Category Archives: Reviews

I’ll review anything that makes me want to write about it. Maybe I’ll review something of yours.

TV Review: WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER: FIRST DAY OF CAMP

When you’re a camp counselor, you’re pretty much guaranteed to be initiated into the cult following of WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER the first time you spend a weekend with your co-counselors. You will quickly realize that a huge part of the appeal of this box-office flop is that it perfectly portrays what a camp environment is like. The cooks are off-balance, campers and counselors live in accelerated time, and things like a talking can of vegetables can be a…thing…

That’s how it was when I was a counselor (approaching 10 years since my first summer as a senior counselor), and the movie (and its bottomless pit of inside jokes, funny or not) has a special place in my heart. I opened up that special place to let the Netflix FIRST DAY OF CAMP prequel inside, and I tell you it has lit up my heart and soul like a pit of glowing toxic sludge.

The first episode is almost like a pilot. The jokes are not quite pitch-perfect, the characters are much older and distracting, and you’re wondering where so-and-so is and why all these big-time Hollywood actors and recognizable comedians are teaming up for this series. And then you get to the first joke or gag that makes you laugh out loud and you realize it has promise. Then, because it’s on Netflix, you rewatch the original movie and realize–HOLY SHIT–all those actors that seem out of place in the series were in the original. Yes, I know I said the movie had a special place in my heart, but I hadn’t seen it in a long time and I literally did not realize that Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Joe Lo Truglio, Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, and Christopher Meloni were all in the original movie. Just..I had no idea.

So, with that realization in mind, and the movie fresh on my mind, I moved onto Episode 2. Honestly, 2-8 are a blur and they are genuinely on-point and funny through and through. That should be enough for this review…but I’ll go a little bit deeper.

WHAS: First Day of Camp treats its die-hard fans to loads of backstory that make the original movie even better. We get why Molly Shannon’s “Gail” is so torn up in the arts and crafts cabin–she is in 3 relationships over the course of the first day of camp, and we get the origin of Judah Friedlander’s “Ron von Kleinenstein.”

While we may have thought that the talking can of vegetables was Gene’s PTSD causing him to hallucinate, we come to learn that it is actually the camp director who has fallen into a pit of toxic sludge to become a talking can that can suck its own dick. Now, we’ll talk more about Meloni’s “Gene” in a bit…

Poehler and Cooper get the most screen time (perhaps because Cooper only had a day to shoot, so they made the most of it) for their production of Electro City–an amazingly incoherent original musical that features, of all things, a two-person zoot-suit. This subplot includes solid backup with actors Jon Slattery (Mad Men) playing Claude Dumet–a sleazy yet likable stage actor–and Michaela Watkins (Everything you’ve ever seen) playing Rhonda, his chain-smoking, wild-hair-akin-to-Helena-Bonham-Carter, leather pants and black t-shirt, hip-thrusting, too-cool-for-school choreographer. Watkins owns her Character. Rhonda could easily have been lazily interpreted or even over-acted, but Watkins gets the most out of Rhonda’s limited screen time, by far overshadowing Slattery’s Dumet.

We also get to see Michael Showalter reprise the role of lovesick Coop, who’s love-interest on the first day of camp is a new character, Donna, played by Lake Bell (How to Make it in America). Coop, we learn, is the perpetually lonely and pining lovable loser. If the series went on in perpetuity, we have enough character development in Coop to know that Katie will be replaced by another girl, who will be replaced by another. Coop has to compete with Yaron for Donna’s affection. Yaron is played by co-writer David Wain, and while the character is funny, this subplot never really takes off, even when the three of them are fondling each other uncomfortably. It just doesn’t quite work.

That said, Showalter also plays President Ronald Reagan in a subplot that takes off into the land of the absurd and is a solid, ridiculous success that culminates in: a standoff between two rival camps and the U.S. military, a perfectly choreographed kitchen brawl between Meloni’s Gene and Jon Hamm’s Falcon, and a hilarious tongue-in-cheek recap of the entire subplot to a camper that point-by-point admits how absurd the whole thing is.

