Saturday, August 26, 2006

Unforgivable

I got my Macy’s catalog in the mail today, and out of it fell the usual collection of unwanted perfume samples, including one for Puff Daddy/P Diddy/Sean Jean’s cologne, Unforgivable. Maybe it’s just me, but every time I am reminded of Sean Jean’s Unforgivable, all I can think of is The Princess Bride…”You keep saying that word…I do not think it means what you think it means.”

So without further ado, I bring you the (one hopes never to be repeated) Vizzini Inconceivable Awards for cologne names that have now become possible, thanks to the Diddy-meister’s Unforgivable.

Apologia
Bitch Slap
Chickenshit Rat Bastard
Congressional Pardon
Flop Sweat
Garlique
Grassy Knoll
Impeached
It Wasn’t Me
Moon Over My Hammy
Napalm Morning
Ol’ Gym Bag
Panty Raid
Pleather
Pull My Finger
Repugnant
Shiv
Taint
Wild Dingo
Wretched Excess

Feel free to contact me with more suggestions.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Ballad of Will Ferrell

Gene Siskal often said that the two most subjective genres in film are comedy and porn. No amount of good reviews, Oscar buzz or repeated Skinamax showings can make you laugh at something you don’t find funny, or turn you on with something that…doesn’t turn you on. Even if I don’t enjoy a drama, I can appreciate objectively why it might be a great film, but no amount of arguing on earth will ever get me to laugh at Mrs. Doubtfire, one of the most depressing films I have ever seen.

There’s a certain kind of comedy that I really don’t like. Since I was a child I have been seriously bothered by what I call the comedy of humiliation and injury. I could not bear to watch The Three Stooges, The Little Rascals could make me cry, and to this day I cannot sit through an episode of I Love Lucy without getting a stomach ache. Write me all the complaints you like about how these are the most genius shows of all time. I cannot watch them.

By the same token, I have a problem with “Candid Camera” type humor: placing people in untenable positions and laughing at the result. Call me a wet blanket, but I can’t laugh at people’s humiliation, whether they are tricked into it or place themselves in the path of it. The suspense of waiting for a character to fall into a vat of chocolate and get coated with chopped nuts causes me more anxiety than waiting for Jason to jump out from the closet with a chainsaw. Even now I have moments watching beloved, and fine, sitcoms like Frasier, in which I find it necessary to channel surf away for a minute and not return until Frasier is through making his unwelcome pass towards the barista, or any other form of figuratively slipping on the banana peel.

Since I have a problem with this particular kind of comedy, it goes without saying that I have challenges with particular comedians who excel at this sort of thing. I am so disturbed by Jerry Lewis, I am afraid to visit France. Jim Carrey is the other obvious example. I have enjoyed some of Carrey’s more serious performances, and even some of his (few) more restrained comedies, like Bruce Almighty. But mostly, Jim Carrey makes me nervous.

I will never forget the first time I saw Jim Carrey. It was on the Wayans brother’s hit “In Living Color.” Obviously we are indebted to the Wayans for giving us the most famous Fly Girl, an adorable young thing named Jennifer Lopez, but they also gave us Fire Marshall Bill. In the Fire Marshal Bill skits, Jim Carrey’s Fire Marshal Bill would visit schools to offer kids safety lessons and, in the process, invariably set himself on fire or chop off a limb. (“Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that you accidentally fill the fish tank with gasoline.”) The first time I saw this skit, I was literally frozen in place, jaw hanging open. What I saw was a man possessed, a man in pain, a man in desperate need of psychological help, and I don’t mean Fire Marshall Bill. It was obvious to me that Jim Carrey was a genius, but equally obvious he was a man for whom the edge simply didn’t exist. It didn’t surprise me when Carrey became famous, but just watching the ads for movies like The Mask or Ace Ventura gave me the heebie jeebies.

All this is an extremely long and roundabout way of introducing today’s topic, which is The Mystery of Will Farrell. The mystery is not that Farrell has become famous, or that he is beloved by the world. The mystery is that Farrell is beloved by me. I think he is the funniest man alive. He makes me laugh. The ads for his movies make me laugh. The crappiest of his films make me laugh. Farrell, by every definition, is a master of the comedy of humiliation and injury, and he makes me laugh until I cry.

The quickest way to kill comedy is to over analyze it, but on the other hand, over analyzing things is pretty much why I’m here. It’s hardly a innovative realization that many of the most successful comedians are angry people. Through much comedy there runs a distinct vein of cruelty. This is something that both Jerry Lewis and Jim Carrey have in common. Behind the eyes of Buddy Love or Stanley Ipkiss is a often a desperate rage, or a desolate sadness. Yeah, laugh at me you assholes. Aren’t I just so goddamn funny? You rarely get the sense that Lewis or Carey love the characters they play. They may love playing them, but if they happened to pass their alter egos on the street, they’d avert their eyes. They certainly wouldn’t have them over for dinner.

