Tag Archives: Kathy Griffin

Stand Up Wit…Joan Rivers

I finally got to see the new Joan Rivers documentary, A Piece Of Work. While not a perfectly objective film – key people involved are her friends and she had suggestive input to the content – it paints what I believe to be a fairly honest picture of a driven artist who won’t take her hand off the throttle. Part of that drive is to maintain control and keep the cash flow coming in. Part of it is the fear that not doing so would make her irrelevant…but then she’s been fighting that battle since the beginning.

Since I’ve always known her as a comic first and foremost, I’m not certain just how many people perceive her more as the QVC hustler, the red carpet maniac or the poster child for plastic surgery. None of those are complimentary, but if  we learn anything from A Piece of Work it is that Joan will do just about anything for a paycheck. Of course, she sees it for what it is – a paycheck – and in fact the film opens with a shockingly vulgar routine about her daughter passing up just such an opportunity.

Through a combination of photos, clips and footage we get a high level overview of her career – the struggle to get started, the star-making opportunity with Johnny Carson (and the backlash when she launched her own show at Fox); her difficulties with and love for her family and how those ties both helped and hurt her chances. This isn’t a life arc, it was filmed as a year in the life, with anecdotes. While it’s done well, I was hoping for more focus on the backstory; certainly there are hundreds of people who could have provided recollections and insight. We do get a few talking heads, from Don Rickles and Kathy Griffin to staff and management people. Why so few?

Video: Official Movie Trailer

You’ll probably learn more about Joan Rivers by reading her books, but that’s her window. The documentarians neither canonize nor attack her, which allow you to see her insecurities as exactly what they are – fuel for the fire. Comedians have to deal with rejection every time they walk on stage. Rivers has dealt with so much throughout her life that it’s amazing she’s still in there punching. But then you see her take the stage, and it’s as if an appliance was suddenly plugged into a socket. She’s fearless and tireless, but most importantly, she’s funny.

Rivers is 77 years old, but her schedule would exhaust a soccer mom half her age. Her recent victory on Donald Trump’s boardroom reality show gave her some extensive network visibility, and a recent announcement has her starting a reality show with her daughter and grandson. This movie was nominated for Best Documentary by the Broadcast Critics and if the Academy follows suit with an Oscar nod, that’s another a couple of months of top rung publicity. There are some painful moments in the film dealing with loneliness and rejection (both personally and professionally); it would be nice to see her get the recognition she deserves and have her name once again be primarily associated with comedy.

Go see the film – but also go see the legend herself.

Official website for the film

Joan Rivers’ official website

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Last Comic Standing: Last Thoughts

Felipe Esparza, Last Comic Standing (but not here)

They snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. 

Oh, well. Not like my tastes and the consensus of the multiple-voting American public line up much. Top Ten singles? Top movies? Best selling books? Nope, not in a long while. Shouldn’t be a disappointment when it happens again, but this time they had the right guy in the final two. And then…pffffttt

So before we tuck this one in for the season, a few final thoughts: 

Nobody unlikable in the final five and congrats to Felipe Esparza, who seems like a nice guy and hopefully will improve over time. 

With a vote-for-one-of-the-final-five format, did Myq Kaplan and Tommy Johnagin split votes they would have likely easily gotten in a head-to-head “final two” contest? 

How the hell did Myq Kaplan finish fifth after the prior week’s sets? 

Apologies to Natasha Leggero, who I was pretty rough on all season for not doing much besides laughing and looking smoking hot. She came out last night and did a great set, better than the other two judges who I normally like a lot better. 

Initially I cringed when Greg Giraldo broke out the vintage “underwear outside the pants” routine; I wondered (1) did I black out for a minute and go back in time?  and (2)Now whose resume “ain’t all up to date”? But another viewer pointed out that he probably never did that routine on primetime TV before, and he even tossed in a self-deprecating comment (which I missed) beforehand. 

Andy Kindler was hilarious, but I understand that some people think he’s too quirky to be funny. I do not envy those people

Seeing Kurt Metzger’s great Micheal Jackson joke again was worth sitting through the two hours for. Okay, not really – that was a long two hours with lots of unnecessary padding and lame guest appearances. But Metzger should have been in the top ten at the very least, and that might have been one of the funniest jokes all season. At least he got a rubber chicken, which is more than comics two through five went home with. 

