TV Review: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2017)


Title:  Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Release Dates: 2017
Season: 3
Number of Episodes: 13
Summary/Review: The third season of the Netflix comedy series continues to be laugh out loud funny and thought-provoking.  Despite having her name in the title, at this point the show is about more than Kimmy Schmidt, but equally the stories of four major characters.  Kimmy continues to seek her place in the world attending college at Columbia University, but really wants to become a crossing guard after a test says it’s her most suitable job.  She finds a new romantic interest in Perry (Daveed Diggs) but her past with the Reverend (John Hamm) continues to haunt her.  Titus (Titus Burgess) returns from performing on a cruise ship unwilling to talk about what happened there and breaks up with Mikey (Mike Carlsen) in a ploy to win him over that backfires.  Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski) continues to use her privilege for good and attempt to get the Washington Redskins to change their racist name, but hits a snag when an accident makes her fiance Russ (David Cross) more handsome causing him to become more shallow.  Lillian (Carol Kane) becomes a city councilor fighting gentrification, but ends up falling for Artie (Peter Riegert), the owner of the new high-end grocery store in the neighborhood.

There are a lot of funny plots and gags, but not everything goes well.  One of the most publicized gags of the season is Titus “Lemonading” but there seems to be no joke here other than a large, black man reenacting Beyonce’s music video.  There have been times in the past when I’ve wondered if Tina Fey is secretly Republican and that continues here.  The depiction of Columbia University students as social justice warriors who suppress free speech comes straight from Fox News and Breitbart.  Artie is presented as a compassionate millionaire bringing groceries to the poor and Lillian a loony leftist (although I do appreciate Reigert’s performance with his charm and dry humor).  On the other hand, the attempt to depict the NFL team owners as rightwing loons also misses the mark, so maybe Fey just can’t do political humor without being ridiculous and over the top.

All the same, I love these characters and their stories.  Excluding the “Lemonade” gag, Titus Burgess remains one of the funnies people on tv.  I look forward to seeing where the show goes in its next season.

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TV Review: Master of None (2017)


Title: Master of None
Release Dates: 2017
Season: 2
Number of Episodes: 10
Summary/Review:

The second season of Aziz Ansari’s sitcom/romantic comedy/social satire picks up where the previous season left off and continues with the laughs and impresses with the experimental approaches to television.  Following up on the season 1 cliffhanger where Dev went to Italy to study pasta making, the first two episodes are set in Modena and the opening episode is filmed in black & white and stylized like a classic Italian film.  These episodes introduce Francesca, a new love interest for Dev, complicated because she is engaged to someone else.  This story plays out over the course of the season culminating in the hour-long final episode “Buona Notte” which is almost like a feature film.  In between there are episodes focusing on religion, Dev’s dating life, and Dev’s unhappiness as the host of a cupcake cooking competition reality show and efforts to create something new with celebrity chef and producer Jeff.  A couple of episodes stand out, and both rely on the talents of the supporting cast and guest stars.  First, is “Thanksgiving” which starts with Dev & his friend Denise as children, and Dev attending her family’s Thanksgiving dinner.  Over the years, Denise comes out to her family and then begins bringing her dates to Thanksgiving as well.  It’s an amazing, heartwarming story and features Angela Bassett as Denise’s mother.  My favorite episode of the season is “New York, I Love You” which is built on the conceit that the incidental characters we see in tv shows and movies have fascinating lives of their own.  In 30 minutes we see a doorman named Eddie struggling with difficult tenants, a deaf woman named Maya who works in a corner store argues with her boyfriend about her unsatisfactory sex life (this segment has no sound), and Samuel, a Burundian immigrant who drives a taxi, tries to enjoy a night out clubbing with his friends.  I would watch a spinoff series about any of these characters!  Overall, Master of None is a well-acted, well-written, thoughtful, and hilarious show.

