All entries for July 2008

July 30, 2008

That Russell Brand Incident

I wasn’t going to bother blogging about this. I figured it’d pass but it seems to be turning into one of those stories that will not die so here we go…

I used to be a Brand-hater. He rose to fame and was associated with Big Brother, which put us off on the wrong foot. He was all over the tabloids shagging everything that moved, which didn’t help raise my opinion of him at all. And he played this ridiculous crazy character that was clichéd and over the top.

But when I actually stopped to pay attention for a little while, listen to some interviews and watch some of his documentaries he actually appeared as an erudite, smart, intelligent man. His comedy still wasn’t really to my taste – there were some decent jokes but too much of it relied on the entire cult of personality he’s built up. It’s sometimes funny when it goes somewhere interesting but gets tiresome when it’s focused on his ‘winkie’. Nevertheless it seemed obvious to me that he wasn’t some sort of moron. He’s a smart guy.

Which is why this was so depressing:

If you don’t want to watch it all, I don’t blame you. It’s rubbish, actually. Horribly poor and lazy as comedy before we get to anything else. Basically, he reads about a newspaper story involving a sexual assault, and calls the emergency police response number for witnesses or people that may have seen the attacker and prank calls them.

It’s a retarded thing to do. Not because it’s bad taste like Jon Gaunt accuses him of, that I can live with. There shouldn’t be taboos in comedy over things like this. It’s retarded because it’s prank calling the emergency services, meaning that some poor person who’s been attacked or might have important information about a crime or such can’t get through because he’s busy making a joke. You don’t prank call the emergency services. You just don’t. Because you never know when you might need them and you wouldn’t want the ambulance to turn up 5 minutes too late to save your leg next time you have an accident.

Still, it was a stupid thing to do, but he wouldn’t be the first comic to do a stupid thing on stage and won’t be the last. He’ll apologise, it’ll blow over and that’s that right? Except not, as the apologies started coming out. First on his Radio 2 show where he goes on a brilliant and entirely correct rant about how the likes of YouTube allow certain things that are said at comedy gigs to be taken out of that context and hence appear more offensive than they should be. About how he didn’t expect anyone linked to the assaults to be there in that room, and if by some small chance they were, he’d have explained what he was trying to do by joking about it and apologised for any offence caused. About how he rightfully hates how the media get obsessed with being offended on someone else’s behalf, even though that someone would never have heard the joke if they hadn’t increased it’s audience from 200 people in a comedy club to 2 million people in a national newspaper. It’s all completely right, and again proves that he’s someone with his head stuck on the right way around and that knows what he’s talking about. It does of course, utterly fail to address the number one criticism from most people: that he was prank calling the emergency services. Wasting police time. It’s a crime, and rightfully so.

So benefit of the doubt again, maybe he’s trying to play down that element, it is very embarrassing and after all the likes of Jon Gaunt attacked him from enough angles that he could rail against the rest of it, ignore the bit where he actually screwed up, pretend it never happened and just never do it again.

Asked if he would do it again, he said: ‘Who knows, possibly. You can never rule that out, that’s the nature of spontaneity, things just sometimes happen.

For fuck’s sake.

I can’t believe he’s not smart enough to understand why people are angry that he prank-called the police. I just can’t. Because he’s not. So I don’t understand what the hell is going on here? Is he milking it for publicity because he hasn’t shagged enough movie stars this month? Is he trying to create some bad boy image for himself? Or is he trying to play the “I’m too dumb” card, pretending he can’t see what’s wrong with it until the interviewer finally calls him on that specific element and he has some sort of ‘revelation’ and apologies for it. But none of them have yet.

I’m confused, I really am, but I’m definitely swinging back to my initial position of hating Russell Brand and this time I feel justified.

July 26, 2008

TV Review: Last Comic Standing, Finals Round 2

I know this is later than I planned, but I’ve been somewhat distracted this past week, pleasantly so

So it starts with…err… a car wash. The comics wash cars. There doesn’t seem to be a point. Jim Tavare is on crutches. No explanation is offered. If they do a good enough job they may receive a clue for their next challenge. They don’t. Some comics tell the customers jokes. Paul Foot is a nutcase: “I was so wet I was drenched through, and so then became highly erotic”. I’m not sure what the point was.

Still, it soons gets good. No reallly. There are carrots at the house, which appears to be the clue. Sean Cullen: “Maybe we have to mate with a number of different rodents”. Heh. Turns out they end up at a department store. The carrots: famous prop comic Carrot Top is going to be judging them doing some prop comedy. They have 20 minutes to find props, and an hour to plan a routine. To give them all due respect, they all get laughs. Which is more than I could have managed. Which is why it’s an interesting task, as it actually seems to stretch them.
Paul Foot
Everyone’s favourite to win Louis Ramey is again pretty crap at the task. Again, great at what he does, not so good at thinking on his feet. So happens that what he does is what you need to do to not get eliminated. He’ll never win a task but he’ll win the show. Papa CJ sort of falls apart… he doesn’t do any actual prop comedy but instead he does jokes vaguely related to the items he’s found. It’s sort of cheating really, but it’s not like he gets many laughs so who cares. Sean Cullen is brilliant. He has a crap load of jokes. They don’t all get laughs but he does it so quickly it doesn’t matter if he has a few bad jokes, or even a lot of bad jokes, as there’s so much there he keeps the energy up and is very good.

