“I went up and introduced myself, and we hit it off right away. We had a similar style.” – Jay Leno speaking of David Letterman in 1990

I meant to post this a few weeks back when David Letterman announced his pending 2015 retirement. I stumbled across this posting of a 1990 GQ article about and interview with David Letterman, and it is fascinating. It reads like a fictional short story imagining Letterman’s anxiety at the first crossroads of his cultural relevance, written by someone wise to the ensuing 20-plus years of late night skirmishes, betrayals and heartbreaks unfold.

The GQ article asks this question a mere eight years into Letterman’s original NBC Late Night run: Has Letterman grown stale and surrendered his throne as the most relevant, subversive and inventive comedy force in late night?

His primary threat for supremacy in June of 1990? Arsenio Hall.

Even the subtitle of the article seems impossible today: “David Letterman — Is he still the king of hip?”

But from 1982 through 1990, Letterman was indeed a late-night revolutionary, upending and expanding our expectations about what entertain could be after 11:30 p.m. He hounded and humiliated his corporate G.E. bosses and bewildered celebrities with his brash lack of reverence to their status.

The entire article fascinates, with Letterman’s trademark insecurity and cranky dissatisfaction prominent:

“I just don’t want to look like a ninny,” he says, savagely shoving on what must be one of his hundreds of pairs of almost-new Adidases and sounding every bit the grouch off-camera as on. “You’re going to make me look like a complete ninny, aren’t you?”

But two things stand out as pop culture museum artifacts from 1990. First is the perceived threat posed by Arsenio. It’s easy to forget what a pop culture phenomenon Arsenio’s show became. Hall commanded attention and relevance that drew A-list celebrities to a late-night forum and audience that had never existed before. The woof-woofing, everyone’s-invited-to-the-party vibe Hall created resembles the happy celebrity goof-fest that Jimmy Fallon has crafted on the Tonight Show.

All of that said, this paragraph from the article seems as peculiar as asking whether the crafty BetaMax and its cult technology followers would unseat the supremacy of the VHS:

Letterman is off his feed because of all the attention being lavished — he thinks squandered — on the new host on the block, Arsenio Hall. Letterman’s probably sick of hearing about Hall (whose ads for Late Night Cool are about as aggressively competitive as you can get) and reading about Hall (who scored 100 on the publicity charts by landing the cover of Time; Letterman has rated only Newsweek). It doesn’t help that Hall is perpetually hyped for being black and young (two things Dave can do little about) and is inevitably praised for his attitude — “the hip and irreverent Arsenio Hall.”

Mike Birbiglia Takes on The Beek, David O. Russell and More in Hilarious Atlanta Show on 3/28

Three months ago I bought tickets to see Mike Birbiglia perform his Thank God for Jokes show at the Buckhead Theater in Atlanta. His show was this past Friday night, March 28. Three months is a long time for me to keep track of anything, so when I got a reminder email earlier this week, it was like finding a $20 in my pocket while doing laundry. So I was extra excited winding down Friday at the office and looking forward to the show.

And Birbiglia delivered. It’s the first time I’ve seen him live, and he was clearly in a good mood, going off-script several times to goof around with the crowd, the ushers and the erratic spotlight guy. He was crisp and energetic, keeping a lively pace for what ended up being an 80-minute set.

He also got bonus laughs recounting his cameo from the previous night on Late Night With Seth Meyers. A few weeks ago on Late Night, Birbiglia had shared a funny anecdote from years back about The Beek being unamused at the prospect of being Birbiglia’s doppelganger. On Thursday night’s show, Birbiglia made a surprise cameo to acknowledge an apology from The Beek, who had originally claimed the incident never happened. (Van Der Beek was a surprisingly likable guest for his full segment. Nice to see a celebrity who can both recognize and mock the nature of his charmed and fragile celebrity.)

In his live show Friday night, Birbiglia was clearly still amused by the previous night’s Meyers appearance. And when you watch the Late Night clip below, it completely mirrors Birbiglia’s recollection of it on stage Friday. He loved the idea of flying in to appear on Late Night and prepared jokes just for the bit, then was overwhelmed by the crowd reaction and his own realization that he looks nothing at all like James Van Der Beek.

Birbiglia’s entire set Friday night was terrific. He gained steady momentum, stacking up early chuckles and building to close with a series of routines that the had the crowd howling and leaving happy. He killed with a bit about running onstage and inadvertently bellowing “fuck” to an audience of Muppet fans, then immediately running back offstage because he forgot to bring out his trademark stool.