TV Review: Doctor Who (2017)


Title: Doctor Who
Release Dates: 2017
Season: 10
Number of Episodes: 12
Summary/Review:

The 10th series of Doctor Who includes several landmarks.  First, it is Peter Capaldi’s third and final series as The Doctor.  I’ve grown to love his performance and wish he could stick around for one more series.  Of course, I thought that about previous Doctors too, but Capaldi has joined the ranks of my favorite Doctors of all time.  Second, this is the sixth and final series for Steven Moffat as showrunner.  Moffat has been an innovator and changed Doctor Who for the future.  He does have a habit of repeating himself in his themes and ideas, though, so it may have been better if he’d finished a little earlier.  He apparently intended to leave after series 9 but was asked to do one more series, but oh wouldn’t Hell Bent been a story to go out on.   Nevertheless, series 10 shows that Moffat had a few more good story ideas left.  Third, the series sees the return of Matt Lucas as a full-time companion Nardole, a decision that seemed odd at first, but paid off across the season. Finally, this series introduced Pearl Mackie as the new companion, Bill.  As a young, working class woman of color and a lesbian, Bill is a unique character in Doctor Who history, and Mackie shined with her humor, intelligence, and clear chemistry with Capaldi.

Moffat stated that the season was a jumping on point for new viewers and the first four episodes followed a familiar pattern for new companions: meeting the Doctor in the first episode, traveling to the future in the second episode, an historical adventure in the third episode, and the supernatural intruding into the companion’s everyday life in contemporary times in the fourth episode.  All of this is undergirded by the mystery of what The Doctor is keeping in a vault underneath the university.  The middle four episodes took a huge left turn and were more reminiscent of highly experimental style of series 9.  First there was Oxygen, one of the standout episodes of the series that is a caustic critique of capitalism, and features a grave threat to Bill and The Doctor making a sacrifice.  This is followed by three episodes linked together as “The Monks Trilogy,” although each episode features a different screenwriter and director.  Moffat introduces a major new villain in the Monks but unfortunately they’re too reminiscent of previous villains the Silence and the Headless Monks.  The trilogy starts off well with Extremis which could easily be edited to make a stand alone episode, but there are diminishing returns in the ensuing two episodes.  There are good parts to each story, although I don’t know if it would be possible to pare it down to just one or two episodes instead of three. The final four episodes feature a couple of more episodes that fit more into the theme of Bill discovering the thrills of travel in time and space, while also incorporating Michelle Gomez Missy into the Tardis team (spoiler: she’s what was hidden in the vault).  The concluding two-part story World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls is a tour-de-force that explores Missy’s efforts to try to be “good,” the return of John Simm as an earlier incarnation of the Master, and some extreme body horror in the form of the Mondasian Cybermen.  Capaldi, Gomez, Simm, and Mackie all put in a remarkable performance in a mindblowing and heartbreaking story.

The mid-season “Monks Trilogy” derail makes it hard to give the series as a whole top marks, but for the most part it’s some excellent television and a fitting finale to the Capaldi era.  Now Christmas needs to get here so we can say farewell to these characters and meet our first woman Doctor!

Below are links to my reviews of each episode from my Doctor Who sideblog on Tumblr:

  1.  The Pilot (7 of 10)
  2.  Smile (5 of 10)
  3.  Thin Ice (8 of 10)
  4.  Knock Knock (6 of 10)
  5. Oxygen (8 of 10)
  6. Extremis (8 of 10)
  7. The Pyramid at the End of the World (6 of 10)
  8. The Lie of the Land (5 of 10)
  9. The Empress of Mars (7 of 10)
  10.  Eaters of Light (8 of 10)
  11. 12. World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls (8 of 10)

A note on ratings:  A score of 5 is the baseline for a decent story from end to end with 10 being an all-time classic and 0 being an utter stinker.  Basically, any story rated 8-10 is a great story, 5-7 is good and worth watching, 2-4 has its moments but can be passed, and 0-1 is only for the Doctor Who completionist.

