Comedy in the Trump Age

Just about a year ago, while other comedians on the late-night scene, from Seth Meyers and John Oliver to Stephen Colbert and Samantha Bee spent the evening denouncing then-candidate/full-time racist hairball Donald Trump, who was in the throes of accusations of coziness with Vladimir Putin and Islamophobia and racism, one man had the courage to ask the really tough question: if he could ruffle Donald Trump’s hair.

I’m talking, of course, about the infamous segment on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, where Jimmy Fallon spent the interview asking the softest of softball questions, without a hint of pushing him on any issues or criticizing anything he ever said. The segment was widely criticized, with many suggesting Fallon was helping to humanize or normalize Trump.

What was the issue, exactly? After all, Stephen Colbert also had Trump on as a guest last year, and Seth Meyers had Kellyanne Conway on just eight months ago. And sure, Fallon asked some pretty tame questions, but he isn’t a journalist, and it’s not his job to ask the tough questions. Is he really to blame for trying to keep his show apolitical, to want mass appeal? Apparently, yes.

In the Trump era, it’s become increasingly clear that few people are interested in that kind of mass appeal. People want sharper comedy, comedians who aren’t afraid to be critical, to call out bullshit when they see it, to denounce hate. It’s no wonder that the more sharply political late night hosts, like Trevor Noah, Oliver, Bee, Colbert, and Meyers are getting ever-increasing audiences and attention.

Indeed, consider the fact that Colbert’s most popular segments on YouTube are monologues where he denounced or criticized Trump. Bee’s show, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee is almost dominated by Bee eviscerating Trump to shreds, perhaps most notably with her segment “Pussy Riot”, made shortly after that tape with Billy Bush came out. For six glorious minutes, Bee alternated between strained, venomous sarcasm and unsurprised fury, unleashing a badly-needed female perspective, noting: “We know this is shocking for most normal men, but every woman I know has had some entitled testosterone monster grab her like a human bowling ball.”

Not only that, but even the relatively apolitical Jimmy Kimmel got a moment in the sun during the height of the health care debate. After an emotional monologue where he discussed his newborn son’s heart condition, Kimmel begged Congress not to remove protections for those with pre-existing condition, pleading in a cracked voice, “If your baby is going to die, and it doesn’t have to, it shouldn’t matter how much money you make.”

And even more recently, as Trump refused to outright condemn white supremacists and Nazis in Charlottesville, late night hosts ranging from the less political James Corden to the more political Meyers  lined up to criticize his silence and condemn white supremacy in the strongest terms.

And in the world of standup comedy, the specials that have been more widely celebrated have recently been those that either dealt specifically with politics or the issues on the periphery, even if those jokes weren’t the main focus. Jen Kirkman discussed sexism and harassment in Just Keep Livin’?, Roy Wood, Jr discussed race and blackness in Father Figure, Hasan Minhaj discussed Islamophobia in Homecoming King, and Maz Jobrani discussed being an immigrant in the aptly named Immigrant.

Even here in Canada, comedy has taken an ever-sharper political edge. Just take the satirical site and now comedy show The Beaverton, which in addition to featuring video segments and articles mocking Trump and the alt-right, also isn’t shy about criticizing the Canadian alt-right, especially in their biting satire of the alt-right, heavy on racism and light on facts Canadian “news” site, The Rebel with their own spin, The Rebelton.

There are still plenty of (mostly straight, cis, white, male) comedians who don’t like this shift at all. Fallon, for his part, has been reluctant to change his show toward a more political tone. Obviously, that’s his prerogative. However, it’s worth noting that we aren’t living in an age when politics is business as usual. The United States’ president is a racist, a misogynist, and Islamaphobic. He’s in cahoots with white supremacists. He and his party don’t care about the effects of their actions, even when people’s lives are at stake. Health care? DACA? Climate change? Just some pieces in a cynical, spineless game. No offense to Jimmy Fallon, who I’m sure is a very nice guy, but it’s irresponsible to avoid this stuff altogether as though they’re just touchy political topics. Comedy has evolved to acknowledge that reality, whether or not all comedians want to get on board.

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Review: Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King

You might recognize Hasan Minhaj as the Senior Indian Correspondent over at The Daily Show, where he was hired in 2014. Since then, he’s done numerous pieces on a wide variety of topics, many of them focusing on Islamophobia and how it affects Muslims in the U.S. and abroad. He also did a noteworthy interview with Justin Trudeau, where he (Hasan) wore a Canadian tuxedo and, among other things, asked the PM to apologize (or not apologize) for everything from Drake on Degrassi to Justin’s Movember goatee. In any case, on May 23rd, Hasan Minhaj also released a new comedy special for Netflix called Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King.

