All posts by Oliver Morrison

Profile: Comedy in the Park

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Suzette Simon wants the world to take comedy as serious as any other art form. She’s preparing for the start of 8th season of Laughter in the Park, the outdoor comedy series in New York that she founded in 2007, which has put on over 50 shows to 10,000 New Yorkers. Just as people make it a point to see Shakespeare or Swan’s Lake, she wants standup in the park to be an essential summer offering.

“Everybody thinks they can do comedy,” Simon says. “They don’t understand that the guy that really makes you laugh on a stage has been in basements and alleys and dark theaters and bars for the last five years.”

Simon started doing comedy after working as a producer on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. She would make her friends laughs with stories about trying to track down people to appear on the show. “Once I didn’t realize the guy I was talking to was actually a pimp,” Simon says.

Simon didn’t know how to get started as a comedian so she started doing routines in subway stations. “Cops are the worst critics. They just kept throwing me out.” So in 2007 she decided to form an outdoor comedy series, so she could get some stage time.

The first year didn’t go so well. “It got darker and darker,” Simon said. “By the time the headliner arrived you could hear the crickets and this one bum growling. It was just horrendous.”

But the second year, she learned more about which spaces worked for outdoor comedy, put up posters and people showed up. For some it was their first time seeing live comedy and they liked it so much they hugged her after the show.

That’s when she realized that she was onto something that was about more than just her own stage time. This was a chance for people who might not ever seek out comedy on their own, to see live comedy for the first time and bring all types of New Yorkers together for laughter.

“There are 8 million strangers and we can yell, bark, cuss, and fight. That is our easiest connection with 7.99 million people that are sharing the city with us,” Simon says. “But it is not easy for anyone to smile, to laugh, to connect.”

END OF BLOG POST FOR ASSIGNMENT. THE REST IS FOR FUN.

But the long hours it takes to set up for the summer shows has meant that in the past few years she has been too frazzled to perform herself. And she struggles to convince cultural organizations that comedy is as worthwhile an art form as any other.

Last year she received a grant from the Madison Square Garden that allowed her to put on six shows, pay for all her expenses and pay the performers. But this year she didn’t receive the funding because, she says, the foundation wasn’t convinced that comedy was a serious art form with cultural value.

Because her nonprofit NYLaughs doesn’t have a lot of money, she has to wait until a couple of weeks before the events to confirm that her comedians don’t have any better paying gigs.  Most of them are performing outside for the first time and they can only do clean material. “It’s the first time they’ve ever been able to perform in front of their kids: their kids can’t go to clubs,” Simon says.

The audiences in the park tend to reflect the full diversity of the city. “It’s not just all comedy about white Jewish men,” Simon says. “It’s families, it’s couples, it’s people on dates, it’s people jogging by to see us. We’re a spectacle.”

But that spectacle doesn’t work everywhere. When she tried to do it at Union Square Park, instead of sitting down to escape the frenzied pace of the city, audience members watched standing up and left without staying for the full 90 minutes. So she limits the shows to a few low-key locations in Manhattan, such as Tompkins Square Park, although she hopes that someday, with more funding, she’ll be able to take it to the outer boroughs as well.

Part of her motivation to do philanthropic comedy is to atone for her daytime work as a reality TV producer. She is the person who, after tragedies such as the Boston bombings and Hurricane Sandy, has to call up victims and make them appear on TV.

“When you see a disaster, you think ‘Oh my goodness, I gotta give blood,’” says Simon. “When I see a house falling on a woman, I think ‘I hope she can still reach the phone.’”

She described one time, having to coach a man and his hysterical wife to drive back to the scene of a chaotic disaster, past the police who were telling them to stay away, and find her TV crew. “I’m like the Anne Coulter of black people,” says Simon, who is black. “Black people would hate me if they only knew who I was.”

And partly she just wants to contribute to the city she loves. “I’m from Brooklyn. My heart, my veins pump sewer water,” says Simon. “No matter how many high rises or how many artists get pushed out of the Lower East Side and into Williamsburg, there is just so much possibility. When you love somebody you just do whatever. You know what I mean. So I do whatever.”

Web Series are Changing the Lesbian World

These 5 web shows feature lesbian characters that can’t be found on broadcast television.

