Robert Townsend's documentary, Why We Laugh, based on Darryl Littleton's book, Black Comedians on Black Comedy, makes its debut at this year's Sundance Film Festival. As we celebrate Martin Luther King Day and tomorrow's inauguration of President Barack Obama, it's timely for us to examine how black comedy has evolved and adapted over the years. Here Townsend talks about his project with the Sundance Channel:
After the jump, three short clips from the film. Enjoy!
Looky looky! It's Bill Bellamy and Brit Lady (Cotton Fearne!), back together for the audience finale vote on Last Comic Standing! This doesn't look taped at all, except I know it's taped because finalist Jeff Dye is in Chattanooga, Tenn., right now performing at a comedy club...all I know for sure at this moment is that Marcus will be around for the finale next week, and that all of the top 12 will be there for one reason or another...
What's this? The Dan Band? These audience cutaways seem as if they do not fit. Or the audience has gotten more than plenty of a serving of happy juice! All of the finalists are coming up with one-liners for why they'll be the last comic standing...ooh! "I'm Ron G and I'll be the last comic standing because I make this microphone look sexy!" "I'm Adam Hunter, and I'm going to be the last comic standing because I want to prove that blondes have more fun!" "I'm Jeff Dye, I'm going to be the last comic standing because I can do 17 push-ups in an hour...believe it!" "I am Jim Tavare, and I am going to be the last comic standing because I am the new Miley Cyrus of comedy!" "I'm Marcus, and I'll be the last comic standing, because just like Jack Black, I keep things rocking! Let's go!" "I'm Iliza Shlesinger, and I'll be the last comic standing, because out of all of these guys, I'm the most experienced...winning!" "I'm Louis Ramey, and I'll be the last comic standing, because I'm huggable. Come to daddy, America!" "I'm Sean Cullen, and I'll be the last comic standing, because I've dreamed about it...since I was a little girl!" OK. This was taped. But Brit Lady is here, so I have no need to fear. Right?
No. Fear. Fear! Strange but true, this year's competition is coming down to a five-way vote. Which means this year's Last Comic Standing will win based on at least 21 percent of America's phone and online voting tendencies...congratulations, comedy!
Marcus, guaranteed a spot in the final five, goes first. He reveals that he worked at a radio station for two years for no pay (!) and that the local club in Utah, Wiseguys, eventually asked him to come down and perform after hearing all of his impersonations and whatnots. His "live" set focuses on the things you can and cannot bring on a plane (you can bring a wrench!), the lyrical stylings of Eddie Vedder, Aaron Neville's multiple syllables, Motown nostalgia, and versus new songs, such as "lady humps." It's very engaging for the crowd in Las Vegas, with broad appeal to whomever may be watching at home. Do you like music? Any kind of music? This set is for you. He gets a standing ovation. Will everyone this night?
Next up, Ron G, who goes home again. Onstage, he has a vest and a tie, so you know he's serious about this night. How are you supposed to be a thug with a retainer in your mouth? Um, I don't know. Church isn't the same with a Bluetooth in Hollywood. Love the graphics reminding me not to change the channel and stick around to vote. He has a series of jokes about the various commercials you may see on late-night television. But Ron G has been eliminated from the competition. Dunzo! He tells Brit Lady he appreciates the chance and the fans.
Last Comic Driving? Remember that? You don't? Oh, here was a very very very quick reminder. Hope you didn't fast forward through it.
Brit Lady gets more hosting duties, yay! Here comes Jim Tavare, with double references for you audience members (The Hills Are Alive, or Uncle Fester, you pick). He calls for a rescue dog. One-liners aplenty. What's wrong with his Hendrix impersonation? But can he play the bass? Brit Lady delivers the news...and...he's in the top five! Hooray for the U.K., Brit Lady!
Oh, Brit Lady is hosting so we can have Bill Bellamy do stand-up...he jokes about visiting Idaho and being in the outdoors...cut to white people having fun...phew. That's over.
