We’re living through the Melamedassance.

You can’t throw a stone or turn on an indie movie or TV show without hearing the silky, booming voice (and then seeing the flecked, impeccably groomed beard) of one Fred Melamed. Ever since In A World… came out a few years ago, the alt-comedy community has been casting him as Stern, Overpowering Male Figure in everything. New Girl and Casual stand out to me, since I watch those shows regularly, but his IMDb page is bursting at its electronic seams. He’s cornered the market.

Which is why his role in Lady Dynamite is so refreshing. He’s a Male Figure, sure, but he’s neither Stern nor Overpowering. In fact, the show plays with the implicit gravitas of his voice and forces him into a role you wouldn’t expect. He is Bruce-Ben Bacharach, agent and fanboy to Maria Bamford, and it’s utterly delightful. The dignity he oozes in literally every other part he’s done is completely erased here, and what’s left is a nervous, bumbling, obsequious, occasionally high-pitched (read: tenor) man who’s still figuring out his shit. He’s a terrible agent.

Melamed is also my favorite part of Lady Dynamite, which I hate to say I found both hit and miss. I love Bamford deeply, and I echo nearly every comedian’s sentiments when I say that she’s one of the most brilliant standups alive — seriously, go see her, it’ll change your life and your perception of how vocal chords work — but as I’ve said about other brilliant standups, sometimes the stage is their best medium for a reason. Bamford knows herself incredibly well, and knows what she’s capable of handling — which is actually something she addresses really poignantly in the show, about how it’s okay to say no to gigs — and I completely get why she took this opportunity to make a show. But the way her mind works is almost too complex, too multi-dimensional, too far-reaching to fit within the confines of a TV series. There’s nothing that can do justice to her comedic genius besides standup.

Admittedly, the subject matter she chose to cover didn’t make it easy. She decided to explore her own journey with mental illness, an incredibly brave and important selection, and aspects of the show were incredibly enlightening. I loved, for example, how the lighting, tone and wardrobe of the show changed according to which stage of her life she was in. Back in Minnesota, going through her lowest bouts of mania, the screen and her pajamas were every shade of grey. In LA, in her high points of mania, the colors seemed exaggerated, as did her smiles and her hair and even the enthusiasm with which she spoke. In present-day LA, everything evened out. But switching between these three timelines got confusing very quickly, especially because Bamford played herself in all three scenarios. I’m glad she did, but because she’s got this incredibly youthful face and presence, it was difficult to tell which storylines preceded the other, and therefore if she was still experiencing a manic episode.

Netflix also didn’t bestow the show with a huge budget, which is unfortunate because I think it would have been beneficial to have a little more money, especially considering the scope of the storytelling. A lot of scenes fell flat because of bad CGI, giving the show an undeserved campy feel. Bamford deserves better than that, as evidenced by the huge number of guest stars who obviously weren’t doing the work for money — Mary Kay Place and Ed Begley, Jr. played her parents, Ana Gasteyer played another agent, Lennon Parham and Bridget Everett played her “friends,” Jason Mantzoukas and Jenny Slate played therapists, Mo Collins played her sister, Dean Cain and Ólafur Darri Ólafsson played love interests. The list goes on. I think she also deserved to give some of the good lines to herself. On stage, she has such a singular presence, but on the show she’s basically a straight woman to the zany antics of those around her. Ólafsson, as her boyfriend, seems to be the only one who’s more grounded than she is, which is maybe why they’re perfect for each other. He lets her be the funny one.

“Loaf Coach” is my favorite episode of the lot, since it contains appearances from the very precious Mantzoukas and Slate. It also made me laugh aloud more than other installments, which is unfortunate. Bamford live makes you laugh and gasp on a loop — it’s a visceral experience. I wanted more of that from her TV show, but most of what I got was a few chuckles and sighs. Maybe Season 2 will be better.

Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage.

I didn’t write much down in anticipation of this blog post when I was reading Rob Delaney’s memoir, Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage. It wasn’t because I didn’t enjoy it, or didn’t find anything relevant or memorable to note. Quite the opposite, actually. Everything Delaney shares is just that, memorable and relevant. It’s also highly contextual, so sharing it here in little tidbits would sort of detract from the value and humor and beauty of his writing.

