Judd Apatow is the Starbucks of American Comedy

schumer lebronSo “Trainwreck.” It’s a fun movie. Lots of laughs. Amy Schumer is a joy to watch, as is (surprisingly) LeBron James. Will LeBron turn out to be Judd Apatow’s greatest contribution to American cinema? Probably not but you never know. The guy’s got game.

But “Trainwreck,” the dressed-down romantic comedy directed by modern comedy hero Judd Apatow and starring the aforementioned plus SNL vet Bill Hader among other fun/good actors, is quite a bit short of being really good, let alone great or even worth talking about once you’re back in the parking lot.

It’s too ordinary. Look beyond (Schumer’s) sharp dialogue and well-timed jokes and what you’ve got is upscale entertainment product. A step-by-step re-creation of standard rom-com beats and characters, right up until the dread sequences of learning and hugging that bring the whole thing to a sodden end.

Five points to consider:

1. Apatow is one of the least adventurous directors, ever. As opposed to Edgar Wright (“The World’s End,” “Shaun of the Dead” and etc., check out the brilliant/hilarious ‘Every Frame a Painting” episode about his work linked below ), even Apatow’s funniest scenes are visually flat — mostly characters gathered in groups of two or four having witty conversations. Hardly anything, or anyone, moves. . To the point where “Trainwreck” would work just as well as a radio show. Really.

2. Bill Hader, for all his talents, makes for a dull romantic lead. He’s good at being bemused, but in this role at least he radiates the romantic need/passion of my dog Ralph, who is currently sleeping near my desk. It’s irrelevant that Ralph farts a lot — apparently that’s expected from any dog with Boxer in him – but he’s much more fun, and less smelly, when he’s awake. Please wake up, Bill.

3. And I don’t think it’s all Hader’s fault. His superstar orthopedic surgeon character Aaron is barely written at all. He’s a loosely aggregated set of psychological prototypes whose central characteristic — he’s like the world’s greatest knee surgeon, so extremely skilled as to be the only suitable option for the world’s greatest, if shattered/torn athletes — is contradicted/trashed by the writers the moment the plot requires a mini-crisis. No surgeon in the world, let alone one whose profile is as high and his reputation as profound as Aaron’s, would EVER do the shit “Trainwreck” requires Aaron to pull. This is Amy’s first movie script but Apatow has been around the track a lot and he should know better. Instead, he did the e-z thing, and now American suffers. What about the children, Judd? Think of the children.

4. Stunt-casting: LeBron works magnificently, and it is sort of better that he’s playing himself. But WTF is the point of tossing in Chrissie Evert, Marv Albert, Matthew Broderick and the other self-portraying celebs? Does Aaron really ONLY know celebrities? Isn’t it lazy to lean on pre-existing punchlines (they’re famous! they’re making fun of themselves, sort of!) rather than write original characters with original personae/jokes/etc?

5. So Schumer’s delightfully louche character (sex-crazed, boozer, pothead, etc) can only find happiness when she renounces her indulgences and conforms to all the Traditional Values? Hmm. Okay. Well, that’s….ordinary. Moderation, as per the vast majority of people, isn’t an option? There is something fundamentally wrong about a sexually-empowered woman? Did you get that from the Texas Republican Party?

C’mon Judd, c’mon Amy. You’ve done so much better. You’ll do so much better. Just please try.

Here’s the (priceless) Edgar Wright video:

 

Lewis Lapham just published the worst essay ever written about comedy

But seriously, folks.

But seriously, folks.

The agate-eyed old man on the left is Mr. Lewis Lapham, former editor of Harper’s whose own writings have — as lovingly recounted in his author bio — earned comparisons to wordy mega-weights Mark Twain and Montaigne.

And yet his latest literary throw-down, the brutally titled America Needs Better Comedians, is a pedantic wind-fest that replaces actual knowledge of modern comedy/popular culture with a blizzard of French philosophers, a brief lesson in Elizabethan anatomical theory and a loving recollection of a prep school headmaster (“…a pious and confiding man, as grave as he was good.”) encountered in Connecticut in 1948.

When Groucho Marx’s name enters the text Lapham turns extra-turgid, reducing the anarchic performer’s comic subversions into that much more ivory-cloaked yammering: horseprof

With Groucho Marx I share the opinion that comedians “are a much rarer and far more valuable commodity than all the gold and precious stones in the world,” but the assaying of that commodity — of what does it consist in its coats of many colors, among them cocksure pink, shithouse brown, and dead-end black — is a question that I gladly leave to the French philosopher Henri Bergson, Twain’s contemporary who in 1900 took note of its primary components: “The comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly human… Laughter has no greater foe than emotion… Its appeal is to the intelligence, pure and simple… Our laughter is always the laughter of a group.”

Well, then. But let’s get to the heart of the attack presented in the headline (America needs better…): Why is Lapham dismissing all of the era’s comic voices? What is the overarching failure of the current, and at times culture-influencing likes of J Stewart, S Colbert, L. CK, “South Park” and on and on?