About a half-hour into Homecoming King, Hasan relates a story about how, following 9/11, his family got an anonymous phone call in which he and his father heard someone repeatedly calling them racial slurs and accusing them of aiding terrorists before saying their address and threatening to kill them. Hasan describes looking at his father after and says, “Do you ever see your parents, and see the mortality in them?” Minutes later, the family heard the sound of their car windows being smashed in. He compares his own reaction, running around looking for the perpetrators, to that of his father, who sweeps up the glass “like he works in a hate crimes barbershop.” While Hasan’s father asserts that “these things happen” and considers it the price of being an immigrant, Hasan has a different realization: “We really are from two different generations…I was born here. So I actually have the audacity of equality…I’m equal, I don’t deserve this.” Following this incredible speech, Hasan adds on that his father once tried to return used underwear to Costco. Hasan will tell you all about how annoying he initially found his younger sister (who he didn’t even know about until he was 8), before he reveals that she is currently an accomplished attorney, and that she interfered on his behalf when their parents were reluctant to accept Hasan’s relationship with his then-fiancée (now wife), who is Hindu, not Muslim.

Hasan Minhaj performing in Homecoming King

That is the genius of Hasan Minhaj’s comedic style. In one moment, he is completely serious, relating the intensity of the racism and Islamophobia he and his family have experienced, and in the next, he is quipping about the oddities of these experiences. He laughs at the differences between himself and Bethany, his white friend/crush in high school. In one particularly amusing moment, he describes sneaking out of his house in a JC Penny suit and six puffs of Michael Jordan cologne, and biking to Bethany’s house to be her prom date. However, he arrives to learn that Bethany’s parents have found a white boy to be her prom date instead — because they were taking pictures and didn’t think Hasan would be “a good fit.” The camera zooms in on Minhaj’s face, betraying heartbreak and shock and confusion, as though he is still a kid in high school having his prom hopes dashed. He contrasts this type of quiet racism with other types he’s received. Bethany’s mother is sure to call him “honey”, say that the family loves him, but it is still brutal. Shaking off the people who refer to him and his family with racial slurs is one thing, but shaking off the more subtle hatred from supposedly nice people is much harder.

Minhaj’s comedy and his sharp takes on racism and Islmophobia are desperately needed in this political climate. He wants to ensure that he and his family are seen as multidimensional people. He is honest about his childhood, neither pushing away some of the less seemly parts of it nor allowing the accomplishments of his family to be pushed away either. More than anything, he is here to remind us that he cannot be boxed off as being just an Indian Muslim, and that he is not willing to allow his identity to be erased or pushed aside. He peppers his jokes with Hindi and Urdu, and also mocks himself for his work in a Pizza Hut commercial. He comes off as fun and cocky, brimming with a confidence he may not have had in high school.

Hasan ends the show by discussing his audition for The Daily Show, in which he did a piece about Ben Affleck defending Islam on Real Time with Bill Maher (you know, the guy who just said the n-word on TV). We don’t see the audition, but considering the brilliance of the comedian saying it, and the fact that it evidently worked, we can imagine that it was pretty darn funny. Homecoming King was an awesome comedy special, and I honestly can’t wait for him to continue with new material both on The Daily Show and off it.

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De-stress Signals

It used to be that after a hard day’s work, one could tune into a show and find in it some solace, some watered down version of reality, easy to digest, fast-working. But unwinding has become dangerously difficult with the political climate veering close to a constitutional crisis in the U.S., which will have indelible impacts on our worldview and our daily lives even in Canada. When the news alert comes on on my phone, I panic before looking at it; even crossword puzzles are riddled with clues that make me think of Agent Orange. It won’t be long before reminders for one’s minuscule and insignificant position in the world become ubiquitous: The man tweets at two in the morning in case we are, sleepless, trying to maintain composure with a late glass of wine.

Of course, activism is the answer. Daily ones of small and large scale. Even maintaining some calm and perspective in itself is a form of resistance. But we all need an hour or two of laughs — plain laughs without an underlying cynicism — at least a few times a week. Don’t binge watch House of Cards or Black Mirror and put away that op-ed piece. You can return to those some other time. For that entertainment, much needed and kind to the tender parts of your hearts, turn to these five sources:

Billy on the Street

A bit before Billy on the Street was making dreams come true on TruTV, I was accosted by the tall, Jewish, and gay comedian, Billy Eichner on the corner of Broadway and 12th and was asked “What can’t Melissa McCarthy do?” (The answer, as made obvious recently, was and is a resounding ‘Nothing’ — she is beyond good.) I hesitated and fumbled for an answer and was yelled at, which, a cute member of the crew with a consent form in her hands notwithstanding, wasn’t pleasant. But I’d be damned if it is not a gloriously joyous experience to watch Billy run around and scream at strangers on the streets of New York about celebrities, pop-culture, and whatever he thinks you have to know.