Instead, I’ll just wax poetic about Delaney for a moment, and maybe include some of the tidbits I did write down. He’s such a special type of comedian and writer, the rare one who can do great things with pen and paper and even greater ones with a microphone and a willing audience. He’s got this Hot Dad vibe about him, which he’s completely aware of and plays up, but his comedy is so much more complex and intelligent and fucked up than you could ever imagine or expect. He’s gained perspective since being an alcoholic (p. 35: “I figured it was better for her sanity to believe that her son was a drunk klutz than an actively suicidal daredevil with the stunt proficiency of a trash bag filled with blueberry yogurt”) and nearly killing himself (p. 127: “Dementia would certainly ride well on the thought grooves established by depression”), and now since being married with a bevy of what I presume will be very hairy male children (p. 175: “The way I see it, my new primary function on this earth is simply to die before my son”). His trains of thought veer in directions you’ve never considered before. To say he is honest would be horribly insulting, because his level of honesty and confidence and vulnerability haven’t really been reached by other comedians. He’s at once eloquent and nonsensical, perverse and sensitive, brilliant and silly.

I first saw him at Cobb’s in San Francisco, and most recently at the Bell House in Brooklyn. Both times he utterly delighted and surprised me, and reading his book is like getting to experience that all over again, at your own pace. He’s a furiously hard worker, and I can’t imagine anyone consuming his comedy or writing and not being entertained or enlightened.

Delaney 2016! Just kidding, #ImWithHer. (He is too.)

Master of None

Just when I think I’ve caught up on Netflix shows, Jessica Jones and Making a Murderer are released. I’ve given up. (I still have so much of The West Wing to watch, dammit!)

I want to make a very specific comparison here. Aziz Ansari is doing something really awesome these days, which is: using his brain. A lot. He’s thinking through his career very carefully, and he’s making all the right moves. But he’s also doing something else really awesome, which is: using his heart. He’s clearly producing work that he deeply cares about, and that mirrors his personal experiences. He’s allowing himself to live a little (as he said on WTF a few weeks ago) in order to have actual experiences to draw from. (Fancy that!)

Master of None is the perfect complement to Modern Romance, in that it covers some of the same topics — texting, online dating, his parents’ arranged marriage, differences between the races — but it doesn’t cover them in the same way. The show also complements his most recent standup special, “Live at Madison Square Garden,” yet again, doesn’t beat the topics to a boring pulp. I write that last sentence with a tinge of bitterness because three comedians I absolutely love — Tig Notaro, Mike Birbiglia, and John Mulaney — were unable to do just that across mediums.

Granted, this is not an issue for most people. I’m what is commonly referred to as a “comedy nerd,” which means that I consume as much of a comedian’s output as I can — their sitcoms, standup specials, documentaries, podcast appearances, what have you. Thus, I’m exposed everything and bound to hear repeats. It happens. Of course Aziz Ansari repeated himself over the course of those three works. But he did it in such a way that I barely noticed. In fact, I was intrigued. The other three comedians — while brilliant — just saturated their audience with nearly identical, slightly repackaged material. It’s likely that, like I said, this wasn’t an issue for most people. Not everyone saw Birbiglia’s movie, then watched his special, then read his book, then listened to him on “This American Life.” (In fact, I didn’t do two of those things!) But I still felt so incredibly bored by his “Sleepwalk With Me” canon that I actually cringe whenever I hear it come up in conversation or on other podcasts or whatever. The story is too familiar, and I know the punchlines. The variation between the media it appeared in wasn’t actually varied enough, perhaps because it wasn’t the type of thing that should have appeared in multiple media. Same goes for Mulaney — his standup special(s) are absolutely brilliant, but then he lifted pieces of them and inserted them verbatim into his absolutely terrible TV show. I had to explain to so many people that no, John Mulaney is brilliant and, yes, please ignore his show. Tig… I hesitate to criticize, because I’m so slaphappy about her success, but again, the Live album was incredible. And I watched the Tig documentary and I loved it, and now there’s going to be a show… it’s too much.

