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I used to assistant teach a graduate seminar in video production, during which an associate professor, a technical instructor and myself would spend an entire academic year helping a group of anthropologists and cinema studies geeks produce a series of short documentaries. Over the course of eight months or so, we’d come close to discussing nearly every frame that our students would end up including in their final cuts. On innumerable occasions we would pull out our hair trying to explain to our students why some of their scenes were pointless, or why some of their cuts were disorienting, or why some of their B-roll was totally inappropriate. They tended to ignore us and take our sage advice in equal measure, arbitrarily.
The experience has contributed enormously to the critical apparatus I tend, semi-consciously, to bring to bear on the hours and hours and hours of television I consume on a weekly basis. I mention all this to explain why I even noticed the succession of images I’ve included below. They come from the credit sequence of Denis Leary’s 9/11sploitation vanity vehicle, Rescue me, and they have baffled me since I let my curiosity get the better of me and started watching the show. (They flash onscreen at around 0:39 in the youtube link above.)
It’s a shame that the genius editor who put this credit sequence together was never my student, because I would not have hesitated to humiliate him or her in front of the rest of the class for this nonsense. Where to begin? With the Von Bondies, obviously. I’ve regurgitated elsewhere the Wikipedia wisdom that Denis Leary’s son was responsible for this particularly egregious editorial decision. “Hey, son, I’ve co-created a show in which I lionize the working class ethos of the FDNY. There will be lots of slow-motion montages of me running into fires, as well as plenty of opportunities for me to take off my shirt and show off the fact that FX paid for me to get a personal trainer. We’ll even have a talented make-up artist who will be able to disguise, for the most part, the pucker lines I’ve accumulated around my lips from smoking for so many years. Can you think of a song that would adequately prepare viewers for such an awesome weekly experience?” Sure, Dad. It goes like this:
“On another day, c’mon, c’mon / With these ropes tied tight can we do no wrong? / Now we grieve ’cause now it’s gone / Things were good when we were young / Was it safe to say? C’mon, c’mon / Was it right to leave? C’mon, c’mon / Will I ever learn? C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon.”
See, the “ropes tied tight” are like a metaphor for objective social-economic relations. Your character is, like, stuck in his working classness. And the grief, well, 9/11, obviously. And the repetition of “c’mon” is like society, y’know, telling you to stay in line. It’s perfect.
I’m particularly insulted that the VBs’ (more like VDs’) Jason Stollsteimer felt authorized, however vicariously, to make the claim that “things were good when we were young.” Really, dude? With the hindsight of your late twenties you’re prepared to make such an assertion? If I ever get the chance, I will punch him myself, first for writing such an obnoxious, whiny song, and second for being such a twat in general.
It’s important to bear the content of this song in mind, because it inflects how we’re going to read the images of that anonymous dude who appears near the end of the credit sequence. It also bears mentioning that, aside from Leary’s (looking appropriately stoic, maybe even reflective), his is the only face we ever see in the credits — other human figures are either faceless passers-by (a staple of any imaginary of New York) or firefighters at work, with their broad, working men’s backs to us.
So, who the hell is this guy? And why is he grieving, aside from the very Husserlian recognition that “now it’s gone?” Is his house on fire? Or maybe he just has a bad headache? Is he an alcoholic, too? Does he have a hangover? Why is he just sitting there by himself outside of such a pretty brownstone? Does he live there? Is he casing the joint? Is he a pyromaniac? Is he going to set a fire? Is he struggling with his internal demons? Is he suffering from “agita?”
These questions have nagged at me through every single episode of all five seasons of Rescue me. Too bad that’s not even remotely the only reason why the show is so mediocre. FAIL.
— J.C. Freñán
I’m a member of a pretty downmarket gym here in Mexico City; a gym so downmarket that its sound system — when not eclipsed by Telehit, Mexico’s answer to MTV — rotates daily through the same two scratched up CD-Rs of salsa music and High NRG megamixes. Imagine my delight, early yesterday morning, when one of the gym’s owners regaled her clientele with a new acquisition. It began innocently enough, with a few choice Gorillaz tracks. Inexplicably, though, (before we got to Mellon Collie era Smashing Pumpkins) the CD veered off into Jim Carrey’s rendition of “Somebody to love” from the movie Cable guy. For anyone who may have forgotten, the almost unanimously underappreciated film was Ben Stiller’s directorial debut way back in 1996, years before his fling with Cameron Diaz and her comely hair. (I maintain, despite a decade of vehement protests to the contrary from certain otherwise friendly quarters, that Cable guy is actually just short of brilliant. It is also without a doubt the best performance* Jim Carrey has ever contributed to anglophone popular culture. And that includes Eternal sunshine, Gondryfans.)
