The Last Laugh – review

Last Laugh poster

As I sat in Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, munching my popcorn and sipping my soda, I started to get the sneaking suspicion I had accidentally seated myself in a Synagogue, such was the nature of the audience who slowly closed in around me.

And as the theatre lights dimmed, I realized that they were here to see a documentary about the Holocaust, while I was here to see one about comedy. We were both in the right place.

For me, the central theme of The Last Laugh is the question: Is there any topic that is off-limits to comedy?

For the others, it was probably more a question of whether any humour could be found in something as horrific as the wholesale slaughter of 6 million Jews.

Through a series of interviews with comedians—most Jewish—and Holocaust survivors, centering on the thoughts of Renee Firestone, The Last Laugh pivots back and forth between heavy discussions about survival under unreal conditions and light-hearted attempts to understand the dark humours arising from those conditions as expressed by the generations of comedians that followed.

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As Mel Brooks pointed out, if he had tried to produce “The Inquisition” sequence of History of the World, Part I back in the late 1400s, he probably wouldn’t have fared as well in 1981. Likewise, other comedians pointed out that when The Producers was released in 1968, the concept of “Spring Time for Hitler” was scandalous, whereas people seeing the Broadway musical now are apt to sing along with the music.

For many, it was a matter of timing. How much time had passed since the original horror? For others, it was a bit more complicated, and it was generations more than years that needed to pass, citing examples where the children of Holocaust survivors—people who themselves did not experience and therefore release the horrors—were more apt to get upset about Holocaust jokes than their parents.

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Interestingly, Brooks himself was quick to note that the Holocaust was a line he could not cross himself, but that if someone else made a funny joke, he could laugh at it.

Going back to survivor Firestone, it was very interesting to see her perspectives on this question and the various attempts by comedians like Sara Silverman to touch the subject. For Firestone, none of the jokes seemed to come across as funny, but some she acknowledged were very close to the truth of the experience or how society now thought of it.

Elly Gross-Ferne Pearlstein-Renee Firestone

Writer/director Ferne Pearlstein (centre) with survivors Elly Gross and Renee Firestone

And she could see in hindsight the humour of some of the camp activities as the prisoners (I am at a loss for a better word to describe those held captive) tried to maintain a grip on sanity within the camps, whether it was preparing imaginary dinner parties or performing musical revues.

Countering opinions also entered the fray as people debated the merits of the film Life is Beautiful, most of the comedians considering it terrible and an ironic whitewashing of the horror, or bringing in other recent events such as Jim Crow racism or the events of 9/11.

Life is Beautiful

Ultimately, while I’m not sure the question of off-limit topics was ever really answered, everyone who watched the documentary was affected by it.

Where your heart was broken by a recounted memory, it was shortly thereafter mended by quip.

Where your breath caught in your chest at a recalled horror, it quickly burst forth in a gush of laughter.

After 88 minutes riding waves of conflicting emotions, the audience was neither depressed, nor bemused, but likely to a person, they had asked questions they had never considered before. Can’t really ask more of a documentary.

Whither the losers

coyote

History, we are told, is written by the victors. So, it also seems, are books about writing; although it is perhaps more accurate to say that books about writing only talk about winners.

Whether we’re talking about Star Wars, Unforgiven, Casablanca or The Wizard of Oz, almost any model of screenplay structure or character development or dialogue construction can be retrofitted to suit the film in question.

It’s like one of those mysterious illustrations that test whether you see two faces or a goblet. Once the secret is pointed out to you, it is virtually impossible to unsee.

illusions

Faces or a vase? Old woman or young?

Now, I’m not suggesting that these films or scenes or characters within aren’t good examples of the methods and approaches being promoted. Rather, because they are good examples, I question how much you can learn from them.

If you know the film well, it can be virtually impossible to imagine it any other way. And that is what the lesson should be telling you.

What happens when you don’t follow the model?

What does bad writing look like and how can you fix it?

Without that last part, learning to write well becomes the typing equivalent of being given paint, brushes, canvas and the Mona Lisa. Now, go out there and launch the new Renaissance! (The Rerenaissance?)

A couple of years ago, I had the good fortune to take a comedy writing workshop given by Steve Kaplan. Aside from providing our small group with a series of tools to not only analyze but also develop comedy—nicely captured in his wonderful book The Hidden Tools of Comedy—Steve walked us through examples of where these tools were used to great effect AND examples where they weren’t.

Alongside excerpts of Groundhog Day, we watched scenes from Alex & Emma. After considering the classic sitcom about nothing Seinfeld, we were inflicted with the show’s original and quite terrible pilot.

groundhog-and-emma

Like with the positive examples, you see the failures when they are pointed out to you. But the nice thing about the failures is you can ask what could have been done differently to make the idea or scene work better.

