Bill Cosby: Far From Finished

Bill Cosby: Far From Finished

Bill Cosby: Far From Finished

 

Bill Cosby has been an artist who has always been around who I never took the time to familiarize. Growing up, he was always the Jello guy and then later the host of the hilarious Kids Say The Darndest Things. A few Youtube clips aside, I have not seen any of his standup specials in completion.

The simplicity and universalness of Cosby’s comedic material is the price of admission. Most of the act is themed towards dissecting love and marriage. The highlights for me were his opening bit about people’s expectations of him swearing on Comedy Central, a bit about chess, and another where Cosby uses audience interaction to build a surprise twist.

Cosby’s drawled out diction makes it hard to focus on what he’s saying. I zoned out a few times because he took so much time between words. Maybe this is a case of me not being previously familiar with his past stand up specials, but there was much rewinding on my part. It is ultimately something one just tunes to or doesn’t.

Cosby’s persona and ability to act out his concepts makes up for it. His facial expressions are world creation; they instantly transport the viewer and place them where he wants to them to see the absurdity of his jokes. His persona is likened to an senile man trying to prove that his mind is still working. Don’t be fooled, he’s still very sharp. There’s one noteworthy hilarious moment where he barks at the audience for finishing one of his punchlines. It still boggles my mind how he can rouse that much energy on stage sitting down.

Anybody who wants a laugh for an hour, I recommend it. Anybody can enjoy it.

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Sarah Silverman: We Are Miracles

Sarah Silverman: We Are Miracles

Sarah Silverman: We Are Miracles

Sarah Silverman headlines her very first new HBO comedy special in front of an intimate audience of 39.

Sarah Silverman is a comedian that’s always been around, but an artist I never directly got into by chance. I watched a few episodes of The Sarah Silverman Program, which was too obscure for my taste. But I always enjoyed her cameo in Judd Apatow’s Funny People, Louie and thought she gave an effective supporting performance in Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz. I enjoyed clips of her standup onlinebut have not seen her perform a complete comedy hour till now.

The decision to shoot the special at the Largo Comedy Club in front of 39 people is a great one. Silverman never looks far off into the distance or above to a balcony booth. There’s no big giant TV screen of her in the background for the cheap seats. The intimacy of the Largo lends itself for Silverman’s raunchy off-the-wall random tangent comedy, giving her much more freedom to roam from topic to topic without transitions.  “I don’t need segue ways.” Silverman quips,
“The brain doesn’t work that way.”

Some of the joke highlights were a childhood story of how her older sister used to scare her, sin atonement in Christianity and a bit about the Make A Wish foundation. It’s nice how much politically incorrect jokes she gets away with, showing an affable innocent girly  persona can really go a long way to make hard topics durable.

The whole experience is more akin to a live show, as Silverman is able to milk laughs from silences and even counter critique audience reactions when they aren’t up to par. It’s always awkward when comedians do audience interaction in big theater shows and this completely fixes that. The reactions from the 39 people create a more potent, immersive connection to Silverman’s perspective. And making 39 people laugh, after all, is much harder than making 200 people laugh.

Aziz Ansari: Buried Alive

Aziz Ansari: Buried Alive

Aziz Ansari: Buried Alive

The core aspect to Aziz Ansari’s standup, from his previous specials Dangerously Delicious and Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening, is his ability to create random tangents. Here is the structure: 1) Aziz encounters something absurd or silly. 2) He deconstructs it with logic. 3) He then expands the absurd concept on imaginary random tangents. For his last special, this got repetitive and I distinctly remember zoning out until he changed it up. They’re funny anecdotes, but the core message under his bits don’t hold water because we know these imaginary tangents he exits his jokes on never happened. More importantly, they never could happen.

He has improved upon this for Buried Alive, no longer relying on anecdotes of meeting strange people or talking about his oddball cousin Harris or Kayne West stories. Instead he focuses his logic and ability to create imaginary scenarios onto real life. In Buried Alive, it’s mostly centered upon the subjects of dating, marriage and raising a family. The difference is, he has a point of view and uses his humor to highlight his fears and trepidations about marriage, the massive responsibilities of marriage and raising a child and how strange dating has become in the day of modern technology.

My two favorite segments where Aziz does crowd work, a considerably risky move for a comedian taping a comedy special. He interviews a couple on how they got engaged and another woman about receiving obscene penis photos from men. It’s in these segments where he displays his immediate comedic reflexes, quickly spinning jokes out of people’s answers. He probably has performed this a thousand times touring the country with this hour, but it still had a raw quality to it that brought genuine surprises. These were the highlights of the special.

There’s one portion where Aziz boasts how many white women he beds to argue how pointless it is for people being against interracial dating. I agree with his point. I don’t even like the word ‘interracial’ as a concept. But the fact that he put himself above the audience for a laugh seemed off color for a moment.

