The buddy comedy is a staple of American film, but using this to explore female friendship is still fresh ground. Erica, Mark, Brian, and Erica’s long-time friend Micah Greene (actor and nurse) discuss tropes and dynamics within this kind of film, focusing primarily on Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, the 2021 release written and starring Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumolo as a couple of middle aged near-twin oddballs expanding their horizons in a surrealistic, gag-filled tropical venue.
While male pairings of this sort (Cheech and Chong, Bob and Doug McKenzie, Beavis and Butthead et al) stick to silly jokes, Barb and Star base their antics around their evolving relationship toward each other. As with the 2019 film Booksmart and many TV shows including Dead to Me, PEN15, and Grace and Frankie, the trend is toward dramedy as the dynamics of friendship are taken seriously. We also touch on Bridesmaids, Sisters, The Heat, BAPS, I Love You Man, and more.
Even if you weren’t a huge fan of the Police Academy movies, there was one character that made them watchable: Larvell Jones, played by Michael Winslow, “The Man of a 10,000 Sound Effects.” His character is a sort of oddball presence throughout the series, whose ability to sound like a siren, a machine gun, a guard dog, or any number of things, invariably helps his team save the day. He’s been the only consistent character through all eight entries of the movie series, a brief television spin-off, and an animated cartoon series. And I dare say he’s the franchise’s reason to exist, as a Police Academy without Larvell Jones would be…what? A bunch of crappy cops?
And while you might think of him as a master of machine noises, Winslow is actually a very musical performer, as his above impression of Jimi Hendrix, both vocals and guitar, proves. Winslow was an army brat, moved all over the place, and his imitation skills developed at an early age, a coping mechanism for a lonely childhood. He kept at it, and made it onto The Gong Show in 1978. The prize money allowed him to stay in Los Angeles and start making the club rounds. He got scouted for Police Academy while opening for the Count Basie Orchestra, performing “some fusion jazz sounds,” as he described it in an interview. Fortunately, the filmmakers let him improvise through his scenes and his career took off from there.
As the clips here show, Winslow can jam hard. His Hendrix impression is a little bit stoned, and he gets the voice right. With a backing band on tape, he goes on to provide the vocals and the distorted, flanged guitar. You can see that little has changed from the version from the ‘80s at the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal, Canada, and a 2011 performance from the Dubomedy International Performing Arts Festival in Dubai. The latter has better sound quality and separation so you can hear Winslow’s work.
His Led Zeppelin impression combines both Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, and I won’t spoil the joke, but Winslow explains how Plant came up with “Immigrant Song.”
And there’s no sound effects involved in his Tina Turner impression, but a good wig, and an impressive set of pipes that only get wobbly a few times. But then again, so do his legs.
Side note: Before Winslow there was a comedian called Wes Harrison, who had a similar talent and a similar rise to stardom: from talent show winner to a regular guest on late night shows in the 1960s to a steady stream of nightclub appearances.
In 1988, the two men, separated by 35 years, performed together on a Dick Clark variety show. It is perhaps the only time the two shared a stage.
How do you kick off the longest running live sketch comedy show in television history? If you’re in the cast and crew for the first episode of Saturday Night Live, you have no idea you’re doing anything of the kind. Still the pressure’s on, and the newly hired “Not Ready for Primetime Players” had a lot of competition on their own show that night. When Saturday Night, the original title for SNL, made its debut on October 11, 1975, doing live comedy on television was an extremely risky proposition.
So, what do you do if you’re producers Dick Ebersol and Lorne Michaels? Put your riskiest foot forward — John Belushi, the “first rock & roll star of comedy” writes Rolling Stone, and “the ‘live’ in Saturday Night Live.” The man who would be comedy’s king, for a time, before he left the stage too soon. His first sketch, and the first on-air for SNL, reveals “a tendency toward the timelessly peculiar,” Time magazine writes, that made the show an instant cult hit.
Rather than skewering topical issues or impersonating celebrities, the first sketch, “The Wolverines” goes after the ripe targets of an immigrant (Belushi) learning English and his teacher, played by head writer Michael O’Donoghue, who insists on making Belushi repeat the titular word in nonsensical phrases like “I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines.”