Wait, isn’t this review about Master of None? Sorry. Here I go. I fucking loved it. It got built up, like most things, because this is 2015 and I’ll never not write a review of anything without writing that sentence, but I’ll still be pleasantly surprised when I’m not disappointed. The first couple of episodes were unsteady, because a friend of mine pointed out something very accurate that bugged me instantly — that Arnold (Eric Wareheim) spoke too much like Aziz and not like his own character, whoever he was supposed to be. And I thought Aziz’s parents were adorable, but also very plainly not actors. (And Aziz’s dad suffered from the same Aziz-speak problem.) But after the unsteadiness, the steadiness came. And then the steadiness turned into awesomeness! Aziz is a very distinct-looking person, and it’s hard not to see Aziz when you’re watching him act. (Case in point, Tom Haverford.) But Master of None proved that hell yeah, Aziz can act. Aziz was completely and totally Dev here, telling his incredibly relatable story in all its unflattering, intimate, real glory.

On that same WTF episode, Aziz also talks about how important it was to have a friend group that represented his actual friend group. And his friends here feel like real, true friends, probably because they are. Even though Arnold’s vocabulary was off, he was definitely Dev’s friend. As was Brian (Kelvin Yu), as was Denise (Lena Waithe), as was Ravi (Ravi Patel). Despite being an incredibly white person myself, my friend group looks a lot like Aziz’s, and I hadn’t really thought about that until I saw it actually represented on television correctly. I never thought my friend group was out of the ordinary, because it isn’t. But diversity stands out when it’s not stunt casting. No one is token here. Everyone just is. That’s how it always should have been.

My favorite episode was probably “Indians on TV,” because it delves into something I’m so unfamiliar with — the acting world, the auditioning world, and the being-an-Indian-guy-in-both-of-those world. It’s fascinating. And, despite the hilarity of it all — Dev’s beefy friend Anush (Gerrard Lobo) killed me — it’s pretty painful to watch, too. If you’re a white guy, you go into a room and see a bunch of guys who look like you going out for the same lead role. If you’re an Indian guy, a bunch of guys who look like you are going out for the role of the convenience store clerk. Demeaning doesn’t even begin to describe it. Aziz does a masterful job.

God, I loved Noel Wells, too. We barely got to know her on SNL, which is a shame, but maybe better in the long run, like how it was with Jenny Slate and Casey Wilson and Sarah Silverman. It seems to me like Wells is destined for this sort of nuance and depth, and it’s evidenced here by her magnetism and sweet chemistry with Aziz. Even if these two don’t work out — which is left hanging in the balancey in the still-satisfying season finale — the way they play against each other suggests that they still value the experience. Diplomacy can be romantic, guys!

And an aesthetic point! The music hit home for me, as I imagine it did for many. Father John Misty and Lou Reed rang particularly true for me; it adds a layer of comfort to your virtual life when you watch something that’s supposed to represent your age group and the characters actually have the same musical taste as you do. (The same cannot be said for “Girls,” for example.) And the font that was chosen for the title cards — someone artsy tell me what that is. Please. I like fonts.

More, please, Aziz! But live your life first.

Trainwreck

Been watching a lot of Amy Schumer lately, folks. Been loving it, too. This is one of my favorite sketches of all time. Among the many things she skewers well is the way women are portrayed and the way women carry themselves. It’s so goddamn twisted out there, in the media, and she does the loveliest, most honest job of untwisting it.

Trainwreck was her first foray into the big-screen world, and for the most part, she nailed it. Her character semi-satirizes how women behave in courtship (did I just use the word “courtship”?) by being the one who pulls away — i.e., the man. It’s refreshing to watch someone who’s relatable, both emotionally and physically, be the object of a dude’s desire. (And for that dude to be relatable, emotionally and physically, too!) Amy ain’t anyone’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and thank Yeezus for that.

