Thursday, April 30, 2009
With Conan O’Brien’s departure from the Late Night spot and ascension to the coveted seat at the Tonight Show desk, late night television would seem to be at a crossroads of sorts. Jimmy Fallon, Conan’s replacement, doesn’t seem to be much of a host (I won’t turn this into a rant against Fallon, but I simply can’t understand why someone whose major contribution to comedy is breaking character in more sketches than any other SNL cast member would earn the Late Night spot, but I digress) and, frankly, the rest of the late night lineup looks rather bleak: Craig Ferguson is decent at best, Jimmy Kimmel is marginally funny yet somewhat lacking in monologue and interview skills, Letterman and Leno are on auto-pilot, and Carson Daly is Carson Daly.
The remaining late night shows, O’Brien’s program and the Stewart/Colbert combo on Comedy Central, are certainly funny, but aren’t without their problems. As much as I like them, these shows are firmly entrenched in their ways, all following their respective formats to the bitter end: O’Brien is straight-forward late night with a self-deprecating twist, Stewart is a half-hour of SNL’s “Weekend Update” and Colbert is more of the same, except with a satirical character at the helm. Is it too much to ask to demand something entirely new out of late night television?
While the talk show isn’t known as being the most innovative of television forms, it has certainly seen its fair share of creative innovations over the years. Letterman added a sarcastic edge to the interview portion and incorporated surreal humor into his sketches, Conan further developed the surrealism that Letterman introduced while adding a bit of self-deprecation, and Colbert, in perhaps the most drastic innovation to date, injected the concept of character-based, satirical humor into what had previously been a straight-forward format. These developments are all well and good, but two of these three shifts occurred at least 15 years ago, and even Colbert’s more recent manipulations of the form are starting to wear thin, especially in an America that is shifting further and further towards the political left with each passing day (in turn, pushing Colbert’s satire of the right further and further away from cultural relevancy).
On top of all of this, late night TV simply doesn’t draw the audience that it once did. With Cartoon Network’s foray into the realm of late night programming with their Adult Swim programming block, much of the young, sleep-deprived audience that was once the bread and butter of major network talk shows are now watching cable, while the rest of that audience seem to simply turn their sets off at the end of The Colbert Report. As a lifelong fan, it pains me to say this, but late night television, like its primary viewer base, is rapidly growing old and out of touch.
Who, then, will save us from this tedious death march of late night programming? Will Jimmy Fallon shed his cloying, oh-so-cute-and-bumbling persona in favor of a legitimately funny comedic voice? Will Jimmy Kimmel stop trying so hard to get laughs? Will Carson Daly develop a personality?
No, I would argue that the savior of late night is not any of the aforementioned hosts, or even a host at all, but is instead a man who has salvaged many a doomed talk show segment. Ladies and gentleman, without further adieu, I give you Norm MacDonald: Talk Show Guest.
To some, MacDonald might seem a strange choice to breathe new life into the ailing format, especially given his resume to date. Norm’s greatest career accomplishment is undoubtedly his tenure as host of SNL’s “Weekend Update,” a job from which he was unceremoniously fired by then-head of NBC Don Ohlmeyer for being “unfunny.” Since that time, Norm’s output has been limited to one entertaining box-office flop, a rash of mediocre sitcoms and films, and a massive mound of gambling debt.
But it isn’t so much Norm’s body of work that interests me, as much as it’s his promotional appearances in support of that work. Take this clip from Conan, for example:
Shown here saving a struggling young Conan from himself, Norm demonstrates his uncanny ability to step in and deliver comedic gems with precise timing and a sort of nonchalant delivery that disguises the formidable genius at work behind the scenes. I would argue that the reason Norm’s career went the way that it did wasn’t due to a lack of a sense of humor or creativity, but a lack of material to spontaneously riff on. Norm is at his funniest when he’s making a mockery of absolutely anything. Whether it’s Carrot Top, the tacky, self-promotional world of late night television or the decline of comedy roasts, he needs something to wage war on (so to speak).