 

Many of the new web series talk about gender in a different way than in portrayals of lesbians in TV’s past. In the first episode of the “The Better Half”, the two lead characters dress according to how feminine or masculine they’re feeling that night.

Ingrid Jungermann’s show “F to the 7th” uses some of the same absurdist and melancholy humor of Louis C.K. and sometimes features stars like Amy Sedaris and Janeane Garofalo. This episode is premised on the idea of what would happen if Jungermann had a one night stand with herself. In this clip she pushes this premise to its absurd limit.

Alison Wong says that gay men made it to TV more quickly than gay women because “The stereotype of a flamboyant gay man is that is that he is into fashion and singing,” Wong said. “But the stereotype of a lesbian would be a lumberjack or a house builder, and those don’t seem as fun or as exciting.” She describes her show “Straight Up Gay” as like “Will and Grace” but with a lesbian in the fun gay-friend role. In this clip she tries mine humor from situations where they’re both attracted to women.

When Lauren Augarten wrote her show “Scissr” she thought she was breaking down old notions of what it means to be a lesbian, and even cast a transgender woman as a cisgender character (a woman born with female parts). But she still received a complaint on Reddit that there weren’t any women of color and from a producer who wanted a more traditional butch lesbian. In this clip we see trans actress Jamie Clayton play a lesbian bouncer who turns away two clueless straight men.

Christina Bly, 28, and Lauren Aadland, 27 have both worked professionally with video, and apply their production skills to their web travel series, “Button and Bly.” In this short clip you see them filming on a gay cruise in Sweden, where they’ve picked up a small following.

ISSUE: Affirmative Comedy

 

After Saturday Night Live hired Sasheer Zamata in a special casting session for black females last year, comedians of color were full of hope.

“I thought I’m sure they’re going to talk about the bigger picture. They’re going to say there’s never been an Asian, there’s never been a Latina woman,” said Jesenia, a comedian in the Bronx who goes by one name.

That didn’t happen. Instead, she and her comedic partner, Jenni Ruiza, saw another example of what they say is a long tradition of stereotypical Latina characters.

So they made a video depicting all the Latina stereotypes that have appeared on the show, such as horny and ignorant.

The video received more than 10,000 views.

“People are constantly asking us, ‘What’s your next video? What are you going to tell Lorne Michales? What are you going to tell NBC?” Jesenia said. “That’s not us. That is why we followed it up with the video ‘I Feel Crampy.’ It’s about little girls getting their periods for the first time.”

“We’re not activists. We’re at the core comedians,” Ruiza said. “It’s really crazy to see what the media responds to and what goes quote-un-quote viral.”

They say that they’d prefer if all casting were colorblind. “The greatest comedians out there speak to everyone. You don’t have to be black to like Bill Cosby,” Ruiza said.

But right now executives don’t hire Latina women in comedy for good roles. “I have no problems with playing maids, but not when it is a Latina maid and her line is ‘Si. Si Señor.’ Can we move on from the 1960s?” Jesenia said.

If they don’t see things improve, they plan on taking TV comedy into their own hands. “At some point we’ll stop watching and create our own content where we can play normal characters,” Ruiza said. “There are 53 million of us and counting, and we pay for the salaries for these executives.”

CRITICAL ASSESSMENT: Seinfeld Speeds, Comedians Caffeinate

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Why did Jerry Seinfeld, one of the most successful comedians of all time, start an internet chat show?

In each episode of “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” Seinfeld drives a vintage car to match the celebrity comic he picks up: a slender 1967 Volvo for Tina Fey, an old car-repair truck for Michael Richards.

The show tries to be informal and intimate: Seinfeld asks the celebrities out for coffee on the phone and they answer as if the meetings weren’t planned. None of the cameras in the cars and coffee shops are visible.

The comedians wax nostalgic and punctuate their stories with pithy aphorisms. Seinfeld tells Jay Leno that comedians like them know that any comedy gig, no matter how big, is a good gig.  Leno, in his light way, refutes him with a story of a show he did in front of Portuguese immigrants at the Playboy club.

Seinfeld is better at making fun of others than himself. On his old show he turned others into exaggerated characters we could laugh at. On this show he has only his guests to pick at. Watch Ricky Gervais squirm as Seinfeld drives faster and faster, “Fear is funny especially when it’s not fake,” says Seinfield, stepping on the gas pedal. He tells Alec Baldwin that his pronunciation of ‘rapier’ (rap-ee-yay) is “either really pretentious or wrong.”

