27, 2016

The actor and comic Patton Oswalt lost his wife earlier this year to an unknown cause.

This was, Mr. Oswalt said, the second worst day of his life: “The worst is when I told my daughter the next day.”

He paused his rushing monologue, his voice lowering as he skipped over that awful memory to one from the next day, when Alice mentioned “Inside Out,” the Pixar film peopled with characters representing a girl’s emotional states. “I guess Sadness is doing her job right now,” she said.

Oh man, what a thing. How do you even deal with that? I’ve had some sad, low days over the past three years, but nothing compared to what Oswalt’s going through.

Update: Oswalt has been talking about his wife’s death and the aftermath in appearances and his updated stand-up material.

“If they would call it a numb slog instead of a healing journey, it would make it a lot fucking easier!” Oswalt said. “Because when they call it a healing journey and it’s just a day of you eating Wheat Thins for breakfast in your underwear, it’s like, ‘I guess I’m fucking up my healing journey.’ But if they would say you’re going to have a numb slog, instead you’d go, ‘I’m nailing it!’”

He went on to say that when he would sometimes tell his wife that “everything happens for a reason,” she would tell him, “No it doesn’t.” Ironically, he said, she ended up proving her point to him “in the shittiest way possible.” He added, “She won the argument in the worst way!”

(via @austinkleon)

Update: Oswalt writes about becoming a single parent after the death of his wife.

It feels like a walk-on character is being asked to carry an epic film after the star has been wiped from the screen. Imagine Frances McDormand dying in the first act of Fargo and her dim-bulb patrol partner — the one who can’t recognize dealer plates — has to bring William H. Macy to justice.

I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I want to tune out the world and hide under the covers and never leave my house again and send our daughter, Alice, off to live with her cousins in Chicago, because they won’t screw her up the way I know I will. Somebody help me! I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.

I could barely get through this piece without losing it. Every single fear and anxiety I have is now channelled through my parenting. If this is what it feels like for me — and I am lucky to have time away from it and an amazing parenting partner — I cannot imagine what this feels like for a truly single parent like Oswalt.

Update: Oswalt and actress Meredith Salenger have announced their engagement. Congratulations to them!

It’s a dark world

posted by Susannah Breslin   Dec 22, 2015

You may have seen “The Year in Pictures 2015,” but you should also check out how New York Times editors pick the best of the 150,000 photographs that come across their desks over the course of a year.

david-letterman.jpg

Q. The Times wants to publish Pictures of the Year, but for you individually, why do this?

Jeffrey: For me, it’s to look at the great work that’s been produced over the year. Because I work in Opinion I don’t look at as much of the news photography as Meaghan does as a front-page editor. But seeing the breadth of the work, like the migrant coverage, is very exciting, very rewarding. But at the same time, it can be a somewhat distressing task to go over the things that happened over the year. Because there are a lot of very brutal images that you don’t always want to be reminded of.

Meaghan: It’s a mixed bag in that way, because it’s really meant to be a celebration of skillfully made photography and enterprising and talented photographers. So on the one hand there is a joy to it. But on the other hand, there’s a lot of difficult material. We do try to look for a balance in the imagery that we’re selecting. But on the whole. …

Jeffrey: It’s a dark world.

(Photo credit: Damon Winter/The New York Times)

The end of Key and Peele

posted by Tim Carmody   Sep 10, 2015

Wesley Morris expertly examines the show’s achievements:

American television has always been fundamentally white. Its points of view emanate from the vantages of those who control the industry and create its content. If it deals with race as a problem, it typically can do so only if it believes there’s a solution. But as a black viewer, I’m never looking for contrition, simply an acknowledgement of a condition; I don’t need television — or American culture — to provide a remedy. Black America has tended to see the discrepancy between the cultural importance to diagnose and the delusion to attempt to cure. Merely giving a nonwhite person a speaking role is not absolution. That contradiction is visible to a black audience almost anytime it sees itself chauffeuring, housekeeping, mammying, best-friending, sidekicking, saying everything about white characters while saying nothing about itself. That was the biracial brilliance of Key and Peele. It understood race as real and racism as inevitable, and never lost sight of the way in which individual white people can be agents of change but also of offense, wittingly or not supporting a system of demoralization.

Kwame Opam discusses how the show lived and grew across the world wide web:

Key & Peele’s greatest strength and weakness was its format; as a sketch show, it’s best remembered for its bite-sized bits — most of which wound up online. “Substitute Teacher,” which first aired in 2012, is one of the show’s earliest highlights. It quickly went viral, and right it now boasts more than 80 million views on YouTube. Earlier this year, Paramount even announced it plans on turning it into a feature-length film. But the episode it premiered on only pulled in 1.16 million viewers at the time, a drop in the bucket compared to its online views. And it makes sense, especially for a huge swath of the population that doesn’t have cable. Why wait for the show when you can watch the best clips on the internet?

