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“Al Franken: God Spoke,” “Hacking Democracy”

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By Michael Atkinson

IFC News

[Photo: “Al Franken: God Spoke,” Docurama, 2005]

The new doc from the makers of “The War Room” and “,” “Al Franken: God Spoke” can be easily dismissed as bleeding-heart hagiography, just as Franken himself, like Michael Moore, can be a divisive figure even among our nation’s liberal democrats. But there’s more to that assessment than meets the eye: an integral but semi-hidden aspect to the bipartisan cultural wars is that celebrity and punditry are admirable goals for conservatives — because conservatives by their very definition represent capitalistic greed, might-is-right and power-mongering. Liberals, in the abstract, represent the opposite — community intercourse, sharing the wealth, justice and peace — and so the very act of attaining fame and ubiquity as a talking head can be condemned as hypocrisy. It’s one of the Republicans’ many ideological dance steps to which there is no logical counter-step. If liberals like Franken and Moore are going to try to use the media to speak truth to power, the very attempt can be seen as a violation of the principles they’re trying to espouse, and, therefore, mere naked vanity.

But no one ever accuses Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter or Bill O’Reilly of rampaging egocentrism; it’s self-evident, and in keeping with their philosophies. In the neo-con world, bald-faced megalomania is the state to which we’re all supposed to aspire. (And do as a nation, in terms of foreign policy, and it has an official think-tank name: “American exceptionalism.”) The presumptions behind this liberal-hypocrite reasoning are all lies, of course, to use Franken’s favorite qualification — it’s akin to denouncing a freedom fighter for battling an invading force in defense of his own country. (They do that as well.) The arena for the cockfight is what it is, and everyone has an equal right to step into the sawdust and starting pecking.

Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus’s film captures Franken, before and after the debut of Air America, at his most glorious (making royal public sport of the confident prevarications uttered by the Orwellian mole people at Fox News and elsewhere) and at his most dubious (depressed after the 2004 election, playing with his dog). It’s not a freestanding movie so much as a brickbat tossed in a larger battle — continuously being fought between the lying liars and the rest of America. (Notice I didn’t say “Democrats,” though Franken might’ve.) One more equation is evident, once you realize that our movie theaters and video shelves are thick as a brick with progressive documentaries and boast virtually no films selling a neo-con perspective. Integer #1: The mass media keeps things unquestionably simplistic and dumb (which is why Air America has a more difficult time finding listeners than Limbaugh et al.). The real political world is complex, but it must be boiled down to bytes and visceral exhortations if you expect busy, wage-stagnated, double-employed Americans to listen before they pass out on their couches.

Integer #2: Everybody’s afraid to say it, but it’s scientifically demonstrable: conservative ideology absolutely depends on the ignorance and miseducation of its populace in order to be successful. Education is its enemy. Every substantial tenet of the neo-con agenda is based in economic disparity, carelessness for your fellow man and the transformation of honest tax dollars into corporate profit; so, it all must be masqueraded and sold, duplicitously and loudly, as monosyllabic playground morality. Sum total: that conservatism, possessing by necessity the blunt public edge of a battle-axe, sells best on TV and on the radio, and liberal reasoning, which by definition aims to be fair and responsible and attentive to actual and complicated facts, does not.

Inevitably, then, the liberal messages gravitate toward feature-length movies, where the force of reality can be brought to bear on government malfeasance or the true breadth of Wal-Mart’s societal damage or Bill O’Reilly’s Stalinesque judgments and dishonest leaps of presumption. (As evidenced by the Republican Party-distributed Moore-rebuttal film “Celsius 41.11,” released in 2004, neo-cons can’t maintain common sense for the length of a feature film, much less be entertaining about it; in fact, the prolonged exposure made Charles Krauthammer and Michael Medved seem like vampires left outside too long at daybreak.) Doob and Hegedus’s film only goes so far in contributing to this dynamic, but as another body on the pig pile, it’s welcome.

As is Simon Ardizzone and Russell Michaels’s “Hacking Democracy,” a terrifying HBO doc about the slow ascension of computerized voting machines, and how much rank dirt has been dug up in the process about how ineptly they’re programmed and how much outrageous political skullduggery gone into the deal, leading to inevitable accusations (let’s make that “criminal charges”) about the degree to which machine-makers like Diebold had been conceiving of these modern miracles as election-stealers from their very inception. Sometime before the primaries begin, the movie should be seen by every client of American democracy.

“Al Franken: God Spoke” (Docurama) will be available on DVD April 24th; “Hacking Democracy” (Docurama) is now available on DVD.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.


IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.



IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on and the IFC app.

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