TubaTV remembers: ‘The Ben Stiller show’

The Ben Stiller show

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

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TubaTV remembers: ‘Stella’

TubaTV remembers... 'Stella'

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

TubaTV remembers: ‘Freaks and geeks’

Freaks and geeks

Before Judd Apatow finally found commercial success re-hashing the same, tired loser-centric take on the romantic comedy genre; before Seth Rogen became the unlikeliest of Hollywood-by-way-of-Canada leading men since Mike Meyers; before Jason Segel took some comedic respite in How I met your mother‘s prime time laugh track; before James Franco was making out with Sean Penn; before Lizzy Caplan was tripping on V with Jason Stackhouse or serving hors d’oeuvres alongside Martin Starr; before Rashida Jones was an Office/Parks and Recreation regular; they were all involved in Paul Feig’s amazing, one-season-long Freaks and geeks.

I’ll concede the possibility that at least some of my affection for the show derives from the fact that it was set in suburban Detroit circa 1980, say, half a generation before I myself was a skinny, prepubescent high school student obliviously fascinated with Stars wars (not to mention its mid-nineties equivalent, Magic:The gathering).  Independently of my regional prejudice, however, I’ll maintain that Freaks and geeks was far and away the best teen drama ever to grace the small screen — beating out even that first spectacular season of Friday night lights FTW.

What made the show so exceptional, especially when compared to its more popular (populist?) peers, was the banality of its storylines, and its adamant refusal to be organized episodically (and ideologically) by adult-approved and/or Nielsen-whoring Teen Topics.  During the all-too-brief 18-episode series, we’re not subjected to a single untimely teen death — no Johnny falling drunk from a cliff, no Marissa getting killed in a drunken car chase (and consequently no angry teen cage fights).  There are no “diet pill” addictions.  There are no teacher-student romances.  There is no hot lesbian action.

The show’s minimalist approach to verisimilitude is nourished entirely by the kind of suburban teen microdrama that (I imagine) dominated the high school years of much of (lower) Middle (class) America through the 80s and 90s: the uncertainties of disassociating yourself from one group of friends in order to gain membership to another; boyfriends who kind of almost cheat on you with your best friend; the minor emasculations perpetrated by bullies, who in turn have their own emotional and familial problems; the physical confusions and insecurities associated with puberty, and with growing up more generally; the regimes of consumption that begin defining social groups after junior high; etc. etc. etc.

None of this is to say that teens don’t die in drunk driving accidents, or that there are no unprofessional student-teacher relationships in high school, or that teens can’t have hot lesbian sex — just that these sorts of storylines are cheap, easy, unfulfilling drama.  It takes a sensitive observer of adolescent strife to produce a successful narrative without resorting to soap opera storylines.  All the more disappointing, then, that homeboy Paul Feig hasn’t been able to direct that sensitivity toward equally successful analyses of young adulthood or beyond.

In closing, an incidental post-script, since I seem to have a thing for bashing P.T. Anderson lately: Freaks and geeks also deserves some serious respect for its very clever camerawork (showcased nicely in the clip above).  It actually succeeds — as a meaningful, communicative device — where Anderson’s gimmickry (both in Boogie nights and Magnolia) failed.

— J.C. Freñán

TubaTV remembers: ‘Mystery science theater 3000’

MST3K

Everything I know about post-structuralism I learned from a couple janitors and their robot sidekicks.  Mystery science theater 3000 was really unlike any other TV show out there: its enlightened brand of comedy wasn’t situational, it wasn’t sketch-based, it wasn’t even absurdist.  Each of its nigh 200 episodes was two hours long and was produced for very little money — on a weekly basis, no less.  (Fuck you, Rome!)  The trick, of course, was not to worry about creating entirely original content, but to recycle long-forgotten B-movies from decades past.  It was sort of like the hip hop of geeky televisual parody, a (semi-facetious) comparison made all the more outrageous when one recalls that it was the brainchild of some of the whitest folks the Midwest has ever produced.

The series ended its run in 1999 after 10 seasons, but still maintains a dedicated cult following with a formidable web presence.  I won’t bother to trumpet its virtues (which are many); the point of this inaugural ‘TubaTV remembers’ entry is rather to reminisce fondly about how the show has shaped my sense of humor, and in so doing, how it paved the way for my eventual enchantment with post-structuralist philosophies of language.

MST3K‘s structural conceit is of course not without precedent, but it was only through the hours and hours of time spent with Joel Hodgson, Mike Nelson, Crowe T. Robot and Tom Servo that I began to appreciate all of the subtleties it involved.  On those weekend nights when I couldn’t stay awake through the midnight broadcast of MST3K, I used to program my parents’ VCR so I could watch it — religiously, one might say — the next morning before the rest of the family mobilized.  Through the mid-nineties I used to thrill at the 24+ hour MST3K marathons Comedy Central programmed every Thanksgiving, so that by the time I graduated high school I’d managed to amass enough VHS dubs to sew myself a chastity belt from all the magnetic tape.

The show seems deceptively straightforward, in that watching MST3K isn’t terribly unlike making fun of a bad movie with some unusually pithy friends.  Poetically, though, most of the jokes are actually pretty sophisticated.  They tend to be highly economical: because the Satellite of Love’s crew have to interject their lines in the pauses between the original dialog of whatever movie they’re watching, there’s little time for preamble.  As a result, the jokes are either hit or miss.  When they miss, it’s usually because their references are just too esoteric for a national audience.  A substantial proportion of their jokes, too, are “callbacks:” insular (but often hilarious) references to movies the trio has already lampooned.  When the jokes hit, though, it’s another story…

Watching the show during my formative years, I was profoundly influenced by its manipulation of voice.  The commentators’ one-liners often assume the subject-position of a character on-screen, or that of a hypothetical narrator remarking on the scene.  In the context of the program, it’s usually pretty obvious whose voice is being emulated; when this particular comedic strategy is spirited into the world of everyday speech, however, it tends to fail pretty spectacularly, unless one has a longstanding relationship with one’s interlocutor(s).  (Ahem.  Thumbu.)  What’s so fascinating to me about this particular linguistic practice, regardless of whether it communicates or not, is its elaboration of what Derrida identified as the structure of the trace, or the possibility of iterability in general.

In Derrida’s linguistic theory, any utterance is a priori susceptible to repetition, independently of its intelligibility or its meaningfulness.  Any utterance, therefore, is never absolutely enclosed within its context; this is how intertextuality functions most broadly, and why “excitable speech” can be resignified under the right circumstances.  MST3K actually takes this (already powerful) observation one step further.  More often than not the show’s jokes don’t actually repeat pre-existing utterances; rather, by appropriating the voices of on-screen characters or off-screen narrators, MST3K‘s writers *anticipate* hypothetical utterances. That is, their jokes work in the conditional perfect tense, the domain of the might-have-been-said, taking protentional advantage of the structure of the trace.  The consequence of this practice is to fracture the subjectivity of the assumed speakers: they are no longer in full possession of their voice.  (I’d like to think that JD himself would have been impressed by the economy of MST3K, had it ever come to his attention.)  The effortlessness of this gesture of mastery always struck me as nothing short of brilliant, even if I couldn’t quite understand why, or reproduce its effects in my own language.  I’m grateful to the crew of the Satellite of Love for teaching me more about how language works than some of my linguistics professors ever did.

— J.C. Freñán