I think what makes Will Farrell such an enjoyable comedian is that instead of rage, beneath the surface of his over-the-top characters, which he throws himself into with reckless abandon, is actually a gentle soul. Ok, that’s sappy sounding I realize. But you never get the sense that the energy behind his characters is cruel. Silly, self important, clueless or insensitive perhaps, but not cruel. Beneath Ron Burgundy’s swaggering exterior is a sensitive jazz flute player. Old School’s Frank is a loon, but one gets the sense that even while streaking across town wearing nothing but his knee socks and Nikes, he’d stop to rescue a kitten from a tree or help an incredibly frightened old lady across the street.

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is a fine addition to the Will Farrell cannon. Ricky Bobby, forever scarred by his abandonment by his ne’r-do-well dad Reese (semi-pro race car driver and amateur tattoo artist), is a puffed rooster who lives by the motto “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” Bobby’s life goes tits up when his swaggering ways runs him afoul of his NASCR team owner, and a dramatic wreck steals his mojo.

After a good start, the movie actually stumbles a bit in the first quarter. The jokes start to seem not just predictable but forced, the energy is off, and honestly I began to worry that the movie would disappoint. Salvation arrives from an unexpected source, the character of Jean Girard, the French Fermoola Ungh (that’s Formula One for them that don’t know French) driver, played by Sacha Baron Cohen, aka Ali G. I wont say that Cohen saves the movie, which would imply that only his scenes were funny. Instead his character seems to charge the picture, righting the energy so that we’re back to non stop gut busting laughter again.

Jean Girard turns the NASCAR scene on its ear, with his impeccable Italian suits and his mid-race macchiato. Elephant in the room: Jean Girard is gay. Let’s discuss. It’s easy to see where the idea of a gay NASCAR driver could go. Lame jokes about the fag mobile and a pit crew in hot pants and bondage gear. But the movie manages to avoid this. Girard isn’t wink wink, nudge nudge, pardon my feather boa gay. He’s “Allow me to introduce my husband Gregory” gay. Obviously they get some comic mileage from red neck horror at the homosexuals. But they get a lot more humor from pointing out the inherent contradiction of really really really straight men whose idea of a macho fun time is getting piss drunk and smacking each other on the ass.

Recently I had an interesting experience where, in a public setting in a group full of strangers, one of the people made a shockingly rude and bigoted comment about ‘faggots’. Most of the people in the room were stunned into silence, but the person who verbally smacked him down was a little old lady hooked to an oxygen tank. I was awed by this sassy grandma, and also inspired. Not so many years ago, no one would have said anything, and a few people might have laughed. Instead this bigoted butt munch got told off by a granny, and when you’ve got the grannies on your side, you’re on the way to victory. When an openly gay character in a movie celebrating NASCAR is not publicly humiliated but gets to wander off into the sunset hand in hand with his husband, we have reached a sea change.

Not all of the jokes work. There’s a weird bit about Halliburton reps sponsoring a racing team, which might have had some amusing political irony had, for example, the car been a Hummer and the pit crew National Guardsmen. An Enron car with a pit crew in prison garb, that would have been funny too. However, it appears that the actual managers of Halliburton were given walk on roles playing themselves, and I don’t think any of us are ready to find harmless fun in the idea of those guys in the sky box throwing OUR TAX DOLLARS around. Note to Halliburton PR firm: until those guys are in jail, we’re not laughing.

Ultimately however the film is great fun. The film also answers one of the great mysteries of all time: why George Bush suddenly took it upon himself to read Camus’ The Stranger. I will not spoil the joke for those who have not yet seen it, and if you missed it I guess you’ll have to go see the film again. I will say that in a brief moment, my world was righted again. Our President reading works of French existentialists only makes sense if he were inspired by a film about NASCAR racing. I’m only waiting for the quote where he announces he was disappointed there wasn’t more about cars in it.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Its Often Funny in Philadelphia

The story behind the FX series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has already become legend in struggling actor/comedian/writer circles. A group of friends frustrated with the lack of opportunities for struggling actor/comic/writers spend the change in their pockets to film a pilot, send it into FX, win a contest and voila, are given a series. We saw something similar with the Project Greenlight series but what makes Sunny special is that we actually get to enjoy the finished project, as opposed to week after week of watching socially challenged film geeks hire their grandfathers as stunt doubles and fall further and further behind schedule.

