One of my favorite stops on our 2020 vacation was the Red Skelton Museum of American Comedy in his hometown of Vincennes. The exhibits cover his seventy years in the entertainment business from early theater to post-retirement art, provide context for visitors with little to no knowledge of The Way Things Used to Be in Hollywood mass media, and, if you string enough leftover photos in just the right sequence, build your own template to a successful comedy career. All you need is patience, talent, and/or an idol to copycat. That’s not how Skelton did it, but he isn’t around to stop you, now is he?
Throughout our years of travel we’ve visited a variety of specialized museums off the beaten paths, institutions of all sizes that focused intensely on subjects we know a little about, subjects firmly within our respective wheelhouses, and subjects about which we know next to nothing. We’ve enjoyed quite a few opportunities for education, for eye-opening, and for amusement. Despite our ever-advancing ages we still have a lot to learn about any number of subjects and personalities whose heydays were well before our time. If they should happen to provide broader context in some of the past movies, books, and TV shows we’ve consumed over the years, so much the better.
I remember reading about the films of idiosyncratic director Jim Jarmusch in the Movies section of Entertainment Weekly throughout the course of my now-lapsed 28-year subscription, but I’ve never made an effort to watch one for myself till now. Inertia can be a pathetic anchor like that sometimes. And it’s far too easy to get distracted in a universe of nigh-unlimited cultural options, where the human mind can only hold so many directors’ names in its head at any one time, presuming one is making an effort to retain them.
When I saw Jarmusch’s name on the trailer for The Dead Don’t Die, I knew this could be no ordinary zombie film. After a long journey that involved me showing up at the wrong theater, driving halfway across the city to the correct one, nearly having a breakdown when I had to brake for a funeral procession, and arriving with plenty of minutes to spare thanks to a glut of trailers that stalled for time in my favor…then did I see my prophecy fulfilled.
Dateline: April l7, 2017 — For years the wacky improv series Whose Line Is It Anyway? was a staple on our family TV. The ABC version hosted by Drew Carey caught our attention first with its classic lineup of Ryan Stiles, Colin Mochrie, Wayne Brady, and rotating fourth spot occupied at various times by Greg Proops, Brad Sherwood, future Nashville costar Chip Esten, and more. For a while we expanded our intake to include Comedy Central reruns of the original UK version, which featured several of the same players to varying degrees, but introduced us to original host Clive Anderson and a wide variety of British comedians, nearly none of whom we’d heard of before or since except for Stephen Fry. At the very least, we can thank the frequent overseas pop-culture references of comedian Tony Slattery for teaching us American hicks what EastEnders is.
Welcome to the first installment of a recurring feature in which I’ll be accepting viewing or reading suggestions from MCC readers and sharing my results, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer. Rather than dive face-first toward the bottom of the barrel, I’m leading off with a softball pitch of a show, as suggested by the curator and creator of Enchanted Seashells, a tugboat captain’s wife who’s also an accomplished artist in the medium of seashells. Check out her blog for some pretty inspired creations!
Today’s subject: the Fox sitcom New Girl, now in its second season. Instead of researching at length and arming myself with knowledge of characters and situations in advance, I followed in the footsteps of our primitive ancestors and sat through a random episode with as little forethought as possible. In the old days of comic books, there was a saying that would translate into the TV world as, “Every episode is someone’s first.” Theoretically, if a TV show would like to attract new viewers and see ratings rise over the years, instead of dropping steadily from episode one to episode the last, then it would be in the showrunners’ best interest to ensure that every episode is a satisfying dosage for any viewer, whether new or returning.
To simplify the process, I tried the most recent episode available on Fox.com, entitled “Katie”. If any factual errors appear below, it’s because I relied only on my own knowledge and whatever was presented to me within the episode itself.
When the American version of Whose Line Is It, Anyway? was canceled, it was a sad day for those fans of TV improv comedy who were still watching after all those seasons and time slot changes. When Drew Carey and friends reformatted and relaunched on the WB as Drew Carey’s Green Screen, it just wasn’t the same to me. When a live version of basically the same shtick and troupe was recorded for the Game Show Network as Drew Carey’s Improv-a-Ganza, it was closer to the mark, but only lasted through late-spring/early-summer 2011.
For a limited time only, improv has returned to ABC once more, minus a few faces. Trust Us with Your Life is missing Carey and longtime cohort Ryan Stiles, but the Tuesday night summer series aims for much the same ambience. Returning vets such as Wayne Brady, Colin Mochrie, Greg Proops, Brad Sherwood, and Jonathan Mangum (from Improv-a-Ganza, not WLIIA) are ordered around by replacement host Fred Willard into improv games adapted from a British show called Fast and Loose (which in turn was created by one of the original mind behind the original British WLIIA). Rather than a series of competitions where points are awarded even though they don’t really matter, now the games are instead loopy, inspired-by recreations of anecdotes from the lives of assorted celebrity guests of varying caliber.
