Tag Archives: comedy

Secrets of Key and Peele

iu-3I started watching an episode of Key and Peele (Comedy Central, Wednesday, 10:30) recently.

Before long I got mesmerized by a movement between two things:

1. how good the performance is, how agile is their mastery of contemporary culture, how detailed and exacting is the performance. There’s apparently no place these two can’t go. And, in the old metaphor, they go not as tourists but as anthropologists.


2. the point of the skit.  It was funny. But not so funny that it rewarded the length to which K&P played it out.  Like every other viewer, I could see where the skit was going and now I was obliged to sit through the mechanical production of the joke.

The smaller problem is clear. Everyone gets the joke sooner than we used to.  A great river of content has run through us and we get good at consuming it.  So good that we can reverse engineer most anything and see where it is going.  But jokes especially in skit comedy come wrapped in a certain format. For practical reasons, and perhaps for cultural ones, they have to run for a certain duration.  In the old days, this was fine.  We were working hard to get the joke.  These days it feels like a trial.

The larger solution is, I think, is that tension between 1 and 2 with which we opened and that mesmerizing movement between them.  We need this movement and it works, possibly, because it takes us between two intellectual operations, mapping the joke and watching the performance.

Now it doesn’t matter how labored the joke is.  The “other half” of the skit, the cultural performance and passage, sustains us.  As does the movement between joke and performance which is just so interesting.

To say how and why the movement works so well you would have to be a cognitive psychologist or someone with ready access to a MRI. It’s something to do with the effects of a serial continuity.  Two things the run against one another but in parallel. Novelty interrupting continuity and vice versa.  Or something.

It’s a mystery. But an essential mystery, one that helps us see how culture works these days.

Fred Armisen and the mysteries of culture and creativity

Fred_ArmisenThis is a lovely puzzle.

Fred Armisen is very good at making comedy, on SNL and more recently on Portlandia.

But he can’t always tell what’s going to work.

Here he is in an Entertainment Weekly interview making the puzzle clear.

Sometimes you do [a sketch] that’s good on paper and all the elements are there, but for some reason when you watch it, you can see … it doesn’t make it. We did this one where we’re both ambulance drivers. […] It seemed like such a good idea on paper; we were so excited about it. But it just didn’t work. Things that seem clear to us in our mind, sometimes when they’re on the screen you’re like, ”What is happening? What am I looking at?”

This is very interesting anthropologically.  Most of the time, Armisen is right.  A sketch works as well in practice as it did in concept.  But every so often it just doesn’t work.  Actually, it fails so badly  Armisen  ends up asking, “What am I looking at.”  It seems pointless.  Dead.

A magic ingredient  is missing.  The ghost in the machine.  The god in the details.  The spirit in the sketch.  Or something.  And that’s the puzzle: what’s that something?

Photo courtesy of Tammy Lo http://www.flickr.com/photos/tammylo/240569810/

Inside Inside Comedy

You don’t go into comedy unless, really, it’s all about you.  Even if your comedy is about self loathing, it’s still about you.  

What comedians want is clapping, whistling, foot stomping approval. The room, if not the heavens, should ring with our admiration and gratitude.

So Inside Comedy (Showtime, Thursday, 11:00) had a problem.  Where to find someone who knew comedy from the “inside” but was not the captive of the comedian’s essential self regard.  

Popular culture is strewn with projects in which the comedian serves as interviewer only to ruin the occasion by butting in with their own observations or hunting down the funny.  (David Letterman has no clue how to conduct an interview despite 30 years of trying.  There is no more convincing demonstration of someone’s inability to learn on the job.)

Enter David Steinberg, the interviewer (and executive producer) on Inside Comedy.  Nancy deWolf Smith says:

Mr. Steinberg … is the ideal interviewer. He does not focus on himself but is exquisitely tuned in to his subjects, many of whom he knows well. This seems to have relaxed some of his guests to the point where they appear more natural, and less switched on—as entertaining as that can be—than they are with other interviewers.

Steinberg has a courtly quality, a fineness, a liquid intelligence, all of them made more generous by the evident conviction that comedy is not a zero sum enterprise.  He also has a curiosity that promises us genuine interest in the place of the paddle-ball approach that characterizes so much interviewing these days.  Inside Comedy should be good.  

See the full article by Nancy deWolf Smith, by clicking here.  

Popular Culture Goes All Anthropological

[In Dinner for Schmucks] Steve Carell earns his laughs not with wit […] but by investing all his faith and energy in deeply boneheaded convictions.  

The Steve Carell character is funny because he doesn’t "get it."  We can rely upon him to leap to the wrong conclusion.  He’s "often wrong but never in doubt."

There is something endearing about this guy.  We wish we were as sure of anything as he is of everything.  He may be a bull in the china shop of daily life, but he means so well we cannot fault him. 

There is something flattering too.  Because by this standard, we are all social virtuosos. We do get it.  By the Carell standard, each of us is a genius.  

But something more than intellectual slapstick going on.  When the Carell character [hereafter, Carell] gets it wrong, he makes a small piece of our culture materialize before our eyes. 

In Dinner for Schmucks, Carell states the obvious, "She’s talking to the lobster."  This is funny because a smarter person would know that the obvious "goes without saying."  

When Paul Rudd is accused by a ventriloquist’s dummy of looking down her dress, Carell asks, "Tim–were you?  God, don’t do that man."  We understand that this discipline of gaze, this new standard of male sensitivity, does not apply to an inanimate object, even an animated inanimate object.  But Carell doesn’t quite see this.  (The joke within the joke: is the dummy sufficiently animated that social rules do apply to her.  But of course it’s a mute question because, this is the still deeper joke, this is really just dummies in conversation.]

Carell doesn’t grasp what the rest of us take for granted.  In fact, he draws some of his humor from the fact that he is violating rules the rest of us obey but cannot see.  And in this respect he acts as a kind of dowser.  He can detect and to bring to the surface cultural rules otherwise invisible. 

The Paul Rudd character in I Love You, Man is almost the perfect opposite.  He couldn’t find cultural rules with both hands and a map, as they say.  The humor of this movie turns on the fact that the Paul Rudd character [hereafter, Rudd] doesn’t understand how to act like a guy.  Almost every male socialized in our culture gets "guyness."  Somehow Rudd just missed it.   

What a splendid piece of anthropology.  The movie acts of a catalog of the rules of maleness.  Which is a way of saying that Rudd ends up drawing his comedy from the same well as Carrel, from the violating of cultural rules that govern the rest of us invisibly.  

All comedy, with the possible exception of slap stick, toys with the expectations installed by culture.  This is why the Billy Crystal character in Mr. Saturday Night is always saying, "Do you see what I did there?"  He is asking the viewer to admire the intelligence with which he played a trick on our cultural expectations.  

But it seems to be that the rise of this school of comedy marks a shift of some kind.  I am not sure what to call this school.  We could use the names of its leading directors: Judd Apatow, Jay Roach, John Hamburg or its stars: Steve Carrel and Paul Rudd.  Or just call it culture comedy.  

But the question is this: why culture comedy now?  If I weren’t rushing to get to the airport and would have a go at it.  I would be your grateful for thoughts and comments.


Friend, Tad.  2010.  First Banana: Steve Carell and the metriculous art of spontaneity.  The New Yorker.  July 5.  pp. 50-59, p. 50.