sometimes you feel so connected to a piece of art that you start to wonder what you were like before encountering it. such is the case with me and the work of MEL BROOKS in general. as i think i mentioned before in my REVIEW of SPACEBALLS (BROOKSFILMS, 1987), my first viewing of his movies was early, like around kindergarten.
so that should explain quite a bit about me.
i remember during one of my first semesters at RUTGERS UNIVERSITY as an undergraduate attending a required class that was focused on the gifted and all-too-human cultural prodigy that was PAUL ROBESON. somehow with a fellow classmate, who was AFRICAN-AMERICAN, i got into a heated discussion about whether or not BROOKS was racist. if you haven't seen BLAZING SADDLES (CROSSBOW PRODUCTIONS, 1974), it is a send-up of WESTERN films in the tradition of JOHN FORD, HOWARD HAWKS, JOHN WAYNE, ANTHONY MANN, etc. and really just eviscerates them. the language alone is something that likely wouldn't be allowed in today's political and cultural climate, as it regularly used racial epithets and ethnic, gender and sexuality-oriented slurs. but you have to ask at whose expense in the film. the answer to that is the white men. the only people being debased and pilloried in BLAZING SADDLES are the dumbass white frontier folk (men, women, young and old) that use it.
during those arguments i eventually won given that i mentioned that one of the co-writers of the screenplay was none other than RICHARD PRYOR, arguably the greatest comedian of all-time (he has my vote). if you didn't know, he's also black. years later i watched the director's comments by BROOKS and learned that all the great one-liners in the film are more or less PRYOR's, but the racist stuff was all BROOKS. hilarious.
i understand that now life is more complicated given that foolish people think that given media where people use unfortunate language that somehow gives them permission to do the same. i am talking about white people here. this phenomena is something famously that CHRIS ROCK, DAVE CHAPPELLE and countless other comics of color have had to deal with over the years, white appropriation. forget about it now in the age of TRUMP. so i get why this film still chafes at people.
but for its ability to utterly annihilated the tropes of a bullshit genre that was created to showcase the primitive superiority of the white man (a la MANIFEST DESTINTY), i am a huge fan of this film in its original savage context. not how a moronic TRUMPIST may misinterpret it and weaponize it for their own regressive agenda.
photo by nacrowe
i can think of few things in life that have brought me as much joy and probably informed my sense of identity from a young age as MONTY PYTHON (the other being the films of MEL BROOKS). it is my opinion that the boundless, kinetic enthusiasm of ERIC IDLE was a big part of their formula, perhaps only matched by the droll, domineering physical encroachment of JOHN CLEESE that seemed to counteract such, propelling their comedy with forward momentum.
regardless, IDLE is well aware of his mortality at this point and his recent memoir ALWAYS LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE OF LIFE: A SORTABIOGRAPHY (BROADWAY BOOKS, 2018) is a concise, thoroughly hilarious look back at his childhood, career and friendships over the years. i think it is a testament to his humility, and quite possibly his ENGLISH modesty, that as much as this memoir is about his achievements, it is equally about his collaborations and the uplifting, connecting power of humor.
it seems compelling that for a life so thoroughly lived and enjoyed, his childhood was one of deep isolation, with his father having died shortly after the war in a freak accident and duly being shipped off to boarding school at a tender age to fend for himself. now i attended boarding school and dealt with bullying in my early teens, but nothing like his situation where corporal punishment was the norm and having a personality was deemed antithetical to being a good ENGLISH schoolboy. something they literally tried to beat out of you.
like some of the PYTHONS, he went to CAMBRIDGE (others attended OXFORD) and got involved with THE FOOTLIGHTS comedy society and gained the experience, confidence and connections that propelled him forward into his career, much like CHICAGO's SECOND CITY, LOS ANGELES' THE GROUNDLINGS and NYC's UPRIGHT CITIZENS BRIGADE have done so stateside in recent generations.
his back history and intelligence is impressive, but what i enjoyed most about this book were his insights into deceased friends like GEORGE HARRISON, ROBIN WILLIAMS and MIKE NICHOLS. each are lovingly given chapters dedicated to their misadventures and wicked sense of humor. you really get the sense that during his heyday in the 1970s, comedy was as much part of the counter-culture as ROCK AND ROLL and the commonalities of the two was something i wasn't aware of to the extent he presents it in the book. in the case of their two legendary films, MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL and LIFE OF BRIAN, it was literally the BRITISH music community that funded them when no other corporate entities would dare touch them.