The premise of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is three late 20-something guys, Charlie, Mac and Dennis, who run a bar in Philadelphia with the help of Dennis’s sister Dee. Early reviews of the show compared it to Seinfeld, and tossed about phrases like “edgy”, “politically incorrect” and “totally unlike anything that’s ever been seen on TV before”. These terms have all managed to become clich├ęs, thanks I would argue, to Seinfeld, and the generation of snarky Yuppie comedies it inspired. What makes Sunny worth watching is that it’s actually funny. Really funny. Laugh until you can’t breathe, “I cannot believe I’m watching this happen” television.

Not only did these buddies manage to sell a TV pilot for which they are the main producers, writers and stars, but they even managed to add Danny DiVito to the cast. DiVito hit sitcom gold with Taxi twenty some odd years ago and has had no reason to return to television since. The lure of Sunny proved too strong to resist. DiVito plays the role of Dennis and Dee’s ne’er do well pop Frank who moves back to Philly to help them run the bar, a role he tears into like a rottweiler with a bloody steak.

One of the things I really enjoy about Sunny is the full minute of parental advisory warnings FX shows before each episode. First, an FCC add about the joys of using the V-chip to control children’s viewing habits, then a black screen with MA-VL and a lengthy definition of what that means, complete with voiceover. Unlike the joking tone that accompanies the warnings for shows like South Park or Jackass, these are straight up THIS PROGRAM IS NOT INTENDED FOR CHILDREN type warnings. I’ve always felt that FX is Fox’s attempt at correcting the karmic imbalance from Fox News. The message is clear: beware ye all who enter here. Should you become offended, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Well fine, you say. In a world where “edgy” is used to describe a program like Desperate Housewives, what is it that you’re telling me? A quick visit to some episode titles for It’s Always Sunny might be helpful. “Charlie gets Molested,” “Charlie has Cancer”, “Charlie Wants an Abortion”, “Dennis and Dee go on Welfare”, “Underage Drinking”, “Mac Bangs Dennis’ Mom” and “Charlie Goes America All Over Everybody’s Ass” are a pretty representative sample.

The first episode I happened to catch was “Dennis and Dee Go On Welfare”. When it was finished, I nearly wept with joy. I wanted to gift wrap it and send it via strip-o-gram to the Parent’s Television Council, in hopes that they might spontaneously combust, or just surrender all their TV sets and move their families to Alberta. I can explain to you what happened in the episode, but no part of my explanation will capture the genius and lunacy of the show.

Angry at the way Frank is running the bar, Dennis and Dee quit at which point they discover the joys of unemployment payments. Each decides they are going to use the unemployment to fund the pursuit of their respective career goals, vet and actress. Meanwhile at the bar, Mac and Charlie are tired of doing double duty covering Dennis and Dee’s old jobs, so they convince Frank to apply for a “welfare to work” program that would allow them to hire cheap government subsidized labor, who they have the unfortunate habit of referring to as “slaves”. When Dennis and Dee find their unemployment running out they panic for a way to continue on welfare and, after some wacky misadventures, find themselves addicted to crack. (I swear to you it’s funny) Meanwhile Mac and Charlie head down to the welfare office and ask the officer if there’s some kind of book they can look through to pick the slaves, um, laborers, that they want to come work for them. (I swear to you it’s funny, too).

In “Charlie Wants an Abortion”, Mac begins hanging out with anti-abortion protestors when he realizes that it’s a great environment to pick up women. He hooks up with a pro-lifer who rewards his passion for the cause with passion in the back seat of her car. The girl is, according to Mac, a total freak in the sack and the best sex he’s ever had. Before you roll your eyes, allow me to refer you to recent studies from Yale and Columbia universities which suggest that teens who take ‘abstinence only’ pledges are more likely to engage in both oral and anal sex.

This is the genius of It’s Always Sunny. Crack is not funny. Welfare is not funny. Abortion is not funny. But Charlie, Frank, Dennis, Dee and Mac ARE funny. They’re clueless, self absorbed and compulsively watch-able. What you realize watching this show is that while crack, welfare and abortion aren’t funny, America’s clueless, self absorbed attitudes about these things are in fact, hysterical.

The phrase “politically incorrect” is virtually meaningless in this day and age. When I attended college it was a loose collection of symptoms which led us to label the most benign issues controversial for fear of offending anyone and everyone from the Vegan Libertarian Front to the Campus Crusade for Christ. Lately it has come to define everything from what people used to call plain old straight talk to simply mean-spirited behavior. The best comedy which often earns the title “politically incorrect” is that which hits the Left and the Right equally hard. It shows that as long as we take them seriously, it’s the wing nuts from both sides that ruin life for the rest of us. The only solution for the rest of us is to join the circus and laugh them offstage.