And that brings me to the overall review of this series. There is enough off-center humor in each episode to make you wonder what you missed, then make you go back and watch the whole thing over again. Showalter and Wain are not afraid to dive into the insane when it comes to their subplots, and they respectfully and carefully make nods to gags from the movie–Gene caressing a refrigerator, Victor Kulak painfully deciding to crawl under a tree root instead of jumping over it, and even Nurse Nancy uttering the same hilarious and uncomfortable line: “For my pussy.” The last is something that Showalter and Wain save for the very last episode–perhaps knowing that we were wondering why, of all characters, we needed Nurse Nancy back in the first place. Though, we do learn that she is just as sex-focused as the campers and counselors, needing lube and sharing her diaphragm. This is a reboot that works, plain and simple, because the writers take into consideration our appreciation of seemingly minor characters, like Nancy, and play to that. Perhaps this is the Netflix model–let the creators create and explore as they wish, to make the shows they really want without compromise.

A big part of the care taken to create this series is the respect shown for many of the original actors who were called back to be a part of the series. We get Samm Levine (Freaks and Geeks) as the voice of the Beekeeper, though the character of Arty is played by a different actor (as it was in the movie). As well, some of the nerd squad returns for the series as punks in the convenience store who get wasted by Falcon (specifically–Kid with Cape, Medieval Nerd, Mork Nerd). We may wonder what happened to Mallrat girl or Moose, but we can rest easy knowing that Madeline Blue (Cure Girl) is back for one episode, and that even Kerri Kenney (Reno 911) who had an uncredited role in the movie comes back as the real-estate agent who finds helps David-Hyde Pierce find a cabin to rent. Also, we get to see H. Jon Benjamin (Home Movies, every voiceover ever) as the camp director before being turned into a can of vegetables by a pit of toxic waste (voiceover!).

Then, there are the cameos–Weird Al Yankovic, Jon Hamm, John Slattery, Chris Pine, Michael Cera, Rich Sommer, Randall Park, Jordan Peele, Jason Schwartzman, Kristen Wiig, Josh Charles (The Good Wife), Paul Scheer–that are as much a feast as a necessity. As if the original cast didn’t turn out successful enough, there seems to have been some strings pulled and now we have a legitimate comedy (tiny gags like Kristen Wiig briefly mimicking oral sex on a tube of lipstick, or awkwardly posing as she leaves a scene) with jokes to miss and catch. Each bring something interesting to re-watch and explore. In this way, watching the series feels like watching the movie, which is all WHAS fans wanted–more, more, more.

Now, I said I’d talk about Meloni’s Gene, and here we go. By far, Christopher Meloni’s “Gene” takes the spotlight, and his character goes full-arc. We see him covering up his past (pretending to be a happy-go-lucky camp chef engaged to Gail), embracing who he is but being somewhat ashamed (he gets awkward when he realizes that his erotic mumblings have been heard), and then, in the movie (with epic love-yourself monologue) embracing his need to hump refrigerators and rub mud on his ass. Meloni takes an easily-cheesy character and makes him genuinely, perpetually, infallibly funny. This success is due in part to his straight-man sidekick Gary (A.D. Miles), who is Gene’s foil and friend. It helps that Gary and Gene haven’t aged–they are a direct transplant from the movie to the series–and as such their humor comes directly from the writing and not the visual irony that they look way too old to work at camp. They play off each other, and each scene is brilliantly played–either Meloni’s perfect delivery, subtle face-work, or even his oddball mumblings–even when you have a hard time reconciling the fact that Don Draper is fighting Elliot Stabler in the kitchen, you are strangely satisfied with their slapstick knife-throwing and bucket-on-the-head gag. Meanwhile, Miles plays the kitchen help to a T–the kind of offbeat guy who is the opposite of Napoleon Dynamite. You want to hang out with Gary and smoke with him, slack with him, take a nap in a hammock with him. He’s the perfect character (and actor) to play opposite the psychotic Gene. The kitchen scenes are where First Day of Camp win me over, though there’s plenty of excellence in the rest of the series to get you through happily in stitches.

