Tag Archives: Comedy

Last Week Tonight With John Oliver

lastweektonightI want to plug a TV show. You should be watching Last Week Tonight With John Oliver. If you keep up with the news in any form or fashion, I implore you to seek out this show. It’s a show hosted by John Oliver that recaps the big news stories from the previous week with a humorous bent. I hate to compare it to The Daily Show With John Stewart or The Colbert Report, as such a comparison would immediately turn away half the country. The only real similarity is that it is a news show with jokes. Not a parody news show with fake journalists like The Daily Show or a satirical news show with an overblown, infallible conservative host like The Colbert Report, but just a straight news show with jokes.

What makes this show very different from those is that this show uses facts to discuss broken institutions and controversial issues that are rarely or never discussed in a popular forum. For example, since it began airing in April of this year, top stories featured in the show have included the Indian general election, capital punishment, the General Motors recall controversy, net neutrality, FIFA, LGBT rights in Uganda, Dr. Oz and the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, income equality, incarceration in the United States, payday loans in the United States, the militarization of police in the United States, Scottish independence, the Miss America pageant, sugar and the United States food industry, state legislatures in the United States, and state lotteries within the United States.

This is only a handful of the stories they’ve run. They are all incredibly thought-provoking and force me to wrestle with issues and concepts about which I know next to nothing. For example, I didn’t have a clue what civil forfeiture was before they ran a segment on it. Scary stuff. Scary enough pique my interest in researching it. Same with Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the landmark Supreme Court case ruled upon earlier this year.

Oliver and his research and writing staff are not concerned with skewering one party; rather with shedding light on controversial issues and the people who are involved. For this reason alone, I would highly encourage you to watch the show if you can, or at least watch the segments you can find online. They post most of their segments on their YouTube channel.

I also want to make very clear: while this show is incredibly informative on a wide variety of global and domestic issues, it is also an absolutely hilarious show. Jokes on jokes on jokes, and Oliver has a very unique, slightly Americanized British delivery that helps these jokes lands. The great thing is that he can take a seemingly serious issue and pull out the rug from under it, exposing the often ridiculous nature of these institutions. It makes for very funny television. Please refer to the final video I post below for proof.

As a slight disclaimer for those with more sensitive tastes (basically my mom), the show does air on HBO. This has two major implications.

First, and far less important, the censorship normally associated with broadcast or cable television is nonexistent here. However, if you watch on YouTube, some (not all) of the segments have language bleeped and any incidental nudity (a bare butt or whatever from a third party news clip) blurred (at least I think so on the nudity, I’m not 100% sure).

Second, and far more important, Oliver and his team only have to answer to HBO in terms of content. The lack of censorship from the last point kind of comes into play here as well; since they don’t have corporate sponsors who buy ad time, they don’t have to filter their content to adhere to those companies’ demands. They really only have to answer to HBO, who certainly have seemed to give them free reign on whatever they want to air.

Another very interesting aspect of this show is that it has a much more global perspective than is common in news directed at 20-somethings. Like I previously listed, the main story on the premiere episode to air was about the general election in India. This is a story with an inherent click-away-ability in our culture of frighteningly short attention spans. If I saw Brian Williams start to report on this story, I’d almost immediately get bored and turn the channel. Yet, Oliver and his staff make stories like these compelling and educational.

Here is the segment on the India general election (warning: some strong language).

Here is my one beef with the show: I wish they sourced their research more. From what I gather, most research is done through consuming other media shows and news outlets. Most of the clips shown that provide information on a topic come from other news shows. The way the show is laid out inherently makes my brain ready to accept what I hear as fact, much more than Stewart’s or Colbert’s shows do. But John Oliver has made explicitly clear in this interview that he considers his show a comedy program, not a news program. His team does their due diligence and fact checking, but at the end of the day, don’t get your news from just this show.