Lapham has no idea. At least, he never mentions them. Whether this is a function of his contempt or simple ignorance is unclear. Or so it seems until he finally does devote part of a sentence to a quick blow-by of the pitiful state of the genre, denouncing the “freeze-dried sound bites” dispensed at its most crucially important venues. Which, to Lapham, include: “Gridiron dinners, Academy Award ceremonies, and ‘Saturday Night Live.’

Gridiron dinners? Network awards shows? Weekend Update? These are the 21st century’s most vital outlets for modern humor? And no mention of “The Daily Show” or “Curb Your Enthusiasm” or “Louie” or the great sea of Internet podcasts, blogs, Bad Lip Reading/Funny or Die videos?

Um, no. Not even close. Not even a mile from being close. No matter, Lapham snatches up George Bernard Shaw for the capper: “My way of joking is to tell the truth. It’s the funniest joke in the world.”

True dat. But as Shaw knew, and Lapham apparently doesn’t, a little knowledge of your actual subject is pretty important too.

The J. Crew Crew – the all J.Crew model adventure series

O'Neill

So here’s something new!

This nice lady from Brooklyn, NY, Meghan O’Neill, makes adventure movies about and starring J. Crew models! As snipped directly from the latest J. Crew catalogues, of course.

And they’re funny.

And you want to see them.

So why not start now?

 

Behind the Seams with Marc Maron

maron

Not long into Marc Maron’s set at Portland’s Aladdin theater last night (Feb 28), the comedian spied a teenager named Avery in the front row and struck up a conversation. How old was he? What was he into? Did he do sports? From then on the show became a conversation between Maron and the shaggy-haired 16-year-old.

A mostly one-sided conversation, but Avery’s presence, along with Maron’s addressing so much of what he had to say directly to him — often while hunkered down right in front of the boy — invested the comedian’s lost-in-the-un-funhouse-of-consciousness musings an unexpected, and powerful dimension. Maron was talking to himself, really, and his news was tough, but ultimately good: Don’t be afraid of the bullshit in life. Bring it on, climb inside and master it from the inside out.

So this is what Maron does, both on the stage and in his increasingly well-known podcast ‘WTF.’ The podcast is an interview show, once devoted almost entirely to comedians and comic actors (he’s branching out these days, which is good). But when Maron has the right guest he’ll draw them deep into the muck, often prompting revelations. Chatting with Tom Green (famed for his MTV pranks show during the ’90s) a few weeks ago, Maron started the show by admitting that he had never cared much for Green’s work or what he’d seen of his character. No matter, he treated Green with typical warmth, drawing out his guest’s tales of glory and then his ugly, semi-redeeming run-in with testicular cancer.

Maron also gave Green the leeway to reveal how shallow and at times unpleasant he can be. Asked about his marriage to, and speedy divorce from Drew Barrymore the former TV star explained their split (which came after Barrymore’s supportive role in Green’s cancer battle) by wondering aloud how his host would feel being tracked by his wife’s paparazzi all day every day, and having the resulting stories being almost entirely about her. Weirder still, the cancer survivor spoke enthusiastically about taking up cigarettes, and the electric non-smoky cigarette he now uses. And proceeded to suck on during the interview, leading to weird gaps in his responses and an odd, choked tone in his voice.

So yuck. But once again Maron had led his audience so deep into  Tom Green’s flinty humanity the experience seemed revelatory. Not just because Green sounded like a dick, but because he sounded so puzzled about the whole thing. He’d flown so quickly to the top of his game, only to have the rules changed. His dream-come-true went sour and even now he has no idea what to do about it. I know that feeling. I’d wager you do, too. The big question for us is the same one Green still can’t find a satisfying answer for: what do you do next?

At the Aladdin show Maron tossed fistfuls of emotional crud onto the stage. Vivid tales of pornography and masturbation; the wonderful/terrifying burdens of romance and marriage (as symbolized by a nauseous helicopter ride above the island of Kauai), and the many mythologies people use to make it all make sense. Much of it was really funny, of course. Maron is a master of being simultaneously wise and outrageous, and when he went deep into the downside of pornography (you know you’ve lost your grip when you see your naked girlfriend in bed and look around to see where the dude is) or the crazy aggressiveness of evangelical vegans and atheists, the place twisted and flew like a roller coaster.

But it doesn’t all work. Maron is only now healing a decades-long reputation for blatant and unapologetic nastiness. His ongoing feud with Jon Stewart — they were once seen as quite similar, and Stewart often won jobs Maron really, really wanted — reveals far more about Maron’s shortcomings than anything else. That he refuses to back down, even after 14 years of sobriety and publicly distributed amends, is a bit dismaying.

But no one gets it right all the time, and Maron is nothing if not transfixed by his own, often gory, imperfections. You have to root for him, not just because he’s so smart and funny, but also because he knows how grating he can be. Everyone looks like a monster when they shed their skin, and his own personal horror, and great gift, is that he knows this all too well.

Now Avery does too. It might not save him from all the angst and hassle of real life. But it can’t hurt, so what the fuck.