But now we get an extended preview of an upcoming NBC competition...America's Toughest Jobs. It's not supposed to be comedy, so stop laughing.
Louis Ramey gets the childhood photo treatment next, and Ramey does a pretend version of running around on the New York City club circuit for the cameras makey nicey. The Amish pay in cheese? His jacket looks like it fits better this week. He jokes about Amish gangs. Also about Houma, Louisiana. And a twist on a terrorist alert joke. A big redneck twist. And he's still in it to win it!
Adam Hunter wrestled in high school. This news does not surprise me. He attacks the stage and looks like a scrapper. No, that's a good thing. Right? Jokes about San Francisco, cocaine, pot, rappers, George Bush Speak N Spell, Obama is black, McCain is old, more drugs, sex, strip clubs. All over the place. He is a New York guy doing Los Angeles comedy. Does that make sense to anyone? He has been eliminated. The crowd boos.
Jeff Dye. They show lots of clips from Seattle, so that gets my vote. Gives a shout-out to his parents, then proceeds to joke about them. Before and afterward, he delivers the set he gave earlier this month at Montreal New Faces. Pan out to show the audience clapping enthusiastically. We're thinking he goes through...and...he did!
Cullen goes back to Toronto, where they love him already. Wow. Did you see some of those flashback stage shots. Did he have long curly hair at one point? We believe he did. He threatens to spin into the crowd with his pinwheels and fists of death. Jokes about Sean Connery and his amazing ability with accents. Why Australia can never have a James Bond villain. Why Neil Young and REM won't do Bond theme songs, which lets him sing some more.
Shlesinger, too, goes home again. She jokes about her Olympic experience being limited to Beer Pong. She wears a tight red shirt, which explains the pervy Google searches already heading this way (calm down, people). Why did you send that 40-page blank fax, again? Jokes about former co-workers. Iliza isn't as energetic as usual in this performance, slowing things down just a bit. A poised, confident five minutes.
And the final spot goes to...Iliza Shlesinger! Which means your final five for season six are: Marcus, Jim Tavare, Louis Ramey, Jeff Dye and Iliza Shlesinger. Would it have turned out this way with additional weeks of challenges? We'll never find out. Nor will we get to see the final five whittle down, one by one. Instead, come back next week and find out who won.
Welcome to the first half of the semifinals in Las Vegas, the night when Dan Naturman gets the shaft for a second time on Last Comic Standing -- spoiler alert!!! -- where we see if Bill Bellamy tell jokes, and because he has had a career as an MTV VJ, parts in big crappy movies, and tours the nation as a stand-up, you'd expect him to, so he does tell jokes for at least a tight minute before introducing our judges, who are, wait for it, Richard Belzer and Steve Schirripa, aka the guys in New York City who hated a lot of great comedians. Great. Just great. We know we're in Vegas because of the showgirls who perform at the Paris casino/hotel. OK. Enough already. We're going from 16 semifinalists to five finalists. Same thing next week. So here we go!
Adam Hunter from New York stretches a lot backstage. The producers evidently want us to see that. He says: "I know for a fact I will make everyone laugh." Hunter is rather loud. Is this because he wants to make sure everyone in the theater hears him? Makes a dig at Asians in porn, followed by Mardi Gras in the Middle East. Jokes about living in L.A., where even the homeless are in the biz. As Schrippa notes, even though some jokes don't hit, Hunter gets a lot of jokes out in his short time. But they show him getting a partial standing ovation from the audience and kind words from the judges. So that's all you need to know for now.
Phil Palisoul from Denver. He makes a bidet joke, but not the one you're thinking of. Notes how people would never act the way they do walking as they do when they drive. But. No standing O shown. No words from the judges heard. Uh-oh.
Jeff Dye from Seattle. Actually, Kentwood High School, as his people told me via email earlier this week. Same fluorescent T-shirt? Lucky T-shirt? He jokes about doing ecstasy while working out. Applause break for a joke about women wondering why people are staring at them when they have "juicy" written on their butts. More jokes about the gym and workout machines, and Dye goes straight at the judges. Dye gets interviewed by the Brit lady. This, plus the emails I got telling me to watch Dye in the semis, tell me and you all we need to know.