*Note to Thumbu and Emily V: which of you wants to sign up for a ‘TubaTV remembers: In living color‘ post?
I decided to take this freak occurrence as a sign: it’s high time TubaTV pay homage to a similarly underappreciated televisual gem, The Ben Stiller show. In spite of his post-Mary oeuvre, I suspect that Ben Stiller is actually a very funny dude. Anyone who doubts me need only check his pedigree: The Ben Stiller show combined the talents of Bob Odenkirk (whose genius is indisputable), Judd Apatow (whose talents frankly hit or miss), Andy Dick (whom I always thought was really funny, freakouts and all) and Janeane Garofalo (whose ill-advised semi-dramatic turn on 24 has admittedly tarnished what might otherwise have been fonder memories of her early 90s prime).
While the show parodied pop cultural artifacts that were very much of a particular moment in time, it also tended to require a certain pop culture competency that comparable sketches on SNL or early MADTV didn’t. Here’s a classic example:
With this sketch, the show’s aesthetic choices — appropriating the ubiquitous 90s-era MTV camera angles, the jagged, calculatedly “accidental” edits — buttress a critique that aims to demystify or demythologize pop culture heroism. Stiller & co. are not simply making fun of pop culture for its own sake; in this case they’re also calling Bono a sellout. (Yes, Thumbu, I’m baiting you.) The set of subversions at work operates on an almost subcultural level from within the machinery of 20th Century Fox. Of course the show could only ever have been short-lived, but the 13 episodes Stiller managed to produce are all fine examples of the political charge that any good satire should carry.
In lieu of further interpretation, I’ll instead offer a sketch for TubaTV’s least prolific and yet most popular contributor…
… as well as an early cameo of a young David Cross (in what has to be the show’s most bizarre sketch, and also a possible source of inspiration for Armen Meiwes)…
… and finally my all time favorite Ben Stiller moment:
The GOLs abound.
— J.C. Freñán
Six episodes into its freshman season, I’m finally ready to offer some tentative praise for HBO’s Hung. Despite the fact that Ray Drecker is not a terribly likable character — which, if we’re being generous, could read as a modest contribution to the show’s verisimilitude, given that public high school teachers in suburban Detroit are largely an unlikable people — Hung is far preferable to the topically adjacent Showtime (by way of the BBC) offering, Secret diary of a call girl. Secret diary‘s clandestine, only occasionally discomfiting world of high class hooking contrasts sharply with the minor humiliations to which Drecker’s hand-to-mouth income subjects him. And whereas Secret diary is structured episodically as a tongue-in-cheek, pseudo-ethnographic survey of upper middle class British kink, Hung is more a white bread character study of retarded lower middle class sexuality in Middle America.
Its gee-shucks posturing notwithstanding, Hung actually strikes me as the more sophisticated of the two. (It’s also slowly becoming the vehicle Jane Adams needs to crawl her way out of Typecast Hell.) With the arrival of Jemma’s character in the past two episodes, we’ve veered unexpectedly into a vision of metro Detroit not far removed from Crazy Charlie Kaufman Territory: last week Ray repeatedly bungled Jemma’s rescue fantasy in several different scenes, and this week he found himself shanghaied into couples therapy with her, flailing in an effort to reverse engineer the script to their role-playing.
Last night’s concluding refrain that “the scoreboard doesn’t matter” could well be read as an overinflated slice of Middle Class Hegemony Pie — a denial of the logic of capitalism very much opposed, by the way, to the pronounced working class sports metaphorology of (first and third season) Friday night lights. Crucially, though, its protention toward the climactic man-on-woman kiss was deflated first by Tanya’s insistence on the commercial nature of Ray’s relationship to Jemma, and then again by Jemma’s cryptic closing remark that not being charged for Ray’s companionship “wouldn’t be as fun.”
So we’re in a precarious spot at this point. The danger facing Hung‘s writers is now the same one that made me stop watching Secret diary after its first lukewarm season: the prospect of a triumphant (white) (heterosexual) (non-remunerative) romance. If Ray and Jemma fall in love — or, alternatively, if Ray and Tanya discover a romantic dimension to their relationship — all will have been for naught and TubaTV won’t bother with future projects by Colette Burson or Dmitry Lipkin (whose prematurely canceled The Riches ended just as precariously). If, however, the Ray-Jemma-Tanya triangle only gets weirder, we’ll happily continue to deal with Ray Drecker’s dumbass self-reflection in the deluded hope that it leads us out of the real Michigan and onward to somewhere new.