TV Review: The Race Underground (2017)


Title The Race Underground
Release Date: 31 January 2017
Director: Michael Rossi
Summary/Review:

The American Experience documentary adapts a portion of the book by Doug Most relating to Boston’s effort to create America’s first subway.  As a Boston partisan myself, why not leave out the portion of the book about New York City, even if they built a far more extensive subway system very swiftly after Boston’s first tunnel opened?  Kidding aside, it is a dramatic figure focusing on key figures such as Frank J. Sprague, who invented the electric trolley car, and Henry Melville Whitney, who consolidated the trolley lines into the West End Street Railway Company and persuaded city officials to approve the first tunnel.  There are challenges along the way including negative popular opinion, graves of Revolutionary War era soldiers, and an explosion, but the subway is completed and convinces the doubters.  The documentary is well-illustrated with photographs and vintage film, and is a delight to watch.
Rating: ***

 

TV Review: A Series of Unfortunate Events (2017)


TitleA Series of Unfortunate Events
Release Dates: 2017
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 8
Summary/Review:

The adaptation of the Lemony Snicket (a.k.a. Daniel Handler) novels is a great success, capturing the humor, tragedy, and pedagogy of the Baudelaire orphans sad tale.  It’s been over a decade since I read the books, but the tv show appears to be largely to the books with the exception of the introduction of some characters and the themes of the VFD that actually play a bigger role later in the series (not a bad idea for the tv show).  Neil Patrick Harris gets a lot of attention for his performance as the evil Count Olaf, and he chews the scenery in a way that will delight most viewers (although I can also see how he could irritate some).  The thing is, NPH isn’t even the best thing about this show.  The main cast of young actors includes Malina Weissman as Violet, Louis Hynes as Klaus, and the greatest baby actor ever in Presley Smith as Sunny.  Patrick Warburton offers a dry delivery of the narration as Lemony Snicket and K. Todd Freeman is the forever clueless, and coughing, Mr. Poe.  The guest cast includes spectacular performances by Joan Cusack, Aasif Mandvi, Alfre Woodard, Don Johnson, Catherine O’Hara, and Rhys Darby. And kudos for the diversity in the casting decisions not necessarily indicated in the source material. The surreal sets and the brightly-colored costumes lend an unworldly effect to the Snicketverse.  This is a brilliant show, and despite the warning from the opening title song to “Look Away,” this is definitely a show to watch and enjoy.

TV Review: Sherlock (2017)


Title: Sherlock
Release Dates: 2017
Season: 4
Number of Episodes: 3
Summary/Review:

Since 2010, the BBC has presented the reimagined adventures of Sherlock Holmes set in modern-day London starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Dr. John Watson.  It may sound facile, but after watching this fourth season, I wish the show had stuck with telling stories of two men solving mysteries.  It seems that this show has gone from being about a man with remarkable abilities in gritty, everyday London to being a show about a man with superpowers in a fantasy world paralleling our own.

The purpose of each episode in this series seems to be to put a character through emotional and physical torment and see how they react – Mary (Amanda Abbington) in “The Six Thatchers,” John in “The Lying Detective,” and Sherlock in “The Final Problem.”  It’s a credit to the acting talent of these actors (and others in supporting roles) that the show remains compelling to watch, but the absence of story (and mystery and adventure) is clearly missing in this series.  That the series is a set of three 90-minute “feature-length” episodes doesn’t help as the emotional and character arcs would be developed better over a longer series.

The end of the series appears to be resetting Sherlock to its original “Holmes/Watson solve a mystery premise,” while at the same time rumors are swirling that the show is now at an end.  I do hope it returns, because it is still a compelling show to watch, but I hope the showrunners and writers take some time to rest and reconsider before creating another series.

TV Review: Stranger Things (2016)


TitleStranger Things
Release Dates: 2016
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 8
Summary/Review:

The hit of the summer is an homage to horror and thrillers of the 1980s, mixing the film aesthetic of Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter with Stephen King’s “kids and monsters in Maine” formula transferred to Indiana.  There are also elements of later works like Twin Peaks, Donnie Darko (itself a 1980s pastiche), and Broadchurch among others.  Despite the effort to emulate the eighties ethos, Stranger Things is not a remake or a ripoff but a highly original work of its own.  I don’t think a show this sophisticated would be made in the 1980s and the movies of that time would not have the time to develop the characters and the relationships so well.  Movies in the 1980s would also rely on wowing the audience with special effects, but Stranger Things creates suspense by keeping most of the supernatural elements offscreen and in the imagination.