Erin Foley says it's time for a woman to win this competition. Bellamy bills her as another New York City comedian. She auditioned in Los Angeles. Anyhow. She has a baby shower to go to, but there's a lot of different kind of juices to consider. Her dictionary jokes aren't getting big laughs. A bit about being a sideline reporter for football telecasts. No big faces or energy? What gives? Did someone tell her to hold back?
Dan Naturman. Here we go, people. A nod to his Connecticut roots. He does his bit about Internet dating and photos. Prescription drugs. He ends his routine mid-joke. They laugh. I laugh. It doesn't matter, people.
Another installment of...LAST COMIC DRIVING! This week, Jacob Sirof gets the hot seat. Eh. I have more to say about this in another post.
Ooh. It's the Israeli Carrot Top (Bellamy even says so!) Lioz Shem Tov, or as Bob Biggerstaff likes to call him, Mozel Top! Anyhow. Carrot Top has a standing gig in Vegas, so you'd think Mozel Top would do well, too, right? He shows us Mickey Mouse ears on Viagra, a turtle, Spider-Man cutting himself shaving, a long bit that's PC-based. Oooh. We go back to the judges. "It wasn't typical jokes," Belzer says. "There's no rhyme or reason to what you were doing, but it was funny," Schirripa says. Hard to tell, people. The Brit lady is starting to grow on me. Maybe it's her kindness. Just as likely it's her sexy outfits.
Dale Jones is from Nashville. I sense he'll have some funny voices and faces, just by looking at his face. He starts out with big energy to play to the big room. Gets an applause break for acknowledging that he is "the strange on the road." Well, he didn't pee his britches or nothing.
Erin Jackson from Washington, D.C., just got a second-place cash prize at the festival in Nebraska, so we know she can do a short TV-friendly set. Jokes about how being a comedian actually should make her better marriage material. Black stereotypes, and the Tooth Fairy are also targets. So far, so good.
After another break and some onstage foolishness that we don't quite get to see, the Brooklyn Christian acoustic duo known as God's Pottery takes the stage. Only time for one song, and they pick their ditty about premarital sex, "The Pants Go Off When The Ring Goes On." Both judges say how they believe the guys and think it's not an act anymore. Wink. Wink. I already know they're through, and now so do you.
Ron G. auditioned in L.A., but he's from Atlanta, and he talks about how it's tough to hold onto a job, even a one-day assignment. He has a special voice he uses when he's in trouble...do you?
Drennon Davis, with a South Lake Tahoe residence listed, comes out without the uke or a guitar. So no songs tonight. Will this work? First joke, not so much. Vegas joke, better. Davis does some beat-box rapping, though. Um, yeah.
Winston Spear we saw in the initial previews standing outside in the snow saying he was going to be the last comic standing, and I certainly didn't believe him then. But then again, here he is in Las Vegas in the semis. So it's possible. He has won big comedy awards in Canada. Can he win here? A funny time-machine joke. Schirripa doesn't get his twitching and everything else. Hmmm.
Shazia Mirza, aka the British Muslim lady we've seen on 60 Minutes, jokes about her background. OK when you only have three minutes. Makes me wonder what her longer set sounds like. She tells the Brit lady she wouldn't want to do this again? Well, the producers certainly can make that not happen.
Englishman Paul Foot says he has never been to Vegas before, so hooray for that, and he starts with a bit comparing his skills as a lover with his skills as a driver. Why must cakes always be described as moist? Good question. And with that, I'm hitting my space bar wherever I may choose.
How many commercial breaks will there be, anyhow???
Andi Smith says what you really need to know about being on Last Comic Standing and winning, is that it means clubs will book you as a headliner knowing you'll "put butts in seats." She's from St. Louis, but she has performed in West Virginia for a crowd of eight, and had a funny joke or two or three about that. She clearly is not worried about offending anyone. Even in Vegas. Fearless or crazy?
