So, the writing career is not entirely dormant in Los Angeles these days. I have a new writing gig—on Top Story! Weekly, a sketch show that takes place at the iO West in Hollywood each Sunday night. The writers tackle events in the news ala Saturday Night Live, but I think in many ways our show is funnier and often more topical.
Of course, I may be biased. The actors are top-notch, and it’s a real thrill to write something on a Wednesday only to see it performed on a Sunday. I think I’m hooked.
Here’s my first sketch, it’s a take-off on the Jersey Shore “contract negotiations.” I had another skit in last Sunday’s episode—“Elena Kagan versus the World,” a mash-up of Scott Pilgrim and the recent Senate supreme court confirmation hearings. I’ll post it when it becomes available online. Let me know what you think in the comments!
I think my thoughts on this movie are summed up best by my father’s comments as we were leaving the theater: “I can’t believe they made this movie! I wonder how they did it.” So passionate, interesting, intellectual, and, yes, thoughtful, this is not a movie you generally see at an AMC. Maybe a festival, but not a multiplex. And it was crowded, too!
Beside the bravery of writer-director Noah Baumbach in creating such a personal, heartfelt effort, let’s talk about whether it worked. The story of misanthrope Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), a burned-out dude approaching forty-one and hanging out and house-sitting in LA is not exactly new to me. I must know tens of guys like this, shoot, in many ways I am Roger Greenberg. While I should have been on the edge of my seat, watching myself on screen like that, I was strangely bored by a middling plot. I’ll say this, the story had moments. Wonderful moments.
Greenberg’s Los Angeles is the one I deal with on a daily basis and not the stuff of Hollywood dreams. When sometimes girlfriend Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig) mumbles “will you let me in?” to every driver she passes as she drives errands, I laughed out loud. Another moment at Musso and Frank’s, Greenberg is presented a birthday cake by the staff and he freaks out at his friend Ivan. The anger and campiness of the moment came through—I suffered with Greenberg, although I would have set that moment at El Coyote. Meanwhile, the frequent shots of swimming, playing, and partying in the backyard pool, which form the film’s spine, are reminiscent of the backyard diving scenes in The Graduate, another superb Los Angeles film.
There is an amazing moment early on in the film when Greenberg and friend Ivan approach a “barbeque” and realize it’s a kids’ birthday party. It was a great visual joke and it really captured Greenberg’s character, habitually late to the wrong party—I laughed out loud. Stiller’s performance is quite good. He doesn’t give in to jokes and plays the character, warts and all, with humor and strangeness. In a movie as devoid as heroes as this, he did an amazing job making us sympathize with a character who was completely unsympathetic. As he changes and becomes more flexible, the audience comes with him on the journey. Stiller is at once an unselfconscious character actor playing a totally self-conscious dude. He plays that so well, gosh, the two almost cancel each other out.
Beyond Stiller’s performance and these beautiful moments of pure awkwardness and self-loathing, the movie didn’t work. The plot was boring and the other characters around Greenberg were merely caricatures. They were people the audience didn’t care about and the screenwriter didn’t care about really either. Or if he did, his caring didn’t come through in the final picture. They felt like props—LA garden party gnomes, significant only for their Southern California specific sadness.
Baumbach made a deliciously honest movie, one whose authentic feelings and emotions came through the staginess of some of the dialogue. I hope that for the next one, he broadens his reach beyond overeducated men approaching forty. After all, if he can get a green light for this extended navel gaze, there is no telling what else he can direct.
After attending a remarkably bad comedy open mic this weekend, I have realized that the future of comedy is not stand-up, instead it’s online, which is a good and a bad thing. Unlike an open mic, there are fewer uncomfortable moments. If you hate the video you can press pause, if you dislike the live comedy, you can get heckled by the stand-up, knock over a few chairs, and run out of Chuckle Hut stifling a scream. The downside to Youtube is that the comedy is not bright. This is not meant in a bad way, but if you grew up on Mel Brooks or Danny Kaye, like I did, you are in for a disappointment. The comedy I looked at for this blog article was roundly some of the worst of my life. Who are the new web 2.0 comedy entrepreneurs and what do they stand for? I scoured the internet for the profiles of some of the brightest lights out there in internet-land and found, well, not much.
First, there’s Fred nee Lucas Cruikshank, who is the second-most subscribed person on Youtube. He is sixteen years old, according to Wikipedia, and has already eclipsed Miley Cyrus in terms of an online profile. In fact, according to online gossip, soon he will be appearing in an episode of Hannah Montana. His shtick is to edit the pitch of his voice to headache high. Already he has made the leap from famous to rich, through merchandising, profit-sharing with Youtube and other means.
Full honesty, I could not get through an entire episode of Fred. The voice was just too high for me. On the positive side, I think it is quite incredible that a sixteen year old can be this motivated to market his “act.” Sure, every teenager dreams of being a star, but few spend this much time making that happen. I just wonder what pushy mother or father is behind this quest for uncharted Youtube fame, and cannot help but feel a little sorry for the guy. C’mon, you think this is all accidental? Have you watched a video of his? Explain to me how millions of people could find this entertaining.
Kevjumba is a bit older and a lot brighter than Fred. In fact, watching him spar with his more traditional Taiwanese dad in a recent interview led to many genuine LOL moments. Kevjumba may not have the capabilities of a Hollywood studio, but he has been able to mine the humor of his suburban environs with nothing more than a Handicam with ease. I have watched a couple of his videos and over time they are improving in quality, making me wonder what the future of this enterprise could be. His comedy at its best is very personal, and rightly so. A little more viral than the vlog, it exists in a realm of comedy not unlike stand-up, except, well, a bit less distant. Kevjumba is not content to talk about something that happened in his life, he will reenact it too and then invite you to be his “friend” and “rate” the quality of this experience.
