Thursday, 31 May 2012

More favourite podcasts part 2

Pod F Tompkast                     
Podcast frequenter Paul F Tompkins (He’s mentioned about 50 times on this blog) own podcast, is one that puts a lot of effort into the production side of things. It took me a while to warm to it, and appreciate the work that gets put into it every month. With that said the strongest part of every episode is often the conversations with Jen Kirkman. The 2nd series has also started introducing other studio guests as well. The recent one with Gillian Jacobs was one of the better ones.

One of the few sketch show podcasts. A lot more work goes into sound, production and editing on these, and it’s also semi-improvised. Jeremy Carter and Matt Gourley are the main masterminds/technicians behind the show, and perform in the sketches and frequent performers include Paul F Tompkins, Erinn Hayes, Chris Tallman and one of the best performances comes from Patton Oswalt as a game show host that goes increasingly insane over the series at his stupid contestants.

Thrilling Adventure Hour
The Thrilling adventure hour is recorded from a monthly stage show written by Ben Acker and Ben Blacker. It’s a kind of pastiche/love letter to old time radio stations, frequent performers include Paul F Tompkins, John Ennis, John Di Maggio, James Urbaniak and Paget Brewster. Shows are usually only around 20 minutes, so it’s just a short fun little story every month.

The Todd Glass Show
Has probably become my 2nd favourite podcast after comedy bang bang, over time the podcast has built up an array of running bits and jokes. The show has had some good guests, but the episodes that work best are with people who know Todd well and share his sense of humour. Rory Scovel episodes in particular are usually the strongest. The show can also switch in a second between a very silly improvised sketch into a deadly serious and passionate conversation about political or sociological topics, but the loose feel is part of its charm and it’s always compelling.

You Made it Weird
Pete Holmes is much more in the traditional podcast going for in-depth conversations with one of his comedian friends. But he’s good at it because he’s a very engaged host. There are a lot of themes he often seems to come back to, but he manages to make his interviews strike a very good balance between funny and serious topics.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

More favourite podcasts part 1

A Bit of a Chat with Ken Plume
Ken Plume has a different style from other podcasts, he’s not an L.A comedian, and his one-on-one interviews are conducted over Skype and they go out completely unedited. His subjects are just anyone he finds interesting, so it’s not just comedians he interviews. He lives in North Carolina but his knowledge of British Comedy far outstrips most people who are paid to write about it in the U.K. He really makes for a great interviewer. He has a different perspective and he’s able to ask in-depth questions, and he comes across as a very charming and endearing person.

The Dana Gould Hour
Dana Gould’s Podcast is in its infancy at the moment, but it’s already found a unique voice for itself. Usually a bi-weekly podcast, it has other scripted and, produced pieces and jumps between these and the main conversational parts of the show. Eddie Pepitone is usually present and is always a great addition. Politics, neuroses and Planet of the Apes seems to come up a lot. But there are usually other themes and topics that drive the episode. Conspiracies, Woody Allen’s marriage to Soon Yi have made for some very fascinating and funny conversation topics.

The Dead Authors Podcast
Paul F Tompkins plays the part of H.G Wells in this podcast in which he uses a time machine to bring back famous authors (Usually played by other L.A Comedians) to interview them about their work. Sometimes the performer will learn as little as possible about the author, sometimes a lot, sometimes somewhere in-between. It’s a monthly podcast, and the strongest so far for me has been Brian Stack as P.G Wodehouse. There doesn’t seem to be a set formula for what works best yet, but it usually seems best if the comedian knows something about the author, so they can choose how best to get things wrong.

Brett Gelman has probably the most unique podcast around, the tone is somewhat reminiscent of Chris Morris’s Blue Jam and Gelman’s character for me brings to mind Simon Munnery’s persona from Attention Scum. Gelman’s character though seems to see himself as a revolutionary and a leader of people. The show usually features sketches and monologues. Delusions of greatness seem to be the recurring theme throughout the show. The production and music on the show is always excellent. It’s not a show that seems to get delivered very frequently, but it’s always a delight when it is.  

