Thursday, May 29, 2014

My Three Worst Shows

This week marks five years since my first improv class at Second City. With all the personal drama I've battled in past few years, improvisation and comedy have been a constant in my life, cathartic as well as a creative outlet.  At the same time, it's one of the few things I don't feel comfortable explaining. Even though I've been improvising a fairly long time, it's become such a personal part of me that it's difficult to write about it introspectively. I'm still learning and honing my craft, and even if a particular show didn't go that well, I have the confidence and hindsight to learn from my mistakes and keep chugging along. Above all, there's plenty to learn when a show goes very badly. Here are three examples:

1. My Level D Performance Show, Donny's Skybox, 2/28/2010. My second show ever. My first improv show before an audience went well for our class, and we were chomping at the bit to do it again. However, there was an unexpected and discernible difference between our Level C instructor and Level D teacher: one taught and the other didn't. One offered pragmatic and concise feedback, the other just said "that's nice" and often seemed as distant and she was vague.

In the end, everything that could go wrong did. The energy was very low, no one seemed to be listening, we were barely starting scenes and rushing through in desperate, almost selfish gasp for stage time. Even in the structured, rapid-fire dynamic of short-form "game" improv nothing seemed to be happening. The show closed with a round of Blind Freeze where everyone just kept editing after two lines, far too short to develop any scene. We had our show the evening after our last class, so it's not like our Level D instructor was going to share her notes, either.

Lesson Learned: Just breathe.

2. Underground Lounge, circa July 2012. I finally started to dabble in "barprov" in late 2011, and often I would book 18- to 20-minute slots first without having a specific person or team to play with. I suppose that's okay in some circles, but it's preferable to book a slot for someone or something in particular. Booking said slot on less than 72 hours' notice makes things much trickier. On this particular night, nearly my entire social circle had other plans. I messaged about 40 people on Facebook before settling on "Lamar," a mutual friend with limited barprov experience, followed by a former classmate that I hadn't been in touch with. On paper, this was an odd couple.

The slot was booked at 8pm on a Wednesday night. I gave the host the name "The Partial Enchilada," my catch-all for anytime I was doing improv on a casual, non-committal basis. The mutual friend showed up on time, but the former classmate completely flaked out. (In fact, I never heard from the old fellow ever again.) On top of that, the air conditioning was malfunctioning; the machine was above the stage, and it was not operating or blasting on an intermittent basis. Once we were set to play, we proceeded to do a series of scenes with Lamar that involved a lot of talking but not much physical action. The AC was very loud at that point, so we had people sitting in the front row yelling "speak up!" as we're doing scenes.

I ended up giving Lamar a ride back to the CTA, but we haven't played together since.

Lesson Learned: A bad idea with strong support goes a lot further than good idea with no support. Also, I hate flake-outs.

3. Upstairs Gallery, Valentine's Day Jam, 2/14/2014. What happens when you encounter someone who intensely dislikes you, and you have to perform in front of them? I had largely avoided that situation until this past V-Day, when I ran into another former classmate and onetime friend at this Andersonville venue. "Erika" had severed ties shortly after her 23rd birthday in September 2012 (odd timing, I know). I later found out by accident that Erika had unfriended and blocked me on Facebook, for reasons that are still very much unclear. Any attempt to communicate with her by e-mail and text have been largely ignored. I don't recall having any specific misunderstanding with her, which makes our communication breakdown even more peculiar.

Even though I wasn't booked to perform, any improviser that was invited was also encouraged to participate in a jam between acts. When my name was pulled from a hat, I stood up from my folding chair, found my place in the line on stage, and... inadvertent made eye contact with Erika. As she sat in the back row, the look on her face could be described as mildly annoyed. This particular ten-minute set went okay, but I was in my head the entire time; I made one strong character choice and that didn't go anywhere, and largely couldn't get a word in edgewise. I spent the rest of the evening either fishing for positive feedback from my peers, or making small talk to avoid any further awkward encounters with my unintended adversary.

Lesson Learned: Don't let drama distract you.

Next Week: my Class of 2014 memory list.


Saturday, May 24, 2014

No Man is a Lonely Island: My Review of Andy Samberg/St. Vincent (5/17/14)

Scroll down for a special bonus review!

