Television

IMPRACTICAL JOKERS

LOOK! THEY'RE FUNNY!

LOOK! THEY’RE FUNNY!

2011 – Present: Four hideous mutants amuse each other on camera.

This is one of those “make people awkward or upset and then reveal it was all a prank” things, like Candid Camera or Punk’d. Usually these shows involve a random person (or, occasionally, a celebrity) being manipulated by a talented comic, an individual who is able to slyly play with social conventions to maximize the awkwardness of the situation. In addition to the initial “Ha! Look at those idiots” response, we’re able to enjoy them because we can imagine our own reactions as the hapless victims.

Impractical Jokers flips this formula for maximum lameness: each of the four purportedly “funny” hosts will be forced to carry out an embarrassing mission by the other three. So instead of watching people on the street and thinking, “Wow, that might be me,” we’re watching the hosts and thinking, “Wow, they’re… stupid.” A typical set-up involves one host trying (read: failing) to be amusing in any way, interspersed with shots of his three cohorts braying like jackasses.

They are far more amused than you will ever be.

They are far more amused than you will ever be.

The show also keeps track of which host “fails” the most pranks. So it’s like a game show, but with the same four guys as contestants every single time. Who will win? Who will lose? Who cares? We don’t know these guys. It’s their show. They function as both the subject and the audience. As punishment for the “loser,” he must once again do something awkward (for him). This is an incredible and crippling format failure. Add to that the fact that the hosts form a quartet of the most atrocious-looking and comedy-less boobs to ever appear on television and you’ve apparently got a recipe for total success (the show is now in its fourth season).

Joe, Murr, Q, and Sal (Note that whatever Sal is looking at on his phone is more interesting and amusing than anything on the show)

Joe, Murr, Q, and Sal (Note that whatever Sal is looking at on his phone is probably more interesting than anything on the show)

I happened to tune in to an episode from the second season, which originally aired in January 2013, and my God was it bad. These guys are not funny. They can’t keep their composure. They can’t improvise. Immediately after being presented with their scenario, they giggle, break character, or stutter and stammer like total amateurs. Since they can’t think up good material on their own, their buddies feed them lines via a hidden earpiece. This leads to long pauses where the joker stands there going “Uh… um… so, yeah… uh…”

One scenario challenged the Jokers to convince people that fake words were real (sort of like Balderdash). Here are the words they came up with: Dwimplepeen. Cafafee. Jampaloon. Goofdookie. Note that they all feature a double E or double O. We are dealing with some real comic masters here. How do the Jokers get someone to admit that they think the word is real, you might ask? Joker: “But you’ve heard of it, right?” Purported Victim: “…Yeah.” WINNER.

Simply incredible.

The “main event” involved the Jokers trying to convince people to house-sit for them, despite an awkward situation in the bedroom. Murr’s featured a lot of princess toys and costumes. His reaction upon entering the room, as a pro: a chuckle, a hand over his mouth, and an “Um…” His buddies then fed him his lines, which he repeated after much hesitation and foot-shuffling. Q’s scenario: a room full of taxidermy. His reaction: “These are, uh…” At a complete loss for words. Then THE “VICTIM” of the “prank” bailed him out by suggesting, “Your little pets?” He replied, “Yeah, uh, you know, we got a fox… uh…” When the supposed comedians are the ones being put on the spot and unable to think of what to say, your show has a major problem.

Murr ended up being the loser (and with these four guys, that’s saying something). His punishment: take a lie detector test in front of the students and faculty of the Jokers’ old Catholic high school. Oh, boy! They’re really gonna nail him with some priceless zingers! Witness these questions, which are guaranteed to humiliate poor Murr and reduce the audience to fits of uncontrollable laughter:

“Do you wax your back?”

“Do you secretly enjoy boy bands?” (“Busted!” one of them howls. WHY DO I CARE?)

“Did you have a crush on one of your high school Spanish teachers?”

“Have you ever tried your girlfriend’s underwear on?”

Hint to the Impractical Jokers: it’s not funny if the answer to all the bad stuff is “yes.” You know the punchline as soon as the question is asked. It kinda ruins the comedy. Another thing that ruins the comedy: reacting the same way over and over. Keep in mind, Murr has been doing this kind of thing for years, and supposedly knows how to wring the maximum amount of hilarity out of a situation. I present a montage of his reactions to three questions asked in the lie detector session, and you tell me if you (or anyone) could do better:

Professional comic at work.

Professional comic at work.

To paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill: rarely has so little talent resulted in so few laughs for so many.

LILYHAMMER

2012 to Present – New York gangster Frank Tagliano (Steven Van Zandt) enters the witness protection program and tries to start a new life in Lillehammer, Norway, as Giovanni “Johnny” Henriksen. Adorable fish-out-of-water gags and good-natured mob violence ensue.