What’s great about Stranger Things is that it has three concurrent plots with different themes.  A 12-year-old, Will Byers, goes missing and his best friends Mike, Dustin, and Lucas go looking for him to be joined by the mysterious Eleven who has telekinetic powers, learning about friendship and forgiveness.   A teenage story features Will’s brother Jonathon forming an unlikely alliance with Mike’s sister Nancy to hunt down the monster with Nancy’s boyfriend Steve acting as antagonist and sometimes ally.  Finally, the adult story focuses on Will’s mother Joyce and police chief Hopper realizing that  Will’s disappearance is not a typical runaway or abduction case and involves malicious behavior at the government’s Hawkins Lab.

The whole series is 8 episodes of brilliance – great acting, plotting, pacing, and dialogue –  with a few scares thrown in.  It’s worthy of the accolades it’s receiving and I recommend watching it if you haven’t checked it out yet.

A Little Late for Thanksgiving


…but I can save this for next year.

So if you want to join me in recreating a Thanksgiving tradition of my childhood, follow these simple steps:

  1. Get a DVD of the original version of King Kong.
  2. Periodically stop it and watch a part of this Youtube clip instead:

Oh this is just too perfect.

Movie Review: New York: A Documentary Film by Ric Burns


New York: A Documentary Film is an 8-part film made by Ric Burns that debuted on PBS in 1999 (except for episode 8, which is from 2003).  Thanks to Netflix, I’ve finally seen this epic documentary about my ancestral homeland and one of my favorite cities.

Ric Burns’ style is similar to his brother Ken in that their is a rich wealth of archival images, photos and films, supported by contemporary film interspersed with interviews with a variety of experts and dramatic renditions of quotations by historical figures.  It’s an effective technique, albeit one that could use a few adjustments.  I particularly like hearing from the experts, a grab bag of historians, writers, politicians, architects, and New Yorkers.  Standouts among the crowd include urbanist Marshall Berman, soft-spoken historian Craig Steven Wilde, and architect Robert A. M. Stern (as an aside, it seems to me that architects are often great speakers as well).  I would prefer longer clips of these people speaking about New York in place of the narration, no offense to David Ogden Stiers.  It would be one way to reduce the cliches that plague this film.  If you had a dollar for every time the words “Capitol of the World” are uttered, you could take me out for dinner at a fancy restaurant and probably get change.  Similarly, the contemporary film of soaring over the Manhattan skyline is overused creating a visual cliche.

These are minor quibbles though.  I would expect that many viewers would criticize the filmmakers for leaving things out although it would be impossible to cover every detail of city as large and historic as New York.  I would have liked to have seen more about New York’s role in popular culture such as radio, film, tv, and sports, not to mention more details about the four boroughs not named Manhattan, but so be it. I also felt that the 70 years covered in episodes #6 & 7 could have branched out to include more than road building, public housing, and white flight, since so much else happened in those times.  But then again this is the time of my life, and my parents, and my grandparents so I’m much more connected to it through personal experience and stories

The film covers New York History chronologically, with each episode culminating in a Big Event that kind of ties together the historical and cultural processes discussed in the episode.  These include 1. the Erie Canal, 2. the Civil War Draft Riots, 3. the Consolidation of  Greater New York, 4. the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory Fire, 5. the construction of the Empire State Building, 6. the Great Depression and the 1939 World’s Fair, 7. the 1975 Fiscal Crisis, and 8. the World Trade Center & September 11th Attacks.  I think a more effective approach would have been to ditch the chronological approach and made the episodes specifically about these events: what led up to them, what effects did they have, how they influenced the people and their times, et al.  Episode 8 about the World Trade Center does in fact follow this method by tracing the history of the buildings construction, use, and desctruction, subtly creating a microcosm of New York history from the 1950’s to 2001.

Each episode also has a Big Person, a New Yorker of great prominence and influence who somehow personifies his times (and they are all “he’s”).  These include 1. Alexander Hamilton, 2. Walt Whitman, 3. William Tweed, 4. Al Smith, 5. F. Scott Fitzgerald, 6. Fiorello LaGuardia, 7. Robert Moses, and 8. no one really but high-wire artist Philippe Petit is the surprising heart of this episode.  I like this aspect less if only because it seems to lead to lionizing “great men” and repetition of more cliches (with the exception of Robert Moses about whom opinions were more neutral to negative, appropriate since Moses was eeeeeeeevil).

