Monday, April 26, 2004

Margaret Cho

Margaret Cho played in D.C. this weekend. We saw her 8:00 show on Saturday night at the Improv. She is, as one might imagine, great fun to see live. Who knew she had lost a bunch of weight, though, and looks even more beautiful than ever. Wow. She came onstage in what seemed to be a pair of black tights over a pair of black underwear and some red and black striped thigh-highs, with a belt on top of all that, and then a skimpy shirt and some red lacy gloves that came all the way up her arms. The first thing she said was "Sorry about the gloves. I just saw Prince in concert." She went into a joke about him, saying that Prince always has his cock in one hand and the Bible in the other, you know, like, "Oh yeah, baby, do it like that....thank you, Jesus!"

I can see that recreating Cho's act on paper is nearly impossible. I hadn't really thought of it before that so much of her humor is based on impressions. I had heard her impressions of her mother, which really are so funny. The Korean accent is so funny to me because I've worked with so many students who sound EXACTLY like the accent she does. But Cho also does a lot of what might be called imaginary impression. In one part of her act, she talks about having gone on an Atlantis cruise (a gay cruise), where there was a reading room. Then she does a whole riff on the idea of the reading room, that it couldn't possibly be a place where people sat and read books. All of a sudden Cho transforms herself, voice and stance, into this kind of ghetto drag-queen, saying "R-E-A-D," defining it as, "What you do when you decide you don't like someone. You look them up and down and then you stare at something you don't like." Pick, for example, their close-set eyes. "Do you have to get special glasses made? Maybe you could go to Lens Crafters. I hear they can make them in just about an hour." You're probably not laughing if you're reading this without ever having heard this act, because the whole joke is in the inflection.

So I said before that I knew she did impressions of her mother and that her audience awaits those impressions because they are funny. I can see that, too, as an artifact of her Korean-ness, her Other-ness, if you will, a sort of acknowledgement of being on this imaginary border. At any rate, I expected to see this in her comedy. But what I didn't expect is the inflection that I am finding it so hard to explain. I found that most of her jokes, including the drag queen above, were delivered in the hip-hop/ghetto/urban vernacular or accent. How do we explain this?

For one thing, young, hip people try to dress and sound black these days. I have to look up a great New York Times essay I read about that last year. The Dave Chapelle Show did a great skit about a blind black man who was a white supremacist. In one scene, his friends are driving him to a White power rally. At a stoplight, the pickup truck he is in pulls up to a car full of teenage (white) boys playing loud rap music. The Black White supremacist yells at them about their music, calling them, "Niggers!" The boys look at each other with horror for a second and then high-five each other because they think it's so cool to have been called that. Margaret Cho is clearly a part of this phenomenon. She seems to adapt a ghetto persona every time she means to deliver a punch line.

So is that because Black culture is cool? Does Cho, as a person who treads so many borders, feel equally comfortable among any of these marginalized cultures? How does it work?

Saturday, April 24, 2004

Throw Throw Momma From the Train, From
the Train

I'm not exactly sure why Wes Gehring includes Throw Momma From the Train in his discussion about dark comedies. I guess it loosely fits his definition, since it laughs at death. The premise of the movie is that Danny DeVito's character seems to murder Billy Crystal's wife, thinking that is what Crystal wanted and he thinks that Crystal will murder his mother in return. Of course, things get really, really ridiculous and we're supposed to laugh a lot. The movie had a little more charm than I anticipated, frankly. I'm not a big Danny DeVito fan, nor have I cared much for Billy Crystal after he played the gay character on Soap, lo these many years ago. Both actors are unappealing for the same reason: they play every character completely over the top. There never seems to be much reality attached to their characters; the behavior is always extreme so it takes a lot of effort to suspend my disbelief--too much effort, in fact for me to care about them.

But so there are some good things to be said for the movie. The first half shows DeVito's character in his misguided way trying to please his writing professor (Crystal). He fumblingly tries to kill the ex-wife, ultimately relying on luck to propel him, since he really isn't a murderer. Crystal, no matter how much he hates that ex-wife (who gained national fame by stealing his novel and publishing it under her name), realizes as a result of DeVito's actions, that he wouldn't really kill his wife and doesn't really want her dead. When DeVito tells Crystal he is expected to kill the mother, at first Crystal is the voice of reason, saying he would never kill a person. In fact, he even tries to warn her. The comic twist happens when there comes to be a wonderful parallel to the plot in the first half of the movie. Crystal begins to want to kill the mother, against his better judgment, but he too is too skittish and relies on luck when he almost throws her off the train. Meanwhile, DeVito changes his mind and tries to stop him. In other words, we laugh because we see the supposedly morally superior Crystal stoop to DeVito's level while DeVito rises to Crystal's level.