Belushi’s accent has shades of Andy Kaufman’s “foreign man” from Caspiar, and he gets a brief moment to display his physical comedy skills when he keels over in imitation of his teacher having a heart attack. “The Wolverines” is short, nonsensical, and weirdly sweet. “No one would know what kind of show this was from seeing that,” Michaels remembered. We can still look back at that wildly uneven first season and wonder what kind of show SNL would be now if it had held on to the anarchic spirit of the early years. But that’s a lot to ask of a 45-year-old live comedy show.
The night’s guest was George Carlin, who did not appear in any sketches, but who did get three separate monologues. The show also featured two musical guests, Billy Preston and Janis Ian. Andy Kaufman made an appearance doing his famous Mighty Mouse bit, and the Muppets were there (not the fun Muppets, but a “dark and grumpy version” Jim Henson disowned after the first season.)
The first episode was also the first to feature the iconic intro, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” — delivered by Chevy Chase. Though it has become a celebratory announcement, at the time “it’s Saturday Night!” was a dark reminder of the live comedy variety show, Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell, then failing through its first and only season before its 18-episode run came to an end the following year.
See more from that weird first night above, including Carlin’s Football and Baseball monologue and the forgotten SNL Muppets, just above.
Asked by Time magazine to name his favorite sketches among all those he has written or performed in, John Cleese deliberately excluded most of his Monty Python work. Instead he turned deeper into his back pages, all the way to At Last the 1948 Show, which originally aired on ITV in 1967. (Its title referenced the long delays inflicted by television’s executive decision-making processes.) The program was conceived at the behest of broadcaster David Frost, who’d previously engaged Cleese and fellow Cambridge Footlights alumnus (and future Python) Graham Chapman to write and perform on The Frost Report, one of the major fruits of the “satire boom” in mid-1960s Britain.
“We would come up with crazy ideas, and all the writers would roar with laughter at the table,” Cleese remembered of his Frost Report experience in a 2014 Q&A at the British Film Institute. But however hilarious, these ideas would inevitably be rejected for the reason that “they won’t get it in Bradford.”
The late-night 1948 Show let Cleese and his collaborators, including comedian Marty Feldman, take a few more chances: “We knew that not everyone in Bradford would get it, so were taking a little bit of a bet that enough people would get it.” This resulted in sketches like “The Bookshop,” in which Feldman’s customer makes a series of impossible demands of Cleese’s shopkeeper, allowing the latter to showcase his already well-honed ability to perform frustration boiling over into derangement.
Cleese, who still gets comedic mileage out of his upright “establishment” appearance, seems to have specialized in playing such absurdly burdened businessmen. His most iconic role must be the clenched, boorish hotelier Basil Fawlty, played in the post-Python series Fawlty Towers, but he was essaying such figures long before. Take the farcical sketch about a hard-of-hearing eyewear dealer, which later evolved into a segment of the German special Monty Python’s Fliegender Zirkus from 1972. Earlier that year, Monty Python’s Flying Circus put Cleese on the customer’s side of the counter, opposite Michael Palin’s cheese shop owner who evidently refuses to stock all known varieties of cheese. Though it didn’t originate on the 1948Show, the now-immortal “cheese shop sketch” was written as another Cleese-Chapman collaboration — and one that displays a firm commitment to customer service, or the lack thereof, as comic material.
Long before “green” became synonymous with eco-friendly products and production, an 18-year-old Jim Henson created a puppet who would go on to become the color’s most celebrated face from his mother’s cast-off green felt coat and a single ping pong ball.
Kermit debuted in black and white in the spring of 1955 as an ensemble member of Sam and Friends, a live television show comprised of five-minute episodes that the talented Henson had been tapped to write and perform, following some earlier success as a teen puppeteer.
Airing on the Washington DC-area NBC affiliate between the evening news and The Tonight Show, Sam and Friends was an immediate hit with viewers, even if they ranked Kermit, originally more lizard than frog, fourth in terms of popularity. (Top spot went to a skull puppet named Yorick.)
Watching the surviving clips of Sam and Friends, it’s easy to catch glimpses of where both Kermit and Henson were headed.