I can't recall ever having such a hard time writing an SNL review. I blame most of the fatigue on the almost universal and undeserved derision toward Year 39, maybe the weakest season of SNL in recent memory. To say 2013-14 was awful by any means is an exaggerated misnomer, though the first half of the season was considerably stronger than the second. If anything, the blame should be shifted toward an increasingly rudderless writing staff, and not so much on a young, unproven, and overpopulated cast. The overall situation is a mess, but nothing that some minor tweaks and trimming couldn't salvage.

With that note, the ghosts of SNL's recent past resurface as a rebuilding year comes to a close. Sitcom star and recent Golden Globe winner Andy Samberg --I know, right?-- returns to host two years after quietly departing the live grind. The 29th alum to host will be joined by indie-pop sensation St. Vincent, referred to by some as the daughter David Byrne never had.

COLD OPENING: The current writing staff doesn't seem inclined to write political sketches, and James Downey's decision to take a year off made that apathy almost transparent. Thus, tonight's topical sketch has a fish-in-the-barrel feel. Solange Knowles (SZ) and Jay-Z (JP) want to make it abundently clear that there's lingering hard feelings about the previous weekend's elevator melee, though the tension keeps Hova's bodyguard (KT) on his toes. The actual security footage is dubbed to acknowledge a mutual hatred of spiders, and the security guard (BM) that leaked the video gets skewed in his own right. When Beyonce (Maya!) walked in to a 15-second ovation, it almost felt like playtime was over, and the adults were back in the room. It was a great cameo, yet at the same time it sucked the air out of the room.

MONOLOGUE: Coming off a banner year, Andy half-jokingly points out that he produced 101 Digital Shorts and appeared in six live sketches. He points out that Bill Hader holds the all-time record for impressions (he surpassed Darrell late last year, look it up) and with the assistance of Seth Meyers, tries to shatter that. Ultimately, any show like this will turn into a "cameo orgy," and after Andy breaks the record Hader takes it right back.

"Camp Wicawabe": Circa July 1990, two campers (AB, KM) host a pretend talk show inside one of the cabins. Their 4th grade-level of worldliness makes them both a little condescending, but similtaneously bewildered by Piper's cousin Jeremy (AS), a 14-year-old camper with a tendency to rub things with his posterior. Bolstered by winning performances from Aidy, Kate, and Mooney, this was just middle-of-the-pack and engaging enough that we'll probably see this recurring sketch again in Year 40.

DIGITAL SHORT: "When Will the Bass Drop?" is an oversimplified parody of EDM, with Andy playing a cultish DJ threatening to drop the beat like "The Pit and the Pendelum." He keeps teasing and teasing, then when the bass does drop, the club (to no one's surprise) turns into Armageddon. It seems brutally ironic that if this is the last time we ever see John Milhiser on SNL, we saw him perform seppuku in a nightclub.

"Confident Hunchback": Following the winking one-joke balderdash of "Rude Buddha," Victor Hugo's most beloved underdog is re-interpreted by Andy as an oblivious womanizer. Unlike "Rude Buddha," however this juxtaposition of 15th century alienation and 21st century swagger had a few stray chuckles. Besides, he has less than a year to live.

MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: Surrounded by bathroom tiles, "Birth in Reverse" showcases Annie Clark in all her elegant quirkiness. The robotic arm gestures complimented the warm electronica.

WEEKEND UPDATE: When half of Twitter thinks you're the second greatest WU anchorperson named Colin, you just have to accept the burn. Some writers aren't meant to be on-screen, and I'm still debating whether Colin Jost is one of them. Whatever progress Cecily Strong made as Seth Meyers' co-anchor has either stalled or regressed, and at times are time filler between sterling desk commentaries. The Jost-Strong tandem is light on chemistry, and their comfort level wavers at times. "Get in the Cage" was a nice treat, as Nic (AS) grills an uncomfortable Paul Rudd. (Speaking of Cage, I'm pretty sure that's the second week in a row Cojo has been addressed as "Seth" by a guest commentator.)

"The Kissing Vogelchecks": Andy was never really part of this outrageous sketch, but sure, I'll suspend disbelief this one time. Samberg is the doting son and Taran is the boyfriend/study in slow burn as the entire Vogelcheck clan snogs like teenagers in a 1996 Honda Accord. Fred Armisen and Kristen Wiig walk out to thunderous applause, and other family members (like Kate's ornery grandma) just randomly walk in from all sides of the living room. Than we realize what the sketch is really about (hint: the NFL Draft) and social commentary blends into the obvious slapstick.