Matt Besser’s long-form improv show will feature three other improvisers, and they improvise scenarios usually based off one-word suggestions from twitter. They’ll use the word to see if anyone has a story about that word, and so that story will inspire an idea for a sketch, that they find as they go along. It’s a much purer form of improv and it’s always impressive how often they find a great sketch. The back-referencing is great as well. Throughout the later sketches, they’ll usually find a way to refer back to an earlier sketch and whenever they do it almost always seems to make the less successful bits worth it.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Comedy Bang Bang TV Show Preview - Recap

So the Comedy Bang Bang TV series has now been shown online at IFC.

I first heard the podcast two and a half years ago, but it was a year before I become a regular listener. The time I spent catching up to it, listening to two sometimes three episodes a day was a joyful time. When host Scott Aukerman described what the series would be like, he said it would be similar but different from the podcast. He also cited a short lived Letterman daytime show as being an inspiration.

The result is best described as a warped take on the Talk show/Sketch show format. It seems to follow the podcast format of having a regular guest followed by a character guest. It’d be senseless to expect the character work to have the same strengths of the podcast. This is after all a twenty minute show, not an hour and twenty minutes. There might be some room for improvisation, but it’s obviously going to be far more scripted. Characters don’t have time to develop so much. A difference is also that the real guests aren’t there to have serious conversations. They’re scripted bits rather than loose conversations, and Aukerman is straight into his weird/awkward persona Reggie Watts is to Aukerman what Paul Shaffer is to David Letterman, and adds some strange banter between the two of them.

Amy Poehler is the regular guest in this episode, and Don Dimello - theatrical director - played by Andy Daly is the character. Brian Huskey also has a brief appearance. The weaker spot in the episode is probably Dimello as it does just feel like a very brief, sanitized version of the character from the podcast, and the show seems best when it’s doing its own thing, rather than trying capture the spirit of the podcast. The strength of the show is in the sketches, with Aukerman’s monologues and bits to the camera. There’s some very amusingly bad wordplay with Scott talking to his ‘bookie’ the sketches are also strong. There’s a film trailer parody and something about Reggie Watts is very funny in sketches. He’s actually quite a capable sketch actor, but of course his hair and beard undercuts everything he says.

The guests are also given something interesting to do when Scott has to leave and a substitute host is introduced. Adults’ acting like school children is an obvious trope, but something about Amy Poehler, Reggie Watts, and Andy Daly as Don Dimello acting like school children makes it work really well.

So it’s a promising start, very much looking forward to the series. I hope the characters can work better and are less predictable in other episodes, but it’s still fun to see them introduced visually.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Story Arcs in Sitcom

Lately we’ve seen an increase in on-going stories in sitcoms.  More than ever before the latest seasons of Parks and Recreation and Community have been driven by an overarching narrative. Leslie Knope’s campaign to become City Councillor has been the basis for many stories in this season’s Parks and Recreation and even in more standalone episodes the arc has been hanging in the background. The Thick of It has a universe that’s expanded and developed over time. And recently Grandma’s House has had many continuing story threads over the course of the season.

There could be a few reasons why story arcs used to be less popular in comedies. Traditionally sitcoms have been about people who are trapped in their situation in life and don’t grow or change. They’re about people who repeatedly try to get out of their circumstances and fail. And that’s something that can be quite relatable to many audiences.  A more cynical view of this though could be that people only want familiarity and formula from sitcoms. And it’s also cheaper and easier to have everything located around as few sets as possible.