My overall impression Ric Burns’ New York is positive.  Episode 4: The Power and the People and Episode 8: The Center of the World are standout episodes that particularly bring the history of the city to life.  The former episode covers some of my favorite topics such as immigration and labor, while the latter profoundly recreates the horror of the September 11th attacks, but also the hope and heroism in the aftermath.  If you like New York, history, and/or documentaries check this one out.

TV Show Meme


I suppose this is the weekend where I write about TV. Ironic in the sense that I don’t actually own a tv, and haven’t had one in the home since 1999. I’m not an anti-tv elitist (although I do feel smug when I hear people have long conversations about reality show participants as if they were their friends), just sensible enough to know that I’m susceptible to being sucked into mindless channel flipping.

For not owning a television, I manage to watch a lot of it. Thanks to Comcast bundling prices, we even have a cable subscription hooked up to nothing so that our our internet service comes cheaper! Ah, the internet, which allows us to purchase tv shows from iTunes, watch live baseball games on MLB TV, and even stream free shows like the new season of Battlestar Galactica! Supplementing that, I’ve been getting lots of tv shows on DVD from the public library, which make for a great distraction during feeding times for the baby.

Anyhow, I’m unable to resist participating in memes when I come across them, so here’s the one about TV that I found on The Urban Pantheist:

1. Bold the shows of which you’ve watched every episode
2. Italic the shows of which you’ve seen at least one episode
2a. Star the shows you consider “the best”
3. Post your answers

50. Quantum Leap
49. Prison Break
48. Veronica Mars
47. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – probably the dullest of all the Star Treks
46. Sex & The City – saw a few episodes at a friends house and found it pretty trite

45. Farscape
44. Cracker
43. *Star Trek – I’m pretty sure I’ve only missed a few episodes, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen any. I should address that problem.
42. Only Fools and Horses – never heard of this
41. Band of Brothers – or this

40. Life on Mars – or this
39. *Monty Python’s Flying Circus – British television makes it so much easer to see every episode by having shorter seasons. Keeps the quality up too, I expect.
38. Curb Your Enthusiasm
37. *Star Trek: The Next Generation – my favorite Trek.
36. * Father Ted – watched the whole series back in December.

35. Alias
34. Frasier
33. CSI: Las Vegas
32. Babylon 5
31. Deadwood

30. Dexter
29. ER – I never watched this when it was new but we’ve been getting the DVDs for this lately from the library. A better show than I’d realized although it seems to decline in quality (and into soap opera-ness) with each season.
28. * Fawlty Towers – the first show I saw every episode of due to the fact that there are only 12.
27. Six Feet Under
26. * Red Dwarf – just watched the entire run over the past couple of months.

25. Futurama – I watched one episode of this show, and then watched it again about a year later and it was the exact same episode. I didn’t like it much either time.
24. Twin Peaks
23. The Office UK
22. The Shield
21. Angel – watched at friend’s house. They had to explain all the in-jokes.

20. Blackadder
19. Scrubs
18. Arrested Development
17. South Park – I watched from time to time over the first couple of seasons. It seemed to me that the writers went from “lets write something funny and outrageous” to “lets just try to be offensive and stir up controversy” much to the show’s detriment.
16. Doctor Who

15. Heroes
14. Firefly – far to sci-fi for my tastes.
13. * Battlestar Galactica – here is a great character drama that happens to be set in space. Best show on tv right now, imho.
12. Family Guy – I see references to this show everywhere on the ‘net and yet they don’t make me interested in ever watching this show.
11. Seinfeld – I never got the appeal of this show. Jerry Seinfeld is a funny guy, but the show always relied on cheap sex jokes, that annoying slap bass that I guess was supposed to enforce enthusiasm, and had the character of George Costanza who grated on my nerves.
10. Spaced
09. The X-Files
08. The Wire
07. Friends – the same-sex wedding episode was a big event in my apartment at the time. I never watched a full-episode otherwise.
06. 24 – This show appears to exist to justify the Bush administration’s torture policy. No thanks.

