In his book Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut writes: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” Someone should mention that to the participants in Darkon, a LARP (live-action role-playing game) where, since its founding in 1985, normal everyday people dress up in homemade armor and pretend to be inhabitants of a fantasy realm, including wizards, warlords, and princesses. The LARPers take over soccer fields in suburban Maryland to battle over pretend land in a pretend country and then pack it up and go back to their day jobs. The historic battle between the imaginary kingdoms of Mordom and Laconia was captured in the documentary “Darkon,” which airs today on IFC.
The world of LARPers and their less live action-oriented brethren of the RPG (role-playing game) is a fascinating subject, combining aspects of anthropology, sociology, and homegrown cultural study. Yet, few documentarians have turned their camera lenses on to this insular world. That said, its rumored that a new Dungeons and Dragons documentary is coming out in 2013 in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of the role-playing game. Until then, here are five documentaries for those interested in delving deep into the world of the gamer without leaving the comfort of their couch:
Proving the old adage that anything is possible if you wish hard enough, this month marked the return of comedy pioneers Bob Odenkirk and David Cross to the TV sketch arena with their new Netflix show W/ Bob and David. Featuring many of the writers and cast members (including Comedy Bang! Bang! host Scott Aukerman) who made the ’90s sketch program Mr. Show such an indelible cult classic, the long-awaited follow-up possesses the same sharp, satirical eye as its predecessor.
But in case you’re unfamiliar with Mr. Show and how culturally significant its comedy still is two decades later, here are the 10 most important sketches the series produced. And for more David Cross, be sure to catch the return of Todd Margaret on IFC beginning January 7th at 10P ET/PT.
For every faceless, multinational, multi-billion-dollar conglomerate, there are countless daily meetings just like this one: corporate pitchmen and bottomliners brainstorming ways to humanize their company’s image while tapping as many markets and demos as possible. And who better to accomplish this herculean task than a magical, pansexual, non-threatening spokesthing named Pit Pat?
9. The Mr. Show Water Cooler
Not too long ago, CNN was a trusted news source, Fox News languished in cable obscurity, and non-substantive political commentary based on monologue jokes and stand-up bits was relegated to variety shows like Politically Incorrect. But in the years since this sketch aired, comedy news outlets like The Daily Show, The Onion, and Last Week Tonight have become far more in-depth than our current cable news offerings and, according to multiple studies, they command a much more knowledgeable audience. Today, the “Mr. Show Water Cooler” sketch is more of an indictment of the “uninformed, unrehearsed political jam sessions” from the mainstream media than the satirical news shows that skewer them.
8. The Story of Everest
Lanky Jay Johnston undercuts his triumph of scaling Mount Everest by repeatedly falling against two racks of his mother’s thimbles in a mesmerizing display of physical comedy. And the fact there’s not much more to the scene makes it incredible. The overall simplicity of the premise, the realistic bewilderment and frustration of the parents, and how the basic tenets of comedy — timing, heightening, misdirection, etc. — are warped or outright abandoned makes this sketch a fascinating study of subtlety within slapstick.
7. Fairsley Foods
Without the financial resources, tax loopholes, and teams of lawyers that your average retail giant maintains, small family-run shops don’t stand a chance in most free market scenarios. So when a humble local supermarket chain is put in the sights of a mega-mart’s cutthroat smear campaign, there’s not much to do but close down locations and spend a fortune on child-sized tracking collars. The satire of mom & pop’s losing ground to mega-chains is just another example of Mr. Show eerily predicting the future.
6. The Prenatal Pageant
Years before Toddlers and Tiaras and Honey Boo-Boo popularized the alien world of child pageants and pushed the lowest-common denominator to record lows, a sketch like “Prenatal Pageant” seemed like a farfetched (albeit hilariously astute) portrayal of pageant families. But with 21st-century hindsight, Bob and David weren’t too far off from how those starry-eyed, reality show parents would treat a potential embryonic meal ticket.
5. Ronnie Dobbs
Once again, Mr. Show — the satirical prognosticator that it was — anticipated the precipitous decline of our celebrity tabloid culture. Ronnie Dobbs, the oft-arrested redneck who’s had brushes with the law in every state, achieves fame and fortune by simply being a petty criminal on a Cops-like reality show. And honestly, is that really different from today’s reality stars who get ample airtime and exorbitant per-episode paychecks?
4. Mr. Show Boys’ Club
In this biting take on the swinging-’60s sexism that predates Mad Men and is still present in many institutions, “Mr. Show Object” Jill Talley discovers that the Mr. Show Boys’ Club not only parades women around in skimpy outfits and deer antlers (a thinly veiled dig at the Playboy Club), but also offers meager concessions to its young female members. At a time when women are still fighting for equal pay and adequate health care, the sketch is sadly still very relevant.