(Note: Sometimes, the answer is nothing, because it was a weak idea or poorly written.)

You may not have committed the specific sin you’re studying, but it at least gives you the opportunity to use the tools you’ve just acquired and see if you can’t make that “Elvis on crushed velvet” look more like the Mona Lisa.

elvis-lisa

And particularly for the relatively novice or untested writers, examining failures helps to keep from establishing an impossible bar of success. Rather, it suggests that whereas we always strive for greatness, mediocrity can make it to the screen, and more importantly, we do not need to (and never will) achieve gold with every piece we write.

Which is good, because for every Pirates of the Caribbean and Shrek, there is a The Lone Ranger (all written in part by the wonderful and giving Terry Rossio).

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See also:

The Hidden Tools of Comedy (Steve Kaplan)

Lives of love and beauty – Piper

piper

Piper Lisseveld: mother, daughter, blogger, experientialist

I first met Piper as one of the hockey wives in Northern Virginia, our respective spouses at the time playing for the Fairfax Lightning. And from the first time we met, it was clear that she was alive in every sense of the expression.

Despite only seeing each other on rare occasions, Piper is sure to be a constant in my life and ironically, each of us started new adventures in living around the same time, each leaving behind the lives that largely defined us to embrace the exciting unknowns of the world.

Piper is possibly the freest spirit I have ever met, finding joy and love and laughter in every moment possible, and sharing same with those around her. She is a rocket that will intersect your life and leave a contrail of love across your heart.

Thanks, Piper, for sharing your universe with me.

 

See also:

12 Days of Gratitude – Piper

Pipe’s Adventure: Living for Happiness (blog)

Colin Quinn kills w/ The New York Story

new-york-story-poster

I can only assume that Colin Quinn spends the hours before his comedy shows scarfing down industrial-scale oxygen tanks. This has to be true, if only to explain how he can spend an hour hilariously recounting the history of New York City without ever inhaling…although perhaps projectile vomiting the Big Apple’s history is more accurate.

Ask pretty much anyone who knows me and you will learn that I am a comedy snob. It takes a lot to make me chuckle, let alone laugh out loud.

I not only laughed out loud at Colin Quinn’s latest Netflix special The New York Story (trailer), I actually clapped while laughing out loud at several observations…and this was from my futon, not sitting with a theatre audience.

And before the laughter from one bit reached its crescendo (forget fading), you were already two bits behind, such was the ferocity with which Quinn delivered his perspectives of New York.

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The first two thirds of the show were the best, as Quinn explained and contextualized the arrival of each ethnic group to the city as a way of explaining why the attitudes of New Yorkers are unlike those of any other city in the world.

The last third, where Quinn took shots at political correctness and white guilt, was less funny but still had its share of laughs. This was the part of the show that seemed more like every other show I have seen that touches on race and ethnic relations.

But it is when Quinn becomes the people he describes, taking on mannerisms and recalling each culture’s absurdities, that he is at his best. His is less the vocal mimicry of a Russell Peters and more a distillation of their essence.

And his portrayals were made all the more engaging by the stage itself, which was decorated with settings familiar to New Yorkers—a deli counter, the docks, a front stoop, a corner bodega, an Irish bar—Quinn inhabiting each as he told the story of another group’s arrival in the city.

Colin Quinn Comedy Special

Quinn’s special was directed by long-time friend Jerry Seinfeld

This choreography makes The New York Story more a one-man stage play than a stand-up comedy routine. Not surprising, given the show first got its legs in a run off-Broadway.

In broader terms, whereas I have thought for several years that Quinn is funny—in particular, I miss his panel show Tough Crowd—I think he has really hit his stride in the last couple. What this special did for New York City, his last special Unconstitutional did for American politics, and with just as much humour and wisdom.

Perhaps, however, it is less that Colin Quinn is just now hitting his stride, and more that I have finally reached a place where I can appreciate him and his humours more fully.

Either way, I am glad we have reached this place and I hope we stay here for a while.

 

See also:

In The New York Story, Colin Quinn looks to stereotypes for wisdom—and finds some (A.V. Club)

Immigrants put the new in The New York Story for Colin Quinn’s newest Netflix triumph (Decider)

Shaped, not defined

We are all, in many ways, shaped by our life experiences.