While Henson voiced Sam and all of his puppet friends, Kermit wound up sounding the closest to Henson himself.
Kermit’s signature face-crumpling reactions were by design. Whereas other puppets of the period, like the titular Sam, had stiff heads with the occasional moving jaw, Kermit’s was as soft as a footless sock, allowing for far greater expressiveness.
Henson honed Kermit’s expressions by placing live feed monitors on the floor so he and his puppeteer bride-to-be Jane, could see the puppets from the audience perspective.
Unlike previously televised puppet performances, which preserved the existing prosceniums of the theaters to which the players had always been confined, Henson considered the TV set frame enough. Liberating the puppets thusly gave more of a sketch comedy feel to the proceedings, something that would carry over to Sesame Street and later, The Muppet Show.
By the 12th episode, Kermit has found a niche as wry straight man for wackier characters like jazz aficionado Harry the Hipster who introduced an element of musical notation to the animated letters and numbers that would become a Sesame Street staple.
Who wouldn’t love to take a road trip with beloved cartoonist and educator Lynda Barry? As evidenced by Grandma’s Way Out Party, above, an early-90s documentary made for Twin Cities Public Television, Barry not only finds the humor in every situation, she’s always up for a detour, whether to a time honored destination like Mount Rushmore or Old Faithful, or a more impulsive pitstop, like a Washington state car repair shop decorated with sculptures made from cast off mufflers or the Montana State Prison Hobby Store.
Alternating in the driver’s seat with then-boyfriend, storyteller Kevin Kling, she makes up songs on her accordion, clowns around in a cheap cowgirl hat, samples an oversized gas station donut, and chats up everyone she encounters.
At the World’s Only Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota, she breaks the ice by asking a bearded local guy in official Corn Palace cap and t-shirt if his job is the fulfillment of a long held dream.
“Nah,” he says. “I thought it was a joke … in Fargo, they call it the world’s biggest bird feeder. We do have the biggest birds in South Dakota. They get fed good.”
He leads them to Cal Schultz, the art teacher who designed over 25 years worth of murals festooning the exterior walls. Nudged by Barry to pick a favorite, Schultz chooses one that his 9th grade students worked on.
“I would have loved to have been in his class,” Barry, a teacher now herself, says emphatically. “I would have given anything to have worked on a Corn Palace when I was 14-years-old.”
This point is driven home with a quick view of her best known creation, the pigtailed, bespectacled Marlys, ostensibly rendered in corn—an honor Marlys would no doubt appreciate.
Barry has long been lauded for her understanding of and respect for children’s inner lives, and we see this natural affinity in action when she befriends Desmond and Jake, two young participants in the Crow Fair Pow Wow, just south of Billings, Montana.
Frustrated by her inability to get a handle on the proceedings (“Why didn’t I learn it in school!? Why wasn’t it part of our curriculum?”), Barry retreats to the comfort of her sketchbook, which attracts the curious boys. Eventually, she draws their portraits to give them as keepsakes, getting to know them better in the process.
The drawings they make in return are treasured by the recipient, not least for the window they provide on the culture with which they are so casually familiar.
Barry and Kling also chance upon the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, and after a bite at the Road Kill Cafe (“from your grill to ours”), Barry waxes philosophical about the then-unusual sight of so much tattooed flesh:
There’s something about the fact that they want something on them that they can’t wash off, that even on days when they don’t want people to know they’re a biker, it’s still there. And I have always loved that about people, like …drag queens who will shave off their eyebrows so they can draw perfect eyebrows on, or anybody who knows they’re different and does something to themselves physically so that even on their bad days, they can’t deny it. Because I think that in the end, that’s sort of what saves your life, that you wear your colors. You can’t help it.
The aforementioned muffler store prompts some musings that will be very familiar to anyone who has immersed themselves inMaking Comics, Picture This, or any other of Barry’s instructional books containing her wonderfully loopy, intuitive creative exercises:
I think this urge to create is actually our animal instinct. And what’s sad is if we don’t let that come through us, I don’t think we have a full life on this earth. And I think we get sick because of it. I mean, it’s weird that it’s an instinct, but it’s an option, just like you can take a wild animal, a beautiful, wild animal and put him in a zoo. They live, they’re fine in their cage, but you don’t get to see them do the thing that a cheetah does best, which is, you know, just run like the wind and be able to jump and do the things… I mean, it’s our instinct, it’s instinctual, it’s our beautiful, beautiful, magical, poetic, mysterious instinct. And every once in a while, you see the flower of it come right up out of a gas station.