3. The Teardrop Awards
As a stand-up, David Cross has railed against the cynical marketing in the wake of a tragedy. (Check out his thoughts on American flags post-9/11.) And playing a singer-songwriter who lost his five-year-old son a year prior, Cross explores similar exploitative territory with jubilant acceptance speeches after winning awards for his commemorative songs. A cathartic sketch for anyone who has felt gross after seeing suffering and misfortune capitalized on in the age of knee-jerk social media reactions.
2. The Last American Indian
The last living descendent of an ancient tribe is close to death as government agents watch over him and wait to take his land. All that’s left of his rich and storied culture is the foggy memories of a man in his twilight years — ones that could be confusing history with the film Billy Jack. It’s an incredibly dark and poignant reminder of the civilizations that have been lost and forgotten in the annals of war and subjugation.
1. Pre-Taped Call-In Show and The Audition
While these two sketches may not have the satirical edge of other Mr. Show scenes, they’re both master lessons on sketch writing that have inspired countless comedians. Both penned by Dino Stamatopoulos of Community and Moral Orel fame, “Pre-Taped Call-In Show” and “Audition” feature multiple layers of meta-comedy and gut-busting rage that stems from casually benign misunderstandings. To make a diehard fan out of a person unfamiliar with Mr. Show, simply show them these two sketches that continue to influence everything from Adult Swim to IFC’s own Comedy Bang! Bang!.
Want more comedy from the mind of David Cross? Check out the trailer for the return of Todd Margaret.
They say that behind every squat, successful British writer-producer is a lanky, six-foot-seven bespectacled co-creator. All right, maybe no one said that ever, but it certainly applies to the duo responsible for some of the most awkward moments in television history. Masters of cringe comedy Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant produced The Office, Extras and Life’s Too Short — along with many other moments that caused viewers to avert their eyes and squirm in their seats. Even when flying solo in shows like Hello Ladies, Merchant can provide just as many unbearably uncomfortable moments as an incompetent talent agent, an inelegant pick-up artist or just a bloke sharing a story about being turned down by a nightclub doorman.
1. Performing Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty,” Lip Sync Battle
When you have to sway a crowd and you’re built like a flailing-arm inflatable balloon man, you gotta play to your strengths. So when tasked to perform Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty” on Lip Sync Battle, Merchant proudly bared his midriff, upper thighs and soul in a cutoff T-shirt and flared leather chaps. While we applaud his self-confidence, we don’t have the inner strength to be caught dead doing that.
2. Discussing his first Golden Globe win, The Graham Norton Show
It’s hard to imagine a time when The Office was something of an underdog, but the original UK version was just a plucky upstart when it won its first Golden Globe. Unfortunately for the then-unknown Gervais and Merchant, their long, awkward walk to the stage was punctuated by the announcer mispronouncing their names and Stephen’s head getting cut off for the front page photo.
3. The Oggmonster, The Office
Although Gervais’ David Brent was the poster boy for The Office, Merchant only appeared twice in the original series as Gareth’s gangly pal Nathan, AKA The Oggmonster. Even more ungainly and off-putting than the Assistant to the Regional Manager, Oggy is pushed to tears by David Brent’s relentless joshing about his appearance. We feel for ya, Oggy.
4. Nudie pen, Extras
In this very NSFW clip from Extras, Merchant plays the highly incompetent agent Darren who, between failing to get acting work for Gervais’ Andy, is caught in flagrante in the company of a novelty nudie pen. Inappropriate, unprofessional and utterly humiliating given the focal point, his moment of self-gratification is somewhat vindicated when assistant Barry is caught doing the same thing.
5. Trip to Rio, The Ricky Gervais Show
Debuting as a radio program in 2001, The Ricky Gervais Show was among the first wildly successful podcasts and spawned countless comedy audio programs in the years since. Co-host and whipping boy Karl Pilkington was the breakout star, but Merchant supplied a heapin’ helpin’ of embarrassment with cringeworthy anecdotes, including this story of his trip to Carnival in Rio de Janeiro.
Without Gervais on the roster, Merchant shined as hopeless romantic Stuart Pritchard in HBO’s Hello Ladies. Showcasing his true-to-life awkwardness around women, the sadly short-lived series upped the cringe-ante that he and Gervais injected into The Office — and this torturous nightclub scene is perfect proof.
7. Eager wedding guest, Hello Ladies
As we all know, weddings are a meet-cute hotbed, but it definitely requires optimal positioning. Unfortunately for the viewer’s nerve, Stuart is keenly aware of this. Persistent past the point of rejection, he monopolizes the line to congratulate the newlyweds and wedges himself into a table with single women. Eagerness has never been so unsettling.
8. Denying Warwick Davis a loan, Life’s Too Short
Having to turn down a friend in need is so unbearable, most of us will compromise our comfort with favors just to avoid it. Not surprisingly, Gervais and Merchant — playing heightened versions of themselves — don’t have an issue with sidestepping support for diminutive actor Warwick Davis when he asks the successful team for a loan.