It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is finishing up its accelerated summer season this week. I’m tickled to see that guest starring in the final episode is Stephan Collins, none other than the Reverend Cameron from 7th Heaven. My theory about FX being Fox’s karma bitch apparently holds for actors on the Fox network as well. Welcome, Reverend Cameron! It’s never too late to join the circus.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Moving In

Welcome to the next generation of the Popular Librarian blog, PopLib 2.0, if you will. It was hard for me to let go of name checking the library profession in my title, but certain people suggested that a different moniker might have wider appeal. Since popular culture is the reason for this blogs' being, appealing to the masses is kind of appealing.

I went through a long list of possible names. For a while CultureHo! and PopPolka were running neck and neck. PopWhisperer and Culturista also made appearances, as did CultureNun, for no good reason except that it made me laugh, and it seemed like the one name that might actually have less sex appeal than PopularLibrarian.

When Populucious came to me, however, it was a TKO. It captures the essence of what I want to do, which is to glory in the wonders, and wade in the muck of those things that make life so entertaining, with occasional side trips to seriousville.

For a while, I'll be posting to both Popular Librarian and Populucious, and maybe someday I can talk my brother into designing a real old fashioned website for me. Until then, welcome to Populucious!

Summer Doldrums

I confess I was excited the first time I saw ads for BBC America’s HEX. Truth is I’m in perpetual mourning for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and may be ‘til the day I die, or Josh Whedon finally directs Wonder Woman. I confess I had some small hope that this trendy demony looking show might be a temporary balm.

It started off semi promising. Cassie is a pretty blonde teenager struggling to fit in at an exclusive boarding school of the sort that only seems to exist in Great Britain. It’s set on impossibly lovely and remote grounds, the school resembles an ancient castle, the students appear to be able to leave the grounds with impunity in order to visit the local uber-hip pub and the urbane headmaster dismisses them with bon mots like: “Be free and try not to multiply”.

Cassie’s roommate is Thelma who is, of course, a Lesbian who dresses in some BBC wardrobe mistress’s idea of “goth chick” chic. Thelma loves Cassie. Cassie loves boys and yearns to be popular. There’s the cool in-crowd headed by a cruel bitch named (I’m not making this up) Roxanne. Through a series of wacky misadventures Cassie discovers that she is descended from a long line of witches and is being stalked by a sexy fallen angel named Azazeal. Azazeal wants Cassie to have his baby who will, as is so often the case in these instances, unleash unpleasantness on earth.

Azazeal has been wandering the earth trying, unsuccessfully, to impregnate many generations of blonde waifs since being drummed out of heaven some thousand years ago, apparently for his penchant for trying to knock up blonde waifs. (Note to fundamentalists: Even God wants his angels practicing "safe sex"!) Azazeal is tall dark and handsome, with dreamy eyes and cheekbones that could cut diamonds. One would think he’d not have much problem pulling tail. However, his means of seduction involve driving Cassie’s mother insane, revealing himself in monstrous demonic form, possessing a boy Cassie’s dating, stealing her unborn baby and murdering her roommate. Maybe next time he could try buying a girl a drink. Seriously, it’s worked for millions.

So far, a pale imitation of Buffy, yet somehow even with magic and complicated mythology and stone gargoyles turning into real ones Hex is in fact excruciatingly dull. Part of the problem is Cassie. She drifts around trying to get boys to like her when she ought to be, I dunno, figuring out how to stop Armageddon. She discovers magic powers but never seems to use them when they might be useful. When given explicitly clear guidelines for her safety, such as “He can’t harm you if you wear this pendant” and “Whatever you do, don’t leave the safety of the pentagram”, she’s the sort of girl who’ll promptly lose the pendant and run out of the pentagram to chase after a loud crashing noise in the dark yelling “Hello?” While plenty of 98 minute horror films are based on this particular type of lass, an 8 week TV series is an entirely different matter. One begins to root for Azazeal to just sacrifice her already, and on to the next generation please.

Any entertainment to be had comes from Thelma who, after being offed by Az, returns as a ghost. A goth chic Lesbian ghost. The thing I really love about the BBC is that much of their television seems so quaint. Sitcoms regularly star characters in the most ridiculous guises with no attempt to hide bad wigs or fake padding. The network motto ought to be “Hey gang, lets put on a show!” Thelma is eventually joined in her struggle by a demon hunter who dresses like Barbarella on her way to a Prince concert. No one in the school seems the least perturbed by this new 30-ish student wearing a purple lace trimmed black leather cat suit and duster jacket. British boarding school is so awesome!