"Wake Up With Kimye": This morning on the show, hip-hop's most self-involved power couple (JP, NP) are working out the final details of their pending nuptuals. The all-Kardashian band is subbed out by the cryptic presence of Bruce Jenner (TK), who just stands there and shoehorns himself into the Wests' vapid conversation.

DIGITAL SHORT: The Lonely Island's next album is still a work in progress, but "Hugs" is hot, fresh, and just for you. Tatiana Maslany, Maya Rudolph (again?), and Pharrell help out on a good-but-not-great track about girls who misinterpret a gentle embrace for something greater.

"Legolas from 'The Hobbit' Tries to Order at Taco Bell": A self-explanatory blackout sketch with the altruistic warrior (AS) attempting to get his burrito fix. It probably seemed fun on paper, but it was all static until Gimlet (BM) walked in.

"Blizzard Man": After a long self-imposed exile, Blizzy (AS) resurfaces to collaborate with 2 Chainz (yep, another cameo). The sabbatical didn't do much for his chops, which are just as goofy and flaccid as ever. I didn't mind this sketch, but how long can KT play the same sound engineer without putting his foot down? Is this amnesia of convenience?

MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: "Digital Witness" is another standout track from one of 2014's best albums so far, a Talking Heads-type song bolstered by Annie's guitar chops and what I could best describe as assembly-line line dancing. All hail our new robot overlords!

"Bvlgari": Our favorite ex-porn stars (VB, CS) launch their latest paper-thin scheme for free bling, this time modeling Italian watches. Despite a well-placed swipe at Donald Sterling, this latest scam brought nothing new to the table, and the obligatory endorsement by their wayward peers (AS, KW) was similarly arbitrary.

All in all, this was a typically uneven show to cap a decidedly uneven year for SNL. I'll give the producers credit for limiting the number of "cameo orgy" shows this season to just two. Tonight, the adults took over and the kids took a seat; Andy carried the show almost as if he never left, though having two-thirds of the Year 32 hanging around didn't hurt his case. At the same time, it must have been disconcerting for the struggling featured players to basically be told to sit out the season finale, when for two or three actors this was their last possible opportunity to show America they had a right to be here.

What Gets Cut From The 60-Minute Edit: one of the Digital Shorts, most of Update, "Wake Up With Kimye," "Legolas at Taco Bell," "Blizzard Man," and "Digital Witness."


And now, a recap of Season 39:

Scribes and internet trolls alike were shredding SNL to bits this year --especially after Seth left-- as if this were another Season 20. Rest assured, there were some highlights:

Most Valuable Player: Kate McKinnon. You might expect me to pick Taran, but hear me out-- the woman who "replaced" Kristen Wiig two-plus years ago really came into her own in 2013-14. Her array of impressions (Justin Bieber, Angela Merkel, Jane Lynch) is just about as impressive as her arsenal of characters (barfly Sheila Sovage, Olya the Russian hausfrau, the aforementioned Piper). If Wiig had a Dan Akyroyd-like quality, than McKinnon might as well be the female Will Ferrell. If this year was any indicator, K-Mac will be SNL's cleanup hitter for the remainder of the decade.

Most Improved: Aidy Bryant. Any doubts about Miss Bryant's presence and purpose on SNL were quashed in her sophomore year. She can play emotionally vulnerable and sexually aggressive with equal aplomb. It's a joy to watch her go zany in one scene and bemused in another. Chris Farley is an easy comparision, but that doesn't really do Bryant justice; she can be manic at times, but Aidy's a far more grounded performer.

Rookie of the Year: Beck Bennett. With only two white male actors returning from the previous year (three if you count Seth), a lot of the roles that would generally go to Bill Hader or Jason Sudeikis landed right in Beck's lap. That's not to say my fellow Chicago native was a victim of happenstance; Baby Boss was one of the stronger new recurring characters of the season, and he's a very capable straight man to boot.

Ranking the "Class of 2013" by Likehood of Returning for Season 40, in Descending Order: Beck Bennett, Kyle Mooney, Sasheer Zamata, Colin Jost, Michael Patrick O'Brien, Noel Wells, Brooks Wheelan, John Milhiser

Best Hosts of Season 39:
3. Louis C.K.
2. Melissa McCarthy
1. Kerry Washington

Worst Hosts of Season 39:
3. Miley Cyrus
2. Andrew Garfield
1. Josh Hutcherson

Best Musical Guests*:
3. St. Vincent
2. Janelle Monae
1. Arcade Fire

Worst Musical Guests:
3. Pharrell
2. Miley Cyrus
1. One Direction

Best Overall Episodes:
3. Jimmy Fallon/Justin Timberlake
2. Louis C.K./Sam Smith
1. Kerry Washington/Eminem

Worst Overall Episodes:
3. Seth Rogen/Ed Sheeran
2. Miley Cyrus
1. Jim Parsons/Beck

*Imagine Dragons' mash-up of "Radioactive" with Kendrick Lamar deserves an honorable mention. Man, that was amazing.