I could say more about this, but I’d rather show you:
Rife with awkward pauses and hackneyed punch lines, Norm’s appearance on The Comedy Central Roast of Bob Saget was an attack on the entire institution of the modern roast. Where Friars Club roasts were once legitimate events that naturally emerged out of the industry’s desire to pay respect to its elder statesmen, the modern version feels like an advertisement for the newest episode of Comedy Central Presents and features such A-list comedians as Greg Giraldo lampooning showbiz legends like Flavor-Flav. Without saying so much as a word to challenge the roast itself, Norm manages to highlight just what a farce the entire show has become, mocking the institution with a straight face and a list of jokes that could easily have been written by Jack Benny in 1950.
Through this irreverent sensibility, Norm has become the voice of viewers who grew up watching televised comedy and, frankly, want to point out just how ridiculous it can be. A relatively simple concept, yet his bumbling, unassuming delivery lends it a certain genuine quality. It’s almost as though we, as the viewers, aren’t quite sure whether Norm is conscious of just how brilliant his delivery really is or not. He could be a genius, or he might be like an innocent child wandering through the mall commenting on the many physical deformities of the passers-by, all the while inadvertently delivering a brilliant comedic set right in front of the Cinnabon (premise for that comparison blatantly stolen from Norm’s appearance on Dennis Miller Live… sorry, Norm).
Best served by absolute freedom and spontaneity, Norm could shine amidst a late night lineup that, frankly, lacks much of an audience. Rigid structure and stuffy formats do nothing but hinder Norm’s considerable talent, so where better to experiment than on a late night show that nobody would watch? As late comedian Mitch Hedberg observed when told he could swear on satellite radio during the early days of the format, “No shit…You can swear in the woods, too.” Without a stable audience, late night is the perfect testing ground for experimental comedy. Rather than rehashing the same, tired formats with different hosts, why not test out something a little different?
Now, don’t get me wrong here, I’m not suggesting that Norm should simply take a seat at a desk and ask people like Pete Wentz fascinating questions about their various pets— if Norm were to ever enter into the late night game, he’d have to do so in a characteristically irreverent fashion. Given his abilities as a talk show guest, why not toy with the format and play to Norm’s strengths? Rather than Norm hosting the show, why not bring guest hosts in to lead the program, with Norm as the perennial guest and interviewee, allowing him to simply take a seat and essentially riff and do what he does best? The somewhat creative manipulation of the relatively strict and uptight talk show format would be sure to draw attention, not only from traditional media outlets, but from blogs, forums and anywhere else that young media nerds tend to congregate (Cough). And lord knows Norm has more than enough in the way of famous comedian friends, making the entire concept surprisingly plausible.
Obviously, this is a bit of a far-fetched pipe dream and wouldn’t be without its obstacles. The first and most glaring issue with this idea is simply the possibility that the show would quickly grow tired and repetitive with only Norm as a guest. While I do have faith in his ability to innovate, especially given the sort of freedom afforded to post-Letterman and Leno programs, I can’t deny that this is a reasonable concern. My only answer to that might be to make it a weekly program (so as to give the producers more time to prepare for each individual show) , but I still have to concede that this idea is A. likely to be short-lived at best and B. a hilariously unrealistic fantasy concocted by me, a rabid Norm MacDonald fan.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to this idea, aside from its lack of any grounding in reality, is an age gap that I suspect has already burned Norm once. More on that after a couple clips:
Aside from being hilarious, these clips illustrate what I think has been Norm’s repeated downfall up to this point: his lack of resonance as funny with anyone above a certain age. Both Barbara Walter’s befuddlement at Norm’s unique comic timing and delivery and his anecdote about the Friars Club card game seem to reiterate the fact that older people like Don Ohlmeyer just don’t “get” Norm. While they may recognize that others find him hilarious, something about his lack of respect for established norms (Hah) of comedy, whether it’s an embrace of anti-humor or a sarcastic, dry delivery, just doesn’t seem to land with the older generation. And ultimately, that’s likely a major factor in Norm’s somewhat lackluster career following his firing from SNL. As long as studio executives have gray hair and remember Abbott and Costello, it’s going to be hard for Norm to find work, especially if he’s presented with half-baked ideas for inverted talk shows concocted by an unemployed college student.