Part of the fun of following an artist is watching them grow. For that reason, fans that have watched Aziz’s two previous specials will probably enjoy this one more. This is Aziz Ansari’s best comedy hour thus far and he knows it. He has found meaningful things to say and more clever ways to deliver them.

Related Links
Jim Norton: American Degenerate
Louis C.K.: Oh My God

The Heat by Paul Feig

The Heat by Paul Feig

An uptight FBI Special Agent is paired with a foul-mouthed Boston cop to take down a ruthless drug lord.

The Heat is a comedy that brings both familiar and fresh genre elements. The buddy cop movie elements are the familiar portion, but what’s fresh is the comedy pairing of Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. Most notably, it’s a buddy cop movie that stars two women.

Melissa McCarthy is a living comedy engine. The key to her performance is that she’s not approaching the part as a comedienne, but as a dramatic actress as well. She delivers every line like her character is totally serious. The story is partly about the social classes in Boston and it is established that McCarthy’s Mullins comes from a tough Boston neighborhood. She incorporates that into her performance. In a lesser actress’s hands, it would have been raunchy for the sake of being raunchy.

Sandra Bullock plays social awkwardness well and a good straight man to McCarthy. Again she brings her charming personable star quality and it’s hard not to like her for being so self-deprecating. This role has a similar arc to her character in Ms. Congeniality – an uptight by-the-book cop who needs to learn to let go. Suffice to say, Bullock and McCarthy make a great comedic duo.

The action scenes take a back seat and comedy is the main priority. The entire cast is full of comedians and comedy-capable actors. Standup comedian Bill Burr, Jane Curtin and Marlon Wayans add a variety of comedy dimensions with their supporting roles. Thomas Wilson, famous for being Biff in the Back to the Future films, as Melissa McCarthy’s emasculated police captain brought a huge gaping smile on my face. It was like watching Biff being upstaged in an alternate timeline.

Bridesmaids 
director Paul Feig understands that there is no moral barometer for comedy and isn’t afraid to risk bad taste for laughs. They hold nothing sacred here. There’s a running gag with an albino that had me in stitches. Underneath all the comedy, the movie is subtly about women working in a male-dominated workplace. I like how the film stays true to this concept. There’s no love subplot with a male suitor and it even draws comedy from women dealing with misogyny.

A great deal of improvisation was done in the comedic scenes. Despite of that, the film is well edited. The comedy never stops the story from moving forward and it seems a lot of comedy babies were killed in the editing room. I laughed consistently throughout the entire film. It’s a well made comedy by people that like and understand its workings. Now that they’ve announced a sequel, I look forward to that as well.

2 Guns by Baltasar Kormákur

2 Guns by Baltasar Kormákur

2 Guns by Baltasar Kormákur

A DEA agent and a Naval Intelligence officer find themselves on the run after a botched attempt to infiltrate a drug cartel. While fleeing, they learn the secret of their shaky alliance: they are both undercover agents.

2 Guns is reminiscent of buddy cop movies in the late eighties and nineties. Unlike a lot of recent throwback 80’s action films, it tastefully retains much of the fun factor by concentrating on character and dialogue and removing some of the modern tropes that have gone stale, like the oversaturation of pop culture references. With its setup and buddy dynamic, at times it actually reminded me of the 1996 Adam Sandler and Damon Wayons buddy cop movie Bulletproof.

What elevated 2 Guns from standard action fare were exactly the snappy dialogue and the buddy dynamic between Washington and Wahlberg. The two lead actors create a believable long-time friendship and it gave the movie a sizzling charm that you just can’t look away from. Watching Walhberg and Washington rapidly throw zingers back and forth alone made the price of admission. After seeing his facetious performance in this film, it’s easy now to imagine Mark Wahlberg taking over the role of Tony Stark in future Marvel films.

The film has a good supporting cast. James Marsden and Edward James Olmos seem overqualified for these supporting roles. It’s nice to see them but they have too little time to truly shine. Paula Patton is cast in a seemingly intelligent female role, but is ultimately there for her sex appeal. Bill Paxton is the only one who gets to properly chew up some scenery as a scary CIA agent with a flair for torturing his victims.

The story moved along fast like a shark, for fear that stopping for a thoughtful pause would ruin its momentum and shatter the illusion of how complicated the plot seems. The action scenes are fun. More importantly, they are visible and you can follow what’s going on.  When it came to the finale, the film said “Screw it!” to all the dramatic buildup from the first two acts and serves a lesser solution to its conflict.
 Had it been a slower moving story with less charming leads, I would have considered the finale a cop out ending and been pissed.

But this time, I just went with it. I’m a sucker for buddy cop movies. 2 Guns just oozes old school charm, and charm can go a long way.