Jim Tavare has actually written some decent, clever material that doesn’t rely on easy jokes or crazy surrealism. He’s very good. Doesn’t get the most laughs but he’s most believable as someone who does prop comedy professionally. His act is by far the most polished.
Iliza really wants to win as she doesn’t want to have to perform again this week, as nominating the same person each week until they run out of material for the showcase appears to be a viable tactic. She does well, but clearly not good enough.
Paul Foot is a glorious disaster. The comics think he looked unsettled and confused on stage but that’s pretty much his stage manner even when he’s doing his own material. He actually runs out of time and it’s sort of awkward but funny. He’s far too odd for the crowd.
Jeff Dye is on last and is great. He has a load of jokes all linked to scenes from movies. It all ties together really well and while some bits aren’t great (and there appears to be a Flight of the Conchords lift in there) it works and whole and he deservedly wins.

The comics are annoyed, as they wanted to vote for Jeff as he’s young. So instead they shoot nerf guns at Paul Foot because he a Brit and weird. Paul takes the gun and throws it off the balcony. People are pissed. Some people applaud. We don’t see who. Apparently the ‘Brits’ are at risk. Which makes sense, since they’re playing to hugely different crowds to what they normally do. And y’know, pack mentality. So to the vote. Paul Foot and Papa CJ are tied, so have to choose someone else to perform against. They agree quietly outside who they’re going to go for, then make a big display of debating who they’ll choose inside. We see the video, they don’t want to vote for Iliza as it seems unfair. So they decide to vote for Adam: “We know we’re funnier than Iliza Schelsinger”. Heh. Okay it was a dick move. But then, Iliza did shoot Paul with a nerf gun earlier. Still, it was probably a bad call. I’d have actually gone with Adam. Or maybe even Jim Tavare to eliminate the home advantage. I mean did they see last week? She won with nearly 70% of the vote.
Papa CJ
So to the showdown. A lot of the acts think Paul Foot might win: if he gets the crowd behind him he might take it. No-one thinks Papa CJ will win.
Paul is on first. That’s not good. He’s better with a warmed-up crowd. There’s not enough laughs. He get a round of applause early on mid-routine but the main punchline barely gets a laugh. It’s sad, as he doesn’t connect with the crowd and it’s clear he’s going home. The comics still think he seemed rattled, missing that that is his stage persona: “He got off on that hallway thing and lost everybody”.
Iliza kills it and it’s clear it’s not just a quiet crowd. Papa CJ does a good job and gets a lot of laughs, though his last joke is beeped out entirely which is a bit weird. Sean Cullen: “Same set as he did in Las Vegas” and it pretty much was. Again, does anyone know the rules about repeating material?

The acts are split on who they think will win: 4 for Paul Foot, 1 for Iliza and 2 for Papa CJ. The actual results: Paul Foot goes home first, then CJ. It’s odd as it seems the comics are either giving the crowd too much credit, that they’d go for someone like Foot, or too little, that they’d go for something as polished as CJ’s. With a UK crowd, Foot might well have won, he certainly had the most original material. Much like last week, Iliza looked physically sick while waiting for said result.
I did wonder for a sec if CJ might actually pull it out, it’d been a horrible shame if he did as they’d just vote him back next week when he had no material left.

The real disappointment? Next week they’re going to the Playboy Mansion and have to charm the Playmates with jokes in bed. Aww Paul, look what you missed out on! The last time I saw Paul play he had a whole bunch of girls fawning over him after the gig, lucky sod. It would have just been so brilliant to see him in that situation. They’d have either loved him or thought he was a freak. Ah well. Oh and there’s some audience vote or something too.

July 19, 2008

TV Review: Last Comic Standing, Finals Round 1

So here we go, 12 comics left, on a bus going to their house. God’s Pottery try and steal the girls’ room as it’s pink and pretty. Paul Foot is now classed as being from Buckinghamshire, UK and not just “London”. That’s what happens when you make the finals. Fuck knows what the next 15 minutes is about. They dress up for a calendar shoot in weird outfits. First, who the hell buys a Last Comic Standing calendar? Second, 10 minutes into the first episode we dress up our 12 finalists in outfits that render them unrecognisable. Not really a smart choice when most people are struggling to keep up with who’s who. One comic says “Foot’s a freak” and I think we’ll be hearing that a lot more in the next few weeks. His outfit falls off and he has a joke rant about how he’s ruined his chances of winning. But it’s cut with spooky music and out-of-context reaction shots to make it look like he’s actually throwing a hissy-fit. Cute.
Esther Ku
Then they drink eggs, and we reach the immunity challenge. This is fun. There’s a boxing ring, and the comics go head to head throwing insults at each other. In the first round Ron G is up against God’s Pottery, and while they’re warming up the latter talk about how they’re going have some fun and the former seems genuinely pissed off. It occurs to me that as he’s a Christian, there’s a good chance he’s actually genuinely offended by their act. Especially as he now has to live with it 24 hours a day as they really do never break character. God’s Pottery take a different approach, and actually throw compliments at him “Your mother is so terrific she was elected mayor of awesome-ville” “She was! By a landslide”. Ron G appears quite narked off, and it’s understandable, because they’re not playing the game. Which is why they’re so awesome for this show. They turn stuff like this entirely on it’s head. Interestingly Louis Ramey (he who stormed it at the semi-finals and is the clear favourite to win even amongst the other contestants) does a bunch of un-inspired “Your momma’” jokes that are older than he is. The judges clock this and he doesn’t make it past the first round.

Sean Cullen is up against Korean Esther Ku and comes up with “Your mother is so Korean she has a demilitarised zone around her waist, her breasts are ruled by a dictator and she hosted the Olympics in her underpants”. I like this guy. He also has a tendency to fantasise about killing the other contestants in interviews. He’d fit in well on the UK circuit, and is instantly my favourite of the non-UK guys. I was going to say favourite US contestant but he’s Canadian, which I guess makes sense given the large amount of crossover there is between the UK and Canadian comedy scenes, far more so that UK/US.