The fact is that studios like to know their money is safe, and to a corporate structure what’s worked in the past is what works; Norm, unfortunately, hasn’t worked and as a (horrible) result, is absent from the airwaves. As great as it would be to see Norm shake up late night, it likely isn’t in the cards, despite my arbitrary efforts to write a bunch of words urging that very thing. That being said, if Norm CAN find some way to overcome this age gap and convince executives that he is one of the most unique comedic voices of the past ten to fifteen years, I strongly believe he is poised to become the new king of late night television. Or, at the very least, the new court jester. And in a court occupied by the likes of Conan and Letterman, jester isn’t a bad role at all.
Monday, April 27, 2009
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
It's 6:44 in the morning, and I'm writing this, my virgin post, from a Starbucks. If I had known that Starbucks opened at 5am, I would have been here sooner. But alas, at 5am when I tried calling them using IP-Relay the operator refused to sit through the eighth ring. If they hadn't been such an impatient cunt I would have gotten through. Oh well.
If you're wondering why I was using a public service for the deaf to try to call Starbucks in the early hours of the morning rather than using an actual phone, stop it. I'm way past the point where I would normally explain myself. My back hurts, I haven't slept in over 24 hours, and the prick at this place told me that soy milk tastes better than actual milk in lattés. It doesn't.
So here I am, drinking this inferior coffee product, while I look around at the typical early morning Starbucks crowd. Aside from the girl with the huge eye sitting across from me, I assume that all of these people are boring paper pushers desperately hoping the line for recently thawed fusion pastries and inferior coffee product never ends. When it does I'm sure they'll be compelled to schlep off to some eternal hell on the fifth floor where they spend the day wondering what life could have been if only they had gotten the orange-mango-danish-breakfast sandwich with sausage instead of the blueberries and shit coffeecake. There's always tomorrow, they'll say. But I know they'll stick with blueberries and shit. If anyone in here had it in them to order what they wanted, then at least one person would be smiling.
Luckily, I Heard It Through the Grape Vine just came on, and if I close my eyes I can pretend I'm in my damp car listening to the oldies station. No not the CCR cover you ignorant normie redneck. This is the thick, juicy, slathered in fat ass soul, cut from Gladys Knight and the Pips. No it isn't as good as the Marvin Gaye version, but do you think the slobs that buy their music at Starbucks know that?
I must be one lucky jerk, because Fleet Foxes just came on. It reminds me of something, but in this state of sleep deprivation I can't recall what exactly. Something important, or at least relevant.
Oh right. Some time ago my hard drive up and committed The Big S. There wasn't any warning. Maybe I didn't treat it well enough. I don't know what the protocol for laptop care and maintenance is. I assumed that the things were supposed to be bulletproof so that journalists could have online dick measuring contests while reporting from the front lines of wherever. Or at some concert. I don't know, journalists go through some tough shit.
In a misguided attempt to right the wrong I paid some mac shop a hundred bucks to tell me that all of my music, scripts, pictures of cats, etc. was gone forever. Then like the novice consumer I am, I bought another aluminum monstrosity, and this time bought a fifty dollar plastic cover to protect it. This handy plastic cover will surely make my computer happier. This happened about a year ago, and because I'm a lazy consumer n00b I haven't put any music on this thing.
I got tired of manually adding stuff to my Songza play list pretty early on, and was glad to see that Pitchfork had made a top 100 list on Songza. Just click it, and listen to 100 songs chosen by the premier taste makers for un-athletic, bourgeois offspring of the people who were too lame to take drugs in the 60's. Sounds great right? Well it isn't bad. True to their persona, Pitchfork made sure to include a little of everything, and two of Kanye West. It's going to be a nice day in hell when you all realize that he's a crack baby.
Okay that isn't fair, because for some reason they also included two Vampire Weekend tracks and two Crystal Castles tracks. So you like Vampire Weekend and Crystal Castles. Whatever. I don't care. That isn't even the point I was trying to make. Those acts are both good, just like everyone one here.
