Tag Archives: Joan Rivers

Second City, Twice

It’s probably just a coincidence that Eli and I were talking about SCTV the other day, because she had no way of knowing I had just picked up a couple of books about The Second City (one about the history of the theatre; the other about the television show).

I hadn’t planned on reporting for Jury Duty on the first day of Summer, but having been through the drill before I knew that I’d probably have to kill a little bit of time. As it turned out, it was a good thing I brought both books.

The first was one I had read before, an insider’s recollection by Dave Thomas about the show, the cast, and how it all came together called SCTV Behind The Scenes. Thomas weaves personal observations with interviews with others into an engaging narrative about the origins of the program as well as the camaraderie – and sometimes rivalries – between the cast members. In doing so he is unflinchingly honest about his own myopia and drive which sometimes placed him at odds with fellow actors and staff while trying to put the show first.

There’s a lot of inside peeks at the process of turning writing sessions into post-produced pieces for air; how despite comparisons to Saturday Night Live the shows were really apples and oranges; how dedicated behind-the-scenes people from makeup artists to producers were usually in way over their head but delivered anyway. Despite the incredible difficulties involved in staging and (mostly) selling the show, their ability to self-create in a vacuum without regard for ratings or network input led to what most of them consider the artistic peak of their careers.

Behind The Scenes is already fifteen years old but still a wonderful read and a must for any SCTV fan. It’s a vivid reminder of how blessed we were to have a company with such creative minds cranking out truly original material. There’s a great essay from Conan O’Brien where he describes the impact the show had upon him. He felt for the first time that a comedy program was speaking directly to him while refusing to dumb it down for the masses; it was a logic that he would carry forward and use in his own career. (And his story about first meeting John Candy is both funny and a heart-warming tribute to both men.)

Unscripted, written by Mike Thomas (A Chicago journalist, no apparent relation to Dave) is a 2009 book that presents a fascinating history of the Second City theatre framed within quotes from its creators and participants. Although the Chicago side of the story dominates – as it should – Thomas pays great tribute to the Toronto establishment and sheds light on the many road shows and other city-based affiliates.

If you’ve read Live From New York by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller – among the best tomes on Saturday Night Live – you’ll be familiar with the structure that Unscripted utilizes. Both authors conducted a bevy of interviews and weave quotes and anecdotes from the insiders to tell a chronological story. It’s an effective technique – as if a group of famous people are gathered in one room and they decided to tell you the history of their theatre in a round-robin format.

And we’re talking famous people.  A fifty year history, from early stars like Alan Arkin,  David Steinberg and Robert Klein to the recent TV pipeline of comedians Tina Fey, Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert. Most of the better cast members from Saturday Night Live. Ensembles from classic sitcoms from Cheers to 30 Rock. Actors like Peter Boyle. Stand-up comics like Joan Rivers. Of course, many will gravitate towards the bittersweet stories of the departed legends John Belushi, Chris Farley, and John Candy as well as famous stars like Bill Murray and Mike Myers who parlayed their improv training into huge careers. The list of Second City alumni is daunting.

But Thomas also lets us get to know about important innovators like Del Close, Bernard Salkins, Andrew Alexander and Joyce Sloan, whose work behind the scenes saved the company many times over. It’s great storytelling, albeit using the words of others. I laughed out loud several times, caught up in everything from great backstage anecdotes to quotes that just killed me. (My favorite – one performer recalling that a sketch bombed so badly “you could hear a mouse shit!”)

It’s fun to read about Second City and its history, but it’s great to know we can take in a live performance and revisit the brilliant television show on DVD.

Info about Unscripted at the Mike Thomas webpage.

Dave Thomas Wiki page

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Stand Up Wit…Whitney Cummings

Careful...she'll cut a bitch.

Against all conventional logic, the glass ceiling in the comedy world remains intact. One would think that if Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller could achieve great success almost half a century ago, we’d be flush with popular and successful female comics in 2009. Instead, the woman with the biggest draw is Lisa Lampanelli, who has extrapolated “I’m fat and I bang black guys” into a large venue following. Meanwhile, the brilliant Maria Bamfordeasily one of the ten best comics working today regardless of gender – is better known for her recent commercials for Target than for her consistent excellence as a writer and performer. Don’t blame her for that.

Over the years we’ve seen Roseanne Barr and Ellen Degeneres and Whoopi Goldberg find tremendous success, and during the 80’s comedy boom there were several that were household names. So what’s wrong in 2009? There’s no shortage of strong current female comedians worthy of adulation, but fewer are breaking through at the level that many of the male comedians attain. Try asking a friend to name five current female comedians. You’ll likely get LampanelliSarah Silvermanand a blank stare

Maybe they’ll come up with Wanda Sykes or Margaret Cho or Kathy Griffin, all of whom have had wider exposure thanks to multiple television shows. I doubt many would come up with Whitney Cummings, but after laughing my ass off listening to her first album (Emotional Ninja) I predict that will change very soon.

Cummings doesn’t have a schtick or a character, and her material is pretty much old school observational comedy about sex and relationships. But while she can be crude and vulgar, she’s also ferociously funny. She’s strong with a quick one liner but also has well-structured longer pieces that pile one laugh on top of another. She’s able to play both ends of the men vs. women card in such a way that you laugh at all of it regardless of your gender…probably because you realize most of what she’s talking about is absolutely true.

Cummings doesn’t talk down to the audience, she places herself within it, so we’re on her side even when we’re the butt of the joke. She’ll humble herself with a self-deprecating stinger, but she’s no victim. She might launch some vitriol towards the losers and bad dates, but she’ll also admit to being a sneaky manipulator. Basically she’s showing that we’re all playing games…so let’s get those cards on the table and laugh at how shallow and absurd it all is.

The bits that aren’t about relationships are topical but universally funny, like the banality of social networks, the true definition of yoga and wondering why we reward our friends’ biggest mistakes with gifts. I won’t spoil the punch lines, but my favorite bits – her breast exam, sleeping her way to nowhere, how women snoop on and argue with men – had me rolling. She excels at stringing together a wealth of material with exceptional timing and delivery, adept at a pregnant pause before a punch line or punctuating a sarcastic retort.

I’m not exactly going out on a limb here by praising her work. In the past couple of years her profile has soared; she’s been tagged as a rising star by Entertainment Weekly, Variety and Alternative Press. Her panel time on Chelsea Lately is usually brilliant, and her breakout performance on the Comedy Central roast of Joan Rivers was a logical next step (she had been writing for them for a couple of years). Cummings is only in her mid-twenties, yet she’s already proven to be a prolific writer and a strong performer. She’s attractive, she’s very smart, and she is fearless.

There are thirty-three tracks on Emotional Ninja, most under two minutes, and there might not be a clunker in the bunch. This is truly one of the funniest comedy CDs of the year – go get it.

Buy Emotional Ninja online

Whitney on Showtime’s Live Nude Comedy

Her killer set on Comedy Central’s Roast of Joan Rivers

Compilation of panel bits from Chelsea Lately.

Whitney Cummings website.

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