It’s just that… hold on, Amy isn’t really a trainwreck! She’s not! I was discussing this with a friend of mine recently, and we agreed that the Amy in the movie, while maybe promiscuous for the length of a montage, isn’t the hot mess she proclaims to be. She has a good job as a journalist, and seems to be pretty good at it — though sleeping with your source and not getting in trouble for it is entirely unrealistic — and she has a good relationship with her sister, and her father, and… she’s good! She’s a good person! She chooses the good guy in the end, thereby falling back in line with the rom-com tropes she tried to defy, but who cares? Why does she insist on calling herself a “trainwreck”? No one else is.

The real Amy isn’t a trainwreck, either, but she sort of implies she is in her comedy. Perhaps she’s doing it so that no one else can, and I get that. It’s a preemptive label. “I make fun of me so no one else makes fun of me.” But that sucks. No one should judge us, least of all ourselves.

Anyway, back to the movie. The aforementioned dude/guy is the one and only Bill Hader, who just continues to amaze and awe me with how incredibly versatile he is. He’s such a goddamn good actor. In Trainwreck, he is sweet and sexy and sympathetic and smart, without being entirely unattainable or ridiculous. Except for the part where he’s best friends with LeBron James. That part I could have done without. (Go Warriors!)

I also loved seeing the bevy of New York comics strewn about the cast. Dave Attell as a homeless man, Colin Quinn as Amy’s too-capable handicapped father, Nikki Glaser as the ever-logical friend, Vanessa Bayer as the birdbrained friend, Bridget Everett looking like a politician’s wife… it’s delightful. Amy really knows how to treat the city like a character, however overused that trope may be. Comedians are sorely under-used, and she knows it. Speaking of characters, let’s give it up for the almost-unrecognizable Tilda Swinton and her incredible wardrobe. Her entertainment-rag-editor-from-hell wasn’t anything close to Meryl Streep, but it sure was shocking.

Congrats, Amy. Let’s see what you do next.

Barrel Fever

I’ve been a David Sedaris fan, like most literate people, since I read Me Talk Pretty One Day. He’s an absolute genius with phrasing, heart, and imagery, and he makes you think you could write a hilarious essay about your boring family, too. Since I had read several of his well-known books, and I’ve loved them dearly, I decided to see how it all started before he got Very Famous.

There were passages in Barrel Fever that I loved, that really don’t need any context, such as,

  • “It is confusing when a stupid man plays dumb.” (p. 30)
  • “From what I’ve seen on television, animals will mate without regard to who has a glossier coat or the longest whiskers. I don’t get the idea that apes turn down dates. They might talk but I doubt anyone’s feelings get hurt in the process.” (p. 102)
  • “I prefer being frank with children. I’m more likely to say, ‘You must be exhausted,’ or “I know a lot of people who would kill for that little waistline of yours.'” (p. 174)

But on the whole, I wasn’t the hugest fan of the collection. The so-called “stories” didn’t feel like stories, but rather ramblings that culminated in sexual innuendos or encounters. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’s not what I get a kick out of reading. There’s something about the combination of the zaniness of these pieces—many of which were written from the perspective of rather convincing characters that I just didn’t like very much—and the single-guy-living-life vibe throughout, that contrasts so drastically with his later books. Barrel Fever is his first significant published work, so I can appreciate how style and subject matter evolved over time, and I applaud it. But maybe I’m so used to older Sedaris, living happy and content with Hugh, that younger Sedaris is too much fun for me. The “essays” part of Barrel Fever, which more fully embodied the voice of his that we’ve all come to recognize, was far more enjoyable a read for me.

I think Sedaris’ sense of humor has gotten lighter over the years, too. There was one very dark story in particular, “Firestone,” that left me cold because of how genuinely sad a life the narrator seemed to lead. Younger Sedaris had a real knack for turning imaginings, dalliances, and delusions—take “Don’s Story,” for example, essentially an Oscar speech for a Hollywood type who’s being swallowed up by his own ego; or “Seasons Greetings,” in which a family matriarch goes on a long tangent about her husband’s wartime lovechild and ends up incorporating a dead baby into the anecdote—into fully-fleshed-out tales, but I’ve always been more partial to prose that’s rooted in reality. Or maybe I’m jealous of his imagination, I don’t know. I have to give him credit for creating such a rich array of specific, easily hatable, self-centered people, in any case. They are as important to their stories as the plots they’re unfolding. Even the side characters in his stories are people I’d hope never to encounter in public. In “Giantess,” he works with a guy who, “given a choice, [would] rather fall from a higher floor as it would allow more time for his life to flash before his eyes” (p. 159).