Questions or comments? Either post below or e-mail Stu at

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Seasons of Love: "M*A*S*H," Season Five (1976-77)

For my latest TV essay, I chose a classic sitcom that I've been watching since grade school. Picking a favorite season of M*A*S*H, however proved difficult. I had almost settled on Season Two, when the original cast was in peak form. I'll even argue that as a straight comedy with occasional dramatic undertones, some of my favorite episodes strike the balance. In a perfect world, the show would have skipped from Radar's departure midway through Season Eight to the epic (albeit overrated) finale, erasing three-plus years of maudlin "dramedy." Give me the early, funnier years please.

To me, the focal point of Season Five is Major Frank Burns. On the surface, his character steadily grew more cartoonish; Burns was the heel, the show's go-to villain and wet blanket. The subtext was that Burns was isolated; a major plot point in Season Five was Major Houlihan's engagement to Major Donald Penobscott. With his former mistress and only ally at the 4077th now betrothed to someone else, Burns was an island of growing denial and despair. Penobscott only appears on the show twice in the entire series, so he's mostly an intangible nemesis for Burns to shadowbox. (The fact that Frank and Hot Lips never formally broke up, adding on the sudden emergence of Penobscott, must have been quite jarring.) In "Margaret's Engagement," Burns struggles to find solace as he goes out drinking with his "friends" Hawkeye and BJ. By "Movie Tonight," Burns is threatening to kill both men.

The next season begins with Burns finally losing his mind --off-screen, of course-- going AWOL and sent home once and for all. It was a convenient introduction for David Ogden Stiers, and the beginning of a new, much more seriocomic era of M*A*S*H. Not so coincidentally, this was the last year of Larry Linville's contract; he signed a three-year deal with CBS after the second season, and maintained his desire to move on citing fear of typecasting. The writers and producers were clearly intent on making Burns and Linville go out with a bang.

Five Favorites:

"Bug Out" (episodes 1 and 2, 98th and 99th overall). M*A*S*H was famous for blending situation comedy with pathos, but with the one-hour season premiere they intentionally split the two and had them play off each other. Heavy shelling gives the 4077th no other option than to the evacuate the camp, but an unstable patient forces Hawkeye, Margaret, and Radar to stay behind. Where the "bug out" turns into a raucous caravan, the deserted base and impeding doom provide great character moments for the chief surgeon, head nurse, and company clerk.

"The Nurses" (episode 6, 103rd overall). The 5th season was arguably a greater revelation for Loretta Swit, whose Major Houlihan was relegated to playing a manipulative shrew in the show's early going. Not only was she "liberated" of Major Burns, she blossomed into a character of dimension. This episode was the tipping point: standing in front of a bunch of over-glorified extras that never appeared on the show again, Houlihan admits that it's very lonely being the only female officer in the unit. It was hard to call her "Hot Lips" after that.

"Dear Sigmund" (episode 8, 105th overall). Arguably the show's most memorable recurring character was Major Sidney Freedman, played with dry, disarming charm by Allan Arbus. An imaginary letter to his psychoanalytical hero, written during a rut, strings together a series of otherwise random happenings at the 4077th camp.

"Mulcahy's War" (episode 9, 106th overall). After four years as a recurring guest star, William Christopher was finally promoted to series regular in 1976. Though most episodes with Father Mulcahy at front and center were a sanctimonious bore --especially in the later seasons of the show-- this was one of the Padre's better outings. After a GI shoots himself to get out of combat, Mulcahy realizes he's too aloof to what is at stake and sneaks out to the front.

"Movie Tonight" (episode 22, 119th overall). Outside of the Burns example, this is a fun romp of an episode that uses the entire cast to its benefit. Movie night at the 4077th is hindered by technical difficulties, so the officers find clever ways to entertain the unit. The impromptu Father Mulcahy impression contest is a hoot.

Your thoughts?