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The Doc Days of Summer: “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel”

The Doc Days of Summer: “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel” (photo)

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Before I could ask Brigitte Berman about the mixed reception that her new documentary about Playboy founder Hugh Hefner has received, she wanted to make one thing clear: “You cannot do a valentine piece. You must not. If you do, you discredit everything.”

For some, Hefner will never receive much credit, but that is exactly what Berman attempts to rectify in “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel,” a leisurely biography that’s very much like his glossy magazine: an easy sell because of the busty bombshells found within its pages, but just as seductive for its willingness to inject itself into the politics and culture of the era.

Alongside the centerfolds, Berman offers up a different definition of T & A in regards to Hefner, chronicling his tenacity and ambition as an innovator of cross-platform media, a savvy tastemaker, and a champion of the First Amendment who used his many outlets in print and on television (“Playboy’s Penthouse”) to break down racial and sexual taboos.

Yet as critics have attacked the film for being too deferential, Berman finds herself in a situation not unlike the one her subject has endured for nearly 60 years. “It’s very interesting what’s happening because people either like or really dislike Hefner and now when they are looking at the film, the dislike of Hefner is totally translated on the film,” said Berman. “They only see and hear what they want to see and hear.”

07312010_HughHefnerPlayboy2.jpgBerman has had quite some time to observe Hefner personally, ever since the noted jazz devotee requested to see her 1981 documentary on the ’20s musician (and one of his personal favorites) Bix Beiderbecke at the Playboy Mansion. The two forged a quick bond over the music and their personal friendship would become professional when Hefner ultimately released “BIX: ain’t none of them play like him yet” on his Playboy Jazz Video label. He helped Berman out of the 13 years of legal wrangling over her Oscar-winning 1985 doc on Artie Shaw (who Hefner deadpanned at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, “was a wonderful musician, but…,” trailing off to laughs from the crowd).

Still, it wouldn’t be until 2006 when Berman attended Hefner’s 80th birthday party that she realized she should make a film about him, since the decadent gala full of nude women covered in body paint, celebrity guests and a breathy Paris Hilton rendition of “Happy Birthday” was, in her words, “just the Playboy that most people knew.” After getting a one-page fax giving her carte blanche to Hefner’s time and his voluminous archives, Berman set off on a three-and-a-half year journey, collecting interviews with no less an eclectic crowd than Pat Boone, George Lucas, feminist Susan Brownmiller, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Mike Wallace and others to talk about Hefner’s legacy for better or worse. (Berman has made a point of mentioning Gloria Steinem declined repeated invitations to be interviewed.)

07312010_HughHefnerPlayboy1.jpg“I was not a friend of Hugh Hefner who was going to do a film about a friend,” said Berman. “I became somebody else and I used everything I knew as a filmmaker. This was a true challenge because there was so much material, over 2000 scrapbooks to go through and read and that’s to discover more and more interesting things about Hugh Hefner and the deeper and the more I saw, the deeper and more real my film became.”

It also became very long. Berman’s initial cut for “Playboy, Activist and Rebel” was seven-and-a-half hours, a version that gave the filmmaker the enviable problem of cropping lengthy, detailed anecdotes by the likes of Dick Gregory and Gene Simmons into manageable segments, but unfortunately meant some interviews with Hefner’s children and Playmate Jo Collins, who went on a Vietnam humanitarian tour on behalf of Playboy, would have to hit the cutting room floor.

With the help of six close advisers, Berman eventually trimmed it down to a more traditional two-hour version that’s still exhaustive in its scope, tracing Hefner from his early days idling time as an amateur cartoonist while working as a copy editor for Esquire to his later life in pajamas in the Holmby Hills.

07312010_HughHefnerPlayboy3.jpgAnd the irony of making a serious film that bridges the gap between the boyish crusader of the ’60s and ’70s with the captain’s hat-wearing octogenarian better known these days for the bevy of blondes on his arm on “The Girls Next Door” wasn’t lost on Berman.

“When you look at Playboy as a magazine, you see the ‘Girls Next Door’ part of it reflected, you see my side reflected in the magazine,” said Berman. “It’s all there in Mr. Hefner and it’s what makes him an incredibly complex and interesting person. You see the pictures of all the girls in my film. But at the same time, there is that side of the person who dared to stick his neck out in ways that few people do in America.”

“Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel” is now open in New York, Los Angeles and Wasthington D.C. before expanding into limited release on August 6th.

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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…

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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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 IFC.com 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….

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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.

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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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