E-Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt played strutting, sneering gangster Silvio Dante on the greatest TV drama of all time, The Sopranos.

Van Zandt as Silvo Dante

Van Zandt as Silvio Dante

He now plays swaggering, smirking gangster Frank Tagliano / “Giovanni Henriksen” on the Netflix original series Lilyhammer.

Van Zandt as Frank Tagliano / Giovanni Henriksen

Van Zandt as Frank Tagliano / “Giovanni Henriksen”

Yes, Mr. Van Zandt is obviously an actor of outstanding range and subtlety. For that devoted group of Silvio fans who always wanted to see their favorite consigliere in a goofier, more subtitle-heavy environment, Lilyhammer will not disappoint. There are currently three seasons of the show available on Netflix; I’ve watched the first two, and I don’t think I have much interest in seeing the third.

Season 1 sets up the general premise: after arriving in Norway, Frank is unable to resist falling back into his old racketeering habits. He recruits bumbling brothers Torgeir (Trond Fausa Aurvag) and Roar (Steinar Sagen) to be his primary henchmen and comic relief, meets love interest Sigrid (Marian Saastad Ottesen), and quickly runs afoul of police chief Laila Hovland (Anne Krigsvoll). Eventually he has to come to terms with his past when a few of his old mob colleagues track him down.

These eight episodes are great fun, building up Frank as an anti-hero who’s much easier to root for than, say, Tony Soprano or Walter White. Even more entertaining than watching him slowly establish his petty criminal empire is seeing him clash with naively liberal Scandinavian society. Although the show is Norwegian-produced, there’s something heart-warmingly American about it all. Frank tackles the political correctness and endless bureaucratic red tape as only an uncultured American could – with threats, bribery, and extortion. The attempts of the good-hearted Norwegians to “integrate” him invariably end in comedic disaster. You could base a decent drinking game solely on the number of times he groans, “Oh, what the fuck is this?”

Unfortunately, these themes start to run out of gas in Season 2. The going gets tougher – Frank faces ruthless British gangsters, dangerous art thieves, and still more New York associates – and his ability to get out of any difficulty begins to strain credibility. To me, he started to seem too wise, too prepared for every contingency, too able to convince the dopey Norwegians to go along with his schemes.

No matter how clever or brutal his antagonists are, Frank is always able to defeat them and everything returns to normal. This saps the series of its tension: there are occasional tragedies, but we know that things will always turn out just fine for our protagonists. In order to establish him as the hero of the series, they make Frank too much of a nice guy. I never get the impression that this man could have been a vicious New York mobster. Sure, he roughs people up – but they either deserve their comeuppance or become his buddies immediately afterward.

My advice: give the first season a chance. There are good laughs, drama, and plenty of that delightful Norwegian language that seems to bubble off the roof of the mouth. The story comes to a satisfying conclusion, all the loose ends are tied up, and there’s really no need to tune in for further adventures.

Zany Miscellany

Over the past month I’ve watched a number of films and TV shows that didn’t really light my creative flame. A few brief thoughts about each of them:

GHOSTBUSTERS 2 (1989)

I remember going to see this one at my home town’s little movie theater because I got some kind of “perfect attendance” award at school.

Watching it now, it doesn’t measure up to the original Ghostbusters (1984) at all. The scene that baffles me is when they detect intense spirit activity beneath a certain street. They decide to investigate – by dressing up as construction workers, jackhammering through the street, and lowering Dan Aykroyd into the sewers on a winch. Was that the most efficient plan they could come up with? Where’d they get the equipment? Where’d they get the costumes? Did they think nobody would notice?

TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL (2010)

This is sort of The Man Who Knew Too Little of horror movies – a couple of well-intentioned mountain folk are on vacation at a remote cabin, and a bunch of college kids get slaughtered in a series of hilarious-yet-deadly misunderstandings. One of the hillbillies tries to explain it to a suspicious police officer: “There we were minding our own business, just doing chores around the house, when kids started… killing themselves all over my property!”

The horror genre (and slasher films in particular) has been deconstructed and parodied endlessly. It would almost be shocking to see one that doesn’t wink at the audience the whole time. The next revolution in horror movies may be making movies that are actually scary again.

SCANDAL (2012)

My main takeaway from the first episode of this series is that Olivia Pope is tough. Like, really tough. She’s a no-nonsense working lady. She has to carry her balls in a wheelbarrow. She out-maneuvers Russian mobsters. She brushes her teeth with a grill brush. She solves murders. She drinks ipecac straight with no chaser. She tells the President to wait for her.  She created Napster and bitcoin and knows what really happened to Flight 370.