God’s Pottery win the second round against Adam Hunter who is also pissed off and feels cheated as again, God’s Pottery aren’t playing the game. But they’re still funnier. That said, both their opponents so far haven’t put up much of a fight with some fairly dull put-downs.
Sean Cullen takes on Brit Jim Tavare, and I thought Cullen had won this one but Tavare takes it. Cullen is going to smother him in his sleep. Heh. So we have Jim Tavare versus God’s Pottery in the final, and God’s Pottery get a bit nasty “Hey Jim, tou’re dumber than a ding-dong in a ho-ho factory”. Tavare wins it though. This is interesting. He did a decent job but I didn’t think he was particularly great or imaginative. And that’s why I think he’ll go far in this competition. Because he has the gimmick of performing with his double-bass, but his straight stand-up is extremely traditional, albeit traditionally British. It’s what Americans expect when told the comic is from the UK and so it makes them comfortable and gets the laughs of familiarity while the double-bass makes it memorable. Much like Paul Foot mixes eccentricity with strong writing, Tavare mixes a gimmick with a style that’s instantly recognisable.

So then it’s the vote. Tavare can’t be voted for. They go to a graveyard and cast their votes in a crypt (Paul Foot: “So what happens to the losers? Are they killed?”) and then Bill Bellamy plays back thier voting in front of everyone in a shock twist. It gets a little awkward. Esther Ku gets the most votes by miles. Partly because people find her laugh annoying to live with, but partly because unlike the judges I think the rest of the comics recognise that her act is fairly flimsy and even somewhat one-note, relying very much on the whole Korean heritage thing. She picks God’s Pottery and Iliza to go up against in the comedy showcase.

Here’s my favourite bit of the show. The other comics sit around talking about who might win and commenting on the proceedings. There’s more insight on the nature of comedy here than in the whole show, because these guys know their comedy. Adam Hunter points out that God’s Pottery and hit and miss, and he’s totally right. If they get the crowd on side they’ll win by a landslide, but it’s far more like it’ll go over the heads of the majority and they won’t. Especially as in this round only the winner stays in while the other 2 are eliminated. Plus it’s an audience vote (the live audience, not a phone in) and unlike the showcases in the heats which were held at local comedy clubs, this is a venue that holds thousands of people who got free tickets to a TV show filming. They won’t be voting based on who’s the most original or interesting or innovative, just who makes them laugh the most. As such the writing is on the wall for God’s Pottery. And Esther Ku for that matter.
God’s Pottery do “Team Jesus” and I was going to say that they should have done “Jesus I Need a Drink” as it’s funnier but I don’t think it would have helped. Maybe they’d have made 2nd instead of 3rd but for too many of the audience it just wasn’t their thing.

Iliza Shlesinger storms it with some material that might be quite good but it’s mostly about a US reality show that I haven’t seen so it goes over my head. I do like the irony of a contestant competing on a reality show doing so by mocking reality shows though. She also displays a fine line in physical comedy which is something new, so there’s a few more strings to her bow.

Interestingly half the comics think God’s Pottery are going to win when in fact they’re first out. And Iliza got an incredible 68% of the vote, which means they had 15% at most.

I have to say, with the structure of the show, I find it hard to see how anyone other than Louis Ramey will win. He might not impress the judges much but if it all comes down to an audience vote I can’t see him losing unless he messes up badly. He knows exactly how to work a crowd and the sort of crowds that turn up for this sort of thing are exactly the type he knows how to play to. Unless there’s some twist where one round is elimination-by-judge he must surely have it in the bag. His only real threats are the wild cards: God’s Pottery was one, Jim Tavare is another and Sean Cullen the last. Maybe Paul Foot, probably not. The three are all acts that are somewhat ‘alternative’. They offer a very different style that really is “love or hate”. 95% of the time Ramey will beat them out for laughs and votes with this kind of audience. But that other 5% of the time something clicks with the crowd, they completely storm it and everyone loves them. But that’s rare. Chances are Ramey has this wrapped up. Some think there’s maybe a chance Iliza could beat him at his own game, but I remain unconvinced.

It really is a shame that God’s Pottery are out too, as they do make it a better show, the producers probably felt the same way too, so at least we know it isn’t fixed!

Dean is going to blog the second episode of the finals tomorrow, then will be caught up

July 18, 2008

TV Review: Last Comic Standing, The Semi–Finals

And so the semi-finals, where 32 are whittled down to 12. They’re split up into two groups of 16 over two episodes, and obviously they’re going to pick 5 from the first and 7 from the second because… okay I really don’t know why.
Again, 32 comics is too many to cover in any detail so I’m just going to stick with the ones that got through and two others that were interesting.
And again, each comic gets 3 minutes to perform, but we only see 2 minutes worth of most acts, despite the fact that there’s only 16 of them and it’s an 80 minute program with the adverts taken out. It at least feels more coherent this time around though, the reaction shots are even mostly genuine. Judges this time around are Steve Schirripa and Richard Belzer, but we actually don’t see much of their reactions, and there’s this awkward thing where sometimes Bill Bellamy tells a comic to come back as they’re walking off so the ‘talent scouts’ can either slag them off or praise them. But then other times he just lets them walk off, so we don’t get the judges opinion. Which is sort of a shame because I do want to know what Bobby Bacala and John Munch find funny, even if they’re dead wrong.

First act that gets through is Adam Hunter. He does a Myspace joke. It’s fairly middle of the road and somewhat hack stuff working off stereotypes but he does it well. The judges talk about how he’s great because he comes out and just does a lot of jokes and it becomes fairly obvious where the whole thing is going: namely we lose most of the interesting acts for the ones that appeal to your typical Jongleurs audience. Some acts do lots of jokes, others take longer to build to a more satisfying finish. It’s hard enough on the latter group as it with just 3 minute spots to impress with, but more on that later.