In perhaps the best episode Michael Richards and Seinfeld have the rapport to go deep quickly.

“Sometimes I look back at the show and I think I shoulda enjoyed it more,” says Richards. The tragic sadness of this moment—that he was stressed- out backstage for the best thing he will ever do—is papered-over by Seinfeld’s response: comedians are martyrs who suffer for the entertainment of others.

But Richards really has suffered for his comedy, when he was ostracized for a racist rant seven years before. “I busted up after that event, it broke me down,” Richards said.

So what’s Seinfeld doing with this show? He’s salvaging his legacy and protecting his friendships, showing off cars and matching wits, reminiscing and bemoaning. The show is uneven but, in spite of its artifice, Seinfeld is more real than we’ve seen him before: he’s both awkward and mean, incisive and hilarious.

CRITICISM: More than Wall Street, Less than Lolita

In the lead up to the Oscars, The Wolf of Wall Street continues to divide critics around one question: Is the movie a critique of the excesses of Wall Street? Or is it, perhaps unwittingly, a celebration of them?

The film has divided audiences between those who find it uproariously funny and those who are horrified by its treatment of debauchery and corruption as mere laugh-lines.

Other films have depicted Wall Street’s excesses, but they’ve always done so with a clear view of the victims in site.  As Leonardo DeCaprio said in a recent interview, Wolf was made unrelentingly from the perspective of the villain.

This isn’t a problem in and of itself. Crime and Punishment is none the worse for Dostoyevsky’s having written it from the perspective of a murderer. But the source material for Wolf was a banker, not Dostoevsky.

As a consequence, in order to avoid the appearance of callousness, the film shows Decaprio’s daughter’s head snap back in a car crash, toward the end, after one of his drug-filled rages. It’s as if the film is winking, making sure viewers know it doesn’t condone his behavior.

So the flaw of the Wolf of Wall Street isn’t that it sides with the villain too much, but too little. Nabokov never lets readers escape Humbert Humbert’s obsessive gaze for a sentence. Humbert is both funny and disturbing at the same time. Decaprio’s character is always either lost in a fantasy or a brutal melodrama, never quite depicting his excesses and charms in the same moment.

But Wolf gives more insight into the animating spirit of investment bankers than Oliver Stone’s Wall Street did. Gordon Gekko was ruthless and stern; Decaprio makes financial machinations look fun.

There is a more complicated film yet to be made about what drives less exaggerated, more honorable men to become complicit in financial greed. This isn’t that film.

Wolf’s contribution is that is poses the problem of greed without dismissing it as evil: the evil returns with each new generation of bankers, the film shows, because it’s so wonderful.

NEWS: Local humor hoaxes hit hard

 

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When a snowstorm shut down Atlanta earlier this month, an article reported that Georgia’s governor had temporarily legalized marijuana, so citizens could relax during the debacle. The article was passed around quite a bit on social media. But of course it wasn’t true.

It was the work of James Hodgson, 39, who started the Atlanta Banana two years ago, an Onion-like news parody site. The success of national satire brands like the Onion, the Daily Show and Colbert, has inspired a handful of local copycat sites, including Hodgson who cited them as his inspiration.

Greg Henderson the editor of the fictitious Rock City Times in Little Rock was tired of the oversaturated media market in Arkansas. This may sound strange for people who still confuse Arkansas with Alabama, but Henderson was a PR man.

“If you’re in a little town in Arkansas of 15,000 or 20,000 people, the number of stories is pretty minimal, so you’re doing junk reporting,” said Henderson.

He’s been successful in part, he thinks, because the Rock City Times gives voice to opinions that local media can’t always express in such small markets.

“You can’t make fun of a local politician because they do have influence in a very tiny community,” said Henderson.

A business reporter in northwest Arkansas – where the headquarters of Walmart dominates – wrote an anonymous story about Walmart installing missiles to shoot down Amazon’s flying delivery drones. He was poking fun at Walmart’s lack of online strategy.

But Henderson said the company did something strange: it reposted the story on its own twitter feed and responded as if it were true. The retail behemoth decided, like many a politician who has appeared on shows like Colbert, that it’s better to be in on the joke, even if it’s at their own expense.