This is a complex but not unique irony: how a slice of pop culture in 2015 can be popular enough for the President himself to take notice (and embrace it), and to seem to have zeitgeist-defining properties, but not be quite popular enough to sustain a half hour in basic cable.

Maybe that’s tied to something Morris and Opam touch on but don’t quite name. More than any show on television, to my mind, Key and Peele felt young. Not young in the shallow way that all media, maybe especially television, seem to exploit young talent; not young in the same reckless, juvenile way Chappelle’s Show or vintage Saturday Night Live was; young in the open, searching, insouciant, absurdist key that’s so important to sketch comedy.

That’s what’s in the mix of what Morris rightly identifies as the show’s blend of sadness and acceptance. It’s youth knowing that this is not forever, that it would be wrong to linger, that the future (and everything good, bad, and unchanging that comes with it) is inevitable.

Roasting Richard Pryor

posted by Tim Carmody   Jul 31, 2014

Hi, everybody! Tim Carmody here, guest-hosting for Jason this week.

I love Richard Pryor. If you don’t know why, read Hilton Als’s 1999 profile of Pryor in The New Yorker right after you watch 1979’s Live In Concert. Everything Eddie Murphy did in the ’80s, Chris Rock did in the ’90s, Dave Chappelle did in the ’00s, or Louis CK’s done over the last decade is all there in Pryor. Stand-up comedy is a series of footnotes to Richard Pryor in the same way Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato.

But Pryor was uncompromising and self-destructive, a common combination to breakthrough talents but deadly to life, limbs, and careers. His 1977 television series was at least twenty-five years ahead of everything on TV (and it aired in prime-time on NBC) but was pulled from the air after Pryor refused to cooperate with the network’s changes. He filmed just four episodes.

For the last episode, Richard was roasted by the cast of the show and a few special guests. The roasters include a very young Robin Williams and Sandra Bernhardt, longtime Pryor collaborator Paul Mooney, and very funny performances by Tim Reid (Venus Flytrap from WKRP in Cincinatti) and a young and frankly stunning Marsha Warfield (Roz from Night Court).

The unedited roast was never broadcast, for reasons that’ll be obvious. It’s raucous but more or less clean until Richard gets up to respond and lays them the fuck out. It is glorious.

Do not step to Richard Pryor. He takes it straight to eleven. And you love him anyway.

Louis C.K. on testing the limits

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 06, 2014

Louis C.K. sat down with Jonah Weiner for an extended interview where he discusses learning how to fix cars, tell jokes, fry chicken, and more. (Seriously, Medium is milking that whole time spent reading thing now.) He also gives some clues as to what he seems to be up to in the current season of Louie:

JW: You’ve talked about how you’ve had to explain moral lessons to your daughters, but do it in a catchy way. It’s almost as though you’re writing material for them. What’s the place of morality and ethics in your comedy?

I think those are questions people live with all the time, and I think there’s a lazy not answering of them now, everyone sheepishly goes, “Oh, I’m just not doing it, I’m not doing the right thing.” There are people that really live by doing the right thing, but I don’t know what that is, I’m really curious about that. I’m really curious about what people think they’re doing when they’re doing something evil, casually. I think it’s really interesting, that we benefit from suffering so much, and we excuse ourselves from it. I think that’s really interesting, I think it’s a profound human question…

I think it’s really interesting to test what people think is right or wrong, and I can do that in both directions, so sometimes it’s in defense of the common person against the rich that think they’re entitled to this shit, but also the idea that everybody has to get handouts and do whatever they want so that there’s not supposed to be any struggle in life is also a lot of horseshit. Everything that people say is testable.

At the LA Review of Books, Lili Loofbourow has a good essay about Louie’s abrupt shifts in perspective, in the context of its recent rape-y episodes. There’s Louie the dad, who garners sympathy and acts as a cover/hedge/foil to Louie’s darker impulses. There’s standup Louie, who acts as a commentary and counterpoint to dramedy Louie… except when he doesn’t, and the two characters blur and flip.

Louie is — despite its dick-joke dressing — a profoundly ethical show… Louie is sketching out the psychology of an abuser by making us recognize abuse in someone we love. Someone thoughtful and shy, raising daughters of his own, doing his best. Someone totally cognizant of the issues that make him susceptible to the misogyny monster. Someone who thinks hard about women and men and still gets it badly wrong.