Second through is Jeff Dye. He’s actually quite good, but the audience are really not on side for the first few jokes but he pulls it around with some nice physical stuff. He’s interesting as he’s got this traditional pretty-boy look but there’s a slightly creepy subtext behind a lot of his material. It’s the sort of material that if it were done by chubby, spotty and geeky comic you’d be a little freaked out.

Christian-folk parody group God’s Pottery do their song tacking the thorny issue of pre-marital sex: “The Pants Come Of When The Ring Goes On” and slay the room. Brilliantly one of the camera men manages to find a female audience member with large breasts and a very low cut top with a big gold cross necklace to focus on during the line: “your beautiful chest that’s been blessed by the best, a golden cross riding between those breasts”. Can we put the camera man through the finals please?
I said it last time, but they’re brilliant because they never break character even in post-show interviews, and that’s why they’re going to be great on the show because they can be funny on and off stage, without it being forced. When Fearne asks how they’re enjoying Vegas they reply “We already did gamble: we hit the jackpot with Jesus”. I love those guys.

Ron G also goes through, he’s sort of interesting. His observational stuff doesn’t quite ring-true and he does this strange high voice thing which makes sense at the start and then seems to turn into some sort of tick. Again, it’s interesting and sort of funny but as observation it just doesn’t make any sense.
Jim Tavare
The UK’s Paul Foot is the last act to go through doing his stuff about moist cakes and the spacebar. Richard Belzer makes an interesting comment “if he didn’t have an accent I would have laughed”. It’s interesting because that’s the thing about Paul Foot – he does the entire surreal comedy character thing but he mixes it with really strong jokes and material. So while the US audience might not quite comprehend his Mighty Boosh-esque stylings, they still laugh at the jokes and as such are drawn in, making him less impenetrable for a US audience than many of the more surreal UK circuit acts.

That’s it for the first semi-final. Moving on to the second. I have a feeling these were filmed all on the same night.

First through this time is the single-named Marcus who has a fairly funny routine about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it’s a bit joke-light and reliant on acting out little bits of the film. Steve moans that he wasn’t doing any impressions, but he gets through anyway.

Next through is Iliza Shlesinger. She’s okay. Fairly hack subjects (but when you’re playing to 3000 people in Vegas they’ll probably get the biggest laughs) and a fairly decent approach. Seems to be pretty much the stereotypical US female comic.

Third through is Indian comic Papa CJ who opens with his “yes, even your comedy is being out-sourced” line which I think he did at both the auditions too. I wish I knew what the rules on repeating material were. He repeats another joke from the auditions too. He’s good, and deserves to get through but I can’t see him lasting long as he doesn’t appear to have the depth of material.

Now lets talk about Mary Mack for a bit. She doesn’t get through. She is however, awesome. It’s selling her short somewhat to call her a female Andrew Lawrence but she sort of is. She has the same very low key, slightly disturbing delivery style and there’s also that very sharp writing underneath it all with some beautifully constructed jokes. One could argue her stuff is too clever and she’s too weird for the show, but y’know, it’d probably be a lot better show if there was a greater variety and contrast in performers’ styles. But then it’d probably be harder to come up with silly comedy competitions for them to compete in. So she doesn’t get through. And the judges moan at her for being too slow to get started because she only has 3 minutes and so didn’t get enough laughs. But she’s clearly one of those acts that shouldn’t work that well in a 3 minute slot, but she does do a great job of establishing the character and hence setting her act in context very quickly. But it seems an act requiring any set-up longer that five seconds is doomed on this show. It’s a shame as I’d go as far as to say she probably had the sharpest writing of any of the acts that made it through to the semi-finals.
Mary Mack
But alas, we have to push on to a Mary Mack-less final 12, so lets see who else got through. Louis Ramey. Possibly the most traditional comic of all of them, and also the one most at home on stage. His 3 minutes storm it, and notably our judges are laughing heartily at his material joking about how small people from Singapore are. Remember that, it’ll be important later. Still he’s good, and while far from my favourite, I’d peg him as the favourite to win the show. The material isn’t particularly inventive but it’s presented very, very well. The rhythm of it is so spot on you’d laugh even if the material was atrocious.

Next: Sean Cullen get through after doing a song about porn, and some very crazy surreal stuff about “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”. I like him, it’s hard to judge when you only really have one comedy song to judge on but it’s delightfully silly. Very much looking forward to seeing more of him.

Someone else that doesn’t get through: Heath Hyche. He describes himself as a one-man sketch show, and he’s pretty good. But he spends most of his 3 minutes acting out a World War 2 fighter pilot movie. Honestly, it’s not that good. He probably didn’t deserve to go through. But part of it involves him putting on glasses with squinty eyes and doing a dodgy Japanese accent. Is it racist? It probably is. But for a start the point is he’s doing a one-man WW2 movie where, shock, that’s how the Japanese were portrayed. Richard Belzer decides at this point that he’s “allergic to ethnic stereotyping in 2008”. Clearly he just hates Singaporeans then because that was okay. Shut up, Richard. You’re ruining John Munch for me, and I nearly leaped out of my chair in glee when I saw him in The Wire. Please Richard, shut up.

Next is Esther Ku. She’s really, really cute. She was born here, but her brother was born in Korea, so she does three minutes doing Korean stereotypes. Over to moral compass Richard Belzer, who tells us it’s okay laugh as “it’s legal for an ethnic group to make fun of themselves”. Even though she points out that she was born here, and doesn’t consider herself Korean so it’s all somewhat dodgy ground. Not that I’m attacking Esther, I didn’t find it particularly funny but I’m not saying we should censor her. Just that Belzer is being a hypocrite. Shut up, Richard.