— J.C. Freñán
Defenders of offbeat comedy often resort to the claim that “you either get it or you don’t.” If you don’t immediately and unreservedly appreciate the comedic gifts of someone like Andy Kaufman, for instance, well, you just don’t get it. And you never will. “Getting it” serves as an unassailable shorthand for some mysterious act of communication: some immediate and transparent acquisition of meaning, or the absolute proximity of comedian and audience. Given that the vast majority of comedy with any kind of commercial appeal is premised on there being an “it” to “get,” it came as no surprise, back in 2005, when Comedy Central canceled Stella after David Wain and the Michaels Ian Black and Showalter had squeaked through their paltry episode order. Stella (as well as the appallingly low-budget Stella shorts that preceded the cable series) defied the usual structure of comedic gratification, refusing that anyone should ever “get it” as such. The show was not organized around jokes, situations, one-liners or wacky non sequitur references available for the cognitive acquisition of the audience; I would almost say it wasn’t organized at all.
And although I’m not about to resort to the “either you get it or you don’t” defense, it’s a struggle to put into words why Stella should have been so consistently funny. Most friends whom I’ve subjected to an episode or two complain that it’s just three guys in suits acting like idiots. My disappointed friends certainly aren’t wrong, but neither are they entirely right: there’s something else going on, if not on the level of a sub-text “beneath” the level of discourse, maybe in a fragmented parallel text that moves in fits and starts alongside the show’s more apparent development.
It seems to me that the possibility of (what I’ll provisionally gloss as) acquisitive comedy is predicated on the maintenance of a certain diegetic or communicative coherence. At one end of the comedy spectrum, conventional jokes — ie, those with punchlines — work because they are logically coherent. John C. Reilly is so funny as Steve Brule (at the other end of the spectrum) because his character is more or less coherent — we “get” him insofar as we can cathect onto him. But there’s no cathecting onto Michael, Michael or David. Their personalities are as fickle as their accents, which tend to transform without rhyme or reason, as do their voices (in both literal and figurative senses of the term). I’m no performance studies scholar, but I wonder whether certain linguistic elements of Stella‘s comedy aren’t congruent or at least compatible with Artaud’s movement away from speech.
Take the post-title scene in “Meeting girls.” Looking to enliven their Fri-day niiiiight, the trio has wandered into a Southern bar — replete with Confederate flag — presumably somewhere in Brooklyn. Their entrance (“This place is jommin’, mon.”) inexplicably aggravates the bar’s customary patrons, until the trio performs a synchronized, Coyote Ugly-inspired bartop dance to the eventual delight of the crowd. The Michaels immediately find themselves lady companions (Tamara: “You’re a really good dancer.” Black: “I know. I was a dance major at Oberlin.”) while David, being Jewish, strikes out.
After a lovely picnic in Greenpoint’s McGorlick Park (“This melba toast is like nectar.”) the Michaels move out of the apartment they’ve been sharing with David. Black moves in with Tamara and her bratty kids (Black: “So you have kids.” Tamara: “Yeah, two boys and a girl. I really think you’d love them.” Black: “I already do. I want you inside me.”) and Showalter shacks up with alcoholic Jemma (Showalter: “I like your tatt[oo].” Jemma: “Thanks. I did it myself.” Showalter: “Really?” Jemma: “I like pain.” Showalter: “I like cookies.”).
But their common law marital bliss is shortlived, and by that night both Black and Showalter are ready to abadon their new families. The Michaels’ run-in outside the liquor store is a rapid-fire frustration of narrative clichés: Black reveals his new, fatherly moustache to be fake; Showalter disguises a black eye behind sunglasses, insisting that he “fell down the stairs, that’s all,” then conceding with a hiss, “She’ll kill me.” (The outtakes from this scene, available on the Stella DVD, are nothing short of hilarious.)
At this point we’re still only two-thirds of the way through the episode. In total disregard for the structure of comedic acquisition, Stella (as well as other absurdist programs like Aqua Teen Hunger Force and the The mighty Boosh) is resolutely unconcerned about continuity or narrative conclusions. Each episode meanders from one bizarre interaction to another, until the standard twenty-two minutes are up, and Stella concludes with a song, or everyone’s favorite, tentative-but-slowly-contagious applause.
Although Stella may have passed, the Michaels, at least, forge onward. Their new show, Michael and Michael have issues, premieres tonight on Comedy Central. Here’s hoping it survives for longer than ten episodes.
— J.C. Freñán