The other difficulty with serialized storytelling was that TV used to be seen as a more ephemeral medium. (How else can we explain the fact that nobody kept any copies of Fred Emney Picks A Pop.) Obviously in the times before VHS recorders, if people missed an episode then your luck was out and you’d just have to hope for a repeat someday. So it’d be very easy for a series to lose much of the audience over time. In the early 90’s my parents missed the episode of Twin Peaks in which Laura Palmer’s killer was revealed. It wasn’t until I discovered the series and got the DVD’s that they were able to remember this and realized exactly what they’d missed. These days they’re both perfectly capable of catching up on iPlayer if they miss anything. The more savvy of us – the one’s that know how to download an entire 22 episode  season of an American show for free by entirely legal means – know that being able to watch as much of something as you want at your own leisure is the best way to watch something. Arguably having a week gap gives you more time to reflect on something, but nonetheless, many shows now seem perfect for the DVD market, since stories can be enjoyed without distraction, particularly with American networks cutting time from shows to make space for more adverts. (I’m not quite sure how anyone can still call an American show a half-hour when it’s actually barely 20 minutes.)

Personally I’m enjoying the move towards serialized stories, it demonstrates how sitcom can do everything drama does but with jokes as well. This is always going to be a circular debate, because it can also lead to stories being driven too much by plot exposition and might move the focus to sentimentality at the expense of humour, but I think if it’s handled right it can work brilliantly, and I think the touching payoffs to the latest seasons of Communty and Parks & Recreation bear that out. Of course not every show would be improved by more emotional depth and a heavier focus on story structure, but for many shows, character depth is what allows them to avoid becoming formulaic. Characters growing and their situations changing have helped Parks and Recreation and Community immensely. I think they would have got boring by now if everything had stayed at square one.

It’s been one of my disappointments with Futurama lately. There have always been slight hints at a larger story to universe and there have been some changes to the status quo, but it’s mostly stayed static and there are times where an episode from season 6 could be pretty much indistinguishable from season 1. Futurama’s shown potential to have a stronger story-arc but hasn’t really committed to it and it’s a shame. After the feature length DVD’s Fry and Leela declared their love for each other, and the returning season seemed to continue on from this. But after this some episodes seemed to suggest they weren’t together or it was just left completely ambiguous. I’ve never know a sitcom where the writers seemingly don’t know or can’t decide whether the main two characters are in a relationship or not.

 It’s largely why The Venture Brothers has made me look down on it retrospect. (It might not be fair to compare them, but they are both animated sci-fi comedies, so I think it’s a worthwhile comparison.)  Over time It has expanded its universe and deftly handled multiple story-arcs in which the characters grow and develop.

Story arcs aren’t just about characters developing though, it’s allows running jokes to build and develop over time. Seinfeld of course was a much earlier show to play with serialized stories, particularly in season 4 and 7. But more than just stories it was just jokes and lines of dialogues and turns of phrases that evolved over time to the point the show had developed its own style of dialogue.

So as I said, it’s not needed for every show, but a sense of continuity and consequence can add a lot to a series.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Bobcat Goldthwait - God Bless America

The fifth feature film from Bobcat Goldthwait follows Frank. (Joel Murray) A frustrated middle-aged man, who on losing his job and being diagnosed with terminal cancer, is pushed to go on a killing spree. The condition being that he'll only kill people that he believes deserve to die. He’s aided by 16 year old Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr) who shares his dissatisfaction with the world.

It’s a controversial subject, the kind that Bobcat has become known for throughout his career. The film’s fairly limited release seems to have precluded it from any major press attention though, so maybe it’ll escape being blamed for any future high profile massacres.

Frank at often times seems to be a mouthpiece for Bobcat’s own frustrations with the world. There’s a long scene at the beginning where he talks of these things to a co-worker and it often sounds more like a ranty article than a dialogue between two people.