Jim Tavare goes through last. He does a really strong 3 minutes, he uses his double-bass a fair bit but isn’t over-reliant on it. He’s a quintessentially British comic and it’s interesting after nearly 3 hours of US comics with only Paul Foot to break them up how obviously different the prevailing styles of comedy are. Tavare is a lot more laid back, his material feeling a lot more scripted in some ways, though this isn’t a bad thing. Richard Belzer jokes “I like the fact you have your axe with you” and no-one laughs. Hah!

And that’s it. Don’t think I missed anyone. I’m now only one week behind. Will be caught up by Saturday? Is anyone reading these? Or am I just going to get comments from comics randomly Googling their names and moaning about their edits? (don’t let me discourage you, it’d be nice to piss off some US comics to go with UK ones that hate me…).

July 16, 2008

Doctor Horrible's Singalong Blog (or What Joss Whedon Did Next)

Seriously. You have to go watch this.

It’s in three parts, first part is up now, second part Thursday, last part Friday and then you have Saturday to watch them all before they’re gone (unless you buy them on iTunes).

If you’re not laughing out loud by the end you’re dead inside.

I guess some explanation is in order.

It stars Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother), Felicia Day (the ultimate in geek totty, yes kids, she doesn’t just play World of Warcraft, she wrote an internet sitcom about it) and Nathan Fillion (is there anyone reading this that hasn’t seen Firefly?).

Harris is an evil scientist. Fillion is a superhero. Day is caught up in the middle. It’s a musical. It’s a comedy. It’s awesome.
Joss Whedon wrote it. And the songs. I was going to blog this earlier but the site went down due to the sheer popularity of it.

The first part is just 15 minutes, go and watch it. Really. Go and watch it. I mean it this time. It starts a little slow but by the end you’ll think it’s amazing.

Resolution Defeated

I don’t normally make New Years resolutions, but I did this year. I decided that, it being a US election year, with all the primaries and so forth before the main event in November where they elect the de facto leader of the world, I should keep on top of things. To do this, I decided I would watch every episode of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report aired this year. It’s not as bad as it sounds, they total 40 minutes and are on only 4 times a week. I’d been doing well, fell a bit behind due to too many Amazing Race marathons, but they’ve been off-air the past two weeks so I’ve been catching up.

Until June 26th, when I came face to face with this:
Coldplay and John Stewart

Yes, tonight’s guest was Coldplay. And not just Chris Martin going on to chat about his latest good cause, that I could have handled. Or the band playing out the show: managable. But no, they were going to play two tracks off the new album. It’s only the 3rd time in it’s history they’ve had a musical guest do that, my bad luck I guess. I couldn’t stomach it, so the resolution is blown. Come the end of the year I’ll have seen every episode except the second part of June 26th’s. Damn you Chris Martin.

July 15, 2008

Last Comic Standing Review: The Auditions

I’m going to blog this years series of Last Comic Standing because… well someone has to. Actually I’ve never watched the show before, but I’m no stranger to US reality TV (I am a regular watcher of Survivor, The Apprentice and The Amazing Race) but this year, the shows 5th, I decided to give it a go because I happened to be a fan of two of the acts that I heard made the finals: first is Brit comic Paul Foot who combines Boosh-esque surreal delivery with actual genuine jokes, which is seemingly enough the bridge the culture gap and make him work with a US crowd. Second is US Christian-Rock parody duo God’s Pottery who I’ve always really liked but also always wished were a little bit better, and am hoping they develop a bit during the show.
Paul Foot
Of course, before we get to the ‘finals’ where they all live in a house and do various comedy tasks for 8 weeks, we have 5 weeks of auditions, then 2 weeks of semi-finals. Those already watching it will be aware that in fact they’ve just aired the first week of finals so I’m around 7 weeks behind. That’s mostly because it’s impossible to blog the auditions in detail as there’s just so many short clips that are all over the place you can barely remember who’s who. Hence we’re going to do one blog for the auditions, one for the semi-finals and then hopefully we’ll be caught up by the time the second ‘final’ airs later this week.

So the auditions: the way it works is they do a bit in front of two judges (from ‘Popular NBC sitcoms’ – really? Even Pop Idol had actual industry figures like Simon Cowell that it turned into famous ‘characters’). If they do well they go onto the showcase, where they do the same thing in front of a crowd. Interestingly, they get 3 minutes for the showcase, and there are around 10 comics in each one, and each audition location gets about 40 minutes. So they’d actually have time to show the entire sets. But no, we get 30 second clips, and the rest of the time is spent with Fearne Cotton talking to people in the queue, and showcasing twenty second clips of strange novelty acts.

That’s the first weird disconnect with the Last Comic Standing auditions. They appear to run open auditions at about 7 locations around the US, much like in something like Pop Idol. So 100s of people turn and queue around the block. Now, there are a lot of stand-ups in the US, but there aren’t that many. A lot must just be people giving it a go because their mates told them they were funny, and them being rubbish makes amusing TV. But unlike Pop Idol, pretty much every single act that gets through to the showcase is an established circuit comic. They don’t even try and hide it with some of the comics remarking about how everyone in the showcase knew each other from the circuit. Now admittedly in our reality shows such as I’d Do Anything you get people with experience in the field, I believe the winner had been on the cabaret circuit a fair while, but you also get complete amateurs. That isn’t the case here, as while people with no formal training or experience may well be able to practice singing in the show or do karaoke and so develop decent voices, no one stands naked in the shower doing stand-up routines to a bar of soap. Although I think that might be an Edinburgh Fringe show this year. Basically, if you don’t have prepared material you’ll have zero chance, and if you’ve never been on stage before your chances are minuscule. Suffice it to say, after two auditions and a semi-final, there will be no ‘new’ people left. Stand-up really is something that’s learned through work and practice and not so much a ‘gift’.