It is important to remember, however, that those experiences don’t have to define who you are or what you become. That is up to you.

wade

Pearls of Writing Wisdom – a review

pearls-cover

There is something inside you constantly threatening to explode; an urgent feeling that simply refuses to be ignored. It keeps you from focusing on conversations. It keeps you from sleeping. It tears at the very fabric of your existence.

Now, unless you have recently ordered the taco salad at Chipotle or travelled interstellar space with Sigourney Weaver, these symptoms suggest you might be a writer.

Ned Hickson knows these feelings well, and recounts some of his own experiences in his latest book Pearls of Writing Wisdom: From 16 Shucking Years as a Columnist.

In many ways, the book is a writer’s version of that dreaded conversation between a child and loving parent/teacher about sex…and it’s just as awkward.

In his own nervously jovial way, Ned tries to encourage writers to explore their budding bodies of work and yet caution them about the challenges that lie ahead without scaring (or scarring) them into creative celibacy.

Without photos or illustrations, Ned routinely contextualizes the lessons he is giving with self-deprecating anecdotes—like that time he walked around a mall for four hours before someone mentioned his participle was dangling. The point being (I think) to highlight that even with these personal failings, he still managed to fool people into reading (and paying for) his stuff.

Given the subtitle, I originally expected this book to be a chronicle of things he’d learned in his day job with Oregon’s Siuslaw News, a newspaper for which he is Editor and writes a syndicated humor column.

Nedwork

Ned offers insights on sex…I mean, writing

Instead, I found a book that covered all aspects of writing from understanding the inherent urges to the mechanics of satisfying wordplay to dealing with the social and legal ramifications of your actions…hunh, this really is about sex.

And speaking of sex, Ned’s book isn’t very long (97 pages) but what he accomplishes in those short, floppy pages is quite effective in nurturing new talent, as well as reminding those of us sliding into senescence why we write.

Whether you are a writer or know someone wanting to act on those urges, I highly recommend Pearls of Writing Wisdom as a way to bolster courage and encourage good practices, and maybe laugh a little.

 

P.S. If Sigourney Weaver happens to read this review, I would happily risk alien infestation to meet you at the Chipotle of your choosing.

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See also:

Humor at the Speed of Life (Ned’s blog)

Humor at the Speed of Life (Ned’s other book)

Port Hole Books (Ned’s publisher)

Shakespeare suggests Trump is a Dick

rdr

In the New York Times Sunday Review this weekend, Harvard’s Stephen Greenblatt wrote an opinion piece entitled Shakespeare Explains the 2016 Election in which he draws parallels between the events surrounding the rise of Richard III and Donald J. Trump. Quite fascinating.

For me, the crux of his analogy is summed in one paragraph:

Shakespeare brilliantly shows all of these types of enablers working together in the climactic scene of this ascent. The scene — anomalously enough in a society that was a hereditary monarchy but oddly timely for ourselves — is an election. Unlike Macbeth (which introduced into the English language the word “assassination”), Richard III does not depict a violent seizure of power. Instead there is the soliciting of popular votes, complete with a fraudulent display of religious piety, the slandering of opponents and a grossly exaggerated threat to national security.

I can definitely see the point Greenblatt is making and there are strong parallels in the story, but I think he missed the mark on the personalities of the leaders in question.

Rather than Richard III as a model for Trump, I would have gone with Richard II.

[SPOILER ALERT]

The great fall and ultimate execution of Richard II was very much the result of his debilitating belief in his own divinity and his completely disconnection from the lives and needs of real people, including those closest to him. In short, he didn’t understand politics and simply felt everyone should get in line because he was the voice and arm of God.

For every man that Bolingbroke hath press’d
To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown,
God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay
A glorious angel: then, if angels fight,
Weak men must fall, for heaven still guards the right.

Richard II; Act III, sc. ii.

He was also surrounded by sycophantic parasites who fed Richard’s ego and grew bloated on everyone’s desire to serve the King. They were ultimately destroyed by this bloat and the belief that they too had divine protection, as though the crown served as an umbrella.

It was Richard II’s blinkered existence and unbridled self-aggrandizement that kept him from seeing the dangers that lie ahead, and the simple solutions that would have averted disaster. If he merely acknowledged the just requests of the exiled Henry of Bolingbroke (eventually, SPOILER ALERT, Henry IV) for his family titles, Richard would have retained the man’s fealty and love, and thus would have kept his throne.

For me, Richard III was too aware of his limitations and was therefore much more manipulative than I believe either Richard II or Donald Trump feel they need to be.

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other

Richard III; Act I, sc. i.

For Donald, as for the second Richard, what is the need for manipulation when you speak with God’s voice and rule with His hand?

See also:

Richard II (play)

Richard III (play)