Bob Schwartz

Category: Comedy

Saturday Night Political Comedy and Science Fiction

Manchurian Candidate

There were two moments of comedy from Saturday night politics, one spontaneous, one planned. And a weird science fiction scene in between.

Comedy. The chaotic opening of the Republican debate was described by Politico as a “train wreck.” But a really funny train wreck:

As Gov. Chris Christie walked out on stage, moderators David Muir and Martha Raddatz called out Dr. Ben Carson. A camera backstage showed Carson starting to walk out, but he stopped himself once he heard the moderators announce the next candidate, Ted Cruz.

Cruz walked out, and Carson stayed put as a stage manager tried to wave Carson on stage. He didn’t move. Donald Trump then walked up next to Carson as his name was called, but also stopped next to Carson.

Marco Rubio was called up next, walking past both Trump and Carson onto the stage, as did Jeb Bush. John Kasich initially didn’t make it out onto the stage at all.

The moderators thought they were done. “Ladies and gentlemen, the Republican candidates.”

But they weren’t. “Dr. Ben Carson, please come out on the stage. He’s standing there, as well. Dr. Carson.

“And Donald Trump,” they added.

Then Carson chimed in. “I can introduce Kasich?”

“Yes, yes, we’re going to introduce Ohio governor John Kasich,” the moderators said.

All that was missing from the botched introductions was the candidates colliding with each other and falling all over the stage. Keystone Cops style (that’s for you, Mitt Romney). This hilarious mess didn’t quite make the endless hours of blah blah that followed tolerable.

Then there was this bit of absolute weirdness at the debate:

Science fiction. Chris Christie attacked Marco Rubio for giving the same canned speech every time, no matter what the question. Rubio responded by giving the exact same speech he had just given. Later in the debate, Rubio did it again, word for word. And then again.

It was like a sci-fi movie where a robot is running for President and the mission is to push him to the point of meltdown. The only way we did know that Rubio was not a robot is that later on he began to sweat. Aha!

Or maybe it was like The Manchurian Candidate, where Christie would show Rubio the Queen of Diamonds from a deck of cards, and Rubio would walk off stage in a hypnotic trance.

Comedy. Bernie Sanders went on Saturday Night Live with his doppelganger Larry David. SNL concocted a bit in which Larry David was the captain of a Titanic-type ship that was sinking. The captain was trying to jump ahead of the women and children getting into the lifeboats. Bernie appeared on deck as a radical immigrant who had had “Enough! Enough!” of the privileged one-percent pushing ordinary people around. The happy ending is that the ship has hit not an iceberg but the Statue of Liberty. Bernie did a charming and self-effacing job of delivering his lines with comic gusto.

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Coming Out: How Cosmetic Surgery Is Like Being Gay

South Park - Tom Cruise

In case you haven’t noticed, the noise surrounding Renee Zellweger’s about face sounds just like the conversations we have about celebrities being gay: did she or didn’t she, is he or isn’t he?

There are three kinds of cosmetic surgery: the public kind that can be explained as the result of exercise and nutrition (body shaping and toning), the public kind that is hard to explain that way (obviously enhanced breasts), and the private kind that is (sort of) meant to be private (vagina rejuvenation, penis enhancement).

Questions about the public kinds can be met with a variety of replies, all of them valid:

Yes.
No.
No comment.
It’s none of your business.

This remarkably parallels the situation of those who are “suspected” of being gay. Sometimes it is made public, sometimes it is kept private, sometimes it is treated matter-of-factly: it is what it is, it’s my life, take it or leave it, so what?

Admitting to plastic surgery is in many contexts (including and especially entertainment) as delicate as admitting to being gay—even if the fact is relatively obvious. One of the many reasons the late Joan Rivers was so beloved, why what was obnoxious in others was endearing in her, is that the fact of her many plastic surgeries was a prime subject of her own bits. As with other topics, she just gave you the finger, laughed, and had you laughing too.