Oh damn it. The girl with the big eye left, and she didn't throw out the napkin she's been scribbling all over. I don't know why, but I really wanted to see that napkin. I would have posted a pic of it here and then this wouldn't have been a complete waste of your time. As a consolation prize, I will now Google image search for, "big eye girl napkin," and post the first pic.
Well what do you know? It sucks. Better luck next time.
Right so back to the inferior Motown version of Heard it Through the Grape Vine and how it was a welcome rest to my demoralized ears. The pitchfork top 100 list isn't bad, but I continually felt myself wondering just what the Illinois jerk offs were basing their rankings on, so I went to the site to check out their reviews.
Why did I do this? Didn't I know I would get lost in a sea of misplaced nostalgia, and flagrant misuse of the word irony? You would think that, but somehow I always manage to forget how terrible the writing is, and how obnoxious the fairly thorough reporting still manages to be. Much like this fat sucker who has now had four apple something or others and a huge plastic cup full of what looks like whipped cream and muddy water, I keep going back to stuff my eye holes with shit that will probably make me retarded.
I trudged through the reviews. Skimmed a few. I got what I came for, and no not punishment from hipsters. All this music on this list. Every last fucking song on this 100 song list is blended bullshit. "_______'s new album is a fresh blend of ______ and ______."
Oh good. Just what I need to get some excitement into my life, a refreshing blend of old stale music. You know what this new Assfuckers album needs? A hint of summer. Has the music industry become a fucking juice bar? A juice bar run by a counterculture that defines it's self through meaninglessness? No none of the stuff on the Pitchfork top 100 play list is bad, but none of it is anything new either. There are only so many ways that you can mix beach boys harmonies with dance beats!
Maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm overreacting, but I had to say something. The realization that making music has come down to picking two pre-existing genres and throwing them into a mental blender made me want to throw up. I looked at about 15 pitchfork reviews and counted 8 uses of this blending definition. "So basically, if you're looking for a mix between two different things, you're in luck." Fuck that.
And fuck this.
Some Asian dude in swim trunks just gave his girl a mango-raisin sandwich with a love note hidden inside. She went nuts. I have to take a shit, and there is a line for the bathroom.
Monday, April 13, 2009
As per the suggestion of Daren Urban "Urbane" Sprawls, I have decided to publish the liner notes I recently wrote for an Oasis mix comprised exclusively of post-Morning Glory tracks. Although I do cheat somewhat by including a handful of songs from The Masterplan, an album that came out in 1998 but is comprised of songs from 1994 to 1997. I also break my own rules right off the bat with the inclusion of the "Wibbling Rivalry" excerpt which was recorded before the Morning Glory album, but released soon afterwards. I must confess that my desire to make the best possible compilation of less-heralded Oasis songs overwhelmed my desire to follow my own arbitrary rules. My real goal here was to illuminate the ever-expanding back catalogue of what I think is the greatest contemporary rock band (Radiohead being an "alternative" or "experimental" rock band, Animal Collective being whatever it is they are, Arcade Fire not being particularly good, etc.) The idea is that you listen to these selections and then you go back and you listen to "Rock N Roll Star" or "Some Might Say" or "Wonderwall" or "Slide Away" or "Live Forever" or "Champagne Supernova" or "Don't Look Back in Anger' or"Cigarettes and Alcohol" or "Morning Glory" or "Cast No Shadow" or "Supersonic." The very thought is staggering.
That’s “Abel” as in “Cain and…” not “able-bodied man.” The brotherly connotations should be obvious, although Liam subverts his “hard-man” image by casting himself as the murdered brethren. This was written during a period at which Liam claimed to be a church-going sinner (although he rejected the Bible due to its lack of aliens). He has since claimed he never set foot in a church, but no matter, Liam’s lyrical offers of friendship, reconciliation and love still resonate. The strongest components of this song are its melody (a Gallagher specialty), textured percussion, yearning backing vocals and thundering coda.
Keep in mind this is a live, and not particularly great, version of the song which is therefore lacking most of the instrumentation I mention in the write-up. But something is better than nothing. The YouTube giveth and the YouTube taketh away.