After 1653 miles and one squabble after overshooting a scheduled stop (“You don’t want me to go to Butte!”), the two arrive at their final destination, Barry’s childhood home in Seattle. The occasion? Barry’s Filipino grandmother’s 83rd birthday, and plans are afoot for a potluck bash at the local VFW hall. Fans will swoon to meet this venerated lady and the rest of Barry’s extended clan, and hear Barry’s reflections on what it was like to grow up in a working class neighborhood where most of the families were multi-racial.
“I walked in and it was everything Lynda said,” Kling marvels.
The journey is everything we could have hoped for, too.
Unsurprisingly, she’s been getting published in The New Yorker a lot of late.
The process for getting cartoons accepted there is the stuff of legend, though reportedly less grueling since Emma Allen, the magazine’s youngest and first-ever female cartoon editor, took over. Allen has made a point of seeking out fresh voices, and working with them to help mold their submissions into something in The New Yorker vein, rather than “this endless game of presenting work and then hearing ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”
Kurzweil has a fondness for literary themes (and the same brand of pencils that John Steinbeck, Truman Capote, and Vladimir Nabokov preferred—Blackwings—whether in her hand or, conversing with Allen on Zoom, above, in her ears.)
Getting the joke of a New Yorker cartoon often depends on getting the reference, and while both women seem tickled at the first example, Kurzweil’s mash-up of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and the picture book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, it may go over many readers’ heads.
The thing that holds it all together?
Madeleines, of course, though outside France, not every Proust lover is able to identify an inked representation of this evocative cookie by shape.
Kurzweil states that she has never actually read the children’s book that supplies half the context.
(It’s okay. Like the idea that memories can be triggered by certain nostalgic scents, its concept is pretty easy to grasp.)
Nor has she read philosopher Derek Parfit’s whopping 1,928-page On What Matters. Her inspiration for using it in a cartoon is her personal connection to the massive, unread three-volume set in her family’s library. Because both the size and the title are part of the joke, she directs the viewer’s eye to the unwieldy tome with a light watercolor wash.
She also has a good tip for anyone drawing a library scene—go figurative, rather than literal, varying sizes and shapes until the eye is tricked into seeing what is merely suggested.
A all-too-true literary experience informs her second example at the 4:30 mark—that of a little known author giving a reading in a bookstore. Despite a preference for drawing “fleshy things like people and animals” she forgoes depicting the author or those in attendance, giving the punchline instead to the event posters in the store’s window.
As she told the NYPL’s Moore:
A cartoon is always an opportunity to showcase a contemporary phenomenon by exaggerating it or placing it in a different context.
Over the last year, a huge number of New Yorker cartoons have concerned themselves with the domestic dullness of the pandemic, but when Allen asked if she has a favorite New Yorker cartoon cliché, Kurzweil went with “the Moby Dick trope, because whales are easy to draw, and I like a good metaphor for the unattainable.”
Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She most recently appeared as a French Canadian bear who travels to New York City in search of food and meaning in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse. Follow her @AyunHalliday.
Does removing gatekeepers mean a more distributed comic landscape, or does it inevitably end with a small number of comics dominating the world? The Internet means that people can and do judge comics based on very short clips, but also makes it easy to follow the activities of someone you discover that you like.
Tiffany comes not from stand-up but from music theater, and is active in creating character-based comedy and novelty songs for Instagram, YouTube, etc. She joins your hosts Erica Spyres, Mark Linsenmayer, and Brian Hirt to explore the types of short-form humor and viewing habits that grow out of video created for TikTok, Snapchat, and other platforms. What’s the creator’s relation to the audience? Social media blurs the line between constructed bits and extemporized commentary. It’s often reacting to current events, yet stays posted long after. “Going viral” is not typically the result of mere organic sharing or chance, and some comics (and their consultants) have really studied the medium to find out what appeals and how to get the word out.
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