Second weird thing is all the novelty acts. Now the likes of God’s Pottery or Jim Tavere (stand-up that uses a double-bass and got through to the semi-finals) could be considered novelty at first glance but they have a depth of material to back it up (and given the show doesn’t allow repeating material, you need that). But there are magic acts and dancers and downright weird vaudeville-esque entertainers that just don’t fit the show at all. The amount of times the guy that plays The Janitor on Scrubs has to tell acts “you’re funny, but not right for this competition” gets amusing in and of itself. Either they’ve never watched the show, or they just want their 20 seconds of fame on the auditions episodes.
Gods Pottery
Conversely, the number of straight observational comics that get through to the semi-finals is predictably high, even some with fairly hack material. But there at least were some attempts to to put through more interesting stuff like a musical trio or brothers, a pair of twins, and this bizarre Israeli impressionist guy, though I imagine most will be weeded out at the semi-final stage.

The third disconnect is reactions shots. Often times we’ll see a comic do a joke and it’ll cut to the judges reacting, but it’s obvious that the reaction shot is from somewhere else entirely. Because the joke just wasn’t that funny or that offensive or that bad to make the reaction feasible. It’s a dangerous thing for the show to do as it renders it horribly artificial, and ruins what could well be one of the more interesting aspects of the show: just what does Richard Belzer find funny?
Along the same lines, the fact that it’s filmed for TV with a US audience is also an issue. Because when you do that, you pretty much ensure no-one is going to die on their arse. The audience laugh regardless as they’ve been instructed to, and even if they weren’t, they lack the cynicism of us Brits and the mean-ness to leave the comics hanging. So when the judges say “I’m putting you through to the showcase, to see how you do with an audience,” we already know they’ll do pretty well.

Obviously for me the most interesting thing was the final, ‘international’ audition. Rather than running the auditions at various venues in Europe and Australia, they figured this year it was cheaper to fly a hand-picked selection of comics over to them. Which makes it all the stranger when they make them all queue outside and film them pretending to look excited and such. What’s also weird is that this was the one show where I could remember the names of who got through and when, as I’ve seen half of them before. And the show really is hugely disjointed. Both Dan Atkinson and Adam Bloom were shown standing around at the end of the showcase, waiting to see if they’d got through. We knew they hadn’t, as they didn’t show any of their stand-up at all. Adam Bloom was featured for three seconds saying “this is where it could all go horribly wrong”, which would be interesting if we actually knew what that was in relation to, and Atkinson was only shown making a brief quip in the ‘laughs box’ (literally a box with a camera where comics go and act weird, and Bill Bellamy goes to feel up Fearne Cotton) about not knowing the US anthem, though in his case I imagine it could be down to this rather interestingly blog entry he wrote on the subject. And most oddly of all is Danielle Ward, with whom they go to the trouble of showing her entire audition to the judges, show them putting her through to the showcase, then don’t even show five seconds of her performing to the crowd. I was secretly hoping she’d said “bugger this, it’s shit, I’m off to go get pissed in Miami” and hadn’t turned up for the second part, but alas you can catch a quick glimpse of her stood behind Jim Tavare at the end. It does make me wonder how many similar editing choices were made in the other 4 audition shows, and maybe that’s why they were so stupidly hard to follow and it wasn’t just me being dim.

So now we’re down to the final 32. Semi-finals coming up, expect most of the interesting acts to be cut in favour Seinfeld-esque observational acts.

July 13, 2008

Ben Folds: Sheffield 8th July

Sheffield is a weird place. I’ve been to most of the UK’s cities, but this was my first trip particular one, I wasn’t even sure where it was. As soon as you leave the train station you’re confronted by these big fountains and massive soaring metallic structures that form the metro line. It’s like you accidentally caught a train into the future. At least until you move a bit further out and realise the whole thing meshes with 1940s brickwork that means it all somewhat resembles a world taken over by by a technically superior alien race.

I followed the directions to the hotel that I’d jotted down and ended up at a big roundabout. I could see the Travelodge I was staying at, just down from the second exit as it should be. One small problem: no footpath on that road. See, Sheffield has possibly the most comprehensive public transport system I’ve ever seen. Along with the massive, domineering tram system comes a frighteningly huge “public transport hub” which also serves as a base for the crazy number of buses I encountered picking my way through the town centre to try and reach the hotel from another direction. Problem is that doing this they’ve made it impossible to walk anywhere, which somewhat defeats the point I feel.

Anyway, eventually the correct route to the hotel is located (through some rather dodgy looking subways which I’ll affectionately now refer to as ‘Brown Sector’), then onto the pub and eventually the venue, meeting up with Euan, Andy and the delightful and charming Anna Waits (she gets both the adjectives, as she’s probably the only one of the three that will read this).

So to the gig, and for once the support act wasn’t Eef Barzelay but was Corn Mo who opened with a fairly shit dirge on the accordion that seemed to go on for about five minutes while most of the audience talked over it. Not good. But then he busts into this brilliant upbeat number that’s about two minutes long and by the time he’s done, everyone has shut up. It’s awesome. He does that looping thing that solo musicians love so much these days, but with an accordion which is certainly a first. The between song banter is just, well, weird. Mid-set he switches to an electric piano for a few songs (which is funny in itself, given there’s a Grand on the stage) and does an utterly straight accordion cover of We Are The Champions. It sort of falls apart at the end when he performs to a backing track but I’m won over by then. Unfortunately looking at his Myspace most of the songs are ruined by being properly produced with drums and stuff. Which just robs them of all their charm. Lollipop is still quite fun though.