However, if nothing else, watching the show might give you a new perspective on an issue you think you know backwards and forwards. The best thing about a new perspective is that it helps you understand your own perspective even better. So if you don’t know much about politics or find yourself fed up with our current system (and honestly, who is happy with the state of politics in this country), this show will discuss issues you probably don’t know much about but will challenge your critical thinking skills. And if you’re one of those hardline lefties or righties who will go to their grave before changing their political stance on an issue, wouldn’t it wise to try and understand that stance to the very best of your ability? This show will help you do that.

Here are the links to just a few of my favorite segments the show has done, along with an interesting NY Times piece on John Oliver himself and the show:

Dr. Oz and nutritional supplements:

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby:

Net Neutrality:

Supreme Court with animals:

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Bossypants

I just finished Tina Fey’s autobiographical book Bossypants in approximately five hours. Not an exaggeration, and this is really just a credit to Fey’s ability to write in a way that makes you feel like you’re watching TV.

I implore you to read this book. Or at least listen to it, as she narrates the audio version. While I did not have that that luxury, I still heard Tina Fey’s voice in my head nearly the entire time. It’s incredible how much of a comedy voice she’s created. On early 2000s episodes of Saturday Night Live on Vh1, you can often tell which sketches were her brainchildren. Her show 30 Rock (which, seriously, if you haven’t heard of or seen, please go to your local public library, check the first season out, and watch every episode leading to episode 10, “The Rural Juror.” If you haven’t gained new abdominal muscle from laughing, feel free to return the DVDs and catch up on all the Big Bang Theory episodes you missed in the meantime.) is a masterpiece. You can even feel her presence in shows affected by her, like when Amy Poehler does something Tina Fey-ish on Parks and Recreation. She has made her mark on modern comedy and its a stamp that reads “Farts.”

I have declared 30 Rock the funniest show currently on TV multiple times, and while it might not hold that title today, it certainly is one of the Top 5. The early seasons are the perfect mix of situational comedy mixed with a heavy amount of meta, totally off the wall zaniness. The character of Dr. Spaceman could exist in no other show than 30 Rock. Her comedy is so sharp, but sharpest towards herself. I don’t mind that she mildly injects her own worldview into her writing, because when she does, it’s within the context of a joke while I’m already laughing at the joke she just finished. She doesn’t write in an overhanded way. This book doesn’t come across as agenda-pushing, but rather as a slight self-defense against the naysayers who rail against her without hearing her at all. The Palin supporters who said she was far too mean to Palin and her family (hardly), the Andy Samberg supporters (mostly kids between 17-22) who think she ruined SNL after Will Ferrell left, anyone who thinks women aren’t as funny as men. As previously stated, she doesn’t push agendas, she simply lays out her thoughts on a host of different topics based on her own life experiences. Which is really as much as any human can do. I’d rather hear someone’s opinion on a hot-button topic because they’ve been personally affected by it (an active-duty soldier’s thoughts on the War on Terror, a cancer survivor’s thoughts on stem-cell research, etc.) than someone who stands from the outside and loudmouths their views on something they know nothing about. Is Tina Fey a war veteran or cancer survivor? No way, and she doesn’t speak on those topics. She does speak a lot about sexism in mainstream culture, which is interesting to hear because she has coherent and well-crafted thoughts on the subject. And she ruminates in a way that allows makes the reader feel involved rather than talked at. Rare in our current culture of spouting foam at the mouth and calling it conviction or opinion or free speech.

First and foremost though, this is a comedy book. She writes about her life in a hilarious way. So let’s get to some jokey excerpts.

“In the “Great American Melting Pot,” rural Ohio may be a lump of white flour that hasn’t been stirred properly.”

“In my experience, the hardest thing about having someone “come out” to you is the “pretending to be surprised” part. You want him to feel like what he’s telling you is Big. It’s like, if somebody tells you they’re pregnant, you don’t say, “I did notice you’ve been eating like a hog lately.” Your gay friend has obviously made a big decision to say the words out loud. You don’t want him to realize that everybody’s known this since he was ten and he wanted to be Bert Lahr for Halloween. Not the Cowardly Lion, but Bert Lahr. “Oh, my gosh, no waaaay?” You stall, trying to think of something more substantial to say. “Is everyone, like, freaking out? What a … wow.”” (I hope to make a hilarious and intelligent Bert Lahr reference one day.)