So far our old friends are a treat to see again, though I wish Willard was an active performer instead of being relegated to mere host duties. Of all the games aired thus far, the funniest and least cribbed from WLIIA is “Sideways Scene”, in which three of our funnymen reenact a tale while lying sideways on an orange mat but filmed from overhead, creating fun discomfort from gravity and crawling around and over each other. (It’s funnier than it sounds.) Guest participation has varied:
* Episode 1: Tennis star Serena Williams. She seemed to enjoy every minute of it, but I was a little bugged that half the jokes were Wayne Brady complimenting her figure. This became repetitive and just a little voyeuristic.
* Episode 2: Jack and Kelly Osbourne. I never watched their world-famous MTV reality show and had few preconceptions about them beyond their bizarre fashion choices of years past. They seemed like well-adjusted siblings with the expected rivalries and embarrassing dirt on each other, perhaps because they’ve caroused together one time too many. Our improv all-stars seemed on fire, but when called upon to impersonate their famous father, I was annoyed that no one could remember the difference between his daily mumbling and his much clearer, louder singing voice.
Episode 3: Mark Cuban. Never heard of him. Apparently he’s a buff millionaire who was once a Pittsburgh bouncer and now owns a basketball team. The cast had fun with his occasionally lewd life stories, my ignorance notwithstanding.
Episode 4: Ricky Gervais. All his responses to Willard’s questions appeared to have been edited heavily due to either excessive length or simple incredulity. After some awkward opening segments about his non-idyllic childhood, he seemed to enjoy himself the most when asked to participate in a sketch where all his dialogue was provided by Colin. It’s hard to go wrong when Colin is in charge.
ABC is showing two episodes per week, Tuesdays at 9 EDT. The Internet says only eight were filmed, so this may soon be a blip in TV history. I plan to enjoy them while I can, though the promise that one of next week’s guests is Jerry Springer is not exactly enticing.
Despite ratings for a basic-cable premiere that were okay but not grounds for instant Fox-style cancellation, ABC Family’s Bunheads made a few headlines anyway last week thanks to a gift from Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes, who thought the show needed publicity. Rhimes tweeted to her 190,000 followers about the failure of creator Amy Sherman-Palladino to establish and enforce strict racial quotas during the twenty-minutes-long casting phase of the low-budget show’s compacted pre-production schedule.
On Monday Entertainment Weekly passed along interview excerpts in which Sherman-Palladino expressed disappointment in Rhimes’ flagrant disregard for the Woman Showrunners’ Code, and implied her preference instead for a one-step-at-a-time approach to show creation. (Step 1: get the show on the air in the first place, compromised or otherwise. Step 2: entertain the masses enough to survive past four episodes. Step 3: make changes as needed after you know you’ve earned the privilege to continue working.)
Anyone who tuned in Monday night for the second episode would have noticed a few non-white characters in the tiny town of Paradise, including one of Fanny’s close circle of friends. The representative even had lines, but had quite the unenviable challenge of sharing scenes with the uniquely animated Ellen Greene. Asking her to steal a scene from Pushing Daisies‘ Aunt Viv, here playing an oddball found-object nude sculptress, is a taller-than-tall order regardless of minority classification.
Personally, I thought episode 2 was even more electric than episode 1, with plenty of quotable dialogue (“At last, a chance to use my high school Tibetan!”) and a few tear-jerking scenes as everyone struggled to cope with the fallout of episode 1’s devastating cliffhanger. In addition to Ellen Greene, I was also overjoyed to see the episode end with another guest star from an old, swiftly canceled, Barry Sonnenfeld-related TV show — David Burke from the live-action version of The Tick. (All we need now is a walk-on from a veteran of Maximum Bob and we can declare June 2012 as Sonnenfeldmania Month on Bunheads. Might I suggest Beau Bridges as the Mayor of Paradise?)
Discussion questions for those who caught episode 2 tonight:
1. I thought someone somewhere manufactured party tents in black. Am I, too, imagining this?
2. Is any Mark Wahlberg film really worth skipping school on false pretenses? Even if he’s making things in France explode?
3. If you ran a party supply shop, how much would you charge for Dalai Lama cocktail napkins?
4. Capes? Seriously?
5. Which Paradise resident do you think we’ll meet first, the Republican or the Liza Minnelli impersonator?
6. The USS Intrepid‘s official site offers no coupons, but does sell gift cards. Close enough?
7. Am I or am I not alone in thinking that Fanny had the funniest and saddest line of the night, as she scoffed at the notion of being prayed for from afar: “I take my spirituality very seriously. If I don’t see it, I don’t believe it!” It’s just me, right?
8. Is it really true that no one eats carbs anymore? If so, do I have to keep living in that world?
9. If the Shonda Rhimes “Save Bunheads So It Can Have Time to Replace Half Its White Cast” publicity campaign works and the show survives past this summer, which fad do you think the show will inspire first: funeral dancing or sitar players at parties?
10. Would anyone else like an encore of Tom Waits’ “Picture in a Frame”?
I’d also like to address what was, for me, the most incendiary portion of the show: the scene in which Michelle and Rico the mellow bartender knock the concept of brunch and raise their glasses “to time-specific eating habits.” Hey, Bunheads: really? You couldn’t show even one scene of an adult male celebrating the magical rarity that is breakfast-for-dinner, so I as a breakfast-food fan could feel good about watching this show? Not one?