This second clip is gratuitous. I just couldn’t not include it. You can watch Billy on the Street on TruTV and Hulu.

Bread Face Blog

There’s something sexy and alluring about watching Bread Face smooshing all kinds of bread with her face. It’s sensual. It’s addictive. After watching a few clips on her Instagram page, I thought it to be somewhat pornographic. But if so, it is certainly something written and directed by and starring Bread Face. The best part of Bread Face Blog is in watching this stranger on the internet so obviously take tremendous pleasure in this manner. You can watch her for an hour and marvel at the variety of breads, her taste in music, and her romancing with the absurd. Believe me when I say there is going to be a long-form profile on her within the next year.

Desus and Mero

Desus Nice and The Kid Mero’s collab go back to 2013 when they launched Desus Vs. Mero podcast. The duo’s hilarious dynamic synergy is now on Viceland under the banner of Desus & Mero. This late-night is nothing like The Late Show or Conan and certainly in a different ball park from Fallon’s celebrity-studded, lame game show. The duo + the renegade energy of Vice is refreshing. Watch and imagine how fun it’d be to people-watch with these guys in the corner booth of a lounge with necessary medicinal accompaniments.

Chef’s Table

Season three of Chef’s Table is now on Netflix. For those wary of ‘cooking shows’, Chef’s Table isn’t your Martha Steward how-to’s on flourless vegan chocolate cake. It’s an in-depth look at the lives, passions, and the individual mechanisms and quirks of the people behind some of the world’s most renowned restaurants. If you’ve ever been fascinated with artisans and their obsessions — think back to a scene in a Toshiro Mifune movie with a curmudgeon blacksmith who’s toiled over the ‘ideal’ katana — you’ll love this series. Chefs and cooks, as the laymen have come to understand through, among others, Orwell and Bourdain’s exposés, are eccentric, neurotic, often angry, and, it must be said, fascinating people: doing a weekend brunch service and wanting to continue working in the kitchen takes more than just moxie. David Gelb’s documentary is one of the best ways of learning more.

The Marx Brothers

The Marx Brothers made seventeen feature films of which thirteen are included in American Film Institute’s top 100 comedy films. To say they were good does not cut it. They were geniuses at what they do and, even with an array of brilliant comic actors in today’s film industry, I don’t think anybody’s done it quiet as well as they since. From verbal witticisms and songs to vaudeville and slapstick, their films are panaceas to melancholy and a grim outlook on the world.

I recommend Animal Crackers (1930) and Duck Soup (1933) — you’ll laugh and laugh and never be laughed out.

And with that, I must be going — and you should continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Recapturing Past Happiness: Toni Erdmann

Image Credit: Sony Picture Classics

Earlier in 2016, movies like Manchester by the Sea, Birth of a Nation, and Captain Fantastic dominated film festival chatter, with speculations as to which were going to be the heavy-hitters for the Oscar season at the end of the year. Amidst such chatter however, was one film that was not getting as much media attention, yet it was slowly gaining a more vocal  following. With each passing festival, quiet rumblings regarding the German family dramedy Toni Erdmann started penetrating conversations more sharply, as it began picking up accolades at the Cannes Film Festival, the Toronto Film Critics Association and, most recently, the Palm Springs International Film Festival. This week, the Oscar nominations were announced, with Toni Erdmann receiving one for Best Foreign Language Film. At this point, it should be no stretch of the imagination to think it could very well be the front-runner, and for good reason. Not only is it a deeply affecting story about how family dynamics can drastically change in our modern world, but it blends moments of great pathos with humour, and will leave you chuckling to yourself far after it’s done.

The story begins with establishing the rather solitary life of Winfried Conradi, a man who finds great pleasure in finding ways to remind those around him of the exuberance and fun that everyday life can offer. A man comes to his door with a package, and Winfried answers pretending to be his deranged, twin brother known for creating mail bombs, and he also has a peculiar affection for wearing play-teeth whenever he performs such pranks on people. Unfortunately, those around him are more likely to be turned off or annoyed by his youthful playfulness. A boy that he was teaching piano lessons to abruptly quits, and he also finds out that his grown daughter, Ines, planned an early birthday party at her mother’s house, which he was not invited to.

