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SXSW 2008: Daryl Wein and Richard Berkowitz on “Sex Positive”

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03122008_sexpositive1.jpgBy Stephen Saito

When Richard Berkowitz’s mother is asked why she thought her son’s book wasn’t successful, she replies, “sex sells” and frankly, his book wasn’t very sexy — even though it was titled “Stayin’ Alive: The Invention of Safe Sex.” Berkowitz had heard that before, even if his past as a gay hustler in New York during the 1980s would lead one to believe otherwise. Berkowitz spent his nights as a sex worker and his days as a journalist and AIDS activist at the height of the frenzy that surrounded the disease, attempting to dispel myths about how the disease was transmitted and pioneering the idea of having sex with condoms within the gay community. Yet his efforts mostly fell on deaf ears, and he retreated to write a book in 2003 that quickly went out of print. He also maintained an impressive archive that chronicled not only his own involvement in the early years of AIDS, but created a veritable oral history of the disease and potential prevention through saved television interviews, recorded phone calls and articles from the gay press. Although he may not have realized it, all he needed was 24-year-old filmmaker Daryl Wein to turn the treasure trove of material into something much more. I spoke to Berkowitz and Wein a day after their film, “Sex Positive”, made its world premiere at SXSW, only 11 months after the two first met at a Passover Seder.

Considering the subject matter, how did you meet at a Passover Seder of all places?

Richard Berkowitz: When I first came to the city in the late ’70s, I was a gay activist, and I made two feminist friends — one turned out to be Ardele [Lister, who appears in the film] and she almost became Daryl’s mother-in-law. Every couple of years, Ardele makes a Passover Seder for the outcasts, for the transgendered or for the gay guys that would bring their lovers. It’s a Seder for progressive people. So I show up by myself with my AIDS, and two guys who are lovers from Israel can show up, and Daryl was there because he was the boyfriend of her daughter.

When I heard that he was fishing around for a topic for a documentary, I didn’t know it was suggested to him to look into my book, but the minute he came and got it, at first, I wasn’t sure of his sexuality. I’m like, “Well, he’s thin, he’s cute, he takes care of himself…” [both laugh] And then as I got to know him and I realized he really was heterosexual, I said to myself, here we were, the women’s and the gay movement in the ’70s saying straight men aren’t emotional, they’re too worried…everything we want this generation to be — more sensitive, more empathetic, not homophobic, not afraid of gay men — now that’s the way they’re becoming, you step back and say, well, he’d make a great movie. So I felt really guilty about ever thinking he was gay because it’s actually the more idealistic straight heterosexual guy that [could make this movie.] Also, the fact that he had been so close to a woman that had been my political and even spiritual rabbi and sister for like 30 years.

Daryl Wein: [laughs] I’ve also got beautiful blue eyes and when Richard and I locked eyes, we just…

RB: I trusted him. I think the problem with gay men when they do something like a documentary or do anything public media-wise is in the back of their mind, they’re always thinking “How will this read to straight people?” It may not be true within a generation, but that’s been my sense with gay men. They’re more worried about how things will read to the straight community and we’re just saying the truth as it is.

Daryl, coming from a generation where safe sex is generally accepted, were you surprised by the resistance that Richard faced by promoting safe sex?

DW: Absolutely. It was shocking to see what went on. I couldn’t believe that there was an entire generation of gay men that had suffered to such a great degree for our safety — that’s not something you learn about in school. I’d always thought that safe sex was a government-initiated program. I just did not know that it was a handful of fervent activists who really stood up and told people they needed to protect themselves, and that nobody wanted to listen to that in the beginning.

RB:In the midst of all this frenzy [over AIDS] and fear over contagion, there were actually some gay people fanning the flames of fear to create this horrible reaction of people not wanting to treat people with AIDS. There was actually some gay people fanning those fears because they thought it would finally wake people up and get the government to release funds. It caused people to die, and people didn’t want to walk into their hospital rooms. People committed suicide. People were thrown out of their apartments. It was a terrible time.

03122008_sexpositive2.jpgThere are a few moments in the film where the person on camera actually says “I don’t want this on camera.” How did those moments ultimately make it into the film?

RB: I think in the gay community there’s a tendency when you disagree with someone to use personal details about their private life to attack or silence them. There’s a shot in the film from 1983 with this guy standing there saying, “Who is this person telling us what to do with our sex life? Well, I’ll tell you who he is. He is a hustler who…” that traumatized me for years. I’ll never forget sitting in my apartment seeing details about my sex life being used to silence and shame me by a man who’s supposed to be my gay brother, because that’s the tactic the straight world was using to silence the gay community. I think the same thing was true with [Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, Berkowitz’s doctor and writing partner on a guide for safe sex]. But I think we’d both been burnt so many times about details of our sex life, which are details that actually made us better experts in advancing safe sex and being there at the forefront, that 25 years later, we’re still afraid to say things that could be used to hurt us.

DW: I think those moments are the most amazing, because they’re so truthful, and I think in Sonnabend’s case, the doctor didn’t want to offend Richard because they have a very personal relationship and I think for Richard, it’s difficult to dig back into his sexual past because I think a lot of that’s behind you now…

RB: It is. I feel old. When I was young, in my twenties, I didn’t want to listen to some 60-year-old talk about sex. I just didn’t. It’s like listening to your parents talk about sex.

Isn’t it strange that it took a young straight guy to have some perspective on this?

RB: I would never have dreamt that it would be a straight guy that would come along and make use of the archive. No one else came along. The book came out in 2003, was reviewed very well in the gay press, no one had any interest in interviewing me, no one had any interest in doing a documentary, no one had any interest in doing an article.

DW: I think I was coming in at a time when you had pretty much given up.

RB: Yeah.

DW: So it was kind of a lucky coincidence.

[Photos: “Sex Positive,” Might and Main, 2008]

For more on “Sex Positive,” check out the official site here.

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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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GIFs via Giphy

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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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….


IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.


IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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