In the scheme of all but the tiniest matters, Renee Zellweger’s face is inconsequential. But as with all the tongue wagging about the sexual preferences of some celebrity, it exposes unanswered and mostly unspoken questions about how people feel about certain things. Many people still don’t know exactly what they think about major or minor voluntary body mod, any more than they may have totally resolved their deepest puzzlement about homosexuality, no matter how genuinely progressive and tolerant they are.

For better or worse, we are actually seeing a bit of that in the Renee Zellweger situation: along with an avalanche of typically mindless chatter, there has been some useful discussion about the nature of celebrity, privacy, aging, feminism, and health. It is unfortunate that this has to fall on a single individual’s shoulders, with so much collateral and gratuitous hurt. But if we are careful, we might just learn something, mostly about ourselves. How rare and valuable an opportunity is that?

Illustration: The obvious illustration for this post would be yet another photo of Renee Zellweger, which neither the world nor she need. Instead, above is a frame from South Park, the 2005 episode called Trapped in the Closet. It is widely considered the show’s most controversial episode, which is saying something. In it, the fearless and brilliant and culturally incorrect Parker and Stone managed to skewer (eviscerate?) both Scientology and the rumored homosexuality of Hollywood stars. In this scene, Tom Cruise won’t come out of the closet (where he will ultimately be joined by John Travolta). Nicole Kidman, his then-wife, is trying to talk him out. As I said, culturally incorrect, and probably intolerant and spiteful in light of all that’s written above. But it is funny, and not surprisingly, it is the equally fearless and funny Joan Rivers who also took on the very same subject. Laughing and thinking. What a combo.

Thanksgiving and Hanukkah in America: A History

Hanukkah in America
Hanukkah is getting lots more attention this year than it usually does, because it starts on Thanksgiving, rather than on or about Christmas.

This is nearly unprecedented. Of course there’s lots of controversy about just how rare it is, partly because Thanksgiving has officially moved from the last Thursday in November to the fourth Thursday, partly because the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, partly because of some esoterica of interest to extreme calendar freaks. Some say it won’t happen again for 70,000 years, others say it will never, ever happen again. If you happen to be around when it does, if it does, please e-mail, post, tweet, or whatever sort of advanced messaging will be used then to communicate with the curious but departed.

Thanksgivingukkah, or whatever other ridiculous and ear-hurting names people are coming up with, is second only to Black Friday as a cultural meme this week. We will be seeing lots of turkeys with Hanukkah candles stuck in them—actual ones, not just Photoshopped ones, at actual Thanksgiving tables, with plenty of videos to prove it. Might even see some turkey selfies. On the food front, we will have combined cuisines, where things not usually seen on the Thanksgiving table make an appearance, such as latkes and sour cream. (Note: I am promoting latke stuffing as the best of all possible hybrids.)

There’s a lot to talk about when Hanukkah and Christmas collide and coincide, theologically, historically and socially. Both involve charismatic Jewish religious leaders taking on tyranny—though one battles on the military and political front, while the other wields an entirely different set of weapons. As a central theme, both at some point take on the profaning of the Temple, in one case made unholy by soldiers, in the other made unholy by turning sacred space into a commercial enterprise. Both involve miracles and miraculous lights challenging the darkness. Not to mention that at the time of Jesus, Jews knew and marked the events of the Maccabee revolution, which had taken place less than two hundred years earlier.

Whether you are Jewish, or just newly fascinated by Hanukkah because it is for once not getting lost in the Christmas mishegas (“craziness” in Yiddish), have I got a book for you. Hanukkah in America: A History by Dianne Ashton is more than just a review of how American Jews regarded and celebrated this once-minor holiday. It is the definitive and delightful book about how Hanukkah evolved to become a laboratory for what it means to be a Jew in America, and for that matter what it means to be Americans of any kind.

