“Project Nim,” reviewed

“Project Nim,” reviewed (photo)

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This was the experiment: take a chimpanzee, raise it from birth like a human baby, and teach it to communicate with sign language. In other words: can you teach the animal right out of an animal? In his powerful new documentary “Project Nim,” director James Marsh chronicles the highly unorthodox 1970s linguistics experiment that sought to do just that. Some of the people he meets along the way could use their own lessons on how to act like a human.

The experiment was the brainchild of Columbia University Professor Herb Terrace, who gave a chimp named Nim Chimpsky to one of his former students when he was less than two weeks old. Terrace told the ex-student, Stephanie, to raise the baby as a member of her family. So she did: clothing and diapering him, and teaching him sign language. But since Stephanie was a bit of a hippie that also meant letting him try alcohol and pot and even breast feeding him.

In many ways, baby Nim was like any human child: capable of great compassion (Stephanie’s daughter talks about how he used to kiss away her tears when she was sad) and prone to wild mood swings. But as he got older and began to pick up sign language, Terrace reasserted his dominance over the experiment, if you will, and reclaimed Nim, moving him to an estate where he could be monitored and tested full-time by a hand-picked staff of Columbia students and researchers, many of whom, in what I’m sure was just an incredible coincidence, were beautiful single women. The narrative Marsh weaves is thorny with jealousies and broken love affairs between Terrace and his staff. Animal urges, it seems, are not the exclusive province of animals.

Nim’s story seems at first like a cut-and-dried lesson in the power of nature over nurture. No matter how much his human companions dressed him or taught him to use the toilet Nim was still an animal, and by the time he was five years old he was too big, too strong, and too much of an aggressive, dominant chimpanzee to pretend otherwise. But allow me to propose an alternate theory: Nim’s childhood consisted of one jarring scenery change after another, and his human protectors often squabbled over custody of him like a bunch of divorcing parents. In all likelihood, Nim’s increasingly disobedient behavior was a simple case of genetic programming. But maybe the crazed, unfocused nurturing of the people around him helped things along.

Eventually, Terrace’s experiment comes to an unexpected conclusion and Nim is set adrift, sent to one depressing animal testing facility after another. This animal lived a remarkable life but he had no control over any of it, and the lack of agency he has in his own destiny makes “Project Nim” into a frequently heartbreaking film. There continues to be a debate over whether Nim truly learned to communicate or whether his ingrown skills as a brilliant beggar enabled him to ape the humans’ behavior without understanding it. But if we did teach him some small amount of cognition and expression, what we did to him next was an even greater tragedy.

With his experiment, Terrace draws one conclusion but Marsh, skillfully blending a healthy amount of archival footage with careful recreations and new interviews with most of the participants, may draw another with his film. Whether or not he could sign, regardless of how cute he was as a baby chimp, Nim was an animal. But just because he was an animal doesn’t mean he doesn’t have feelings, or deserve simple human decency. “Project Nim” makes it pretty clear that he does, and that Nim spent years crushed beneath the weight of disappointment and abandonment before an unlikely savior appeared to give him back the joy of companionship and friendship. The forgiveness Nim displayed after that is something we humans could aspire to.

“Project Nim” opens Friday in limited release. If you see it, tell us what you think in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter!



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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GIFs via Giphy

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.”


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. 


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.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.