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“A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan

Read it.

Jennifer Egan’s 2011 A Visit from the Goon Squad won that year’s Pulitzer Prize and was an international bestseller. It could easily be one of those novels whose existence began as the author heard one particular phrase, “Time’s a goon.”  The phrase appears enough times throughout the book for it to stick, and for the title to make perfect sense.

Egan’s book revolves loosely (and yet, at the same time, so very tightly) around Bennie and Sasha—a music producer and his long-time assistant.  Really, we only get a couple of intimate chapters for each character, and the rest of the book is about people who, in any other book, would just be secondary and even tertiary characters.  Instead, Egan has taken the role of narrator and elevated it to a level that is at once removed and direct: the book is simply told as a collective of stories, a cast of characters who have a very real existence.  It is not unlike Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, a movie whose storyline is so basic that its real artfulness comes in the dissection of its timeline, and whose characters are so rich that the idea of a main character doesn’t seem to fit.  Why?  Perhaps because that is the better story, the one that revolves around the idea that a main character cannot, and in this case does not, exist without the influence of other, equally important characters.

This richness of character is the real heart of the story, not music.  There is no discernible way that this book is ever about music any more than it is about art, family, silence, and, most importantly, time.  Time is the goon, and the Goon Squad is the cast of characters that is aged without mercy.  Children grow up to be sexual beings, sexual beings get older and put on life support, some people in the transition from child to sexual being wind up drowning.  Oh, and all along the way there’s divorce, children, technology, real estate development, prostitution, poverty, redemption, and haunting memory.  Not haunting in a doomed sense—not that there is some dark secret to haunt our characters—but in the way that you reflect on a bad social situation from ten, fifteen years ago and cringe at yourself.  The way memory can either flicker in a haze or burst forth in searing clarity.

When you finish A Visit from the Goon Squad, you get the feeling that the subject wasn’t really Sasha or Bennie.  Thanks in part to the final chapter’s devotion to Alex, a character whom we think will just be a random character Sasha dates and fucks in the first chapter.  But no.  Alex returns fifteen years later, working with Bennie.  By now, we know that Sasha lives in the desert and is married to a doctor, has two children (one of whom is presumably autistic, and he deeply values pauses in time, or holding off the goon), and is no longer the Sasha we know (this role is transferred to her daughter).  The world around Alex is foreign to us: it’s the future, and it’s run by a younger generation that is, as always, incomprehensible.  Really, Egan is writing about us, and we get that she’s been writing about us the whole time.  The future is never for us.  What was once cool is lame, what once was childish is now professionalism.  The irresponsible are now in charge, and whether we have the whole picture or are living in the thick of it, it never quite feels right.  The only thing for us, the only thing that’s ever been exclusively for each and every one of us, is a visit from our own goon squads.

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Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (review)

Jerry Seinfeld launched the web mini-series in 2012 to celebrate three things he loves: comedy, cars, and coffee, and he delivers mostly as advertised.

            Every episode of CICGC begins with Jerry Seinfeld starting a car, usually a close-up shot of an ignition and gauges, and then providing a succinct editorial on why he likes it.  If you’re not into cars, Seinfeld does an excellent job introducing the car and moving on.  If you are a gearhead, Seinfeld makes it a point to choose interesting cars—like a V8 Volvo built for David Letterman by Paul Newman—not just hot rods and supercars.

Next, there’s the obligatory phone call to a famous comedian to see if they just want to grab some coffee.  He just calls up comedy heavyweights like David Letterman, Carl Reiner, and Chris Rock to see if they want to hang out for an afternoon.  Then, Seinfeld and his guest pull into a conveniently open parking spot—which at one point he even mocks, calling them his “Jack Lemmon” spots because there’s always an open one even in the middle of New York City, just like in Lemmon’s movies.  They then go into a plain-looking café with a camera crew.  Once inside, conversation and lunch and coffee occur organically, with honest (if not sometimes cheesy) interactions with waitstaff.  But they are comedians, and we sort of expect them to be “on” when the cameras are rolling—with exception to David Letterman, who I’ll get to later.