Late in the show, he shared a magnificent story about hosting the 2012 Gotham Independent Film Awards in New York. Director David O. Russell (The Fighter, I Heart Huckabees, American Hustle), was there to receive a career achievement award. Birbiglia hosted the awards and opened with a monologue that included a verbatim recitation of Russell’s brutal verbal assault on Lily Tomlin on the set of I Heart Huckabees. Enjoy it here (his tirade starts at 1:08):

(In an aside, Lily Tomlin starred in the 1978 movie Moment By Moment as a middle-aged divorcee exploring an exciting and dangerous romance with a young, Stetson-soaked drifter played by John Travolta. I imagine in real life their genitals would repel like two north magnets.)

Heh, she tastes like chicken! Barbarino out

Let me take this moment to say “NOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

Birbiglia’s point was to highlight the absurd reality of sometimes finding big laughs at the expense of people in the audience. He said the joke brought the room down, but almost took the award ceremony with it. Russell apparently got up from his seat and walked out, threatening backstage not to accept the award. In the end, Russell accepted the award and was gracious later responding to questions about Birbiglia’s joke. Birbiglia cited this line from a review in Variety the next day:

“Before any winners were announced at Monday’s 22nd edition of the Gotham Awards, one thing became clear: Host Mike Birbiglia will not be in David O. Russell’s next picture.”

My clinical breakdown of Bribiglia’s Russell routine takes all the funny right out of it, but I shared it because it highlights something I like best about Birbiglia. His introspection about comedy sets his work apart. For example, he didn’t share the Russell anecdote simply as a self-serving tale of how he knocked a big-time director down a notch. In fact, Birbiglia clearly reveres Russell’s work as a director. More importantly for his act, he also clearly reveres Russell’s searing, vulgar on-set assault on Tomlin. And he’s right, it’s painfully hilarious to hear a major director come unhinged in a shouting “I’m trying to help you cunt” rant. Birbiglia loves it so much he personally transcribed it from the video clip for his stand up, and when he reads it aloud it creates a riveting poetry to the words.

Birbiglia’s reflection about how audiences and individuals react differently to comedy adds depth to his material. I’m paraphrasing Birbiglia from recollection: “Russell is being honored by a roomful of his peers for his lifetime achievement as a director, and some guy he’s never heard of gets up on stage and recites verbatim Russell’s most regrettable moment of all time. And everyone in the room laughs.” He’s fascinated with how comedy works or fails, and he weaves that perspective into some of his most relentlessly funny material. It creates a personal connection with his audience, without ever drifting into sappiness. Because even as he makes you think about human fragility and insecurity, he still makes you laugh really fucking hard.

Venue review: The Buckhead Theater sucks shit for seeing a comedy show. It’s especially bad if you’re lucky enough to score “view obstructed’ seats in the back of the orchestra level. I expect “view obstructed” to mean perhaps the balcony above enters the top of my line of vision, or a sound booth limits vision to the right or left of the stage. At Buckhead Theater, it means you’re sitting in one of 60 or so temporary seats with a giant fucking beam that holds up the balcony level directly dead center in your line of sight to the stage. Such that you will periodically see Birbiglia when he wanders stage left or right, but you’ll have to lean two feet one way or the other to see him when he retreats (as he does frequently) to the stool set at center stage. I’m astounded Buckhead Theater would sell those seats at all. And, at least from where we sat, the sound was awful, with a slight echo delay that rendered Birbiglia inaudible at times. Zero stars.

Super extra bonus: Mike Showalter and Paul Rudd parody the David O. Russell meltdown:

 

 

RIP David Brenner

David Brenner was the first stand up comedian I recall laughing at. As a kid I would always get excited when he’d be on The Tonight Show or one of the ubiquitous daytime talkers such as Mike Douglas or Merv Griffin. He just had such an easy, likable way, and his routines made me think about the comedy in everyday life. It made a huge impression on me, even as a kid. I remember he had a bit about his car breaking down. He looked under the hood, even though he knew nothing about cars, waiting for a flashing light that said “Fix me! Fix me!”  I asked my mom, “How do you get that job?”

I also felt kinda bad for Brenner when it seemed a new generation of more cynical comics pushed him to the margins a bit in the 1980s. And I recall his late 1980s late night show, launched amid a crowded herd of such shows. His, like most of the others, were doomed to fail. I remember rooting for the show to work (it mostly didn’t) because he was so earnest and clearly loved just being there, having the opportunity to talk to celebrities for a living.

This quote from his obit supports that memory of his glad-to-be-there disposition:

“I come from the slums of Philadelphia and everything in my life is profit. My downside is what most people would strive a lifetime to get to.”

We will miss you, David Brenner. Here’s a great clip of Brenner on Letterman from several years back. It’s past the prime of his career, but it’s a terrific example of his gift of humor in observation of everyday life. It’s not Louis CK, but not everything has to be.

