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Revenge of the Nerd: The Rise of Simon Pegg

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04012008_simonpegg.jpgBy Neil Pedley

Last week finally saw the U.S release of the long-delayed directorial debut of David Schwimmer, “Run, Fat Boy, Run,” a comedy about a directionless loser running a marathon to win back the woman he jilted at the altar. While not dreadful, the film hews terribly close to the standard rom-com formula, with each crippling setback and pivotal redemption of its archetypal players arriving exactly as it has in a hundred films before. “Run, Fat Boy, Run,” does have one inimitable thing going for it that singlehandedly carries it to someplace approaching enjoyable. That thing is its star, Simon Pegg, for whom “Run, Fat Boy, Run” is but a blip on his upward trajectory from obscure cult television in Britain into one of most sought-after comedic actors in the business.

Pegg’s hardly the first to attempt the transition from Britain’s small screen and the global market, but he’s one of the few to have succeeded in establishing himself as something beyond a passing curiosity. It’s partially timing — Pegg’s become one of the representative faces of the geek-as-the-new-cool. He began his career as a stand-up comic in London, and was quickly drafted by Channel Four to help develop a series of new comedy shows, most notably the anarchic ’60s satire “Hippies” and the darkly sardonic sketch comedy show “Big Train.” Through these series, Pegg met much of the ensemble that would feature so prominently in his later film work, along with his long-standing writing partner and director Edgar Wright. Pegg and Wright, along with Jessica Stevenson, went on to create “Spaced,” the series that confirmed Pegg as one of the singular comedic voices of his generation.

“Spaced” followed Tim and Daisy, two directionless twenty-somethings who pretend to be a couple in order to secure a lease on an apartment. The show employed a blend of classic sitcom precepts, calculated surrealism and a non-stop homage to movies and television that also served as a drawing board for things to come — an episode where Tim takes speed and mistakes an art scene crowd for zombies after playing Resident Evil all night was a dry run for “Shaun of the Dead.” This brilliantly observed series ran for two seasons and stands as a fine confirmation of how popular culture has become a universal language.

Part of Pegg’s great appeal comes down to the fact that he’s an unabashed nerd of the highest order, a Dungeon Master of movie trivia and a Gandalf of pop geekiness. The two features he co-wrote (rather than just adapted), “Shaun of the Dead,” the story of a man trying to win back his ex in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, and “Hot Fuzz,” a buddy cop film set in a bucolic village, smack of a man who’s likely forgotten more about genre cinema than most will ever know. But Pegg’s is a uniquely inclusive nerdiness, one that has nothing to do with a self-delusional sense of superiority stemming from encyclopedic knowledge of some obscure corner of music, television or movies. He wants nothing more than you for to get the joke or spot the reference.

04012008_simonpegg2.jpgTo Pegg and his creative partner Wright, the line between real life and film is simply a question of emphasis and presentation. They hone in on those universal moments in life that are inherently cinematic and frames them in a genre code or a homage that we can all come together with and appreciate. For instance, a group of demoralized restaurant workers having their self-esteem slowly eroded by the condescending speeches of a passive-aggressive boss might indeed feel like they’re in one of Nurse Ratched’s sessions in “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” — a parallel made in another episode of “Spaced” — and the only difference between that and what most of us suffer through daily is the absence of a seven-foot-tall Native American to throw a washbasin through the window.

It’s this eagerness to seek out the absurd parallels between life and fiction and have us laugh not only each other but ourselves that separates Pegg and company from the previous wave of fanboys-turned-filmmakers, epitomized by Kevin Smith. While they have plenty of reference points in common (Smith has done “Scooby Doo” and “Spaced” sent-up plenty of “Star Wars”), Smith prefers the mocking exclusion of those he deems less worthy (according to Clerks II; those who obsess over “Star Wars” are cool, while those who obsess over “Lord of the Rings” are losers). Smith’s pop culture barrages can come across as self-indulgent, dialogues done for his own benefit in a kind of quest for validation. Pegg and Wright’s work is always clearly about audience enjoyment first, and trying to reach out, safe in the knowledge that pop appreciation is not some kind of competition — a collective experience for the many, not an elitist one for the few.

Also important to realize is that while they’re riotously funny, “Hot Fuzz” and “Shaun of the Dead” don’t lampoon the works that were their inspiration. They aren’t spoofs — while their comedic momentum is founded on an chaotic quality, both film play entirely by the rules and tick all the requisite boxes of the genre to which they belong. They’re at heart a pure exercise in overindulgence, an excuse to gorge on guilty pleasures at the behest of Pegg, a leading man whose sincerity and gleeful enjoyment of the work explodes off the screen like a particularly gratuitous exit wound. This respect for the work, combined with the giddy excitement of a schoolboy, generates his infectious charm and widespread appeal.

“Run, Fat Boy, Run” might fall well short of what we have come to expect from Pegg, but the fact is it wasn’t his show this time around — while he shares a writing credit, his role in scripting the film was revealed to be little more than to retool the pre-existing script to ease the transition from New York, for which is was originally written, to London, where it was eventually shot. Pegg’s strength as an actor is in his reactive qualities to the world around him and the ridiculous situations he and his troupe imagine themselves into. “Run, Fat Boy, Run”‘s London feels lazily painted over an unmistakable New York sensibility (antique piano stores, high-rise apartment block parties, spin class), which makes it all the more challenging for the characters to have any sense of authenticity. But even saddled with some depressingly unimaginative material, Pegg manages to make do with physical comedy, and to stretch the visual gag of a pair of short running shorts a long way.

Next up for Pegg is his highest profile role yet, as Scotty, the iconic chief engineer of the starship Enterprise in J.J. Abrams “Star Trek.” It’s one that may see him forced to leave his comfort zone for, arguably, the first time, as early indications are that Abrams is looking to inject a sobering sense of realism into his vision of the final frontier. I’m looking forward to what will likely be a stern test of Pegg’s acting chops, as he looks to boldly go where no geek has gone before.

[Photo: “Run, Fat Boy, Run,” Picturehouse, 2008; “Shaun of the Dead,” Focus Features, 2004]

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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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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