So onto Ben’s show. We jokingly laugh at the fact that he opens with Errant Dog, just like every show he’s played for the past 4 months. It’s a track off the new album and I think it’s awesome. I’m really looking forward to the new album, as to be honest I never really got on with Songs For Silverman. We’re now expecting him to play Gone next, like every other show for the past 4 months, but he looks up at Sam and tells him to stop and they end up playing You To Thank instead, and becomes apparently that the show’s going to be a lot more fluid than your regular Folds show.

Free Coffee is next, which is one of the tracks off the new album I don’t quite get on with, it’s a great idea to use a distortion pedal and tins to make his piano sound like a C64 synthesiser, but the song isn’t great. Then he moves onto Annie Waits which I’ve always really liked, such a sad song but there’s something upbeat about it. Also, turns out people in Sheffield can clap in time, unlike those from the South. Followed up by Landed (which really did make it’s mark as a ‘single’ over here it seems) and my favourite of the new ones, Hiroshima. So far, so typical Ben Folds gig.

But then it gets weird. Some people are drunkenly heckling him to play the jingles he wrote for a Tokyo radio station (“Don’t touch that dial, it’s got Jam on it!”). And Ben obliges, along with telling the story behind them. It’s amazing he can remember them (it takes a few minutes) and it just shows how really seriously Folds doesn’t take himself, and why his shows are so much more fun for it.
Next, Battle of Who Could Care Less. Hell yes. Not sure I’ve ever heard this done live before, certainly not with a band. It’s brilliant, by this time the crowd are really into it. This is something special. And personally it’s a song I really relate to.
Time for a quick Rock This Bitch improv and a story about Ben having his shoe stolen in Sheffield. Apparently he tells it every time he plays here, so obviously it’s new to me. Rock This Bitch is pretty much something he has to do every show now, just to shut people up which sort of sucks, but planning it in advance and having a decent tune and just shouting Rock This Bitch at the end of it seems to help.
Zak and Sara gets everyone dancing (or at least, gets me looking like a spastic having a fit) and storms us into a slower part of the set with Still Fighting It and Jesusland. Then: Underground. Again, first time seeing it done with a band and it almost feels like I’m seeing the Ben Folds Five I never got to see. And all I can see in my head are those crazy dudes dancing to it on the Sessions at West 54th DVD. For a little while, I am a crazy dude. Then another nice surprise: Such Great Heights. Bitches Ain’t Shit has been the token cover version in a Ben Folds set for so long now this sort of got side-lined as it’s not as funny. It’s an awesome tune though and I really love it.

Time for the solo section of the set, as Ben makes a sort of piano playing gesture with his fingers at Sam and Jared to let them know to leave for a bit. I guess that’s the best action he could do really. A shooing motion seems somewhat rude and nothing else would really fit.
The solo section is bookended rather predictably by Fred Jones Part II (with the audience having the backing vocals down pat) and Gracie (still bores me) but in between we get Emaline and Tom and Mary. Yeah you read that right. Emaline was my favourite Folds song for a long time but I sort of burned out on it after a while, but it’s as fresh as ever now. And Tom and Mary. He hasn’t played Tom and Mary since when he was with the Five as far as I know. Apparently he did it the night before but screwed it up. So that’s all pretty cool.

Then the band come back (piano fingers in the air again) and he plays Kylie from Conneticut, another new track and the other one I don’t really get on with. Then he does do Bitches Ain’t Shit after all, it’s developed a fancy new fast ending though but it really is at the point where it needs retiring now. And no-one was even shouting for it. It’s still fun though. Then Bastard takes us into Rockin The Suburbs. He starts out playing it on the synth, then switches to piano. I’ve always preferred the piano based versions of this track to the record version, which is pretty much a joke-song. It seems to have a renewed sense of vigour, and actually sounds like what I imagine it would have sounded like had Ben written it with Robert and Darren. Kate keeps the pace up, it tends to make me think of my friend Kate for some reason. I mean, for one obvious reason, but then she doesn’t smoke pot and isn’t everything I’m not so… yeah. This is why I don’t do music reviews professionally.

Some more improv about how the piano sucks (we hadn’t noticed) and an attempt at the Peanuts theme (which I didn’t recognise but fortunately Anna did so now it makes sense!). Then Army and they’re off. They milk the encore a bit then run back on before the crowd gives up for Philosophy. It goes into the Theme From Doctor Pyser in the middle as it has done live for many years ago, but then it doesn’t come back out, instead just stays there with that awesome Pyser ending which is frankly a much more auspicious way to end the set. Then they’re gone again. Only one song in the encore, but one can’t complain when they did about 25 of them and played two hours almost straight through.

Definitely the best I’ve ever seen him play, and just a genuinely great day, watching cool music and hanging out with awesome people. Roll on November…

July 11, 2008

TV Review: Criminal Justice

I’m always curious to watch anything that bills itself as a prison drama, because HBO’s Oz is one of the all time great television shows, and it’s interesting to see other shows try and live up to that. To it’s credit, Criminal Justice offers a fairly accurate (if somewhat less violent and rapey) view of life in jail, but that’s only half the story. The other half is your traditional court-room drama. But this isn’t just a show that conflates the two to tell the story of a prisoner on trial. Criminal Justice is literally half of each. We don’t get a fully featured court-drama, much of what doesn’t directly tie-in to the story is discarded and even the closing arguments are skipped entirely. Boston Legal this ain’t. Likewise we see the major events in prison but we’re shown little of Ben’s day to day life and the growing sense of dread and hopelessness he feels.

Instead the two halves of the show cannibalise each other, bumping against each other like some really awkward dance-floor foreplay, before embracing each other in an inevitable but ultimately unsatisfactory union.