Ultimately, of course, all is resolved to everyone's satisfaction. But what I really hate about the movie is that feeling I get that I want my two hours back. This is where I ask, what was the point of the story? Why should I care about this comedy? I don't mean to say that every movie should have some deep undercurrent that carries one to a high moral ground. This could never be true for someone who enjoys the comedies of Jim Carrey or even Curb Your Enthusiasm. Let me think for a second about what distinguishes this silly movie from those other silly movies and shows.

Well, let's take Ace Ventura, Pet Detective as a for instance. The real appeal there is Jim Carrey, of course. His character is so outlandish that he's funny. "Re-he-he-he-he-he-ly???" he says, eating sunflower seeds the way a parrot would, or he spins the car around in the parking lot, winding up miraculously parked in a space, saying, "Llllllliiiiiiiiiiiiiiike a glove!" He's a caricature of a hokey detective and his overacting silliness is pleasing. Then at the end of the film there is the parody of The Crying Game (see? there's intertextuality even in the basest of postmodern films!). So when I ask myself why I watched it, I think that it was clever in a few ways that I don't see in Throw Momma...

And then there's the absurd comedy of Curb Your Enthusiasm. This kind of comedy is character-based as well. I watch because I want to see what kind of a mess Larry David will make this time. I want to see him say the things one shouldn't say in polite company, the kinds of things I think, but would be too afraid to say. Then, I laugh at the consequences of his lack of self-control from the comfortable standpoint of a person who can't step out of bounds the way David does. Now THAT's a reason to see a comedy.

So Throw Momma... certainly has characters, but they're over the top and stupid, and I don't care about them. It's heavy on plot, but light on artfulness. I say no to including it in the class I'll be teaching.

Monday, April 19, 2004


"I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!"

I don't remember why we walked out of Network when it was in the theater, or even what I was doing watching it. I would have been twelve years old when Network was released in 1976. There's a good chance I just didn't understand this satire of the television industry. What's interesting to me about it now, having seen it several times as an adult, is that I don't find it especially funny. Satire is an interesting arm of comedy, I think, because it really isn't very funny. The part that is supposed to be humorous is really only sort of intellectually recognized. "Oh, I see that exaggerated tendency," an audience member might say to himself. Or, "If they don't class up the news, it really end up this way." But there's nothing in Network or in other types of biting satire that bring up a real belly laugh. It's cerebral to the point that it's almost

So Network is about a newsman who grows so disillusioned with the way the news becomes sensationalized that he dares to tell the truth about how he feels. He's the one that says the famous line from the film (above). At first the network fires him in embarrassment, but then they realize that his apparent mental illness is a ratings-grabber. They rehire him as a sort of mad prophet with a message. The viewing public buys his message and the network recognizes its marketability. The result is a chaotic spectacle of this man's decline. The man's only protector, Max Schumacher, the boss who fired him and who was later fired for not bringing him back, is marginalized and used by the new leadership, network executive, Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway). Diana plays a wonderful satire of the typical Type A executive...down to her sexual proclivity. She tells Max that she climaxes early and falls asleep quickly afterwards, an easy parody of the typical male lover.

The basic message of the film is that television networks will do absolutely anything for ratings. To the 2004 audience, this is not news. A few years ago, it might have seemed prescient, but at this point such knowledge has become a cliché. So, it isn't just that it isn't particularly funny, but it is also that I don't see any real insight in this movie. Those are two good reasons why I don't want to include it in my dark comedy film course. It doesn't have as many layers as the others, not enough to discuss in terms of comedy.

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

We know this is a film of the modern era from the first moment because of its disclaimer in a crawl that slides up the screen before we see anything else:

It is the stated position of the United States Air Force that their safeguards would prevent the occurrence of such events as are depicted in this film. Furthermore, it should be noted that none of the characters portrayed in this film are meant to represent any real persons living or dead.