Here’s something Ashton writes about Thanksgiving and the “deluxe Hanukkah turkey dinner”:

Many Jews combined food products available in America with recipes they deemed appropriate for Hanukkah meals. Even with a simple meal at home, immigrants could imagine a different Hanukkah past than the one in Eastern Europe. They could envision a personal bond with Judah Maccabee by selecting Carmel wine, which claimed to be “what the Maccabees drank.” Local food shops such as Goldman’s Tea and Coffee Store held special sales in honor of Sabbath Hanukkah. Jewish restaurateurs sometimes targeted immigrants’ desires for American foods at special occasions. Perhaps no food is so identified with America as the turkey, an animal native to North America and the featured dish of the Thanksgiving dinners that take place across the country only a few weeks before Hanukkah. When Gorfein’s, a kosher restaurant, advertised a deluxe Hanukkah turkey dinner in the Forverts, it apologized in print the next day to “hundreds [who had to be] turned away” because the restaurant “had no space or food left for them.” Gorfein’s offered the same dinner a second night.

My usual Hanukkah post, sometime around Christmas, ends with a mention of a wonderful Comedy Central special, A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All. Our comic saviors Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert perform the song Can I Interest You In Hanukkah? with Stewart making the case for the Jewish holiday:

Jon: Can I interest you in Hanukkah? Maybe something in a Festival of Lights. It’s a sensible alternative to Christmas. And it lasts for seven – for you – eight nights.
Stephen: Hanukkah huh? I’ve never really thought about it.
Jon: Well, you could do worse.
Stephen: Is it merry?
Jon: It’s kind of merry.
Stephen: Is it cheery?
Jon: It’s got some cheer.
Stephen: Is it jolly?
Jon: Look, I wouldn’t know from jolly. But it’s not my least unfavorite time of year.
Stephen: When’s it start?
Jon: The 25th.
Stephen: Of December?
Jon: Kislev.
Stephen: Which is when exactly?
Jon: I will check
Stephen: Are there presents?
Jon: Yes, indeed eight days of presents. Which means one nice one, then a week of dreck.
Stephen: Does Hanukkah commemorate events profound and holy? A king who came to save the world?
Jon: No, oil that burned quite slowly.
Stephen: Well, it sounds fantastic!
Jon: There’s more. We have latkes.
Stephen: What are they?
Jon: Potato pancakes. We have dreidels.
Stephen: What are they?
Jon: Wooden tops. We have candles.
Stephen: What are they?
Jon: THEY ARE CANDLES! And when we light them, oh the fun it never stops. What do you say, Stephen, do you want to give Hanukkah a try?
Stephen: I’m trying see me as a Jew. I’m trying even harder. But I believe in Jesus Christ
So it’s a real non-starter.
Jon: I can’t interest you in Hanukkah? Just a little bit?
Stephen: No thanks I’ll pass. I’ll keep Jesus, you keep your potato pancakes. But I hope that you enjoy ‘em on behalf of all of the goyim.
Jon: Be sure to tell the Pontiff, my people say “good yontif”.
Stephen: That’s exactly what I’ll do.
Both: Happy holidays, you
Jon: too!
Stephen: Jew!
Jon: Too?

That’s it for this holiday mashup. Read the book; it’s great. Celebrate religious freedom by eating too much food. Spin the turkey. Light the candles. But whatever you do, don’t smoke the turkey, because it is impossible to keep that thing lit.

Happy holidays. Be safe.

Preston Sturges on TCM Today

Preston Sturges

If you are quick, and have never seen any of the irreplaceable movies written and directed by Preston Sturges, Turner Classic Movies is devoting part of today to him. If you don’t manage to catch them there, and love movies, and can find the best of these elsewhere, find them and watch them.

As TCM describes his work

Featuring razor-sharp wit and astringent dialogue, writer-director Preston Sturges ranked as one of American cinema’s most gifted creative talents.