4) "Lyla" single b-side - "Eyeball Tickler"
A terrific example of Liam’s late-period throat-shredding. Legitimately badass riffs buttress nonsense lyrics, pummeling drums and Liam’s voice at its most fearsome. In short, classic Oasis. And the only song on this anthology which wasn’t written by a Gallagher. It comes from the pen of Gem Archer, guitarist, songwriter and Noel’s lieutenant since joining the group just after the release of Standing on the Shoulder of Giants in 2000. He claims to write specifically for Liam’s inimitable voice and when Gallagher Jr. screams those ‘ahhh’s you believe. In everything. You can almost see Liam slap the microphone to the ground as the song fades out (something he used to do all the fucking time).
Whiplash. “The Sex Pistols are the greatest band ever, mate” Liam declared. This is the sound of his John Lennon/John Lydon vocal stylings reaching an early apex. Dig those elongated vowels. Dig that chunky guitar solo. Dig the Stevie Wonder reference about bowing down “to the tears of a clown.” Dig out your soul, a little later.
Noel’s lyric, “damn my education, I can’t find the words to say” is also a key line to appreciating much of the group’s lyrical content. Like the way Robert De Niro finds the poetry in his characters’ inarticulateness, Liam often found an emotional undercurrent in Noel’s mishmash of nonsense, cliché and occasional poetry. Or as Terrence Malick once put it, “When people express what is most important to them, it often comes out in clichés. That doesn’t make it laughable; it’s something tender about them. As though in struggling to reach what’s most personal about them they could only come up with what’s most public.” Shockingly, this was a single only in Oasis-crazed Japan.
Too long, too loud, too stupid, yet somehow just fucking right. Only the Brothers Gallagher would publicly apologize for their loose lips with a song featuring dozens of squalling guitar tracks. First unveiled to the lucky 200,000-strong crowd at Knebworth, at Oasis’ commercial zenith, it is one of only three songs from Be Here Now that Noel still enjoys (the other two being lead single “D’You Know What I Mean?” and the aforementioned “Don’t Go Away.”)
One of the most recent entries in the long line of British pop songs to mine the rhythms of The Stranglers’ “Golden Brown,” this tune features a desperate, passionate vocal from Noel and a late-night tempest of percussion, piano and acoustic guitar all swirling together in a sledgehammer waltz. Also one of the highlights of Noel’s lyrical renaissance on Don’t Believe the Truth, the song both owns up to the band’s failures (“every beginning has broken its promise”) and promises fans a future worth believing in (“keep on/ trying”).
In his review of 2005’s Don’t Believe the Truth, All Music Guide critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine declared that it was the album with which Liam Gallagher “reclaimed his crown as the best singer in rock.” No vocal performance makes that case as strongly as “Let There Be Love.” The melody/lyrics of the verses can be described as Lennon-esque in the most flattering sense of the word. Liam’s naked vocals ache on the high notes and soothe on the comedown. Only the chorus could be described as a (relative) disappointment. But this is more than made up for by a bridge of astonishing melodic invention and one of Noel’s finest vocals ever (before he disappears into the clouds on the Imagine cover).
Andy Bell, bassist and songwriter for the band, once compared them to tour-mates the Black Crowes saying: “The Black Crowes are all about riffs. We’re all about chords.” And it’s on a song like this, full of big, open, majestic chords that the ineffable magic of Oasis is felt at it fullest. The space between the chords and within the chords themselves “gives us room to dream,” as Jonathan Rosenbaum loves to say about films employing extended long-takes. Within these vast chords, Noel and Liam are able to evoke both time (“a world come undone at the seams” referencing the chaotic times of 2005) and timelessness (“Suspended clear in the sky are the words that we sing in our dreams”) in what Noel would rightfully call “a modern hymn.”
A tune that simply gets everything right from the glam rock stomp to the intertwining vocal melodies to the huge chorus to the howling coda to the cool-as-fuck vocal delivery to the whimsical-yet-menacing lyrics to the return of the “ecstatic harmonies” of “She’s Electric” and “Champagne Supernova.”