05. Lost – Susan, Craig & I watched an episode of this in a bar where we couldn’t hear the audio and we made up our own plot an dialog.
04. The West Wing – another show we’ve been getting from the library.
03. The Sopranos
02. Buffy the Vampire Slayer – saw this at the same time as Angel above.
01. * The Simpsons

Commercials of my youth


I read this post called Forgotten Boston TV Commercials (via Universal Hub), and it stirred up nostalgia for some of the crazy local commercials of my youth.  Of course, since I grew up in Connecticut, my commercials are of a New York/Connecticut vintage.

Here’s what I found on youtube:

First, there’s the Mount Airy Lodge which defined the Poconos for me as a chain of mountains where hokiness prevails:

watch?v=3dOsgyw7yBw

Then there’s the Lulla-BUY of Broadway.  I always wondered why the Milford Plaza advertised so heavily in the New York market where their audience presumably already had a place to stay.

watch?v=UwlvkUMsDgI

This guy wasn’t Crazy Eddie but his incredibly annoying commercials probably didn’t make people miss the business when it went under.

watch?v=Yi5HfjEFrF4

Tom Carvel had a voice for telegraph.  Is it just me or does that ice cream squishing into the cake pan actually make it look really unappetizing.

watch?v=Cs1Vc_w9Nc8

French dancers go nuts for canned foods in this perrenial Shop-Rite ad.

watch?v=VdpYxZzhATQ

Sadly, I was not able to locate commercials for a New York radio station had claymation characters promise “love songs, nothing but love songs,” Gary Carter having the best shower ever for Ivory soap, and the classic low-budget ads for Mashuntucket Pequot Indian High Stakes Bingo (precursor to Foxwoods Casino).

Enjoy!

Anniversary : The last episode of M*A*S*H


This is basically another post in my series of how I’m feeling old.  25 years ago today, CBS broadcast the last episode of M*A*S*H:  “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen.”  I remember watching this with my family in my mother’s room.   We were not alone as this is still one of the highest-ranked television programs of all time.  It’s even spawned a great urban legend about how everyone waited until the end of the show to use the toilet thus wreaking havoc with municipal sewage systems across the nation.  Granted the show had not been up to par it’s last few seasons, but the finale was a classic sendoff.

M*A*S*H was one of my favorite tv shows growing up, mainly in syndication when it was shown in a two-episode block from 7-8 pm every weeknight.  I probably saw every episode at some point.  I’ve been watching the show on DVD lately (all of the first, third, and fourth seasons) and I’m amazed how well it holds up over time.  It’s a good mix of satire and slapstick and I really like that the DVD lets me shut off the laugh track.  I’m also impressed by things like camera angles and story structure that I didn’t really notice as a kid.  The cast changes were also a benefit to the show.  In fact, I think the show “jumped the shark” so to speak after Radar’s departure partly because it was the only time they didn’t replace a departing member of the cast with a new character.

A lot of jokes are made about how  M*A*S*H lasted far longer than the Korean War.  But if you consider one episode for each day of the war, 251 episodes is a lot less than three years.  In fact if you watch all the episodes back to back, it would take just about five days.  Of course, most episodes take place over several days, but even then each episode represents less than a week of the actual war.

The Korean War actually still hasn’t ended, which is kind of sad.  I’d rather have a long tv series and a short war.

Crimminy, I am old


It’s one thing to feel out of touch with current popular music as I was never hip enough to be in touch to begin with.

The 30th anniversary of Star Wars also made me feel old but I could rationalize that.  I was three years old when I first saw Star Wars and can barely remember the circumstances.  It feels like a long time ago but it’s also pretty much the course of my entire life.

Now I read that it’s the the 20th anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  I was in high school when that show debuted which means that it’s been 20 years since I started high school!  And the series ended around the time I finished college!  These are recent memories, but 20 years is a long, long time.

There’s only one conclusion that can be reached from theses details:  I am an old fogey.

Anyhow, Star Trek: The Next Generation is one of my all-time favorite shows.  I’ll have to get some DVD’s to watch and try to relive my misspent youth.

Michael Palin in Cambridge


As much as he loathed to say the word “Cambridge,” Michael Palin made two appearances in Harvard Square on Friday night. The Monty Python troupe member who is also a talented writer, actor, and host of travel documentaries is on tour to promote his new book Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years.