the memoir ends with his recent international touring with MONTY PYTHON counterpart JOHN CLEESE, where they find themselves utilizing comedy to sooth AMERICANS traumatized by the election of DONALD TRUMP. he even includes one of the best extended putdowns of TRUMP that i have read to date.
so the memoir was worth it on that alone. if you are a fan of his work or comedy in general, i highly suggest you consider reading his memoir.
REST IN PEACE GRAHAM CHAPMAN & TERRY JONES
i always find it slightly odd to see AMY POEHLER attempting to hawk cable internet services in commercials, but maybe that is because i am her target demographic. perhaps most are familiar with her 7-year run on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE which was highlighted by her turn co-hosting WEEKEND UPDATE with partner-in-crime TINA FEY, but for me her work in the subversive UPRIGHT CITIZENS BRIGADE sketch show was the high-water mark.
along with MATT BESSER, IAN ROBERTS and MATT WALSH, their brand of comedy was not unlike the MONTY PYTHON-esque brand of oddly juxtaposed sketch routines common to peers like MR. SHOW. whereas MR. SHOW definitely had a bitter streak that informed their comedy, where the subjects of their routines were almost being eviscerated for full impact, UCB had a more distant perspective that seemed to highlight life's innate absurdity without passing judgement. this was achieved through the ongoing connecting narrative that the members were part of some god-like, all-powerful chorus of extra-terrestrial beings that manipulated human history. the sketches were essentially their observations on human emotions, desires and relationships.
for me, neither show was better, more differing perspectives that made up a generation of comedians that were attempting to navigate their way in the 90s through a new media landscape and burgeoning internet revolution that would only prove to fragment society as time wore on. i still feel that as a culture we are dealing with how to find common ground with one another, as ultimately comedy is a unifying art form. to find something funny it is a requisite that you share an outlook with the comedian. in the end comedy is about empathy.
one of the other more concrete achievements of this troupe is the ongoing UCB Theatre in MANHATTAN which caters to underground improvisational comedy. in grad school i went once to watch a colleague's comedy troupe and was taken aback by the atmosphere of the place. it really felt like a clubhouse. a place where people connect. seems emblematic of their brand of comedy as well.
i've written before about my deep admiration for NORM MCDONALD, CHRIS FARLEY and BOB ODENKIRK & DAVID CROSS of MR. SHOW, but right up there as well is ROBERT SMIGEL.
never heard of him? he was a writer for SNL for a number of years but is probably most famous for his quick barbs as TRIUMPH THE INSULT COMIC DOG. in my opinion this sock puppet is the modern equivalent of HUNTER S. THOMPSON, as it can gain access to any cultural or political event and cast aspersions and biting commentary in real-time in a manner GONZO JOURNALISM could only dream. after all, he is only a sock puppet. who gets mad at a sock puppet. answer: EMINEM.
oh my god. i was crying laughing so hard rewatching these, especially the one below where he visits CHICAGO's WEINER's CIRCLE. i had to stop because i was going to faint.
just watch them and thank me later.
the longer this TRUMP national nightmare rages on the more i realize what a treasure JON STEWART was when he was host of THE DAILY SHOW. some may contend that his influential show contributed to a modern national discourse that puts a premium on humiliation via parody and satire as a means of pushing a political perspective, but this misses the point. much like 18th century BRITISH pictorial satirist WILLIAM HOGARTH, utilized satire to lambast the the hollow soaring rhetoric aristocracy with the grime and filth the defined the lives of their subjects, so has STEWART utilized similar tools to point out hypocrisy and violations of the public trust in both AMERICAN ruling parties. i also liken him to a modern day H.L. MENCKEN, whereby utilizing intelligent wordplay and the power of the written/spoken word as a righteous cudgel against his opponents.