The Happiest News of the Week: John Mulaney Has a Show Coming Up on Fox

I’ve heard and seen bits of John Mulaney’s stand up routines over the past few years, but I finally downloaded the full “New In Town” performance last week. Immediately one of my top full-length stand up shows of all time. Like George Carlin, Chris Rock, Mitch Hedberg kind of all time. He’s just spectacular at building a funny idea into a huge comedy payoff. He crafts his material meticulously, such that each routine has a cadence that evokes big laughs while carrying the story somewhere we’re all eager to follow next.

So, yesterday Twitter told my brain something wonderful: Mulaney just finished taping the fourth episode of an upcoming sitcom for Fox. The masterful Martin Short costars, along with Elliott Gould. The show even has Lorraine Bracco and Penny Marshall, for fuck’s sake. Please, please gods of comedy and television, make this show as great as it should be. Don’t erode away the things that make Mulaney so funny in the first place in an effort to make him “more relatable” for “maximum demographic draw.”

In the meantime, here are two excellent Mulaney clips from “New In Town.” They are not completely ruined by Comedy Central’s shitty site, which is full of commercials, clips edited several minutes too short, and bleeped dirty words.

UPDATE: Wow, and Comedy Central’s embed code also blows. Here are “links” to the clips:

Ice-T on Law and Order SVU

Get the paddy wagon

What SeaWorld Should Have Said Was Nothing

It seems to me that SeaWorld could’ve saved itself some future problems if it had reconsidered this conversation from 40 or so years ago:

“OK team, we want to bring whales to the park. We’re going to put the giant whales in tanks with humans and have them perform tricks together, largely for huge crowds of families with children. Any suggestions on what type of whales we should get?”

“Uh, how about killer whales, Larry?”

Controversy has smothered the summer fish circus SeaWorld since CNN first aired the combustible documentary Blackfish a few months ago. (I first typed “searing documentary” but couldn’t abide the unintentional fish pun.) The film makes a passionate and riveting case against SeaWorld’s captivity of orcas, the massive killer whales that have drawn hundreds of thousands of people to its parks for decades.

As part of the swift, fervid backlash against SeaWorld, many musicians backed out of a summer SeaWorld concert series. Several celebrities have spoken out on record, including this scathing indictment by whale-cocked drumstick-twirling marine biologist Tommy Lee:

*shortly after making statement, gets online to search for cow vaginas*

Shortly after making this statement, Tommy Lee got online to search for cow vaginas

It’s almost impossible to watch Blackfish without at least questioning the wisdom of keeping the big fish captive for our entertainment. You don’t soon forget harrowing scenes of orcas turning on trainers and dragging them to the depths of the tanks. As damning the movie is, I always maintain some skepticism when people with a specific and personal agenda attack something. There is always some truth in the middle that they distort or ignore. I’m sure there are many good people at SeaWorld who really do care about the well-being of the animals in the parks. In fact, I am certain that SeaWorld cares. Here’s how I know:

SeaWorld Cares

Which brings this meandering post to its elusive topic: SeaWorld’s insulting, annoying and staggeringly inept response to Blackfish. SeaWorld seems determined douse a brush fire with kerosene until the entire forest burns to ash.

SeaWorld defends itself with an aggressive, name-calling assault, partly in the form of incessant pay-promoted tweets such as this one:

The SeaWorld Charm Offensive begins

I want to invite SeaWorld, vegans and self-assured atheists to my next dinner party!

Wow! Way to do everything wrong SeaWorld! I have no idea what communications agency SeaWorld works with, but either the agency is giving poor advice or SeaWorld executives are so blindly angry that they are forcing the issue. This fails in every way possible.

1) It’s defensive. SeaWorld sounds like a guilty politician caught fucking the housekeeper, reacting with indignant and angry denial.

2) It’s dismissive. Blackfish worked. It fueled real emotional responses for a wide audience of people. Now SeaWorld opts to insult those people for being naive to “propaganda.” If you make someone mad, then call them stupid for being mad, you just make them that much less eager to forgive you or even listen to you.

3) It’s self-defeating. SeaWorld has done more to promote Blackfish than anyone besides CNN. SeaWorld has introduced the controversy to countless people who had probably never heard of it to begin with.

4) It’s pedantic. Here is SeaWorld’s lengthy response to Blackfish. The movie grabbed attention with vivid, emotional and sometimes tragic human and animal stories. SeaWorld responded with a manifesto that reads like a labyrinth court deposition. SeaWorld splits semantic hairs and haggles over chronology and minutiae that won’t sway opponents and will likely inflame neutral observers. Case in point:

The film depicts a killer whale collection in Washington State that occurred 40 years ago. It leaves viewers with three false impressions: (1) that SeaWorld continues to collect whales from the wild to this day; (2) that Tilikum himself was collected by SeaWorld; and (3) that the collections done four decades ago were illegal. None of this is true. SeaWorld does not collect killer whales in the wild, and has not done so in over 35 years. Tilikum was not collected by us. And the collections four decades ago were conducted in compliance with federal laws, pursuant to federally-issued permits at that time.