“The guy in charge of the residence was a big doughy bald guy whose last name had more consonants in it than I have in this book.” (She later refers to the man as Mr. Mczrkskczk.)

(Fey includes the script writings of some of her favorite 30 Rock jokes) “Dr. Spaceman enters from I.C.U. His lab coat is covered in blood. The women all gasp. DR. SPACEMAN: What, this? No, no, I was at a costume party earlier this evening…and the hostess’s dog attacked me so I had to stab it.”

“One of my greatest regrets, other than being the Zodiac Killer never learning to tango…”

(Fey is writing about retiring her Palin impression on SNL) “Watching Amy rap made me so happy that she had found a way to make real comedy out of a Sneaker Upper. The virtuosity and joyfulness of her performance made me feel like it was time for me to hand this job back to the professionals. I felt like that character in Flowers for Algernon. Not Charlie, the lady teacher from the college who realizes, “I’ve got to stop dry-humping this mentally challenged guy!””

I didn’t even include the joke I laughed hardest at. So please, read this book. And watch her shows. We need more Tina Feys in television today. Blurg.

-Jon

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out with the old, in with the old.

conan o’brien wrapped up the final episode of late night with conan o’brien back in march. i’m not sure why, but leading up to that show i had been actually kind of sad thinking about conan packing up and taking the reigns of the tonight show. conan had been hosting late night for 16 years now, which is actually pretty incredible if you think about it. the first year or so of the show was reamed by critics and fans alike, and subsequently has become the funniest late night talk show on television and for my money, the funniest show on television period (that’s right office writers, you really have dropped the ball).


i guess it made me kind of sad thinking about his move because while i didn’t watch him growing up, i started watching him all the time when i was in 8th grade and all through high school. along with jim carrey in dumb and dumber, conan was the most influential person when i was developing my own sense of funny. the guy just did and said things that always made me laugh. he was very self-depricating, but not in a “pity me”-woody allen type of way. he made fun of himself all the time, yet always laughed at the jokes he made at his expense because he knew they were funny. that’s a subtle but important distinction that resonated with me very strongly. and he not only made jokes about himself, but jokes about the quality of the show, sketches, props, special effects, ridiculous audience members, inappropriate guests, etc. nothing was really off limits, but he was always respectful. his jokes were never truly mean-spirited, in his monologues, after making a completely inappropriate joke about whatever, the audience would usually laugh/make a “ohhhh” sound and he would make this hilarious face where he tensed up because he knew what he said was too much. he knew it was a joke and that face was part of the delivery but i always found it just very funny.

jay leno is also no longer the host of the tonight show. his last show was very nice; a fitting tribute to end his seventeen years as host. leno has always been kind of a tough cookie for me; i’ve never wanted to like him all that much but i’ve always enjoyed watching his show. he was never really loved by the critics or even by carson it seems. letterman was always thought of as the true successor of the tonight show and was generally treated better by critics than leno was. but leno has always been more popular with the american public, and kept the tonight show the number one rated late night show on tv. i think it comes back to his personality. his jokes were never grade A, usually landing in the cheese pile. but he was a nice guy. everybody always talks about how you could have a beer with jay. he didn’t “get” twitter, just like most every american over the age of forty-five. part of it for me is that while his jokes might be too accessible or not very intelligent, he always seemed to know exactly that and just went with it and enjoyed getting easy, silly laughs. he reminded me of my dad in that way. he was always ready with the old rim-shot punch line and was pleased whether he got a big laugh or a groan and a roll of the eyes. and that’s why he was successful. because people gravitate to kindness. to sincerity. and jay delivered that. he didn’t deliver high-brow comedy, but he delivered a lot of silly jokes and a bit of escapism.