Youtube comics generally live in an “anonymous by choice” environment, a comfortable home in a suburb or an apartment in Anytown, U.S.A. While it used to be comedy came from Hollywood or Burbank, now comedy is broadcast from anywhere. This is freeing but also a little depressing. There was nothing like the dream of Los Angeles. When the next comics come out of Auburn, Michigan or San Anita, Texas, will it be half as fun?
The Youtubers’ camera work is frustratingly amateur; constant jump cuts jar the viewer. The sound quality is always spotty. The acting, well, none are trained, and I have never said this before, but it shows. But who cares? The very nature of Youtube is to share lives with others, until the gap between the viewer and the viewed has shrunk enough that your fifteen minutes are their fifteen minutes of fame—reviewable for all time on small simulcast screens or iPhones. No one will die in the future, they will just lose web presence. The medium is very much the message here, and it needs constant reloading.
Most of these comics are young men, usually in their teens. Their fan base, as far as I can tell, are not other young men but, who else, teenage girls. Like any great popular phenomenon, a pack of screaming tweens is not far behind. Who is to blame them for making videos and posting them online, though? If I were sixteen in 2009 I probably would have done the same thing. Me, I did things the old fashioned way: daydreaming.
Commenters, please let me know there is intelligent life out there! Who do you subscribe to? Why?
OK everyone, here it is, my magnum opus (at least this month) The Dog Walk. Enjoy! I would like to thank Lacey for being such a good dog and putting up with me for two days of filming this video. Also, Emeril the cat, for being stationary for so long. Wow, Emeril, you sure know how to stay in one place, an uncommon feat among cats. Thank you also Elena for being camera. The residuals are in the mail, I promise.
In anticipation of releasing my newest video on Youtube this week, I thought I would go through some of my older shorts and talk about them.
“The Bird Watching Movie”
This is the first movie I made that was longer than one minute, and I am pretty proud of it. I created this in the fall of 2007 with two other partners. The exercise was ostensibly to create something less than five minutes and use some camera techniques (graphic matches, depth of focus, zooms, pans) that we had learned in class. Most groups did comedies, like ours.
I don’t know how we decided to do birding. I think my partner Jackie mentioned something about bird watching and we ran with it. I remember storyboarding the movie before writing the script, something I have never done, but is actually quite freeing. If you know what is happening, it is easy to write in the details. Once I knew I would play Charlie, the story was easy. I simply had to find my craziness and amplify that about one hundred percent. The bird calls at the beginning of the film are not based on any real calls but simply figments of my imagination. Again, craziness inspires this film.
What I Like:
1. I am glad that we were able to improvise ninety percent of the script. The humor does not feel as forced. Comedy is best unexpected and unarranged, and most of our shots were just that, set up, shoot, and wait for the funny. The plot points needed to be specific, but the dialogue did not.
2. For example, many people laugh when “Andy” tells Charlie his name is not really Andy. This was not in the script but still very funny.
What I Don’t Like:
1. I would have used a real bird for the chase sequence.
2. I probably would have switched out that one shot where I approach the camera at the end of the chase. It looks pretty forced.
3. Instead of simply locating Charlie at a lectern for the bird watching “conference,” I would have tried to co-opt a lecture or something and filmed there. It just looks very sparse, and I know that’s what I’m going for, but that scene does not say “conference” to me.
OK, so here is a secret blog land—I am doing stand-up again. In fact, the other night, my buddy facebooked me about a show downtown, I tagged along and got about five minutes of stage time and it was excellent. I will admit, I bombed, but being on stage in front of a bunch of strangers was perhaps my favorite feeling all week. While I am still a writer, I can’t help going on stage, because I need the thrill of seeing how my writing, my jokes, affect other people. It’s an addiction. A very bad one.
Perhaps the greatest irony of my on-and-off stand-up career is that I have never been an amazing stand-up. If I can make the audience laugh once or twice, that’s a successful night for me. I consider myself a storyteller first (screenwriting, again) and add in jokes at will, sort of like a recipe, I guess. My stand-up food would probably be more bread-like, the sugar of the joke added sparingly. Actually, that metaphor didn’t work so scratch it. But pretend it did work. All to say, after a couple months of stand-up in LA, I doubt if I’ll ever make it past the open-mic stage.
But I have to do stand-up because I want to see how people respond to my work. I spend a lot of time writing in my room and most of the things I write never see the eyes of anyone. To write a couple jokes, memorize them quickly (and not too well) and then go up on stage to announce them is the equivalent of instant feedback. There is no other way to reach that many strangers in such a direct way, except perhaps panhandling on Hollywood Boulevard, which doesn’t sound half as fun. And my audience is almost always strangers, forget about my family and girlfriend—each one has his or her own reasons for not coming to see me perform. But at least strangers laugh—my family and friends usually just sit in the audience and look embarrassed.
Trust me, if I could quit stand-up, I would. In a second. Yet the thrill of performing my material, my “jokes” is too much. And guess what? I am fine with never being Robin Williams on stage—I’ll even admit I don’t always have the best punch-lines. I am even more fine with never seeing an ounce of success in my entire stand-up career—because, well, it’s not about that. I don’t mind doing open-mics for the rest of my life. But I will also say that if you are an agent, and you do live in LA, please contact me immediately.
If you are in the LA area, you’re welcome to join my mailing list, just put your email in the comments section.