Thanks, SeaWorld! Now I completely understand why those whales have sad floppy fins and drag your trainers to their terrifying deaths in your torture pools! No one who watched Blackfish will be moved or fooled by this turgid barrel of words.

5) It’s annoying. This will probably end up being the longest post I’ve ever written here. Not because I’m an activist for the cause. It’s because SeaWorld annoyed the shit out of me. It’s relentless, aggressive tweets irritated me so fiercely that I first started responding to them on Twitter, and then took to writing this rant that at least 17 other people will see. Aim at foot, pull trigger, SeaWorld!

I found Blackfish compelling, and at times sad and terrifying. But I’m not a someone who thinks about SeaWorld much to begin with. I’m middle-aged with no kids. I hyperventilate and explode in hives just passing through the Orlando airport, filled with loud, overpacked huddles of sugar-and-Mickey-bloated families navigating the airport as if it’s a corn maze.

So I’m not someone who would have ever even considered a trip there. Blackfish would’ve likely drifted to the back of my consciousness. Except SeaWorld just wouldn’t let it.

So, SeaWorld, here is the lesson of the title you should heed. Given your noisy, belligerent and self-destructive response, what you should have said was nothing. (Impatient viewers skip to the 3:40 mark.)

“♪ Rot Pockets! ♫” Nestle Recalls Diseased Meat Hot Pockets, Gaffigan Updates Material. Also, Balls.

Nestle voluntarily recalled its Philly Steak and Cheese and Croissant Crust Philly Steak and Cheese Hot Pockets because they are disgusting. No, wait, it’s because they might contain meat from “diseased and unsound animals.”

Hmm. Is this really a huge departure from the typical contents of a Hot Pocket? Don’t we have pretty low expectations to begin with?

This follows last week’s recall of 9 million pounds of tainted meat by Rancho Feeding Corporation. (Coming this fall on NBC: Meat Recall, which stars Thora Birch as a brash, no-nonsense USDA inspector with a photographic memory.)

Also, someone on Twitter asked the very valid question: When they recall meat, do they fix it and give it back to you? Like a Kia?

As always with these stories, the real fun is in the details. So let’s take a closer look at some of the meat products Rancho Feeding Corporation recalled:

  • “Beef Carcasses” (wholesale and custom sales only)
  • 2 per box “Beef (Market) Heads” (retail only)
  • 4-gallons per box “Beef Blood” (wholesale only)
  • 50-lb. boxes of “Beef Feet”
  • 50-lb. boxes of “Beef Hearts”

Apparently, the bulk of the recalled items were from the Rancho Pagan Ritual Meats Division. But here’s the real story the “mainstream media” missed:

  • 30-lb. boxes of “Mountain Oysters”

In the famous words of Barry Zuckerkorn: “Those are balls.”

That’s right, mountain oysters are beef testicles. Apparently also known as mountain tendergroins and cowboy caviar. So yet again, the news media miss the real story, and headline editors miss this golden opportunity:

“Ball Recall, Y’all”

Of course, as in all matters of the Hot Pocket, we ultimately defer to Mr. Gaffigan:

Are Those Safe Auto Commercials Actually Norm Macdonald’s Suicide Note?

Because he seems despondent in them. You can’t tell me he’s not mainlining Klonopin to get through these spots. (Always pay your bookie first, Norm.)

And some other Norm news lately has been bad or just odd: His live PGA tournament update tweets that border on performance art. HIs peculiar recent controversy about being criticized on Twitter for his study of scripture (?), which made him a fleeting and unlikely rallying point for right-leaning religious types. His swiftly canceled sports show on Comedy Central that just never found a stride. Seems like rocky times to be Norm Macdonald.

Which sucks because Norm Macdonald is funny as hell. And not just from back in the day, in his SNL Weekly Update prime. This clip from a 2009 stand up special is a great example. I especially love this clip because beneath the detached snark he’s personal and poignant while wrecking the feel good characterization of “battling” a terminal disease. And he’s fucking funny. (I tried to embed the clip but Comedy Central’s crappy clip site gives you worthless code. So you just get the link, with an annoying commercial plus inexplicable bleeping of the “swear words.”)

Here he observes why it’s entirely expected for a crocodile hunter to die. As Jon Stewart squirms, Norm just mashes the gas even harder:

Finally, there is this, Macdonald’s much-discussed trolling at the Bob Saget Comedy Central roast a few years back. Norm commits to six-plus minutes of terrible hack jokes, ridiculing the entire roast premise while bewildering many and riotously amusing the handful who caught up with what he was doing.

And our friend Tim O’Shea always finds the hidden gems, in this case Norm breaking down his Saget roast experience to WTF’s Marc Maron. It includes the sublime line, “All I could see were the angry eyes of Alan Thicke.”