The Meehan Brothers from San Francisco also could be described as fearless and crazy. Because this bit relies solely on one of the brothers and his physicality. Actually, I'm going to chalk this up more to crazy than fearless.
And your first group of finalists, moving into a house in Hollywood, are...Adam Hunter! God's Pottery! (I love how they kept up their goofy grins throughout the dramatic lighting sequence) Ron G! Wait. Only two tickets left? Oh, right. Paul Foot! Jeff Dye!
Obviously, Naturman should have made it through. Again. No fussing this time around. An interesting decision to move a parody duo into a stand-up competition, but the boys are funny. Including Foot allows you to say you're international. Dye represents youth. Well. There we have it. Next week, the other half gets cut down to size.
OK. They just ended with an "in memory" card to George Carlin, which, sure, Carlin has done so much for comedy, but if you're really going to honor him, you need to start making this show about finding the next great original inspirational stand-up, OK? Alrighty then.
ANOTHER SPOILER ALERT?! Yes, indeedy...
I may have boycotted the open-call line last Thursday for the New York City auditions for season six of NBC's Last Comic Standing, but that didn't mean I'd miss the boat completely on this opportunity to report from the belly of the beast. Especially when I learned on Friday that several comedians I know were getting called back for TV duty. No lines. Just a few dozen stand-up comedians, sitting around, biding their time for the cameras and special judges Richard Belzer and Steve Schirripa and host Bill Bellamy and everyone else to get ready to roll. Even Barry Katz was in the house, and shook my hand upon hearing me call out his name.
And here's what that scene looked and sounded like. Dan Naturman, whom LCS viewers and comedy fans remember as the guy who got robbed of a spot on the show four years ago when the producers overruled judges Drew Carey and Brett Butler, returned for another go at it. Naturman and Baron Vaughn here talk about joke wording as Michelle Buteau, Eric Andre, Jackie Monahan and others wait for their names to be called.
Moments later, I catch up with host Bill Bellamy, here seen talking with Boston stand-up Myq Kaplan about character-based comedy versus stand-up.
Bellamy and I talked briefly about how his HBO Young Comedians special has been reairing, and he tried to recall his "Tingle Man" bit for us. Then producers called him over to record four takes of teases to intro the NYC auditions. Bellamy really liked pronouncing Schirripa's Sopranos character name. Apparently, five or six comedians (Carla Rhodes and Carolyn Castiglia, among them) already had been waiting inside Gotham Comedy Club's mainstage this whole time (at least a half-hour, maybe much longer) for their two-minute televised audition. Not that everyone, even among these professional comedians with appointments made via their agents and managers, would get the full two minutes. Belzer and Schirripa would prove tough to please. And I could see how it'd be difficult not to take their rejection personally, despite the fact that this is above all else a "reality" TV show. Because you don't normally walk out of an audition, after hearing very critical things said about your performance, to find a camera crew on the other side of the door. As Mike Birbiglia said recently, comedians have to be delusional because an audience that doesn't like your comedy in effect doesn't like you. Some comedians fought back tears. Many muttered profanities about the judges. Eric Andre went into a tirade of riffs so hilarious that the camera crew could barely contain themselves, making me wonder if they might invite him to another audition because of it. That same afternoon, I heard a producer say he thought Belzer and Schirripa were perfect judges for LCS and wished he could have them on every stop. And they did say yes to more than a dozen acts, so they could be swayed. I tried to provide some moral support to Friday's auditioners. Reminding them this is a TV show. Reminding them that it's not about how much funny you have, but about making those two judges laugh in two minutes or less. Reminding them that the judges would already have an impression about you before you opened your mouth. That said, I'm not sure some of the comedians made the best choices to showcase themselves that day. And I definitely don't understand why some of the yahoos who showed up at the end of the afternoon even bothered. The end of the day was when producers had the "wacky" contestants make fools of themselves, all for the chance to be mocked on national TV. Way to go. When Belzer walked back toward his trailer, some of the lucky few were filling out paperwork before that night's showcase. Belzer stopped, pointed at God's Pottery and shouted, "Funny!" He also stopped to praise Stone & Stone once more. No wonder, then, that both duos survived that night's eliminations. But what are duos doing in a stand-up competition? Not sure. At least they'll get some positive press out of it and perhaps some better gigs, if not more.