what always amazes me is how the right attempts to mimic STEWART to promote their repressive agenda and myopic, self-satisfying policies. it always fails, whether its DENNIS MILLER, GREG GUTFIELD, BILL BURR, TIM ALLEN, ADAM CAROLLA, NICK DIPAOLO or even JIM NORTON. comedy seems to be at its core about empathy. the idea that you and i see the ridiculousness of some aspect of daily life enough to laugh about it. if you have a closed mind, or rely on others that share your shuttered perspective than thats no longer comedy any more, or at the very least its an inferior version of it in mind because there is no friction, only confirmation of a rigid belief system.
when STEWART was at his best was when he was lampooning his targets with their own words, often replacing his role as the presenter of the joke to that of a commentator on the joke. i loved it when this meta-discussion happened because it confirmed the cognitive dissonance and verbal gymnastics that conservative politicians had to go through pre-TRUMP.
now, nothing matters. facts. truth. shame. accountability. its a sad time.
we need STEWART back, not that his brand of comedy would somehow change the political landscape. but his return would bring hope at a time when such is in short supply.
as an aside his work on behalf of 9/11 first responders is the work of a true PATRIOT. not the phony flag-waving, jingoistic bullshit we have come to associate with that word. an actual PATRIOT. god bless him.
oh my god, i love NORM MACDONALD. dude is my spirit animal.
he is quite honestly the funniest comedian ever. my opinion. what i love about him is his ability to self-sabotage and decimate every premise available with absolute conviction. watching him is watching a tight-rope act of the most highest order. he is the comedy equivalent of a sledgehammer, disregarding form, audience and even time limits.
in other words he is beyond unique and a comedian's comedian. dude hosts the ESPYS in the 90s and eviscerates his audience, a RADIO CITY MUSIC HALL audience full of athletes. he hosts SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE within a year of being fired for making fun of his boss only to eviscerate his former boss and the show in his opening monologue. NORM even does a roast of his peer BOB SAGET with unfunny jokes designed to bomb. then there is his legendary moth joke. i could do this all night. but i wont.
dude is a legend.
whenever i am down i just search for his guest appearances on LETTERMAN or CONAN and just laugh. to me he is the ultimate because he is absolutely unhinged. other comedians feign like they are out of control, but NORM truly doesn't give a shit. his career is so up and down because of his unpredictability, but im telling you, when its all said and done he is the LENNY BRUCE, the RICHARD PRYOR, the GEORGE CARLIN of this era.
him and CHRIS FARLEY are my two favorite comedians ever. please check out his material embedded below.
man i still miss CHRIS FARLEY. watching his stuff still makes me laugh.
its between him and NORM MACDONALD for my favorite comedians of all-time. i can't choose.
this might come off as tone deaf or unsympathetic, but normally when a celebrity passes on i am not that affected by it on a personal level. don't get me wrong, i have compassion for the family of the deceased and the suffering they must be going through. but i don't usually take the next step and feel personally affected. i didn't know them personally. i can't think of another celebrity i had such a strong reaction to upon learning of their demise. not even KURT COBAIN or later PHIL HARTMAN and OL' DIRTY BASTARD. FARLEY still stands out to me as uniquely american tragedy, as our culture promotes narcissism through empty capitalism, but never checks the dark underbelly of consumer culture that defines our self-image.
to me FARLEY's passing was different. his death from a speedball overdose in 1997 happened during my middle school years and it bummed me out. sounds selfish, i felt like something was taken from me when he died. like we were all deprived of his brilliance. dude was so vivacious and full of life, he just seemed like a force of nature in his performances which were so intense it had an almost kinetic energy that just sucked you in from its sheer force of will.
it is so tragic to know now that his performances were fueled by pain and insecurity. being overweight and seeing his father ridiculed growing up for his weight issues in rural WISCONSIN just breaks my heart. what really gets me is the idea that the gift for which he was celebrated for, his humor and larger-than-life personality, was born out of a desperation for feeling like a social outcast due to his stature. his acting out a way of gaining attention and notoriety and at its base, love and adoration. the feeling that his frame made him unlovable.
that idea still makes me sad. that his gift was his curse. being celebrated for your sublimated creative expression of deep unbridled pain and social anxiety.
i love the guy 20+ years later and i still miss him even though i never knew him. dude was a legend.
R.I.P. CHRIS FARLEY.