I had to stop watching Louie after Season 1. I raced greedily through those episodes, enjoying the dumb jokes and the sophisticated storytelling, and telling my friends, “this is like looking at my life in ten years.” Then my wife and I separated and that joke wasn’t funny any more, if it ever was. The things in Louie that are supposed to indicate the cracks in the fourth wall — the African-American ex-wife and the seemingly white children — are actually true in my life. His character is more like me than his creator is (except Louie has more money). No haha, you’re both redheads with beards. It’s an honest-to-goodness uncanny valley. I had to walk away.

At the same time, I feel like I understand Louis C.K., the comedian/filmmaker, better now than I did three years ago. If you read that interview, you see someone who’s more successful now than he’s ever been, who knows he’s good at what he does, but who’s never been certain that anyone’s ever loved him or if he’s ever been worthy of love.

Now America loves Louis C.K. and hangs on his every word: on gadgets, on tests in school, on what’s worth caring about. How can he not want to test those limits? How can he not want to punish his audience for caring about a character based on him that he doesn’t even like very much?

Dangerously Delicious

posted by Aaron Cohen   Mar 23, 2012

Aziz Ansari has released his latest comedy special as a $5 direct download from his website. I love this model. Love it. Love it. The $5 price point is so cheap. You can’t get anything for $5 anymore. How do you suppose this fits into the constant GIVEMEMYGAMEOFTHRONESSOIDONTHAVETOPIRATEIT discussion? A discussion which boils down mostly to, IDONTLIKEHOWMUCHITCOSTS. (I didn’t realize how much of a zealot I was about this until I was typing in call caps.)

Anyway, good on Aziz for making his special so affordable. Aziz and Louis CK are the Fugazi of comedians.

In support of the release, Ansari was on Reddit for an IAmA.

Personally, I bought the special because a Die Hard reboot with Aziz in the lead would mean a lot to me.

GQ: So you’re not planning on releasing a Fast and the Furious-type action movie like this?
Aziz Ansari: That would be great. It would be great if this was so successful that I could make the money to buy the rights to Die Hard and then reboot it with me in the lead role. That would be tremendous. If enough people buy this, maybe we can do that next.

Here’s the preview of the special, which you might want to watch with headphones if you’re at work.

Comic David Cross replies to Larry the

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 16, 2007

Comic David Cross replies to Larry the Cable Guy’s criticism in an open letter.

As for being a multi-millionaire in disguise, that’s just merely a matter of personal taste for me. I do not begrudge you your money at all, it is sincerely hard earned and you deserve whatever people want to give to you. What sticks in my craw about that stuff is the blatant and (again, personal taste) gross marketing and selling of this bullshit character to your beloved fans. Now look, if someone wants to pay top dollar to come to one of your shows and then drop a couple hundred more on “Git-R-Done” lighters and hats and t-shirts and windshield stickers and trailer hitches and beer koozies and fishing hats and shot glasses etc, then good for you. I just think it’s a little crass and belies the “good ole boy” blue collar thing you represent.

Comedian Aries Spears does awesome impressions of

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 10, 2006

Comedian Aries Spears does awesome impressions of LL Cool J, Snoop Dogg, DMX, and Jay-Z. Here’s a shorter bit of him doing Michael Jordan and Shaq. (via zach)

Profile of comedian Sarah Silverman, who tells

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 18, 2005

Profile of comedian Sarah Silverman, who tells the most uncomfortable jokes around.

I must be living in a cave

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 17, 2005

I must be living in a cave because I hadn’t really heard of the Daily Show’s America the Book (more here) before today’s presentation by Paula Scher and Ben Karlin.

Remembering Phil Hartman

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 08, 2005

Remembering Phil Hartman. The Sinatra Group is probably one of my top five favorite SNL skits ever.

The Ride is dead

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 04, 1998

Ladies and gentlemen, The Ride™ is dead. Let’s all observe a moment of silence.

 
What is The Ride, you ask? The Ride was my 1981 Pontiac Bonneville…quite possibly the longest car ever to roll off of the production line. It was huge and a huge crowd favorite. Kids and adults alike came from miles around just to take a ride in it. It brought people together. It loved us all.

But The Ride got too unreliable. Finicky fuel pump. 1 quart of oil every 100 miles. Inoperative gas gauge. One missing “bright” headlamp. No dome light. Missing rearview mirrow. Flat spare tire. Idled too fast. Wouldn’t run right in traffic or when it was hot. “Check engine” light on all the time. Clock didn’t work and displayed 12:00 when the blinker was on. Clock also displayed 12:00 when the bass was loud on the radio. Leaked power steering fluid. Radio tuner knob inoperable. Broken air conditioning. Among other things.

So it was time to get something else. My “new” car is a 1990 Nissan Sentra, formerly (and solely) owned by a minister. It’s not spectacular, but it works well and it’s mine.