In the present day, I would take such a warning as a parody of the litigious age we live in, but in 1964 when the film was made, it was no joke. The Bay of Pigs crisis had just passed; in fact, the delay of the film itself was delayed by Kennedy's assassination. The Air Force felt like it NEEDED a disclaimer because a nuclear accident did not seem far-fetched enough to risk. That alone should be proof enough for the development of dark comedy.

The basic storyline goes like this: the airmen who patrol the American skies regularly (as they do today, post-terrorist attack) are without warning given an order to attack the Russians. The colonel of the base is shown shutting it down according to the instructions given for an emergency attack by the Russian enemy. These instructions require the base to be sealed with no outside communication possible and for the soldiers to shoot at anyone--enemy or apparently friendly--who approaches the base. The only person who holds the secret code for communicating with (and potentially stopping) the airmen with the neutron bombs is the colonel, and he seems to have gone completely crazy and ordered the attack for no reason other than to provoke a war. The only person who is able to determine the colonel's state of mind is Mandrake, a British officer (played by Peter Sellers). Unfortunately, Mandrake can neither trick the secret code out of Colonel Ripper nor subdue him. So it becomes a comic drama of the mad American hell-bent on destroying the world. This film is eerily clairvoyant, and while the technology is evidently out of date, the senseless bureaucracy and decision-making based on idiocy is extremely timely.

The film then flips among frantic scenes of the U.S. President (also played by Sellers) and his advisory council in the basement of the Pentagon frantically negotiating with a drunken Russian prime minister, trying not to start the war; as well as the General and his girlfriend (the only woman in the film, who is blissfully unaware of the danger); and Mandrake and the colonel locked away on the base. It's a nail-biter as we watch the moments tick away. If they do not believe the Americans are attacking only by accident, then the Russians will use the Doomsday Machine, which will blow everyone up.

The advisory council asks for the input of weapons expert, Dr. Strangelove (also played by Sellers), who is a thinly disguised Nazi who enjoys the torture and killing people, who keeps slipping up and referring to the president as "Mein Fuhrer!" With the aid of his poor advise, as well as the bad advice of Dr. Kong and the general incompetence of the president and others, the result is a surprise: A mushroom cloud at the end, with an unlikely soundtrack of "We'll Meet Again Someday..." in the background, an "incongruous juxtaposition," according to one reviewer.

The humor here is on a broader scale than it was on Catch 22, even though the subject is the same. The humor, to my mind, is larger in Dr. Strangelove, because it requires us to look at the whole picture of war as foolish, as an overgrowth of the potential in testosterone. Kubrick communicates this idea of folly from the beginning, where the sights of missiles we get are so obviously phallic, and by the names of the characters, who so clearly refer to farcical things (like Colonel Jack D. Ripper, named after the infamous...or of Buck Turgidson, referring to the stiffness of a certain manly organ...or of Merkin Muffly, the shapely young woman whose both first and last names refer to the female anatomy). The names are sexualized in a silly way to seem to imply that the things surrounding war seem to be part of a testosterone party and not part of any serious thought or consideration--the very thing we all fear.

This is an unsettling message. On the International Movies Database, a few people posted angrily that this movie was anti-American and that the director should have gone ahead and burned some flags while he was at it. Then, just like now, calling into question the integrity of the government called into question one's loyalty to the country.

We see other elements of humor as well: the silly incongruity of Merkin, the general's girlfriend, calling him in the war room to see when he can come and crawl back in bed with her is funny because we know such a thing shouldn't or couldn't happen. The same goes for the entire existence of Dr. Strangelove. It's so wrong, it's funny. Ultimately, I don't find this movie as entertaining as Catch 22, although I am finding it hard to articulate why. For one, Catch 22 has a protagonist we can relate to, one we are meant to relate to. We see the pain he is caused by having to drop bombs on people and we want it to stop. On the other hand, with Dr. Strangelove, I don't feel the same sympathy for any character, except maybe Mandrake, who is the only one who seems to realize the whole war thing is nonsense, but even he is not a sympathetic enough character to really care about. In addition, while in Catch 22 we see real suffering and some attempt to show things in a realistic light, Strangelove has characters that are over-the-top types, the kinds one finds in a movie that is set on making a point.

There's nothing wrong with making a point, mind you. Dr. Strangelove is probably worth seeing just to see Sellers in his three comic roles (and to try to imagine him playing General Kong as well, who he would have played as well, had he been able to master the Texan accent). It's the kind of movie that makes one wonder how much has really changed in the last 40 years.