The premise for the series is humble enough: just two folks getting together to talk about craft, share stories, and make each other, and us, laugh.  However, Seinfeld’s celebrity is all too apparent in the series—it’s too well-produced and brings in a main sponsor (Acura) in the second season, and in general Seinfeld takes on the impromptu role of talk-show host.  He is the host of the show, after all, but his reactions to some jokes seem over the top at times—he’ll close his eyes, lean forward, clap, and in general give us all sorts of cues that his guest’s jokes are funny.  In fact, Seinfeld plays the role of host quite well, able to shift between anecdotes and, at times, deeply personal conversation.

There’s a lot of talk about marriage, kids, and the torture of standup comedy.  His guests are willing to reveal a bit more about their personal lives than you’ll get on a normal talk show or in a promotional interview for new projects.  This is perhaps the most refreshing part of the series: the lack of plugs for projects, products, and people.  In spite of being sponsored by Acura, there is very little on-screen product placement, and Seinfeld even points out such placement when walking to a café with Sarah Silverman.  There is a planted Acura RLX by the curb, to which Silverman declares,  “Oh wow, sure looks like a great car.”  And the guests don’t talk about their movies except in retrospect—which is especially enjoyable when Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner recall their 50+ year friendship and such classic projects as Get Smart, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and Blazing Saddles.

However, at times you do wonder what some comedians are up to.  When he takes Colin Quinn out to lunch, I found myself distracted by constantly wondering if Quinn was even working anymore.  Likewise, during the episode with Larry David, I wanted to hear more about Seinfeld’s monstrous $850-million syndication deal.  Really, I watched the interview with Larry David skeptically.  After all, here are two men with a combined net-worth of over $1 billion, and all I can think about is if they’re still going to try to calculate a percentage for their tip.  Or whether Larry David really has anything to be neurotic about anymore.  Surely he can buy his way out of neurosis.  None of this is really any of my business, except that for such short episodes my attention shouldn’t be diverting that much.  To get to the point: some interviews just aren’t interesting or funny.  In truth, some episodes would be better if they just featured the fancy cars.  Sometimes, both host and guest seem to regret the decision to do a particular show, like when 7 minutes is wasted with Barry Mader.

Regardless, the series has some seriously redeeming qualities, particularly in the decisions made during editing—and they all have to do with honesty and humility.  When Michael Richards makes a sincere and thoughtful (and awkward and vulnerable) comment about his “outburst” in 2005, it seems to be uncomfortable for Seinfeld, but there’s enough sense to keep it in at the final cut.  Similarly, Seinfeld even leaves in a portion of his conversation with Reiner and Brooks regarding Louis C.K., whom Brooks has just praised for his business acumen if not for his comedy.  “One thing for sure, Mel, is this part is getting cut out” Seinfeld says seriously. “I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit here hyping Louis C.K.”  But there it is in the end, an endorsement for Louis C.K. (one way or another) from no one less than Mel Brooks.

And this brings me to the interview with David Letterman, who is at once honest and reserved during his time with Seinfeld.  Seinfeld makes every attempt to make the encounter a chuckle-fest, prompting Letterman to say, in his subtle-but-not-too-subtle way, “Do you find yourself always trying to be funny and sometimes people just don’t want to be bothered?”  We have plenty of historical evidence to suggest that Letterman is a misogynist and megalomaniac, but in this particular interview he is humble and sincere and soft-spoken.  That he suffers the forced humor so gracefully is rare evidence of Letterman’s better qualities.  He even takes Seinfeld for a drive in his all-electric Nissan Leaf, which Seinfeld hates.  It’s a revenge that is quite subtle and quite perfect.