jay’s last show was surprisingly sweet. he had the obligatory best of jaywalking sketch, and then had conan on as a guest, which was very gentlemanly of him, considering conan was taking over in two days. james taylor was jay’s handpicked musical guest, playing sweet baby james, the song jay heard on his way out of boston nearly forty years ago on his way to hollywood to try to make it in show business. and then his sign off. very sweet, very leno. he introduced all the kids that had been born from couples who had met each other working on leno’s tonight show, sixty-eight total, from age zero to seventeen. it was a really nice sentiment to end his last show. and it was sad too. the same type of sad conan’s goodbye on late night was in march, not completely sad because he’s not gonna be gone for long. but still sad. a lot of people my parents’ age kind of see this as the end of an era since leno was really the only guy they liked. hopefully they give conan a chance.

if nothing else, he’ll be treated better and given more slack than he was when he took over late night in ’93. conan’s evolution since ’93 is really incredible. he started as a nervous, seemingly unfunny host who had just gotten the gig because he had connections with lorne michaels, producer of most of the funny stuff on nbc and a pretty big power player at the network. conan had been a writer on snl at the tail end of the ’80s and had started writing for the simpsons during the best seasons of that show (3rd-4th). having known him from his snl days, michaels gave conan a shot once letterman announced he was leaving late night and boy did it not go over well. nobody had ever heard of this guy conan. he had never been on tv. he seemed awkward and unsure of himself. his first episode of late night was posted somewhere online a few months ago and i watched the first little bit of it. holy cow it is uncomfortable to watch. conan so very clearly isn’t sure how to perform on tv, he’s really nervous, and expresses that anxiousness through a lot of laughter. too much laughter. but it’s understandable, the guy was an unknown taking over for fan favorite letterman. but seeing that first episode’s awkward laughter and too-slow comedic pacing, it is a wonder to tune in now and see conan do his thing on late night. he owns it. he is perfect. he has become a true performer. he knows how to handle the crowd and make them laugh, he knows how to handle slip-ups in the show, he knows how to appear cool and very relaxed in his role as host. in 16 years he became the perfect host.

he belongs as host of the tonight show. i’m so intrigued to see how he fits into this new role. everything i’ve heard is “conan’s gonna have to grow up to make it on the tonight show” but on his last show of late night, he promised he wasn’t going to. reading interviews/articles about his new show recently though, i think that he knows he will have to reformat his unique brand of comedy just enough to keep the older viewers laughing along with the young kids. i don’t think it will be too much though. i think he’s almost got more freedom now if anything to do things with his comedy he hasn’t been able to before. on leno’s last show they showed a clip of a bit where conan has an academy award-winning makeup artist turn him into a completely different person and he hosts a focus group of old people watching clips of conan on late night to see how the older crowd likes him. i’m not sure what it was about it but right away it just felt like a little bit different kind of sketch than he would ever have done on late night. and it made me so excited to see what he’s got in store for the tonight show.

watching conan walk out onto the tonight show stage after being introduced by jay, hearing the crowd cheer for him, hearing the tonight show band playing conan’s theme song, the whole thing made me swell up with pride. conan is my tv hero. he was really gaining popularity as i started to watch him back around 2000 or 2001, and probably more than anything in the last ten years, conan has influenced my humor. it’s incredible too, because i haven’t even noticed it until the last year or so. conan’s comedy was so subtle in sneaking into my subconscious; his bits were just hilarious to me, the way he would mock his hair or his complexion or height, the immediate rapport he had with guests of all types, just from being a good conversationalist. all of this worked it’s way into my personality and has influenced me in big, big ways. and seeing him on leno’s last show was just great. i hadn’t seen conan do anything since his own last show last march, except for watching old late night sketches over getting amped for conan’s tonight show, and seeing him again do anything on tv was just so exciting. he really is the funniest real guy on tv. he knows how to talk to people, famous or non, he knows how to ask questions, he knows how to go with the flow when things don’t go exactly as scripted, he knows how to make people laugh, he knows how to make fun of himself, he knows how to make fun of others, he is extraordinarily good at improv, he will do just great as the host of the new tonight show. conan o’brien, i can’t wait. you are ushering me into my adult life. thanks.

