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DID YOU READ

Gay Panic

Gay Panic (photo)

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Sacha Baron Cohen’s improvisational prank film “Brüno” is a conceptual mess that’s satisfying as a lowball, turn-your-brain-off snot comedy, but deeply problematic as social commentary. It’s this last aspect, unfortunately, that made 2006’s “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” (and the character’s original TV incarnation) an object of debate. Did Borat’s interactions with prototypical dumb-ass Americans, and his stoking of anti-Semitic tendencies, critique the Arab world’s cultural prejudice and expose the country’s latent prejudice and paranoia, or merely invite smug liberal laughter and an unearned sense of cultural superiority? Was Borat a Rorschach test, or an admittedly mesmerizing comedian’s clever way of indulging stereotypes while pretending to challenge them? And in total, was the movie a stinging critique of a fat, happy nation engaged in two distant wars against countries filled with Borat-types, or just a put-on faking relevance, the movie equivalent of a rubber chicken wrapped in a New York Times Op-Ed section?

The answer to each question was “Both.” Cohen clearly works from the gut — improvisational comics can’t work any other way; his methods expose true and disturbing American tendencies while also confirming his own lack of rigor and inclination to pander — qualities that are quite commonplace among entertainers who (understandably, this being showbiz) are looking for laughs first, insight second. But that’s not to say that “Borat” and Cohen’s originating series, “Da Al G Show,” didn’t have truly audacious moments. My friend Bart Weiss commented that the sequence where Borat leads a sing-along of “Throw the Jew Down the Well’ showcased the country’s latent potential for anti-Semitic thuggishness to terrifying effect; the scene also suggested that while we tend to consider ourselves culturally superior to Arab states that build a fair part of their national character around the image of driving the Jews into the sea, it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to light a similarly hateful fuse here.

There are a few similarly unsettling moments in “Brüno,” Cohen’s big-screen reimagining of another one of his sketch characters, a flamboyantly gay and proudly stupid Austrian who will do or say whatever it takes to be famous. More so than “Borat,” which treated the title character’s context-free lust for fame and material/physical satisfaction as just one aspect of his character, “Brüno” is all hedonistic-narcissistic impulse, all the time. He’s almost literally a walking hard-on — a guy who invariably stirs every conversation around to sex or the possibility of sex, and can’t look at another man’s ass, any man’s ass, without feeling Little Brüno stir to life. Like “Borat,” “Brüno” is less a coherent feature film than a succession of bits glued together by a put-on “inspirational” narrative about the title character’s desire to find success and happiness. (An early sequence finds Brüno arriving at a fashion show dressed in all all-Velcro suit, which of course leads to a series of destructive comic set-pieces reminiscent of Peter Sellers’ flailings as Inspector Clouseau, and causes Brüno to be momentarily vilified by the industry whose rituals he disrupted. “For the second time in a century, the world had turned on Austria’s most famous man because he was brave enough to try something new,” he intones in a voiceover.)

07082009_Bruno2.jpgBrüno’s increasingly desperate get-famous-quick gambits include getting a Hollywood agent and trying to sell an “A-list” interview show to CBS (the pilot includes gratuitous, bobbling, flopping close-ups of Little Brüno and a brief image of Brüno accosting Harrison Ford on the street and being told to go fuck himself); adopting a black African toddler (which he brings onto “The Richard Bey Show,” where he proceeds to bait the crowd’s predominantly African-American, culturally conservative audience); and heading to the Middle East to broker a peace agreement between Muslims and Jews (he has a song prepared, and he isn’t afraid to sing it). At one point, he grows so frustrated that he decides the only thing standing between himself and fame is his gayness, and enrolls in a homosexuality “curing” clinic in Alabama, where he spends much of his time trying to seduce his counselor.

The casual postmodern qualities of Cohen’s comedy (including the lingering-in-the-background question of which aspects of the comedy are “documentary” and which are scripted) tend to obscure the fact that whether we’re watching his TV sketches or a big-screen blow-up of same, what we’re seeing isn’t terribly different from an early Steve Martin movie or another, similar entry in the picaresque, moron-makes-good subgenre.

There is a point — something along the lines of, “In the modern age, material success, preferably with fame attached, is the most desirable achievement — and we increasingly don’t care how we get it.” Cohen and his director, Larry Charles, spell this out brilliantly about halfway through the movie, when Brüno decides to feature his adopted boy in a Annie Leibovitz-style, glam-controversial fashion spread that would hang the child on a cross and surround him with other kids dressed like Roman centurions. Brüno’s deadpan interview questions to stage moms and dads — asking if they’re okay with showcasing their kids in grotesque and tasteless photo spreads, subjecting them to extremes of heat and cold, putting them in cars without car seats or seat belts, letting them operate heavy machinery and the like, and always being told that it’s fine with them as long as the kid gets the job — hit the rhetorical nail on the head so deftly that the movie has nowhere to go after that.

But it’s a feature, so of course it has to keep going — and that means you have plenty of time to think about the many ways in which Cohen and Charles manage to have their red velvet cake and eat it, too — particularly how they make a big show of teasing America’s ingrained homophobia while simultaneously indulging the panicked straight-man stereotype of gays as lewd, mincing, leather-and-chain-and-assless-chaps-wearing Dionysian fairies who have only one thing on their minds, and that one would be wise not to turn one’s back on. “Borat” was similarly disingenuous and cynical, but because the character had more (admittedly flat) dimensions, and because the film was more scattershot in its choice of targets, it felt somewhat fuller, and less repetitive and essentially cheap. The movie’s final sequence, which finds Bruno and his assistant, Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten), staging a man-on-man tryst in the ring at an Arkansas Ultimate Fighting Competition, is one of the most unjustifiably self-satisfied set-pieces in shock comedy history. It points up the fact that for all of the film’s subtextual tsk-tsking about (mostly red-state) gay panic, the title character is so obnoxious and often hideous that any reasonable person would be justified in ostracizing him.

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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

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

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.