I had to object to one scene, though. When Olivia confronts the President about lying to her, he does the slow “I’m going to kiss you” approach, backing her into a corner (insert requisite Bill Clinton reference). She says, “Do not touch me. Don’t touch me. Please don’t…” He touches her. Then they breathe heavily into each others faces for a few seconds and kiss. Then she tries to get away and he does it again. I know that, as viewers, we’re supposed to find this “hot” and “seductive,” but to me it seemed… how should I say it?… rape-y. In the extreme, actually.

Again, I know that, as viewers, we’re supposed to think, “Oh, well, she’s saying not to touch her, but secretly she’s attracted to him and wants him to.” That’s obviously what the President thinks. So it’s okay to force yourself on someone if you’re convinced they secretly mean the opposite of what they say. It seemed like a pretty murky message for a show with such a strong female lead.

MONSTERS (2010)

When I turn on a movie called “Monsters” that purports to be about two people lost in an area swarming with giant alien monsters, there are a number of things I don’t want to have happen. I don’t want there to be a lot of shaky camera-work that makes it hard to tell what’s happening. I don’t want there to be some cheesy message about how people are the “real” monsters. I don’t want to go through 45 minutes of the movie without seeing any monsters. I don’t want to see only a couple blurry shots of the cheap CGI monsters until the very end. I don’t want there to be interminable scenes where the lead characters talk about anything BUT the monsters. I don’t want the lead characters to die at the end, making all that development pointless.

Monsters does all these things. Do not see Monsters.

ROOM 237 (2012)

This was supposedly a documentary about the “meaning” of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (which was based on a book by Stephen King [which pretty plainly reveals the meaning of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining]).

One guy claims it was about the slaughter of the Indians. His proof: there is a picture of an Indian in the hotel. Another guy thinks that secret information will be revealed by playing the movie forward while superimposing the movie playing backward on top of it. A female critic… I don’t know, she shows off some maps she made of the hotel and thinks that a certain window couldn’t have been where the movie shows it to be. But the craziest one of all is the guy who not only thinks that Kubrick helped the U.S. government fake the moon landing, but that the movie is his hidden commentary on the inner turmoil he experienced in keeping this fact a secret from his wife. My only regret (other than watching this film) is that I was not high while watching this film.

There is a guy named Geoffery Cocks in it. Yes, I laughed.

DEREK – 4/21/14

Watching a series like Derek gives you a brief, cruel burst of hope for mankind – brief because there are only seven episodes, and cruel because you realize that people like this just don’t exist.

The show focuses on the employees at an under-funded nursing home: the kind-hearted and innocent Derek (Ricky Gervais), hard-working manager Hannah (Kerry Godliman), cynical caretaker Dougie (Karl Pilkington), and perverted slacker Kev (David Earl). We see how, together, they care for the (impossibly good-natured) elderly residents and interact with the (mostly callous and craven) folk who populate the outside world. It’s sort of an English Forrest Gump, but the characters are even more difficult to understand.

Filmed in a “mockumentary” style similar to Gervais’s The Office, Derek provides some decent laughs but also a surprising number of heartfelt moments. It’s not afraid to drop the comedy altogether; there are solid stretches of the show that are heart-wrenchingly sad. I got hooked from the first episode and watched the rest over the course of a weekend. That doesn’t happen very often.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I had to object to the central premise of the series. “It’s more important to be kind than clever or good-looking,” Derek remarks in the first episode, and as the series progresses more and more characters are won over by his simple commitment to being nice to everyone.

Unfortunately, this just wouldn’t work. It may not be the stuff of which great sit-coms are made, but Scrooge McDuck gave us a much more accurate quote in Mickey’s Christmas Carol: “Kindness is of little use in this world.” It’s sad but true: if your plan for success in life is to be a nice, kind person, the world is going to treat you like a gas station bathroom. Think about it: if kindness was a recipe for success, everyone would be doing it. But look around you. Doesn’t seem like it’s catching on, does it? The complete opposite, however, is true: the richest and most successful people are almost uniformly the most loathsome human scum you can find. And it’s directly proportional: the higher up the person is, chances are they had to be an even bigger bastard to get there.

“But being nice means you’ll make a lot of friends,” you say. Maybe… but think back to your years in school. The kids who were the “jerks” always seemed to have people to sit with at lunch anyway, didn’t they? Of course they did! They usually had more friends than anyone else. One of the (many) mistakes I made at school was trying to be nice to everyone. This is the equivalent of spinning Elmer Fudd’s shotgun toward yourself and yelling, “Duck season, shoot!” Don’t think it’ll help you with the opposite sex, either. Ray Rice beat up his fiancée and dragged her, unconscious, out of an elevator – a month before they got married. Nice guy.