I feel more at home reading what Sedaris has written about his family, because I relate to his verbal eye-rolls. Here’s an example. In the story “My Manuscript,” he offers two particularly pointed characterizations of his father. Though my own dad didn’t bar me from listening to other people’s music—oh, what a wretched life that would have been!—he did insist that I take piano lessons for many years. And I was unable to visualize the scope of importance of this skill at the time, instead choosing to side with an opinion somewhat resembling young David’s on p. 24:

My father told me that if I want to listen to music then I should learn to make it myself. Who said anything about music? Dad said that the guy who can play guitar is going to be the life of the party. He’s confusing life with death. The real life of the party is flattened beneath the bed, taping actual sex encounters, not sitting cross-legged on the floor with a guitar, embarrassing himself and others.

On the same page, Sedaris also pinpoints a certain type of complaining that I think we’ve all witnessed in older generations, one that we hope we don’t embody when we get there:

While he was growing up, my father lived under what he likes to describe as “harsh circumstances” in a small, ugly apartment. By harsh circumstances my father means that they had a certain instead of a bathroom door. He never had a bedroom and had to sleep on a back-breaking foldout sofa and go to work before and after school, shining shoes and selling newspapers. He has a point there, that’s harsh. Unfortunately, they never gave him a medal for it and as a result he brings it up time and time again.

My favorite piece of the lot, “After Malison,” actually falls in the “stories” category, but it’s just so deliciously satirical that it broke me. The narrator Sedaris chooses here is a fangirl—more like a fan-dame, really—who brags about how into a certain author she is, and spends most of the piece contemplating the least invasive way of stalking said author. He embodies the “all talk, no walk” mindset so perfectly. It’s a feat. Here are two of my favorite passages:

  • “He never numbers his pages, but I was with him for a good quarter-inch at the beginning of the second part. I just mouthed the words while he read. I wasn’t doing it for attention; it’s just a reflex action because I know his work, all of it, so well.” (p. 115)
  • “I’m sure if Malison did talk to her he only did it in order to get a feel for the stupidity of his audience.” (p. 123)

The real reason why we all relate to David Sedaris isn’t his incredible wit. It’s a rare trait that most people just don’t have, and instead spend their whole lives curating and coveting. No, the elements that pull us into his writing are the stark, sad truths that he pens with the same wit as the hysterical passages I quoted at the start of this post. He is a true observer of humanity, and he knows exactly how to characterize his fellow humans. Though I can’t put Barrel Fever at the top of my list, I can still admire it as an explosive, creative, honest start to his incredible career, and I can treasure the deep wisdom he shared with all of us when he was just in his 30’s. On p. 188, he says, “[…] you would like to believe that everyone is unique and then they disappoint you every time by being exactly the same, asking for the same things, reciting the exact same lines as though they have been handed a script.” Thankfully, he always operates off-the-cuff, and the results are brilliant.

The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts

Having just read Le Freak, and having learned a bit about what harm drugs can do to a creative life, I felt primed for Chris Farley’s book. I thought I knew what I was getting into. I thought, somehow, even though I know this guy died, his effervescence will still provide me with some light as I read. On some level, I was right, because the recounting of his stories is impossible not to laugh at. The man was one of the funniest humans ever to live. As put so succinctly in the intro, “You could be the funniest guy in the room just by describing some of the stuff Chris did.” But mostly I was very, very wrong, because The Chris Farley Show is the most cautionary piece of writing I’ve ever read.