In much the same way, we get to experience Chris Rock in a wholly appreciable, understated way.  Counter to Seinfeld’s forced jokes—jokes he seems to have rehearsed just for the day—Rock delivers solidly funny stories and observations throughout the day.  They’re not side-splitting, they aren’t show-stopping, but they’re quick and perfect, and you wish Seinfeld could follow his lead.  If the roles were switched, if it were Chris Rock meeting up with comedians, drinking whatever he drinks, driving whatever he drives, I think we’d get a product that is more in line with what Seinfeld was really after in this series.  In the end, Seinfeld never really seems to relax in front of the camera, something that noticeably affects several interviews.

Another excellent aspect of the show is the impressive selection of cars—and this is really where Seinfeld shines.  Quite adeptly, he selects the perfect car for each of his guests—the episode with Michael Richards features a quirky VW bus conversion—a perfectly running engine, rusty body, duct-taped interior, and something guaranteed to collect stares.  He chooses a 1969 Rolls Royce for Carl Reiner—a classy, if outdated, antique. For Colin Quinn, a Triumph TR6, an underappreciated and classically styled sports-car with not much punch—it even has indecipherable buttons and switches that Seinfeld points out, akin to Quinn’s signature incoherent mumbling.  For Chris Rock, it’s a Lamborghini Miura, which has since influenced every modern supercar.  While there were plenty of heavyweights before Chris Rock, the comparison here is simple: Rock, like the Miura, is a one of a kind comic, the beginning of an era, with impressive performance and still relevant today.  If you put car enthusiasts on a track with the option to drive the Miura and any other supercar, they’d choose the Miura to drive first.  Likewise, if you got to choose between comedy showcases, you’d choose to watch Rock’s act first, regardless of other performers.  Seinfeld appropriately picks out a 1959 Split Window Beetle for Larry David—it’s an unassuming, squatty and boring looking little car that’s worth a lot more than you’d think.  Perhaps the funniest car/guest pairing is Seth Meyers and the first generation Porsche 911 Carrera, which makes Meyers extremely nervous when it starts to rain.  Meyers is a solidly funny comic, an asset to Saturday Night Live and popular culture (Really?  Meyers is an asset to pop-culture, really?).  However, you get the sense that if he’s put in a more challenging environment (like the 911 in rain), he’s likely to lose control, crash, and burn.  As such, Meyers has been at SNL for twelve years, where it’s dry, safe and easy to cruise.

That said, Jerry Seinfeld does something that perhaps only he can do, and that is introduce you to people you’d otherwise have no opportunity to meet.  Take as an example Joel Hodgson, whom we’ll unanimously agree created the funniest oddball series on Earth, Mystery Science Theater 3000.  He’s an unrecognizable face with by far the highest laugh:minute ratio in the whole CICGC series, and without Seinfeld pulling him out of the woodwork to shine—they improvise an hilarious scene about ketchup without effort, thanks primarily to Hodgson—he could have easily faded away entirely.  As it is, Seinfeld takes a chance with his series by giving screen time to lesser known comics and writers, and for the most part it pays off.

The wonderful thing about the series is that it’s free—you don’t have to pay for a subscription or buy a box set.  You just go to www.comediansincarsgettingcoffee.com and choose whatever episode you want to watch.  Currently, the show’s halfway through its second season, with Chris Rock’s appearance being the most recent episode. However, if you’re just starting out, don’t start with the Michael Richards episode.  It’s at the bottom of the list of videos, and it’s perfect.  I know, I said don’t watch it first, and I mean it.  At least, don’t watch it until you think the series has nothing more to offer you.  When you’re tired of the awkward laughter and silence and inside jokes.  When you grow tired of feeling like an outsider, that’s when you click on the Michael Richards episode.  His episode is the most redeeming of them all, seriously making up for the series’ flaws.   We get a look at a sentimental Seinfeld who still holds great admiration and respect for an old friend.  It would be tolerable to watch Seinfeld and Richards for hours on end, perhaps even to watch them age together.  As it is, we only have 17 minutes of them together again.  Hey, that’s almost a full Seinfeld episode, and that makes Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee worth watching.

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