“Blazing Saddles” is generally regarded as Mel Brooks’s best movie: It was ranked sixth on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American comedies and it was nominated for three Academy Awards. “Best,” though, is a relative term. Brooks’s Borscht Belt-meets-absurdism style is so unique and so indelible that what we call the “best” is usually the first of his movies we fell in love with.
It’s safer to say that “Blazing Saddles” was Brooks’s most timely movie, even his most serious movie. And it’s as safe to say that there wouldn’t be a Mel Brooks installment of PBS’s “American Masters” (premiering May 20; check local listings) without “Blazing Saddles.”
The opening scene is terrific and justifiably famous. We see a mix of Chinese and black workers pounding hammers under the desert sun. Their vicious and idiotic white overseers demand they sing spirituals like they did when they were slaves. The workers huddle, break apart, and slowly we hear a sweet, beautiful voice: “I get no kick from champagne.” Almost before we can process the joke, Brooks lays a second one atop the first: the black workers join in, harmonizing with the lead singer. This isn’t one person singing Cole Porter; this is a full, sophisticated a cappella routine. Brooks continues to add inversion after inversion, but the jokes work because the first few bars of that unexpected, anachronistic song say so much about racial ignorance.
Marc Maron is a great talker. That’s true of most comics, but Maron doesn’t even have to be funny to be good. He’s got a sharp baritone voice with just a touch of a slur, and a talk radio delivery that grabs and holds your attention. It hardly matters whether he’s describing a fight with his girlfriend, musing over the health of his cat, or shilling for stamps.com. Maron is one of those people who’s just a pleasure to listen to.
Like a lot of fans, I know Maron through his podcast, “WTF With Marc Maron.” Since it started in 2009 it’s achieved enormous popularity and regularly features top shelf guests. Success breeds opportunity, and now Maron has a book, “Attempting Normal,” and a sitcom, “Maron,” which premiered May 3 on IFC. Because his on-air persona is so charming, I genuinely want it to do well and, of course, to be good. Unfortunately, at least as far as the TV show goes, it’s a little ill-conceived.
The premise of “Maron,” as Maron recently explained on Jimmy Fallon, is “a comic whose career just craps out, and he’s got no hope, and he starts interviewing people in his garage.” In other words, Marc Maron doing “WTF With Marc Maron.” Theoretically, it’s supposed to be a kind of podcast equivalent of “The Larry Sanders Show,” Gary Shandling’s neurosis-ridden ’90s comedy about a late night talk show host. But where “Larry Sanders” was structured as an office sitcom (albeit a transcendentally great one), Maron’s workplace is a garage outfitted with professional recording equipment. So what fills the time when he’s away from the mike?
1. “It’s a terrible set, not a terrible room.”
There’s something strange about Joan River’s Internet talk show, “In Bed with Joan.” Maybe it’s strange that the show exists, or maybe it’s strange how seriously Joan takes the web series — that she earnestly seems to believe it will lead to a new period of fame and critical acceptance. As if we aren’t already living in that new period, and that “In Bed with Joan” is only possible because she’s back on top as a comic legend, even a national treasure. Or maybe it’s just the wallpaper and duvet.
“In Bed with Joan” is filmed in a basement bedroom of Melissa Rivers’s house in Malibu. The laundry room doubles as a green room. Joan introduces her guests by asking them to come out of her closet, then invites them to lie down next to her on her full-size bed.
But they also lie under a reddish-orange sign that reads “In Bed with Joan,” next to french doors with a nighttime “view” of the New York skyline. In the second episode, Nick Kroll asked if the view is of the South Street Seaport, which would place the “studio” somewhere in the New York harbor.
On the first episode, Sarah Silverman repeatedly insulted the set, saying how depressing it was to be there and to discover that hosting an Internet talk show in your daughter’s basement was “making it.” You can’t quite decide if Silverman is joking, maybe because Silverman can’t decide if Joan is joking, if the aesthetics of the show — the weird incongruity between the actual bed, the massive sign, the fake New York skyline, and the audience of three-to-four people perched on the steps — are all one big joke. As Melissa Rivers put it, “It’s a terrible set, not a terrible room.”
Everything that’s strange about “In Bed with Joan,” starts with that room. Joan Rivers has decided to make a low-budget online talk show, but Joan Rivers cannot make a low-budget online talk show. She cannot admit that the show is filmed in a Malibu basement; she has to pretend that it’s produced in glamorous New York City. She isn’t content to film conversations with friends or comics, like Jerry Seinfeld does on his web series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” Joan Rivers needs to have a team of writers help her compose jokes and formal interview questions. Joan Rivers needs “In Bed with Joan” to be something larger than it really is. Joan Rivers needs “In Bed with Joan” to be a full-size Talk Show, maybe to continue making up for a creative failure that she’s long since made-up for, one that few people remember. Maybe she does it because few people remember.
Jerry Seinfeld is really working the late-night talk show circuit these days. First he went on Letterman to talk about things that are annoying. And last night he went on Leno to talk about fat people on TV and what breakfast was like in the ’60s. Check it out:
Billy Eichner is tall, gay, Jewish, from Queens, with a hairline somewhere between receding and disappearing. All of these qualities fuel his comedy. They also make the act of watching him run around the streets of New York, offering ordinary people $1 to answer questions like, “Who’s better, Meryl Streep or Glenn Close?” (and then erupting into a heated and irrational fury when the answer is Glenn Close “by far,” to which he yells back, neck veins bulging cartoonishly, “No, that is not the truth!”) one of the most exhilarating comic experiences there is. These moments, when Billy turns on his “contestant,” almost make you believe that the game show was invented just so Billy could savage it. You at least want to believe it.
Structurally, “Billy on the Street,” which just ended its second season on Fuse, is an ordinary game show: Billy asks trivia questions, and contestants win money for answering them correctly. There are obstacle courses for people to complete, lightning rounds and special games where you have to give a certain number of answers in a limited amount of time.
But structure is where the resemblances between this and any other game show end. The third round of the main trivia game, “Quizzed in the Face,” is entirely subjective. In order to win, the contestant has to share Billy’s opinion. Lightning rounds devolve into Billy frantically shouting shards of language. “Miss,” he stops a woman, “Judd Apatow?” Her face can barely contain her scornful indifference and he dashes down the street, his voice trailing “Judd Apatoooowwwww????” Or, in Tel Aviv, on his way to see Madonna open her world tour, the question, “Miss, do you love a gay dancer?” hangs in the air unanswered just long enough for Billy to run to the next person and then the next, shouting “Gay dancers! Gay dancers!” all while offering people around him his microphone to respond. No one seems to know whether or not to take “Gay dancers” as an ominous warning or as a joke.
Comedian Sarah Silverman has launched a new YouTube channel called “JASH,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. The channel was launched March 10 at the South by Southwest festival and is a collaboration between Silverman and fellow comics Michael Cera, Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim and Reggie Watts. The name stands for “Just Attitude So Hey.”
“Literally, we were at a restaurant, and Tim said, ‘Just attitude!’ Which is so Tim,” Silverman told the Reporter. “And then Michael Cera said, ‘So … hey?’ Which is so Michael Cera.”
The group of comedians decided to launch the channel after being approached by Google about creating web-only experimental comedy. Each of the participants will have their own page on the channel to create and curate content. JASH is one of 60 new YouTube channels featuring established entertainers.
Watch the introduction to JASH:
“I’m Joan Rivers — let’s see who’s coming out of my closet tonight!”
That’s the beginning of Joan Rivers’s new web series, “In Bed With Joan.”
The answer, for the first episode, is Sarah Silverman, who craws right in for the “full mommy experience.”
During the episode the two comedians talk about what Jews keep in their pockets (crumpled up tissues, loose mints), whether it’s harder to be a woman in comedy, and whether Silverman would rather date Jimmy Fallon, Montel Williams or Oprah. It also doesn’t hurt that the theme song sounds a lot like Mordechai Ben David’s “Yidden” (also, like “Dschinghis Khan” by Dschinghis Khan).
Check out the episode below:
Ask David Brenner what’s funny, and his answer is simple: “If people laugh, it’s funny. That’s the only way you can tell.” Take one of Brenner’s classic jokes. He first told it as he was setting up his microphone at a show one evening. He thought it was weird, not necessarily funny. Yet many people tell me it’s their favorite Brenner line.
“I was on the subway, sitting on a newspaper, and a man came over and asked me if I was reading it. I looked at him. What was I going to say? ‘I’m nearsighted?’ Two weeks later it happened again. Someone came over. Asked if I was reading the paper. I just said yes, got up, turned the page and sat down again.”
Brenner is currently on a national tour, with a March 16 appearance at the Mill Theater, in Millburn, N.J., He spoke to the Forward’s Curt Schleier about the rabbis and crooks in his family tree, his youthful looks and how it’s getting tougher to get laughs.
Curt Schleier: You are 77 years old. What keeps you going?
The Anti-Defamation League called on “Fashion Police” host Joan Rivers to apologize for a Holocaust reference she made on the show.
Rivers on the E! Entertainment Television program of February 25, commenting on a dress worn by German-American supermodel Heidi Klum, said, “The last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into the ovens.”
The show has been shown at least four times on the E! network since it first aired. Rivers, who laughed at her own remark, has not spoken of it since.
The ADL in a statement Wednesday called on Rivers, who is Jewish, to apologize for what it called a “vulgar and offensive” remark.
“This remark is so vulgar and offensive to Jews and Holocaust survivors, and indeed to all Americans, that we cannot believe it made it to the airwaves,” said Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director and a Holocaust survivor, in the statement. “Making it worse, not one of her co-hosts made any effort to respond or to condemn this hideous statement, leaving it hanging out there and giving it added legitimacy through their silence. Almost as bad as her original comment is the fact that she sat there doubled over with laughter after saying it.
What do you do if you’re “a Yid who thinks he’s a Goy”?
You go to your gentile friend “Boris,” of course, for help writing “The Aveirah Song.” Aveirah is Hebrew for “sin,” which, “Boris,” being a gentile and all, would be an expert on.
And what kinds of sins does a gentile (or wannabe-gentile) commit?
He doesn’t sing zemirot at the Shabbat meal. He lets his wife wear a wig instead of a kerchief. And for Birchat Kohanim he defiantly keeps his shoes on. He also studies Torah all night long on Nittl Nakht (Christmas), when Torah study is avoided among some Orthodox Jews; drinks only three cups of wine at the Passover Seder, and eats “tons of maror without charoset.”
That’s the thesis of song released February 24 on YouTube that is quickly becoming a sensation among Orthodox members of social media websites. The song’s lyrics are genuinely funny to anyone who knows anything about the Hasidic lifestyle. The tricky thing, though, is to discern what is meant seriously from what is meant as parody, and then to figure out what is unintentional parody.
Watch ‘The Aveirah Song’:
Jerry Seinfeld took a break from driving around and getting coffee to do some standup on Letterman last night. Watch him talk about what’s annoying now. Or five years ago. Whichever.
Ira Glass is no Howard Stern — yet. By that we mean he isn’t the King of All Media (Stern’s self-anointed title), but at the very least he’s the crown prince and heir apparent.
Glass, of course, is the host of Chicago Public Radio’s popular program This American Life. More recently, he’s taken on the duties of screenwriter and producer of “Sleepwalk With Me,” a film that opens in New York August 24, Los Angeles the following week and rolls out nationally in September.
“Sleepwalk With Me” is based on the life of standup comedian Mike Birbiglia, a successful performer who, as a result of pressure from his girlfriend (about marriage) and parents (about his career), developed a sleepwalking disorder. One night he even jumped out of a closed window on the second story of a motel. Birbiglia turned the experience into a successful routine, an off-Broadway play and a book. Glass heard portions of the play, did a version of it on his radio show and has now produced it as a film. Glass spoke to The Arty Semite about his Jewish background, his radio show and the film:
Curt Schleier: For people unfamiliar with the show, what is the elevator pitch for This American Life?
Jerry Seinfeld, a famous comedian, used to be the star of “Seinfeld,” a sitcom about a comedian named Jerry Seinfeld and his friends. Larry David, a less-famous comedian, was a writer and co-creator of “Seinfeld,” and now stars as Larry David in “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” a show about the daily life of Larry David, co-creator of “Seinfeld.” In the fourth season of “Seinfeld,” Jerry Seinfeld and his best friend George Costanza create a TV show called “Jerry,” a sitcom about a comedian, his friends, and a guy sentenced by a judge to be the comedian’s butler. In the seventh season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Larry agrees to participate in a “Seinfeld” reunion in the hopes that doing so will lead to a reconciliation with his wife. Jerry Seinfeld guest-starred as “Jerry Seinfeld,” the actor who played “Jerry Seinfeld” on “Seinfeld.” He is meaner and nastier than the character — meaner and nastier even than Larry — though no one seems willing to acknowledge this, or in any way recognize that Jerry is not the same person as his character.
All of this subtext plays an important role in the first episode of comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s new web series, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” It is among the most accurately titled shows in the history of shows — or is at least intended to be. Larry’s refusal to drink coffee is an important “plot point” in the episode, and, according to Larry, a key factor in the dissolution of his marriage. You would be forgiven for mistaking this banter for dialogue from “Seinfeld” or “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
But the intent is to give you exactly what the title promises. In the pilot, Jerry Seinfeld drives a blue 1952 VW Bug, meets his friend Larry, and the two journey across town to drink coffee and eat pancakes. Later episodes only change the car, the comedian and the coffee shop. So long as we continue to make cars and continue to birth comedians, the formula is endlessly repeatable.
Woody Allen’s new movie “To Rome With Love” is a montage of stories on the titillating streets of the eternal city. Allen (who hadn’t appeared in any of his films since 2006) plays Jerry, a restless, retired opera director whose world collides with Giancarlo, played to hilarity by Italy’s renowned tenor Fabio Armiliato. Roberto Benigni is Leopoldo, a Joe Schmoe suddenly and inexplicably stalked by paparazzi. Alec Baldwin is a scene-stealer as John, a famous-yet-embittered architect on vacation doling out hard-won romantic advice to Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) who gets tangled up with Monica (Ellen Page) while he’s already living with Sally (Greta Gerwig). Penélope Cruz is smokin’ as an Italian hooker in a red-hot dress.
The Arty Semite caught up with Woody Allen to ask him about acting, editing and the stupid questions he gets from the press.
Dorri Olds: There are funny scenes in “To Rome With Love” about idiotic questions from the press. What are the worst questions you’ve been asked?
Woody Allen: I don’t think we have enough time to answer that. When I walk through those red carpet things, I’ve been asked, “Is Penelope Cruz your new muse?” If I make one picture with somebody they assume that I have a muse, that I want a muse, and that person wants to be my muse. There are millions of questions that are really stupid.
What is it about Rome that appealed to you?
Daniel Okrent has a punch line ready when he’s asked how he discovered “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” the Web-video-series-turned-book that became a viral sensation in 2009. “I became an old Jew,” said the esteemed historian, inventor of the fantasy game Rotisserie League Baseball and first public editor of The New York Times.
Now, Okrent can add “playwright” to his résumé. With co-creator Peter Gethers, the 64-year-old writer has broadened the site’s premise into a full-blown off-Broadway production — and won backing from the heavyweight producers of shows like “Company,” “A Little Night Music” and “Sweeney Todd.” The stage version of “Old Jews Telling Jokes” opens May 20 at Manhattan’s Westside Theatre. After casting was completed, The Arty Semite caught up with Okrent at his Manhattan home.
Michael Kaminer: You were the first public editor of The New York Times, and your most recent book, “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition,” is an acclaimed history of Prohibition. “Old Jews Telling Jokes” sounds like a bit of a departure.
While he is waiting for Larry David to decide if there is going to be a ninth season of the HBO hit “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” comedian Richard Lewis is embarking on a comedy tour that will take him to Carolines on Broadway in New York City and the Helium Comedy Club in Philadelphia in the coming weeks. Lewis, who ranks 45th on Comedy Central’s list of the 100 greatest stand-ups of all time, has literally been able to spin his years of therapy into gold. While the show will change nightly, the audience is practically guaranteed a story about the nanny, date or mother-in-law “from hell.”
On “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Lewis and David, who previously was the co-creator of “Seinfeld,” play sicker versions of Woody Allen’s classic Jewish neurotic. David appears as himself when he was a writer looking for work after “Seinfeld.” Lewis is David’s friend, which he has been in real life since they met at summer camp when he was 13. Lewis talked to The Arty Semite about Sid Caesar’s Seder, Being “Mr. Snickers” and what he talks about with his therapist.
Laura Goldman: Will there be a 9th season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”?
Moshe Kasher is a stand-up comedian and the author of “Kasher in the Rye: The True Tale of a White Boy from Oakland Who Became a Drug Addict, Criminal, Mental Patient, and Then Turned 16.” This is a story of a Passover miracle. Or something. Readers should be advised of strong language and total immaturity… although it’s got a pretty great ending. Kasher’s blog posts are being featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
It is said that whoever finds the afikomen on Passover is granted a wish that cannot be refused by the master of the house. That wish, no matter how extravagant or unusual, must be fulfilled and until the lucky discoverer is satisfied that his wish has been granted, the Seder cannot continue. This is the story of the night that went quite wrong.
It was the first night of Pesach and Shmulie slumped down at the head of his Seder table with a great relieved sigh. The week was finally over. He’d been running around all week, shopping for matzah and matzah meal and matzah-based beverages and other assorted constipation aids. Shmulie was exhausted.
“Why are you sitting down!?!” Pessy yelled from the kitchen, “Get the door!”
Moshe Kasher is the author of “Kasher in the Rye: The True Tale of a White Boy from Oakland Who Became a Drug Addict, Criminal, Mental Patient, and Then Turned 16.” His blog posts are being featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
To whoever is reading:
I’ve had some complaints regarding my recent appearance on Conan, promoting my new book, “Kasher in the Rye: The True Tale of a White Boy from Oakland Who Became a Drug Addict, Criminal, Mental Patient, and Then Turned 16.” Some Jews (I’m assuming here) were a little offended by my poking fun at my experiences with childhood Haredi life. I said they looked like fat Amish penguins and that they were weird. But seriously, I mean is any of that in dispute?
Now, normally, I try and pay anonymous complaints no heed as I have long since come to terms with the fact that when you make jokes, especially sharp prickly ones, you will invariably bruise the tender sensibilities of someone and that the anonymous and instantly accessible nature of the Internet gives those bruised peaches an instant platform to lodge their grievances. But I’ve been thinking about it and I thought, since I’m being asked to blog for My Jewish Learning and the Jewish Book Council, that I might try and clarify myself and my jokes and my Jewishness.
On the day of Moshe Kasher’s bris, his grandfather held him in his hands and declared, “This boy will be a great rabbi, I can see into his soul.” The old man’s prophesy almost came true. One of his grandsons did grow up to become a rabbi: Moshe’s brother, David. Moshe, meanwhile, grew into a brash, fast-talking standup comedian who sports a haircut that, as he says, is just gay and Hitler-esque enough to be called “the Gitler.”
The fact that Moshe survived childhood at all is the basis for his debut book, “Kasher in the Rye: The True Tale of a White Boy from Oakland Who Became a Drug Addict, Criminal, Mental Patient, and Then Turned 16,” out this week from Grand Central Publishing.
The book is the enactment of a Jewish mother’s worst nightmare. The author describes a childhood in which he puts out a cigarette on his arm (it later becomes infected); drops acid; sells acid to a seventh grader who then has a heart attack; traipses through subway tunnels; sprays graffiti on various surfaces; steals liquor from the supermarket; smokes weed; snorts pills; drinks “Everclear margaritas”; and breaks into his own house while his mother is away to take psychedelic mushrooms and steal her car. As Kasher tells it, he is a prodigy of misconduct. By age 4 he is assigned his first therapist, and is checked into drug rehab by age 13.
By Sara Levine
Europa Editions, 172 pages, $15.00
There are as many Jewish humors as there are funny Jews, which is to say that there are 12 — and half of them haven’t been good in years.
Many essentialist definitions of Jewish humor, such as the comedy of outsiders, or the comedy of the oppressed and dispossessed, have been put forward over time, but these have turned out to be little more than heuristics — momentary explanations, useful only until they are not. The humor of the Marx Brothers and the humor of the Apatow troupe are not the same humor, though we persist in calling them both “Jewish,” and hunt for the spiritual link between them. (See, for example the many disparate comedians and styles covered under the Jewish Humor category in Saul Austerlitz’s “Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy,” reviewed by The Arty Semite here.) The idea of a monolithic Jewish humor is more myth than fact.
Still, it is rare to find a comic, or film, or even a book (yes, books can be funny) that manages to feel both completely new and simultaneously connected to Jewish cultural life. Yet this is exactly what Sara Levine has accomplished in her new book, “Treasure Island!!!”, whose comic brilliance derives not from participating in, and extending, the tradition of Jewish humorists, but from making a mockery of Judaism, and the idea of textually derived truth.
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