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21 Jump Street by Phil Lord and Chris Miller

This is the End by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg

This is the End by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg

While attending a party at James Franco’s house, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel and many other celebrities are faced with the apocalypse.

First off, I want to say I am a fan of the Judd Apatow team. Before Judd Apatow made The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, I wasn’t really into the American comedies that were dominated by Ben Stiller, Will Ferrel and Vince Vaughn. The improvisational nature of Apatow’s comedy and the crude sophomoric jokes infused with a heartfelt message hit me on a deeper level. As a lover of buddy cop movies, I’m also generally a sucker for bromance movies, of which I would argue is a close relative. Most of all, I like Apatow’s cast of actors. Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Michael Cera, James Franco… they’re all funny in their own idiosyncratic way and seem to have free reign over their own personas.

This brings me to my first critique of This is the End. The central gag of having the actors play themselves isn’t as funny as the film thinks it is. For example, This is the End‘s version of Michael Cera is a foul-mouthed cocaine addict. Why? Because the filmmakers thought it’d be funny to do a total reversal on Cera’s real life persona. That gag is only truly funny if we know what Michael Cera is like in real life. Most of us, unlike the filmmakers, can only drawn upon Michael Cera’s timid onscreen persona. That creates enough of a contrast to elicit laughs and it does. However, the filmmakers are ultimately more connected to the joke than the audience can ever be, and that is problematic on some level. I get the feeling I should be laughing harder than the film is making me.

Just to reiterate, I did laugh. There were times when the celebrity gag won me over. I liked how the character relationships were set up and they all have great chemistry. Jay Baruchel plays the audience’s avatar and reacts to all colors of obnoxious behavior exhibited by the other actors. Actually, the film even takes it one comedic step further. When Danny McBride enters the film, he does his brand of obnoxious behavior that happens to be so overwhelming, the other annoying actors call him on it and ask him to stop.

When the film doesn’t rely on the celebrity gag and gives something for the characters to do to survive the Apocalypse, it’s much more creative and funnier. I liked the graphic novel-like style that went into the world creation of the apocalypse. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg deliver some surprises to what’s going on outside James Franco’s house. The parts in between that didn’t pertain to surviving the Apocalypse are strung by improvisational dialogue scenes and they stick out as the weaker moments. I recognize the ability to improvise scenes and be funny on camera, but watching the cast react to the fantastical elements was more interesting than watching the celebrities react to each other. As the audience’s avatar, Jay Baruchel ends up being outnumbered as he is the only genuine likable character in a cast of six. So for somebody isn’t already warm to these actors, they easily come off as very unlikable. And that can get taxing rather quickly. The writing isn’t doing enough to build enough character for the cast and the film is completely reliant on what we know of these actors and their past works.

Due to its leaning towards it’s own self-referential quality than being a apocalyptic survival film, This is the End is ultimately a fan film for the Judd Apatow audience. (Think Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back for Kevin Smith’s Viewaskew Universe) If you never liked any of the comedies from the Judd Apatow team, this movie isn’t going to convert you. If you don’t like none of these actors, I’d tell you to just skip it altogether. I am part of the Apatow audience and like these actors, and even with that, it felt like watching one gigantic inside joke.

Jim Norton: American Degenerate

American Degenerate by Jim Norton

Recently I have seen a new side to comedian Jim Norton. This year Norton showed a more charming intellectual side when he debated with Lindy West over the topic of rape jokes on Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell. He presented a strong logical mind and gave well-constructed counter arguments. Aside from joking that he and West should have ended the debate by making out, Norton’s side of the argument came off stronger at the end.

That matured charm continues in American Degenerate, his second comedy special from Epix, mostly in the form of a smile. Specifically, I mean the “I’m just joking” smile post-punchline. It consistently reminds the audience that he’s joking and reassures them to laugh along. In the past, Norton’s graphically crude jokes have ended with such conviction, at times it was hard to laugh. I immediately pondered about how true his jokes or perversions were. The charm shown here makes a substantial difference in his grotesque-oriented humor. Looking thinner and healthier, he delivers his jokes in a laid-back fashion and we are now able to laugh at both his perversions AND his mind.

And for that, this new hour act gets better as it goes along. Norton holds nothing back. He talks about the John Travolta masseuse lawsuit, the Colorado shootings and gun control. But the highlights for me were the self-revealing bits, like the bit about an annoying nudist at his local gym and a self-deprecating chunk where Norton talks about having sleep apnea (a condition I never heard of before) where the patient needs to wear a breathing mask to sleep. Norton even talks about how he hates bloggers, specifically how audiences like to blog and nitpick what offends them. That comedians shouldn’t have to apologize for what they say, reiterating the point he made on Totally Biased.