UPDATED: Oh, I forgot to mention this earlier, but if you thought making a joke about babies was going to get you on TV, you're probably right. They also recorded Bellamy teasing a "dead-baby montage." Congrats?
Get ready, because Tuesday marks the official start of season six of NBC's Last Comic Standing, and Bill Bellamy returns to host. Here are the audition cities and dates:
Tuesday, Jan. 29: Los Angeles, Hollywood Improv, with "talent scouts" Angela Kinsey and Oscar Nunez from The Office
Feb. 7: New York City, Gotham Comedy Club, with "talent scouts" Richard Belzer and Steve Schirripa
Feb. 14: Toronto, Yuk Yuk's
Feb. 19: Minneapolis, Acme Comedy Club
Feb. 22: Houston, Houston Improv
Feb. 26: Tempe, Ariz., Tempe Improv
Feb. 29: San Francisco, Cobb's Comedy Club
March 3: Nashville, Zanies
For more information and rules, visit NBC's official show site. One thing you won't see there is the unwritten rule of thumb that you really need a scheduled appointment if you want to have any chance of advancing. For most of those standing in line for hours upon hours, you're just a face in the crowd. You may wow them. But most of the slots probably already will have been taken by professional comedians with agents and managers who got them around the line for a scheduled appointment. Talent scouts or no talent scouts. This is TV, remember. Don't let me stop you, though. Unless you're younger than 18. In which case, you're too young, anyhow. Them's the rules. Officially.
Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, HBO produced and broadcast a special devoted to young comedians. Not all of them hold up quite so well. One year introduced Steven Wright, but the rest of the hour makes you wonder what happened to America's sense of humor. Then there was 1992, and the 15th annual special, taped at the Tempe Improv, hosted by Dana Carvey, introduced Judd Apatow, Bill Bellamy, Nick DiPaolo, Janeane Garofalo, Andy Kindler and Ray Romano.
Yeah. Quite a lineup there. I mention it because the special aired over the weekend and shows up on HBO Comedy again tonight, then again on Jan. 24 so you can take a look for yourself.
As host, Carvey managed to trot out most of his SNL character voices and impersonations for easy crowd pleasing. Bellamy is wearing a red suit, as if to make viewers think of Eddie Murphy. Apatow, whom you know now as a big-shot comedy producer and writer, wore a buttoned-up shirt without a tie. Romano noted up front that he was 34 at the time and asked if that still counted as young. Watching them all, you can see that Romano, Kindler and Garofalo had found their comedic voices that still make you laugh today. And if you think DiPaolo sounds bitter onstage today, just watch and hear his mood on the night of his big break! A few circumstantial pieces of evidence of HBO special bonding: A) Apatow and Garofalo immediately worked together on The Ben Stiller Show, B) they again worked on The Larry Sanders Show, with Apatow also writing an episode that had a part in it for Kindler, C) who also showed up a decade later as a recurring character on Everybody Loves Raymond.
Also filed under fun facts, the pre-show interviews with the comedians, which knowing where they all are 16 years later, is why these quotes should be filed under fun facts...
DiPaolo: "It means a lot. It means I'm going to be a big star someday. Either that, or I'm going to be next week working in St. Louis at Yuk Yuk's again. For minimum wage."
Garofalo: "I have no self-esteem left, and I hate to be the girl comic that talks about those types of things and I never thought I would be, but I'm a beaten man."
Kindler: "I'm going to do a new thing where I just sell my paintings after the show. Along with the T-shirts and the coffee cups and the Andy Kindler signature crock pots that are available, in the lobby, and the Andy Kindler comedy video, which is always available, in the lobby, after the show. And I'd leave the record tab in, so if you want tape Murder, She Wrote over it, who really cares."