17) Dig Out Your Soul - "Falling Down"
Noel’s second attempt to rewrite “Tomorrow Never Knows” is perhaps not as earth-shattering as his first (that is, his collaboration with the Chemical Brothers, “Setting Sun”) but it undoubtedly more thoughtful. Singing like a man lost in outer space (his own description), Noel sighs about the summer sun, kissing the world goodbye and other notions of psychic drift. It’s not all resignation though. Noel reveals his cosmic wit by informing God Almighty, “if you won’t save me, please don’t waste my time.” And when he declares “we live a dying dream/ if you know what I mean” Noel is both decrying Oasis status as a giant-sized cult band and winking at the true believers. If the psychedelic legacy of the 1960s must give way to the mundanities of “modern rock,” then “Falling Down” serves as an moving epitaph. Dig that piano reverb.
“My family don’t seem so familiar.” A fortunate example of Noel producing a song as exquisitely as he wrote it. A creative zenith at the band’s absolute commercial bottom, Noel penned the tune in the post-traumatic afterglow of his decision to quit shoveling cocaine up his nostrils. Abandoned by founding members Paul “Bonehead” Arthurs and Paul McGuigan, scorned by critics, outsold by rivals, regarded as an instant nostalgia act by a formerly adoring public who only wanted to hear the old hits…panic wasn’t “on the way,” it was living with the band, under their skin, at every moment. This is their victory.
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
It's (Almost) Funny Because It's True: Early Impressions of "Observe and Report" (Volume One, Issue Two)
My access to advance screenings of Hollywood films is likely to take a permanent hiatus come the end of this month, but I find it very appropriate to write about Observe and Report underneath this looming cloud of obsolescence. It is a film from a formerly obscure writer-director (Jody Hill of Foot Fist Way cult fame) about a formerly obscure subculture (the Paul Blart-ian world of mall security) that, judging from the advertising, bears more than a passing resemblance to the Police Academy series.
Seth Rogen, however, is the anti-Guttenberg as the movie's anti-hero Ronnie Barnhardt, a tinpot dictator who somehow manages to come across as a woefully incompetent and shockingly capable human being. Hill's script is as confounding as Rogen's character, advancing too many stray subplots and loose ends while Ronnie goes about his primary goal of apprehending a flasher terrorizing female patrons in the mall's parking lot. We travel with Ronnie as he attempts to join the police academy, romance a vapid shopgirl (Anna Faris), and foil a shoe-store robbery with the help of his lisping sidekick (Michael Pena)--there's fodder for two or three movies in here, just not a single, cohesive one.
What sustains Observe and Report is Hill's caustic brand of comedy, an approach that seems openly hostile to laughter with its de-emphasis of the typical raunch and randomness of a major studio product. As such, Hill relies on two types of jokes: the terribly annoying shenanigans of thinly-drawn weirdos like Pena (whose performance would be the film's most embarrassing were it not for Danny McBride's "brownface" cameo as a Latino gangsta) and the terrifyingly real aberrance of troubled people like Rogen. Audiences can detect the type of asshole that only exists on the page and the type of asshole that exists in their neighborhood, and the vast majority of the film's successful comedy is derived from the latter.
But where Hill truly clinched my attention was in the minor revelation/spoiler that Rogen's character suffers from bipolar disorder, which might help to explain the film's aimless plotline. It also provides a rationale for its aggressively bleak nature. Hill doesn't treat mental illness like a typical lowbrow point-and-laugh punchline but a taboo to be satirized. And while he's not the first to force us to laugh at a delusional, violent creep who's just trying to do right by equally fucked-up friends and family, knowing that Ronnie's behavior stems from more than circumstance adds an unexpected layer of pathos. You laugh immediately because you'd probably cry if you pondered it for too long.
Observe and Report will probably not make a lot of money, not because it's too uncomfortable but because it's not uncomfortable enough. There's a reason that the phrase "broad black comedy" doesn't exist outside of this sentence that I just wrote. Hill seems torn between playing to the mooks in the bleachers and the schadenfreude enthusiasts, taking stabs at trendiness that sometimes work (a soundtrack awash in semi-obscure Queen tracks) but mostly don't (thoroughly mining the comedic possibilities of male genitalia). In creating an Apatow pie mixed with battery acid, Hill has concocted something that will pique the interest of the many but satisfy the palates of the few.