First, Palin appeared at a book talk hosted by Harvard Bookstore at First Parish church. Peter Kadzis, executive editor of The Phoenix began with a far too lengthy preamble, but then did ask some good questions of Palin. After about 30-40 minutes of chat, questions were open to the audience. The whole event took a little over an hour in crowded, well-sealed, un-air conditioned church on an inexplicably hot September day. Michael Palin’s shirt was stained with sweat and he’ll make sure his agent knows never to schedule him for Massachusetts in the late summer again. My sympathy was tempered by my own discomfort, and as soon as the talk ended I dashed out salmon-like against the lines of people forming for a book signing.

Here are the highlights of the book talk from my notes:

  • Divisions in the Pythons – it’s well documented that there were opposing teams of writers in Monty Python. John Cleese, Graham Chapman, and to a lesser extent Eric Idle liked to write more conventional sketches performed in a studio. Terry Jones and Michael Palin (and Terry Gilliam) were more experimental, liked to go to open air settings and work on film. Palin believes this is because Cleese and Chapman had opportunities to work on writing for movies, while Jones and Palin had nothing else to do, thus invested all their creative experimentation into Monty Python. He believes the differences were good and added to their creative edge. When it was frustrating, Palin attributes it to the fact that Cleese, Chapman, and Idle all went to Cambridge.
  • Creating the show – writing of the show was done in the teams, and then they’d sit around a table and read what they wrote. The best part was making one another laugh and it was less of concern if anyone else would like it. The actual show was filmed in 90 minutes in front of an audience, which is a considerably short period time to create 30 minutes of material when there are retakes and costume changes. Kadzis says this sounds very similar to Saturday Night Live. Palin talked about his first appearance on SNL in 1978 and how he tried to work around the monologue, something for which there’s no equivalent in UK television. He read the story from the diaries and it’s pretty hilarious but I won’t spoil it here. Later Palin spoke about SNL producer Lorne Michaels as a puppet master, someone both sharp and clever, and one who does not make alliances with particular actors or writers. The hardest part of Saturday Night Live is making the cuts, and sometimes recasting parts in the 90 minutes between the end of the dress rehearsal and the live show.
  • Diary writing – Palin writes each morning for about thirty minutes about th previous day. It’s different from comedy writing in that it’s not a performance, although he quoted Virginia Woolf saying that a diary is the way you want to present yourself to the world whether you intend to publish or not. Palin claimed that no one ever would have talked to him if they knew he was keeping a diary back in 1969. Kadzis nervously asked Palin if he would write about the book talk, and Palin affirmed that he would.
  • Monty Python‘s fame in America vs. Britain- It’s much more fun to be famous here because American’s value Monty Python highly. On the other hand fame is a terrible nuisance, a reward for good work the leads you into bad work.

Some of the audience questions were pretty good too, especially the one man who asked “Did John leaving the show surprise you or did it come out of the blue?” Yes, I know it’s not nice to make fun of people who are nervous of speaking in front of hundreds of people.

  • On starting a diary – Came about in 1969 after quiting smoking as a way to exercise the new will power. Doesn’t write every day, especially on the exciting days when there is no time to write. Usually only write on the boring days (I can totally relate to this).
  • What are your favorite Monty Python sketches? – “The Cheese Shop” and “The Fish Slapping Dance.” Palin says that “The Fish Slapping Dance” is a test of whether or not someone has a sense of humor. If they watch it and don’t laugh, they don’t have a sense of humor. “Cheese Shop” is a good choice as it also my favorite sketch and one I performed in a high school talent show.
    • Cheese Shop
    • Fish Slapping Dance
  • Favorite Python character that he portrayed – a centurion in The Life of Brian, working in checking in people for crucifixion and seems so happy when Eric Idle says he can have freedom.
    • Crucifixion?
  • What inspired “The Lumberjack Song” – Was writing a sketch with Terry Jones about a homicidal barber that was going nowhere, and decided to give it 20 minutes before giving up and going to the pub. Then had the idea what if this character never wanted to be a barber anyway but wanted to be something else, like a lumberjack. With this flash on inspiration, they wrote the rest of the sketch in 20 minutes, and then went to the pub.
    • I’m a lumber jack and I’m okay…

The next stop was Brattle Theatre where Michael Palin introduced a special screening of And Now For Something Completely Different (1971). The crowd here was younger and there was a lot of hooting and hollering. Many people brought stuffed parrots as part of a promotion.