Liked the final comments from the comics who lost – Roy Wood Jr. paid props to the road comics, Kaplan was classy, and Mike DeStefano’s parting words were classic, as expected. 

Did that $50K development deal (and the show’s past reputation for subterfuge) mean that the judges (read: behind the scenes network producers) wanted someone they could build a sitcom around? I think they wanted a person who people like, talent aside, safe as milk. A sitcom candidate who will play well between the coasts. If that’s true, they hit their target. 

Do I believe the results were controlled? Of course, but then again I don’t think any of these “contest” shows are left to chance. 

But despite a summer of head shrugs and suspicion, if they’re back next year I’m sure I will be, too. When all was said and done, I got to see a few people I like that I had never seen before, and many good comics got national airtime. Win/Win. 

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Who Will Be The Last Comic Standing?

And then there were five.

(Advance Spoiler Warning:  I will update this column tonight after the winner is announced and list the results in a tag at the bottom of the article).

For someone who despises reality television, I have really enjoyed Mondays this summer thanks to Last Comic Standing. I guess in my defense I’m really a fan of stand-up, period, and that’s what this season has centered upon. I was thrilled that they decided to excise the “house” and the fabricated/edited drama that goes on behind the scenes. That’s the part of these shows that is so false; so scripted and staged and edited that it’s anything but real.

There were exceptions, of course – anytime a camera is on Todd Glass pretty much anything can happen, and he did liven up his season of the show by a mile. But how many times can you see a comic sitting with a pad and pencil trying to come up with material, especially since the cameras and lights following him around is about as conducive to creative thought as a rabbit punch?

Last week the five finalists ran the gauntlet for supposedly the last time. If that’s indeed true, I’m not certain how they are going to build the drama over two hours tonight, although I am excited that the judges (Andy Kindler, Natasha Leggero, Greg Giraldo) will perform. Kindler and Giraldo are among my favorites, and I’m excited to see Leggero rock the microphone since I’m only familiar with her from sketch comedy. I’ve been a bit harsh about her contributions – in fairness, the judging in general has been pretty lame – so I’m happy to laud her comedic skills if she decides to flex them. Also guest-performing are Tom Papa (a great stand-up unfortunately slumming on the abysmal Marriage Ref) and Kathy Griffin (no doubt whittling her routine to get past the censors). 

Last season’s winner, Iliza Shlesinger, is also slated to perform, and I’ll try to have an open mind for her as well. I thought her Comedy Central special was weak, and she plows the same shallow ground that Rachel Feinstein did this season. Hopefully she will rise to the occasion and bring some strong material to a nationwide audience.

Last week Ron White was a guest performer, and although I had heard just about all of the material before, his timing is so impeccable that I enjoy the jokes even when I know the punchline. Again, I’m not certain why they include guest segments, but more stand-up comedy on television can only be a good thing.

Jonathan Thymius was finally voted off the show, a feat I was starting to think was impossible. I think his loopy, disoriented style started to wear thin and possibly his material did as well. But the fact that a guy who resembles the bastard son of George Goebel (in appearance and cadence) made it to the top six shows me that anything can happen.

I’ve been hard on Felipe Esparza but I thought last week was his best set; he took a bit about coming out of the closet at a family dinner and milked it about as well as you can. I still have him in the lower region though, just ahead of Roy Wood, Jr. who probably had his weakest performance. Second place in my mind is a virtual tie betweek Mike and Myq. Mike DeStefano doesn’t hit on every joke but when he connects it’s a home run; Myq Kaplan’s clever wordplay and well constructed set is consistently funny and sharp.

But the man to beat, in my opinion, is Tommy Johnagin. He’s poised, he’s hilarious, and he’s as strong a writer as he is a performer. I like that he can do a quick 1-2 set up and punch line as adeptly as he can weave a few great lines into a longer bit. His sets have gotten stronger from week to week, and even when he launched a line that divided the audience he was able to dig his way out of it. A couple of the comics got lengthy ovations when they took the stage and his might have been the most spirited.

As in past years, I think a couple of the best comics never made the cut; I’m convinced that Kirk Fox and especially Kurt Metzger would have been great in the final five. But if Kaplan, DeStefano or Johnagin wind up winning – and that’s a 60% possibility – they would instantly become the best comedian the show has ever honored. And with two hundred thousand dollars in cash and a fifty-thousand dollar development deal, also the richest.

I’ll update this essay tonight after the announcements.

It’s over. If you want to know the results, click here.

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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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