We take for granted the unified title of film writer-director, but seventy years ago, Sturges invented and perfected that role. He was Woody Allen before Woody Allen, and with all respect for what Allen has managed to do, none of his work is funnier or more biting than the best of Sturges. There were misses, but the best of Sturges includes three movies released in just two years, between 1941 and 1942. Here’s a summary from TCM:

Sturges went on to direct “The Lady Eve” (1941), a complex romantic comedy about a bumbling snake hunter (Henry Fonda) who becomes the prey of a cool, sexy con artist (Barbara Stanwyck). Fonda and Stanwyck enjoy a shipboard romance but he rejects her when he learns of her unsavory past, and in order to win her man, Stanwyck reinvents herself as a British noblewoman. In one of the most memorable set pieces in film, Stanwyck takes a moment on their honeymoon to regale her new husband with a list of every love affair she has ever had. As the scene progresses and Fonda’s jealousy increases, Sturges skillfully employs the soundtrack as a counterpoint; the train enters tunnels with its wheels clacking and whistles blowing, a storm develops and the score swells. Marvelously acted, “The Lady Eve” was a hit for Paramount and boosted the stock of all involved.

 

Paramount gave Sturges free rein with his next films, starting with perhaps his most personal, “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941), a satire that focused on a comedy film director (Joel McCrea) who wants to make more meaningful motion pictures. Determined to experience poverty firsthand, he sets off as a hobo with an aspiring actress (Veronica Lake) in tow. For a comic piece, “Sullivan’s Travels” had a dark undertone with the ultimate moral being that people don’t want to be reminded of their situations, they want escapism. As Sullivan says near the end of the picture, “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh.” The following year, Sturges wrote and directed “The Palm Beach Story” (1942), a satire on business and greed about a woman (Claudette Colbert) who leaves her inventor husband (McCrea) for a millionaire (Rudy Vallee). When the husband arrives in Florida, he is pursued by Vallee’s sister (Mary Astor) with unpredictable results. The film owed much to the French farces that once captivated a youthful Sturges.

If you see these movies, today or some other time, you won’t forget them, you will want to see them again, and you will wonder how you ever missed them. If you love comedy, and especially if you love comedy with witty language at its heart, and have been disappointed by those who say you “must” see this classic comic genius or other but come away thinking “boring”, “horribly dated” or “stupid”, these are for you. Brilliant, timeless, unforgettable. There was only one Preston Sturges.

Thank You Mask Man

Thank You Mask Man
The release of the new Lone Ranger movie is an opportunity to introduce some readers to Lenny Bruce, very nearly the most significant comic of the modern comedy era.

In the 1950s and early sixties, there was nothing that Bruce wouldn’t talk about—in language that you could hear anywhere except on stage or screen, in attitude that was mercilessly satirical and uncomfortable for a lot of people. Most of all, it was funny. It wasn’t that he didn’t care and was only doing it to be sensational. He did it because he cared painfully about hypocrisy and self-righteousness that ended up hurting people deeply (just like today). He held up a mirror, and if what people saw looked ridiculous and less than complimentary, he was just the observer.

He has been called the Elvis of stand up, and that applies in a few ways. First, he was a groundbreaking talent who did what others had not done before and made it wildly popular. Second, his work was controversial and resulted in reaction. In the case of Bruce, it was not only social or media reaction; it was legal. Elvis was never busted for his hip shaking. Third, each of them had certain personal demons that contributed to a sad and untimely demise.

Lenny Bruce continued the long tradition of telling truth to power in a funny way. In his later years, after numerous busts for obscenity, a certain bitterness colored his attempts at comedy, “attempts” because to be honest much of it wasn’t funny. But at his height, there was a sweet honesty that made his arguments hard to resist.

Thank You Mask Man is a comedy bit about the Lone Ranger. In 1968, it was made into an animated short, with Bruce’s routine as the soundtrack. The premise of the bit is that the Lone Ranger never stops to accept “thank yous” from the people he helps. When he finally does agree to enjoy appreciation, it turns out to be something the townspeople don’t expect. Be aware and warned: Bruce manages to work small-mindedness, homosexuality, and even religion into the goofy mix (i.e., we won’t need the Lone Ranger after the Messiah returns).

Enjoy Lenny Bruce and a Lone Ranger you’ve never seen before.