Palin’s comments here were brief. And Now For Something Completely Different was made as a compilation of some of the best scenes from the first two series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. They actually re-shot them, shooting them on location instead of on a soundstage. Palin feels that some of the sketches were actually improved in the film version.

The hope for the film was to break into the American market, but it was not much of a success. Palin told the story at both locations that Monty Python’s Flying Circus did not catch on until shown on public television in 1974. The first station to carry the program was in Dallas “before spreading northward to the less cultured places.”

It’s been a while since I’ve watched Monty Python’s Flying Circus and even longer since I’ve seen And Now For Something Completely Different. I was familiar with all the sketches, but some I’d not thought about for quite some time such as “a man with a tape recorder up his nose,” “Hell’s Grannies,” and “The Restaurant Sketch” (the dirty fork). It was all fun and good with an enthusiastic crowd laughing and clapping along to “The Liberty Bell March” (yes I’m geeky enough to know the actual title of the Monty Python theme song).

I felt that much of the movie lacked the panache of the original performances as if the Pythons weren’t ready at that time for the move from tv to film. Many times it seemed that being able to cut from one camera to another or using odd camera angles stood in for real comic expression by the actors. It also seems that this move emphasizes the ribald, sexual nature of Monty Python humor, perhaps not coincidental since Playboy was involved in producing the movie. But these are all quibbles. Monty Python is almost always funny if not hillarious.

To conclude, here’s one of my favorite lesser-known Michael Palin sketches that was neither discussed in the book talk nor featured in the film:

Bicycle Repairman

It occurs to me that the whole reversal of expectations is typical of Python humor. I also like that some of them are doing silly American accents. Finally, as a bicycle commuter, I could use a superhero like this.

Simpsonized


Everyone’s doing it, so why not me.

Here’s my Springfield counterpart:

I just didn’t look right without a chin, so I added a chin, but it looks more like a goiter. I’m not sure which looks worse.

Any how you can try this cheezy, fast-food chain commercial tie-in at Simpsonize Me.

Friday Sillies: Kids in the Hall


One of my favorite comedy shows of all time is Kids in the Hall. The Canadian troupe basically were the Monty Python of the 1990’s with the added advantage that when they dressed as women they actually looked like attractive women.

So here are a few clips to remember them by. Sadly I could not find classics like “Night of the Cow” or “Can You Give Me A Description Of Me Running Naked Through The Woods?” but these chestnuts are fun to watch.

The language and behavior here is not to everyone’s taste, so consider yourself warned.

Head Crusher:

Daves I Know:

Voyageurs:

Friday Sillies: AFSCME


Today’s Friday Silly is a 1970’s commercial for the AFSCME union redubbed in a rather colorful manner. I happen to actually be an active member of an AFSCME local and yet I can’t help laughing at this jab at how a typical union member might display his labor pride. Apparently the dubbing for this commercial was done at the time the commercial was made and it’s been floating around on tapes and gag reels ever since.

Be warned that this clip includes profanity and some rather impolite phrases, but taken in the manner intended it’s pretty funny.

Hurrah for the Union!

Friday Sillies: Velcro & Alka-Seltzer


When we were kids, my sister & I liked to stay up late and watch TV. One of our favorites was the original Late Night With David Letterman on NBC (which was on right before every rebellious child’s favorite show NBC News Overnight with Linda Ellerbee). Unlike today’s show where Dave pretty much just interviews celebrity guests, the show back then was more madcap with lots of skits and stunts. Much of what David Letterman and his crew did was pretty innovative for TV of the early 80’s and damn funny.

Here are two famous bits where Dave wears a suit of Velcro and a suit of Alka-Selzer. I feel like I saw these when they were first broadcast, but since neither of the dates is in the summer, I probably saw them in reruns.

Sadly I was not able to find some memorable nuggets like Dave throwing medical gloves filled with butterscotch pudding off a five-story building or Dave roaming around Byram, Connecticut looking for a place that sells bone saws, but these were a good trip down memory lane.