As an aspiring standup comedian, I agree with that statement. Comedians shouldn’t have to apologize and it’s silly how audiences nitpick what offends them. This is a mindset that audiences don’t realize themselves, so it’s good that that thought is being communicated out to the stratosphere. And on the topic of freedom, perhaps the most enjoyable part about this special is watching Norton reveling in his freedom of speech and openly talking about his thoughts, political views and sexuality, meanwhile laughing at himself in the process. He does all this unapologetically. And for that, it’s aptly titled American Degenerate.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone by Don Scardino

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone by Don Scardino

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone by Don Scardino

When a street magician’s stunts begins to make their show look stale, superstar magicians Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton look to salvage on their act and their friendship.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, for a lack of a better comparison, is akin to a by-the-numbers Will Ferrell comedy, that it is about a cocky professional at the top of his game, who falls from grace and must learn to be humble again. Character act dumber than they would realistically seem. Unlike many Will Ferrell comedies, this film actually focuses more on character, even though they often act inconsistently to serve the comedic gags. I don’t have a big problem with this, but it’s that kind of movie.

It’s important when showing a magic trick onscreen, unless there’s something more interesting going on in the plot (i.e. The Prestige), that it includes the audience to be a part of the spectacle as well. The film does this with by presenting a few magic tricks in-camera which genuinely give the “Hey, how did he do that?” sensation. But again to serve the random comedy, some of the tricks don’t make sense. It’s the kind of thing you laugh at when you see it, but the moment you think about it again, it completely falls flat. The awe of the in-camera tricks fare better in comparison.

Steve Carell is funny in his over-the-top theatrical voice and bleached bombastic wigs and carries the film well.  Jim Carrey is a fun antagonist but I am scratching my head about his role. I wonder what drew Jim Carrey to the role as it seems he’s played similar roles before. . Carrey’s magician is reminiscent of Fire Marshall Bill from In Living Color. It seems too small of a part to really explore anything acting wise and they could have gave him something more special to do. Watching Carell and Carrey’s scenes, they all seem to be following the script and I wonder how much they were allowed to veer off from script. Steve Buscemi is a central role to the arc of the story and the film unfortunately forgets this. They could have used more of him as well.

The script was shopped around for many years before it was produced. Unfortunately, the material is a little out-of-date. Comedy does rot after all. Celebrity magicians just do not seem relevant now as they were years ago. I am semi-aware that the three lead magician characters are meant as a parody of actual real-life magicians, but I don’t know who they are specifically drawing from. So unless you are a magic fan, it feels like there’s a layer of humor that we all do not have access to.

The final resolution to Burt Wonderstone’s conflict is funny, but it is a politically incorrect cheat that also betrays the heart of the protagonist. The antagonist is also done away in a deus ex machina fashion that feels too easy. This would be acceptable for a short comedy sketch, but for a theatrical film it feels lazy. To think about it seriously, the ending actually betrays the integrity of magic and stage performance.

Do I care? Not really. If The Incredible Burt Wonderstone didn’t star Steve Carell, Jim Carrey, Steve Busemi and Alan Arkin, I probably would have turned it off. But lying down watching it on my laptop for 100 minutes was the right way to experience it. I laughed, but probably would never watch it again.  It’s not incredible, but good enough.

Louis C.K.: Oh My God

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Louis C.K.: Oh My God by Louis C.K.

I have no intention of going through and naming each comedy bit, that would ruin the surprise and fun of watching this new hour from Louis C.K.. The core of C.K.’s comedy is not the material itself. He is not reliant on comedy mechanics for laughs. Nothing he says ever feels like a joke in the traditional ‘setup, punchline’ sensibility. No, the humor is sourced in his energy and inflections, where the audience is experiencing the world through his point of view as if we were in his body, thoughts or fantasies. Sometimes it’s all three.

Often I find myself laughing at his word choices and visual descriptions. At times, he’s merely just stating the obvious. But the way C.K. utilizes a metaphor or simile is artful in how he can conjoin two separate ideas together, where he can wormhole the audience’s minds to some unexpected grotesque places for comparisons. And then he builds on it by acting out these ridiculous thought trains. There was also one improvisational moment where he accidentally spills water and he comments on it that had me aching in laughter. The bit he did as his closer was truly the climax of this new hour.

C.K. makes a point that being older makes a more intelligent and interesting person. He is the living embodiment of his own point. We’re watching a comedian who has grown into himself, and we’re intrigued not just for the laughs, but because he has something to say. A voice with true gravitas that he has earned from living a life.

And for that, Louis C.K. seems eternally connected to the grotesque and the morbid, but it’s all enwrapped over a positive message: appreciate life and what you have. That’s how he gets away with saying very horrible things on stage. As an audience member and a student of stand-up comedy, I enjoy watching him get away with it.