-jon

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live from new york, it’s a crappy show.

there are two “golden eras” of saturday night live that are generally recognized as the highest points of the show’s history. the first was early on after the show started, when the cast consisted of john belushi, dan aakroyd, jane curtain, chevy chase, bill murray, among others, along with consistent guest spots by steve martin and andy kaufman (even though he’s very often connected with the early years of the show, martin was never actually a cast member). popular sketches from this time were the blues brothers, most of what steve martin was a part of, and weekend update. weekend update really took hold around this time along with a new form of presidential parody not before seen on primetime tv.

the second golden era of the show came at the tail end of the 80s and on into the 90s. the cast consisted of, for my generation, the greats. adam sandler, chris farley, david spade, dana carvey, mike myers, and had writers such as conan o’brien and robert smigel (the man behind the tv funhouse shorts, such as ambiguously gay duo, and the voice of triumph the insult comic dog). this was absolutely one of the highest of the show’s highs. the sketches the writers were coming up with were so funny and they had the strongest cast to really hit them out of the park. conan left snl to write on the simpsons while smigel went and wrote for dana carvey’s next project, the dana carvey show, both of which were critically acclaimed. the seasons of the simpsons with conan as a writer are generally regarded as some of the shows best seasons, and the dana carvey show was also critically acclaimed, and even though it lasted for one season, it featured the early tv work of stephen colbert and steve carrell, along with the writing talents of smigel and stand-up louis c.k. it just goes to show how important writers are for snl, and really for any comedy show. the cast of the 80s/90s decade turn was a phenomenal cast, but without a solid set of writers they wouldn’t have had anything good to work with.

and that’s why snl is suffering now. if you look at the cast, it’s really consistent. bill hader, jason sudeikis, seth myers, fred armisen, will forte are all extremely funny men. every interview that hader, sudeikis, myers, or forte had on late night with conan o’brien was very funny, and they are all really funny in most of the movies they show up in. and kristin wiig is possibly the funniest woman on television, at least until amy poehler premieres her new nbc comedy “parks and recreation”. wiig has some of the funniest characters on snl right now, including the target lady, penelope, judy grimes, and part of the duo the a-holes. she also does hilarious impressions, which in the last few months have included bjork, barbie, and my absolute favorite, kathie lee gifford on the today show. plus she’s super pretty. so the cast is strong.

here’s where the show runs off the rails for me. andy samberg and his comedy group the lonely island, which is him, akiva schaffer, and jorma taccone. samberg is a regular cast member on snl, and all three of them are writers for the show, and in the last season or two the show has taken a very clear turn towards the type of humor that these three are famous for. they started by making crappy low-budget tv episodes and directing music videos for themselves and now they’re doing that on snl. they do almost all of the digital shorts as far as i know, and the whole show is infested with their brand of “zany”, off the wall humor. i quote zany because it’s the type of humor that crappy people would call “random.” my friend owen and i were talking about this the other day, that for awhile, in the last few years, the words “random” and “awkward” have become SO overused because they are now associated with humor. jr. highers started saying things like “the office is such a funny show because it’s just so awkward!” no. the american version is not awkward. it’s funny because of the relationships on the show and socially inappropriate behavior. the british version was absolutely awkward, and so few people in america would like it nearly as much as the american version. we can’t stand subtle, and the american version is nowhere near as subtle as the british. another word that caught on fire was “random”. “oh gosh how random is that that demetri martin labels all of his props!” that’s the kind of “zany”, or “random” humor that can be attributed to the lonely island. one perfect example of this from their pre-snl days is the “we like sportz” video. it’s just schaffer and taccone in a song about how they like sports. and man is it stupid. in no way do i find it at all funny. they are good at making crappy music on like 16-track recorders and writing stupid words that rhyme. the zaniness i was talking about is the stuff like spelling words “sports” and “nuts” with z’s, or “sux” instead of sucks. they play these stupid characters who look uncomfortable on camera, yeah that’s how they’re supposed to look but it’s just not funny. i don’t get why all of america thinks these guys are great.