“You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,” you say. False. Try calling customer service somewhere and see how much satisfaction you receive from being nice. Then listen to someone who calls and absolutely rips the customer service person a new one – who gets what they wanted faster? Don’t think that things will change as you grow up, either. Have you ever noticed that it’s always the kindest, nicest people who run things at the office? Exactly – I haven’t either. In my first professional job out of college, I decided that I’d succeed if I was as kind and helpful to everyone else as possible. I was marked down on my review because I tried to help people too much. I was told that if someone asked me for help, I was supposed to say, “No. Ask someone else.” I got paid less because of this. No joke.

Derek starts out sweet. It’s got a feel-good message that makes you want to run out and hug people, brightening their lives and reveling in the recognition that naturally springs from the doing of good deeds. But after it’s over, Derek makes you sad, because the world simply doesn’t work that way.

No matter how much you wish it did.

LOUIS C.K. on SNL – 3/29/14

At the end of what was possibly the most painful, awkward, aggressively unfunny hour of television I’ve ever seen, comedian Louis C.K. stood on live national television and asked us, his audience, to cheer for the collection of no-talent no-names that he described as the “great cast” of Saturday Night Live. He had the further audacity to ask us to applaud the writers, who had produced “a great show.”

I had to ask myself… what happened? Maybe somebody can help me out – is SNL still a comedy program? Or is it some kind of surreal anti-comedy where you laugh because you can’t believe someone thought this was funny enough to put on TV? Let me run a few names by you: Aidy Bryant. Taran Killiam. Beck Bennett. Mike O’Brien. Nasim Pedrad. No, they’re not the 3 – 11 shift at Applebee’s. These are the people I’m supposed to regard as the modern-day equals of such real-life comedy greats as Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Jim Belushi and Phil Hartman. Has popular culture really sunk this low into the putrid green-brown mass at the bottom of our society’s outhouse?

The first sketch was “Black Jeopardy,” and the biggest shock was seeing that Kenan Thompson is still on the show. Somebody please… get this man off of television forever. Anyway, it was funny (I assume) because Louis C.K. is a white guy.

Next up was a sketch I’ll call “Boss Baby,” because the “joke” was that the CEO of a large company has “the body of a baby.” That’s it. Who came up with that idea? Who actually sat there and pitched it to a room full of supposed comedy writers, and who else sat next to him and said, “You know what? That would be absolutely hilarious.” But it wasn’t even two of them – the majority of people in that room actually thought this boss baby sketch was better than some of the other ideas they came up with. Think about that.

“Weekend Update.” Yikes. I’m not sure I heard one laugh from the audience that wasn’t saturated with pity for the two stiffs sitting behind the desk. One thing I’ll say is that the girl was cute. I even liked the way her enormous front teeth made her vaguely resemble a human chinchilla. Don’t get me wrong, chinchillas are great pets and adorable little animals. A sort of chinchilla-looking girl could definitely hold a special place in my heart. In fact, I wouldn’t say it’s entirely out of the realm of possibility that, in some future world where human/chinchilla hybrid creatures are common, I might be tempted to sleep with one. And I might even fall in love with one. Yes. For after all, human DNA would course through her veins right alongside that of the chinchilla. I look forward to that world, a world where the new girl from Weekend Update has those huge chinchilla ears and a wacky chinchilla tail, and we take dust baths together three times a week to prevent fungal growth and fur rot.

In the next sketch, four women sing “Mr. Big Stuff” to Louie. I’m not sure what else to add. That’s what happens. Following that, we go to a doctor’s office where a bunch of people think they have Star Wars action figures stuck up their asses. It’s predicated on the notion that it becomes funnier with each additional person who thinks there’s a Star Wars action figure stuck up his or her ass.

Following that hilarity, Louie and a woman appear to be detectives having some kind of affair. There’s music playing in the background, they talk in stilted accents and blend words together (“pineapplejuice”). What on earth…? Was it a parody of something? If so, I have no idea what. Then we get to enjoy a sketch where there’s a lesbian police officer named Dyke and an overweight officer named Fats. That’s basically the joke. Finally, in the only sort of maybe nearly half-way somewhat amusing sketch, Louie begs his girlfriend to take him back and there’s a lot of odd wordplay. Louie is very obviously reading off the cue-cards.

What depressed me most about all this travesty was that Louis C.K. was involved. His stand-up is funny. His show is groundbreaking. He presents himself as the rational everyman, the guy who has seen too much of society’s garbage and won’t accept it anymore. He hates the traditional, he challenges convention. And yet he stood up there and asked us to applaud the miserable cast and hack writers who vomited pure dreck into our mouths for a full hour. For all his facade as the guy who hates phonies and calls out the shallowness of fame and stardom, he came across as a real stooge. I know it would have been hard and he wouldn’t have been invited back, but couldn’t he have at least given a little shrug and said, “Hey, I tried! Sorry folks.”

The whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth.