Hosted by Zach Galifianakis at his most awkward, “Between Two Ferns” represents what television talk shows might actually be like in a much more interesting world. Filmed to look like a low-budget public access show, but with big-name celebrity guests, the series mines uncomfortable humor to the fullest. Galifianakis frequently mispronounces the names of his guests and openly insults them, creating an environment of hostility that often feels almost too real. When not blatantly mispronouncing names, he is prone to making intentionally terrible puns out of them, like when he asks Jon Hamm if his middle name is “Honey-Baked,” or if he has considered changing his name to something like “Stewart Turkey-Link.”
The discomfort starts strong right out of the gate in the first episode, in which Galifianakis basically molests Michael Cera. There is a common thread of one-sided sexual tension in many of the episodes, and certainly not just with the female guests, though it may be strongest in the episode featuring Natalie Portman. It is a testament to her skill as an “acteress” that this episode is one of the most authentic, as if she were actually just in the midst of a nightmarish interview set up by the most incompetent agent imaginable. Other episodes are more clearly staged, and perhaps the weakest is the one with Will Ferrell, if only because the two are generally too chummy with each other, at least until the end.
The series is at its best when Galifianakis is openly hostile to his guests, like the episodes featuring Ben Stiller and “Brad Lee Cooper.” Though this hostility is common throughout the series, only “Conan O. Brien” gets an explanation, which is that Galifianakis thought he had a shot at “The Tonight Show.” Another especially convincing episode features Galifianakis’ “twin brother,” Seth, interviewing a wooden-faced Sean Penn, who really seems like he might haul off and punch Galifianakis at any moment. As with Portman, it is Penn’s acting skill that pulls off the joke so well.
A pitch-perfect spoof of bad, desperate public access talk shows, “Between Two Ferns” is easily one of the best offerings from the always enjoyable Funny or Die. Even the opening and closing theme music feels authentic, though it is actually lifted from Bernard Herrmann‘s “Taxi Driver” score, which adds to Galifianakis’ creepy, angry vibe. I’m not sure how well it would work as a full-length show on television, but in the small segments available online, it is hilarious.
The Upright Citizens Brigadetheater, nationally renowned as one of the absolute best resources for improv and sketch comedy in the country, presented a couple of its best troupes last night in New York City’s East River Park, as part of the annual SummerStage festival. Showcasing two distinctly different collectives with a brief intermission, the show was a great example of how good improvisational theater can be when carried out by skilled performers adept at thinking on their feet. It was a unique treat to be in attendance, especially since this particular show will, by definition, never be seen again.
The first troupe, known as The Pox, followed the format of UCB’s celebrated “ASSSSCAT!” show, featuring a monologist telling a personal anecdote based on an audience suggestion, followed by a series of improvisational sketches based on that monologue. Their skits revolved heavily around the experience of out-of-towners visiting New York, such as a scene in which a tourist is robbed at gunpoint in Central Park, then decides that video of the robbery would be a great souvenir of his visit and begins directing the robber while his friends film it. Another highlight was a sketch in which a teacher ruins the joy of swearing for her twelve-year-old students by telling them that Shakespeare coined many of the English language’s best curse words. One of their best ideas, however, was the last scene of the first set, in which a man gives god credit for everything from work promotions to his wife’s pregnancy (“No, I think I knocked god up … or god knocked himself up”), then likewise shifts the blame for a car accident in which he is at fault onto the almighty.
The second troupe, Sandino, was even better, weaving their sketches seamlessly together into a bizarre, alternate-world scenario until, by the end, they felt less like random sketches than cohesive scenes in a play. Using a shouted audience suggestion, “P90X” (which further research tells me is some sort of workout program for which I am undoubtedly too lazy), Sandino improvised a dystopian tale of a world in which robots are programmed for only three functions – rage, sex and boredom – and people have jobs like drunkenly dancing nude in glass towers. Though the set begins with two of the performers working out, the phrase “P90X” ended up referring to a prisoner who has become a problem for his captors, one of whom suggests that the solution is to let him loose in Detroit and see who survives, him or the city of Detroit. This is all part of an evolutionary experiment he feels is vital to the human race, and later this same character reappears to serve an arsenic-laced dinner to a friend, for the same reason. “It’s not a lethal dosage,” he insists. “It’s just going to hurt real bad.”
It’s truly amazing how well Sandino incorporated elements of all their sketches into one large narrative, to the point that the final revelation that prisoner P90X is actually Virgin Group mogul Richard Branson (who designed the boredom robot in order to gain perspective on his overly exciting life) made perfect sense. This is a tremendously talented group of performers, and while I feel privileged to have attended their only performance of this specific material, I certainly hope a video recording is made available in the near future.
The series starts strong with its first episode, “The Focus Group,” in which Jack’s boring speech delivery style is hurting his poll numbers as well as his team of handlers watching the speech from campaign headquarters. However, when Jack experiences a slip of the tongue pronouncing a certain state name, his polls soar, and the handlers land on a brilliant strategy for the campaign. Ending with a jaunty theme song briefly introduced at the beginning, this episode nicely sets the tone for what’s to come, and the series continues strongly with a similar idea in its second episode, “Prostitute.” An innocent mistake in which Jack tries to help a woman in need, only to be railroaded by the media when she turns out to be a hooker. Perhaps the best moment of the episode comes when Jack asks his handlers, “Is a good person helping out a stranger so hard to believe?” and the answers comes back as a resounding “Yes!”
After the third episode, “Poster,” which features a really well-done sight gag at the end, the series takes a slight dip in quality. The fourth episode, “Mustache,” is well-played but basically just builds to a very predictable joke, and the same could be said of the fifth episode, “The Announcement,” which is even weaker. This is sort of the problem with the web series format, at least for this series; the characters and situation are strong enough to build an actual, full-length sitcom from, but the two-to-four minute episode format of the web series only leaves room for essentially one joke per episode. Some of the jokes work better than others, but Cranston and company always give it their best, and “The Handlers” is worth a look, especially in its first three episodes.
Brad Neely, perhaps best known for his hilarious “George Washington” and “JFK” music videos, has built an empire of off animatics (still images edited together with dialogue and sound effects). The creator of “Creased Comics” also invented a fictional town called China, Illinois, in which several strange characters reside, including a huge, baby-faced man named Mark “Baby” Cakes. In the series “Baby Cakes,” Neely explores the unique life and philosophy of this probably autistic, mostly gentle giant, and the results are very funny, always absurd, and even sort of profound and sad a surprising amount of the time.
The first six episodes of “Baby Cakes” find Baby Cakes transcribing his thoughts on a variety of subjects into his diary. The very first episode sets up a few recurring themes of the series, such as Baby Cakes’ belief that his father and his father’s professor friends are wizards, and his love of fantasy role-playing games. When one of his friends asks him if he’s a virgin, Baby Cakes’ reply is a perfect example of his strangely limited understanding of the world: “I said no, because I can’t give birth to a Jesus.” The episode also sets up Baby Cakes’ recurring songwriting, and some of the later episodes are entirely made of these songs.
The second episode introduces Baby Cakes’ grandfather and explores the relationship between the three generations, and demands a few repeat viewings in order to decipher the ridiculous bathroom graffiti Baby Cakes encounters in a gas station bathroom on the way to his grandfather’s house. The third episode is among the series’ very best, as it is the first one that really captures the sweet, oddly sad philosophy and worldview of Baby Cakes, a self-described “peaceful, sleepy giant making zero a year.” As Baby Cakes walks through the park, reflecting on the world around him, as he sees it, in a unique parlance all his own: “I have a big coat, with big pockets. Sometimes, kittens get in there. It’s cool with me as long as they keep their hook-socks curled.” The episode ends with a wonderful encapsulation of Baby Cakes’ views about life: “Even if my days don’t mean anything, I just hope that I die while hugging, and not while in a wine-drinking contest.”
The sixth episode expands on this strange but surprisingly insightful worldview, and just might be the very best episode of the entire series. It finds Baby Cakes digging up a time capsule he buried as a child, in which he placed his favorite thing and a note to his future self, in which he explains sex: “Sex is a people-spaghetti. Hairy pee-pees clash. They yell, ‘Yes! Yes!’ but their grody faces say, ‘Ouch!’” The rest of the episodes (the non-diary ones) are something of a mixed bag, but there are definitelyhighlights, and the whole series is only about 32 minutes long, with more brilliance scattered throughout than most full-length television series.
Fans of the excellent satirical newspaper The Onion should be familiar with the name Stan Kelly. A fictional editorial cartoonist whose reactionary views on current events and the way things used to be in the “good old days” (he supposedly began working for the paper in 1957) are expressed with hacky, obvious writing and a crude, simplistic drawing style. I remember when I first saw his work in the pages of “America’s Finest News Source” years ago, I totally fell for it, believing it to be a real strip The Onion had picked up to display ironically, like when they used to run Cathy Guisewite‘s “Cathy” in Spanish. Eventually, though, I realized how unlikely it was that any newspaper anywhere would seriously run strips celebrating the deaths of beloved celebrities like James Brown, for example, and that Kelly’s political cartoons were a joke from the start.
The Onion recently confirmed this all over again with the new web series “Behind the Pen,” in which “Kelly” describes his artistic process and explains the thought process behind his awful, out-of-touch jokes, as if anyone who can read would have trouble understanding his points. In the first episode, “How Marriage Works,” he explains that he’s doing it “to reach the youngsters” with his message. These hypothetical young people are illustrated by archive photographs of at-risk teens, and even one African child holding an assault rifle. He then proceeds to explain his cartoon, “Holy Matri-Money,” complete with an absurdly unnecessary explication of his “last word,” in which his self-portrait alter-ego delivers the punchline. This is a feature of all Kelly’s cartoons, and each episode correspondingly features a “Last Word” segment.
The second episode, “Collective Wisdom,” features another segment entitled “Tips for Young Artists,” in which Kelly hilariously explains the subtlety of his technique: “If you wanna show somebody’s in love with somebody, you put a little heart next to ‘em.” Each subsequent episode (there are five so far, uploaded within the last two months) is better than the last, with Kelly increasingly going into angry tirades about his own family, especially his darkly comic explanation of his cartoon “Nanny State, Ninny State,” in which he skewers the Big Brother program by saying, “A kid’s heart oughta be calloused, it oughta be weathered.”
Kelly’s voice is wonderfully grizzled and mean-spirited – not unlike another brilliant Onion creation, the politician JoadCressbeckler, who now has his own segment on the Onion News Network television series on IFC – and “Behind the Pen” shows great promise in continuing to develop this fascinating character. The more unhinged and apoplectic he becomes, the funnier he is and the more his character is revealed, so hopefully the series will continue in this direction, as it already seems to be doing.