Nile Rodgers’ story seems undeniably triumphant after reading what happened to Chris Farley. And I have to commend Rodgers for being one of the strong ones, one of the people who eventually overcame his addiction, learned to live a sober life, and thrived without his old habits. Farley’s story is the opposite. It’s one of constant, sad, cyclical success and failure. It ends in failure. It shows that addiction can come from anywhere, even white-collar Wisconsin. And with each of Farley’s successive relapses, it shows firsthand how deeply one person’s addiction can affect the very large support circle around them.

The book is written in the same style as Live From New York, with hours upon hours of interviews compiled thematically and chronologically. It’s really a feat, and Chris’ brother Tom Jr. did it all with the help of Tanner Colby, to very powerful effect. This book is so tragic, with such clear evidence to telegraph the downward spiral, that your heart aches for Chris to be able to read it himself before it was too late. It’s the kind of thing I’d be inclined to give another addict, in the hopes that some of the horror would get through to them to convince them to stop. But what do I know about addiction? (Very thankfully, not much.)

I think the hardest thing about reading this book was knowing that Farley would die the whole time, and having to experience each of his aforementioned sobering-ups and relapses anyway. Because, as I said above, he didn’t experience them alone, even if he thinks he did. His brothers, his coworkers, his girlfriends, his parents, his spiritual leaders—they all went through the trenches with them, and some of them (namely his brothers and coworkers) were also on their own paths of addiction and unintentionally enabled his. Despite being the strongest, funniest comedian in the world, Farley was an incredibly weak person when it came to substances. He also had the incredible disadvantage of a stubborn-beyond-all-belief father, one with his own drinking problem who didn’t recognize that his son’s behavior somewhat stemmed from dad’s appalling refusal to set a newer, healthier example. Fr. Matt Foley, Chris’ childhood friend and the namesake of his future best-loved character, put it this way on p. 130:

Growing up, we were always told you can be critical inside the home, but don’t ever bring it out in the street. That’s an Irish Catholic thing, a clan thing. In Chris’s case that aversion to dealing with matters openly would be even more multiplied, because if Chris had an eating and a drinking problem, that would mean somebody else in the room had an eating and a drinking problem.

Not only did Farley’s repressed guilt—maybe guilt is not the right word for it, since he rarely understood the consequences of his actions; maybe “repression” is fine on its own—manifest itself in the form of addiction to drugs and alcohol, but it also reared its ugly head in his relationships. Because he was so funny, and so talented, and so responsible for other people’s success without ever intending to be, people kind of cleaned up the mess behind him without forcing him to adjust his own methods of (in)sanity. Easier said than done, of course. But seeing it all written out makes it that much more painful. Farley’s ex-girlfriend divulged some of her frustration with his arrested development on p. 282:

Some American Indians have a ritual where you’re not allowed to be a part of the tribe until you leave, go out in the wilderness, rename yourself, and come back. Then you’re accepted as a man. But we don’t have that in our culture. That’s why families in the country are falling apart, and why women have to deal with all this Madonna/whore bullshit. It’s because men don’t grow up, and Chris never grew up.

Of course, if you boil away the tragedy from that quote, you’re left with childlike wonder, which translated to the magical comedy that is most of Chris Farley’s legacy. The guy belonged in front of all of us, making us laugh with his heart, his depth, his generosity. He was apart of that SNL group that changed the game in the mid-’90s, with Sandler, Spade, Rock, and everyone else that’s insanely famous now. He made it okay not to be the same-looking comedy nerd. He made it okay to be both good at sports and great at comedy. He made it okay to give a character everything you’ve got. Former SNL writer Nate Herman said it this way on p. 79: “If the stage is the only place you feel real, it makes sense to make the whole world your stage.” That was Farley’s attitude in a single sentence, really.

Chris Farley was a complicated person, to say the very least. He didn’t live long enough to uncomplicate himself, but he did use a lot of his complexities to comedic advantage, as Bob Odenkirk describes on p. 324: “At the core of being funny is frustration, and even some anger, at the world. And Chris had so much constantly happening inside him that he was always being chased into that corner. He was always living inside that space, and that’s why he was just funny all of the time.”

Read this book to gain a better understanding of the depth of Farley’s talent and addiction and, please, pass it along to someone who might benefit from knowing about the dark side before they turn to it themselves.