That’s not to say it’s a bad show, Ben’s descent into helplessness isn’t as well portrayed as that of Tobias Beecher in series one of Oz, but it does a decent job. The courtroom stuff is still compelling and the twist at the end is well thought out and makes sense, you probably couldn’t see it coming but there are hints dropped, even if the link to Ben’s prison life is unnecessary and laboured.

What really makes this show are the characters. The evil prison kingpin is suitably creepy and well-spoken, Ben’s lawyer Stone is a fascinating enigma, and police investigator Box is just wonderful. Initially he seems to be your stereotypical “good cop looking for the truth” but there’s something not quite right about him. Occasionally his actions are totally out of character for that archetype, and the eventual revelation pulls a wonderful bait and switch on us and suddenly everything makes sense.

Ben Whishaw’s Ben is certainly the true star of the show though, he plays the role with a quiet understatement punctuated by occasional bursts of anger that really do put us in the mind of a man wrongfully arrested, but that is starting to doubt himself.

Oh and Ros out of BUGS turns up as well.

If you’ve watched Oz this entire show might seem a little tame but if not then it’s well worth a watch, one of the better UK dramas of late and still really quite harrowing.

Thoughts on the Doctor Who Finale

Been a busy few weeks, lots to talk about, so apologies if the next few pieces are a tad perfunctory but need to get caught up. They might get discussed more in the podcast though. Ooh podcast, yeah, exciting…

So I watched the two last Doctor Who episodes back to back, and they’ve pretty much conflated into one for me so here we go:

First, did anyone expect Harriet Jones to inform Jack, Martha, Sarah-Jane and Donna that they were On the Global Frequency? Okay just me on that one then.

The other thing that these two episodes reminded me of was Power Rangers – Forever Red for the way in which it basically just combined a whole host of series and characters together, not because it would tell a good story, but because it would be so damn cool. And it was.

I was somewhat reluctant to write this blog, as it requires thinking about the episodes, and thinking about them too much tends to make them fall apart. So lets get the nit-picking out of the way:

1. The technobabble was worse than an episode of Star Trek: Voyager, which if you haven’t see it, is really bad. Most of it made no sense either, or if there was an science behind it, it was rushed through too quickly for anyone to comprehend.

2. Rose, whose return was hyped up all season, turned out to be utterly pointless and got pretty much nothing to do. I’m starting to wonder if she was more heavily featured in the original script, which was then swiftly re-written when Russell T Davies heard her speak post-mouth job. And I thought Catherine Tate’s voice was annoying.

3. Jack spends an entire series of Torchwood trying to find The Doctor to figure out why he’s immortal, then when he finally meets the woman than made him immortal, just doesn’t mention it.

4. Mickey joining Torchwood. Oh dear god. The only thing more disturbing is working out which cast member RTD is going to have him flirt with.

Right, the good stuff:

1. I’ve always had a soft-spot for Martha, and I really liked the whole Oster-Hagen key thing. Apparently most of the internet hated it and thought it was stupid, but since The Master almost enslaved the human race once, it even makes a twisted sort of sense. Plus there’s some nice resonance in it: Martha is willing to sacrifice the entire human race to save the rest of the galaxy and all the other universes. The Doctor thinks that’s crazy. But as Davros goes on to point out, The Doctor himself has sacrificed many people in the past to save the human race. Same thing, larger scale.

2. And yes, Davros guilt-tripping The Doctor was awesome (I have a soft spot for montages too) but then it was pretty much ignored after that, other than some pensive looks at the end.

3. It was cool. Seeing all the disparate elements of the universe RTD has created coming together. Yeah, so Torchwood didn’t do much but if you accept that it’s all one big universe then it becomes silly not to include Torchwood and UNIT as one has to wonder what the hell they’re doing.

4. The Donna ending. Again, much of the internet hated it but I sort of liked it. There were basically two sides to her character – the cool character she’d turned into and the awful Catherine Tate Show-esque goon she started off as, that everyone was afraid she’d be all the way through when her joining up full-time was announced. It’s an implicit acknowledgement that that part of her character wasn’t nice or good and was a genuinely bad thing. And sending her back there was in many ways a fate worse than death. We were never meant to like Runaway Bride-era Donna to start with.
Though I imagine a future writer isn’t going to be able to resist bringing her back, and the way it’s set up she can probably get her memories back and last around the length of a Christmas special before she dies for real.

5. The Rose ending. It was all sorts of creepy and weird. Nicely Tennant is now set up for recurring guest star roles in future Doctor Who incarnations no matter how badly he ages and I’m sure it’ll be revisited (as Anna points out contrary to claims mad prior to the episode, this really doesn’t tie anything up at all.
It’s played wonderfully subtly as well. The Doctor and DoctorDonna think it’s a nice and happy ending. You can read it that way if you want. But she runs after the Tardis as it leaves. She’s not happy. But those two wouldn’t understand that. Because logically it doesn’t make sense. Genetically he’s basically the same + some human, with all the same memories + some genocide. But the human heart doesn’t really work that way. And that’s the blind spot that the Time Lords, with all their knowledge, don’t see.

So throw all those good and bad bits together and what do we have? A glorious mess. It’s all over the place, it doesn’t make much sense, it’s ridiculous and it’s great fun. It’s pretty much exactly what I’d expected. It doesn’t completely fit together right, but the loose joints are covered over with a healthy dose of cool and funny so that it just about works.
I’m not going to watch it again. I have a feeling if I do I’ll be a lot less kind. It’s event television. And as an event it worked. Plus there was enough controversy with the endings to make the internet explode the minute after it aired.

And call me a heartless bastard but I liked seeing Tennant commit genocide.

July 2008

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