9. Behind-the-scenes dance party, Extras
Yes, it’s Stephen dancing for the second time on this list. But honestly, it’s never not cringeworthy.
10. Nightclub zinger, Conan
Single life is unanimously the worst, but it can be easily mitigated through fortune and stardom. And while Stephen Merchant is a household name among comedy geeks, his notoriety has yet to hit the radar of certain LA nightclub doormen. Appearing on Conan, Merchant shares a story of trying to get into a nightclub but being thwarted by the bouncer at the door with a devastating putdown.
Documentary Now! closes out its 50th season this week with the film “Gentle & Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee,” a Behind the Music-style look at the rise and fall of one of the most successful purveyors of mellow, California-style soft rock. Despite the fact that the members of BJC hailed from Chicago, their hits like “Catalina Breeze” fit in perfectly with contemporaries like Kenny Loggins, Hall & Oates, Poco and other giants of “Yacht Rock.” (The band’s feathered hair and awesome ‘staches also helped.)
In honor of the Blue Jean Committee’s story finally being told, check out our tribute to the most epic facial hair in soft rock.
10. Paul Davis
The bearded “I Go Crazy” singer gets extra points for his luxurious mane of blonde hair.
9. Seals and Crofts
“Summer Breeze” makes us feel fine and so does the one-two punch of Seals & Crofts’ mesmerizing beard/goatee combo.
8. Rupert Holmes
Mr. Holmes’ neatly trimmed beard doesn’t excuse the fact that he was using the personals column to cheat on his lady. “The Pina Colada Song” is basically the Ashley Madison of its day.
7. Pretty much every member of Orleans
The ’70s bros in Orleans loved two things — beards and going shirtless on album covers.
6. England Dan and John Ford Coley
Ladies, these guys (and their mustaches) would really love to see you tonight.
5. Bobby Kimball from Toto
You might remember Toto for their monster soft rock jams “Rosanna” and “Africa.” But if you’re like us, you see the majestic follicles of singer Bobby Kimball’s mustache when you close your eyes and drift away on a blissful wave of smooth.
Believe it or not, veteran character actor Kurtwood Smith has a warm, endearing smile. It just took audiences over a decade to actually see him in a role that didn’t focus on his ability to scare children with his villainous gaze and determined grin. Thanks to That ’70s Show, we now associate him most as Red Forman, the curmudgeonly but loveable father to Eric Forman and patriarch to the gang of burnouts who hung out in his basement. Smith has had a long career of playing characters that weren’t always as soft and cuddly as Red Forman. Here are five of the most memorable Kurtwood Smith roles in which he didn’t have to hilariously teach a “foreign kid” to stop saying “Amedica.”
1. Flashpoint (1984)
Flashpoint may be a forgotten thriller from 1984 starring Kris Kristofferson and Treat Williams as border cops who find a dead body and a ton of cash, but Kurtwood Smith shines in a role as a crooked federal agent. This character is as sinister a son-of-a-bitch as they come, with contempt practically oozing out from his eyes. You are more likely to find a VHS copy of Flashpoint at a random flea market than catch it on Netflix, but take a look at just how good he is at being a bad guy as he delivers a John Malkovich-level performance.
2. Robocop (1987)
Clarence Boddiker, the villain Smith played in Robocop, is still remembered fondly by sci-fi fans for the Jack Nicholson-like glee that he displayed for causing mayhem and inflicting pain. Any scene that has Kurtwood Smith entering a room delivering the line “B–ches leave!,” and ends with him pulling a grenade pin out with his mouth, then killing a coked-up ‘80s yuppie, will surely elevate a film’s cult status.
3. Dead Poets Society (1989)
Red Forman might have had a hard time expressing outward displays of affection for his son Eric, but compared to Mr. Perry in Dead Poets Society, he’s a regular Phil Dunphy. To say this character was chilling is an understatement. Smith nailed the cold detachment of a father determined to make his son live the life he was being groomed for. If you haven’t seen Dead Poets Society, in the words of Red Forman, what are you waiting for, “dumbass”???
4. Citizen Ruth (1996)
Smith got the chance to act in Alexander Payne’s first movie, a dark comedy in which Laura Dern’s Ruth plays a poor pregnant woman who likes to huff paint and gets mixed up with both sides of the abortion debate. Norm Stoney (Smith) and his wife enjoy nothing more on a beautiful day than to take the kids down to the free clinic, scarf a box of donuts and shout “murderer” at the people entering the building. A still relevant satire, the film gave Smith the chance to display his comedic chops before That ’70s Show. Though we doubt that Red would’ve let a “dirty hippy” like Ruth stay in his home.
5. True Believer (1989)
Smith shines as a no-nonsense prosecutor in this underrated crime thriller where James Woods and Robert Downey Jr. attempt to defend a man wrongfully accused of a gang murder.