The thing’s that get Frank so angry include American Idol or X Factor type shows, MTV’s Sweet Sixteen, the abundance of social networking and iPhones, right wing Fox News editorial anchors.  Targets that the kind of person who’d see this film will probably sympathize with Frank in. (Well maybe not the iPhones) and of course these people become the targets of Frank and Roxy’s killings. It’s a fun idea although if it’s really intended as a satire and criticism of society, its targets are a bit shallow. The hosts and viewers of American Idol are blamed, but not really the producers. Essentially Frank’s targets come down to just people who are rude and inconsiderate. Which is still a good enough premise for a film, who doesn’t want to see teenagers that talk on their phones during a movie getting shot? But it is a step short if it's hoping to make a truly pointed critique of modern society.

What helps carry the film though is the dynamic between Frank and Roxy.  The issue of a middle aged man being friends with a 16 year old girl is handled very well. Frank flat out refuses to take any sexual interest in her, despite her questioning of how he sees her, he refuses to even comment. There’s a 'fuck you' given out to men who’ve married very young women in which Woody Allen is singled out, which seemed surprising to hear.

After a while the film starts to repeat itself. Bobcat has responded to this criticism of his work, claiming that he wants to fully explore the idea. This is valid up to a point, but after a while the film does seem to lose its momentum. Thankfully the story manages to find a direction to take it into the 3rd act, eventually building towards a suitable climax.

Ultimately the strength of the film is in having something that’s angry, dark and funny that also has a genuine heart to it. It’s not a film about morality. Bobcat said rather astutely on a recent Comedy Bang Bang episode that murder is justified in serious action films, because according to some people’s morality those people deserved to die. But he doesn’t ever believe murder is right. It goes without saying that the murders performed by the two protagonists aren’t seen as moral by the film. Their actions aren't justified, but it’s not a film about the morality of these actions.

It is worth seeing though, and it’s also worth looking up Bobcat’s previous film, ‘World’s Greatest Dad.’ I can’t speak for the rest of his work, but I’ll certainly be interested in seeing the rest of his output on the strength of these two films.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Back into it with Veep episode 4

Okay time to get back into it. I seemingly didn’t find the time to write for this at all during my 3rd year of university. Now that it's finished I should have a lot more time for it.  My aim now is to be a little more casual with this just to keep myself in the habit of writing more.  Then hopefully once it’s a habit, I can work on making it better. So here we are, a recap of Veep S1 E4.

This week’s Veep saw Selina making a racial blunder in which she unintentionally questioned the American heritage of a Chinese American war veteran after an interview in which she continued to talk while she was still on mic. It’s not the most original premise, but even though it’s a perfectly valid avenue of political to explore. Once again the shows premise of covering the vice president means it lacks a little dramatic tension. A vice presidential blunder is a bigger blunder than a ministerial blunder, but she’s not expendable, and there just isn’t the danger of her being fired.

Elsewhere we see the more lustful side to Selina, with her flirtatious chatter with a romantic interest. But these scenes feel a little awkwardly written. They’re obviously supposed to convey awkward phone sex chat, and that the characters aren’t that good at it, but it still feels a little stiffly written. The language isn’t quite as explicit as it should be.  There’s a slight ring of awkward Britishness in the writing of it. This episode was co-written by the other Will Smith, who plays posho tory Phil Smith in The Thick of It. A sort of right-wing Chris Addison (If such a term isn’t redundant) it might not be fair to bestow that judgment upon him, he probably isn’t really that close to his character. It’s hard to picture him writing convincing phone sex chatter. (Go on, try to picture it, you can’t can you?)

Some of the more interesting dynamic shifts in the episode came from Dan and Amy, who seem to have come to a kind of truce in their working relationship. They’re more comfortable and unguarded about each other’s personal life around each-other. Amy even seems to greatly impress Dan, in her ability to sell some of her soul to a pair of racist, boorish ex-senators during a dinner, which they’re recruiting for the clean jobs committee.

They’re portrayal though did feel like American politics through a very British lens. Not that the senators enthusiasm for Ribs, anti-Mexican, anti-immigration sentiment is untrue and something you wouldn’t get from American writers, but again, it didn’t seem to have the same finesse and research behind it as episodes with Armando’s name on the writing credits.