this has only gone from bad to worse. samberg got on the map with “lazy sunday”, probably the only video i’ve ever seen of his or the lonely island that i thought was funny at all. you can still see some of their “random” humor getting in here though, like “double true” being spelled in all different colors. how is that funny? since lazy sunday it’s only gone from bad to worse. some of the worst i’ve seen are the digital shorts like “people getting punched”, “andy popping into frame.” please people. none of this is funny or original. it’s brainless. it’s insulting to watch because they have no respect for their audience. people getting punched is a long video of samberg running around and punching people before they bite into food with some crappy lonely island-produced song playing over it. then samberg does a stupid dance after he punches somebody. how is that humorous? andy popping into frame is almost worse, again a long video of NOTHING but empty shots of scenery around new york with samberg popping his face into the frame and smiling. not funny. pointless. comedy comes from jokes, from wit or irony or sarcasm. this is none of those things. this is an asanine waste of film.

one of the things that i dislike about samberg especially is the obvious fact that he and his comedy buddy writers seem to think that he has a funny looking face. he doesn’t. the faces that he makes are NEVER funny. he just looks like one of those douchebag juniors in college who think they should be in standup because they can make their bar buddies laugh. his faces are not funny, which adds to my hatred for the andy popping into frame sketch.

ok so how about the recent, hugely popular sketches lonely island have done like “jizz in my pants” or “i’m on a boat”. for some reason these are insanely popular on youtube and the like. now i will concede, i somewhat see the humor in lampooning these ridiculous genres of music. but at the same time, the lonely island guys seem to be doing it less with a sense of “this is actually ridiculous” and more with a wink/nudge “how funny are we that we are doing this, right?” it feels arrogant to me. my biggest beef with the jizz in my pants video is that so much of the comedy in this sketch is supposed to come from the faces the samberg and taccone make but again, samberg does NOT have a funny face and taccone’s is nothing to write home about. also, justin timberlake WHY are you in this video? no point other than for face time. obnoxious. and the i’m on a boat video is funny, “because they actually got t-pain to do it right?!!” no. that simultaneously makes your video kind of smart but more stupid because first of all, to lampoon something as ridiculous as that kind of rap music only works if you can have someone like t-pain help you out, so it’s kind of smart, but it defeats the purpose because it shows they are actually fans of t-pain and his music. so it’s moot. no point to it. and t-pain sucks. and the song sucks. and just the idea isn’t funny to me. i feel like so many people think it’s great because “nobody has thought to do something like this yet and make fun of these self-indulgent rappers like this yet!!” but if you spend any amount of time actually analyzing the current state of rap music and realize that THIS is the kind of music that is popular with our culture, the genre is unintentionally self-parodying in its nature. to watch any music video by the yin yang twins or lil wayne (if kanye’s not careful he’s gonna find himself on this list too) or any of these ridiculous rappers or listen/read an interview by them or just listen to their music, it is SO ridiculous that it doesn’t NEED to be parodied. it blows me away that somebody can’t listen to their music and not see how incredibly absurd it is. the satire of the lonely island towards this genre is completely unnecessary and that’s why it’s not funny to me.

so that’s why watching snl isn’t fun to me right now. maybe in a few years the show will cycle through their writers but i just wish all the great talent in the cast wasn’t wasted on guys like samberg, taccone, and schaffer. they are the worst.

-jon

p.s. i thought about putting up some of the lonely island videos i mentioned, but i didn’t want them polluting my blog. i didn’t even post any links. if you want to see them, youtube has most of the pre-snl lonely island stuff and hulu has most of the current snl lonely island stuff.

NOTE: edited to say that the movie hot rod sucks too. i turned it off at the scene where samberg is about to street luge down the hill and he starts saying all that “wwwwHy am i talking wwwwHich wwway?” cool samberg. watched family guy in the last three years?

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