Sony Pictures Classics

Shortly after we are introduced to Ines, we begin to understand that the film is more about her, and even though her father may seem objectively annoying to so many, she may actually be in desperate need of the kind of help he can provide. She is currently working as a consultant for an oil company, and has the unenviable task of finding options to outsource some of their services, potentially laying off hundreds of workers. Initially, she efficiently performs her job by refusing to speak her mind, while also accepting the responsibility of unpopular decisions. Winfred recognizes that, perhaps because of her job, Ines has difficulty with emotional honesty.  Her inability to be honest with him especially proves worrisome.  At one point, he visits her and in his signature way to lighten the mood, gives her a lame but good natured joke-birthday present: a cheese grater in an expensive-looking box. The next morning after a fight, she tersely says “If I wanted to jump out the window tomorrow, you and your cheese grater wouldn’t be able to stop me.” Winfred’s strategy then reaches a new level of theatricality: sporting the play-teeth he is so fond of as well as an oddly-fitting wig, he pretends to be the eccentric Toni Erdmann, a supposed life-coach to one of her business associates, and proceeds to unexpectedly show up at different events. Needless to say, if seriously uncomfortable humour is not your thing, think hard about whether you want to see this film.

The film certainly raises some interesting questions regarding whether Winfried’s values of trying to live in the moment by taking everything in stride, is applicable in the corporate environment the Ines finds herself engulfed in, and as a result the relationship between them takes on a sweet but melancholy feel. When Winfried is Toni, one gets the feeling he is trying to expose the phony attitudes of Ines’ business associates, as his antics become more obnoxious, yet garner little response from them in the moment. Doing so reveals the heart at the centre of the film, as the once-cold Ines begins holding back sly smiles and giggles as she watches her father. As though she wants to join in his silliness, but knows she can’t. And the performances by the two main actors, Sandra Huller and Peter Simonischek, are stellar. Huller slowly reveals more layers of conflicted emotions, and Simonischek at times subtly shows the shadings of deep heartache thinly hidden behind his bizarre behaviors. Their performances are also a major reason why the comedy works so well, as their comedic timing can be so subtle that it feels completely emotionally authentic, grounding the outlandish plot, which makes it all the more charming and squirm-inducing.

About midway through, the film steps into darker territory meant to illustrate the consequences that Winfried’s carefree existence can have on the workers within the oil company. Yet soon after, the biggest crowd-pleasing moment in the film — that may make some audience members hold back tears — comes when Winfried pressures Ines into singing a certain Whitney Houston song in front of a group of strangers, underlining the emotional journey the character is on. The message that the writer and director Maren Ade may want us to leave with is that such a carefree and humourous outlook can co-exist in the seemingly cold modern corporate climate. But with that knowledge also comes the realization that those moments of happiness end up being all the more fleeting. Like Winfried notes, life starts moving so fast we end up just wanting to sit somewhere and force ourselves to try to remember and hold on to happier times.

Beginning today,  Toni Erdmann will be playing at the Tiff Bell Lightbox!  See it!

Five Political Comedies that Will Hopefully Brighten Your Mood During These Unsure Times

About two weeks ago — when the U.S. presidential election was coming to an end — it seemed as though everyone in North America was prepared to breathe a cumulative sigh of relief that they wouldn’t have to think about politics again for a good long while and that the vile, hyperbolic rhetoric of the campaign would slowly sink into memories like a drunk fever dream and once again life could return to normal. Well, it seems as though that has yet to happen and we are still in the midst of getting political news stories on a regular basis that instill fear, anger, and bewilderment about the forthcoming transition. But if there is one thing that is certain abut the future right now, it’s that much will be written about this political climate, which will no doubt include satirical films sending up the more seemingly outlandish aspects of our political leaders and the way they are covered by the media. So if you’re still in the middle of your emotional hangover, why don’t you kick back and watch these films for a good laugh, while remembering how ridiculous the political process has always been.

reese-witherspoon-election
Image Credit: IMDB

Election (1999)

Alexander Payne—whose other directorial efforts include About Schmidt, Sideways, and Nebraska—did a brilliant job of sending up the many politically ambitious personalities in Election (1999). Set in a high school in Nebraska, the film centers around the overachieving student Tracy Flick (played to annoyingly peppy perfection by Reese Witherspoon) as she mounts a campaign for student body president. She is running unchallenged, much to the dismay of the history teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), who harbours some very personal ill-will toward her. Jim convinces a dim-but-good-natured jock, Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), to run against her, which leads his sister, Tammy (Jessica Campbell), who finds out her brother is seeing the girl that she has a crush on, to throw herself into the race as well. Strategies to win this rather insignificant title become progressively more nasty and underhanded.  The film still resonates, in no small part due to Reese Witherspoon’s performance, along with its biting commentary on the moral and ethical hypocrisy characteristic of political figures. When Tracy reveals she is actually willing to stoop quite low to secure her win by tearing up campaign posters, or when Tammy gets students to support her at a school assembly by voicing her own distrust and indifference concerning the political system, it is not hard to draw parallels to real individuals in the public eye. It illustrates just how universal such traits really are. Watch the trailer here.

wagthedog
Image Credit: IMDB

Wag the Dog (1997)

It seems as though this Barry Levinson comedy just keeps getting more relevant as the years go on. Wag the Dog tells the story of a White House communications advisor, Conrad Brean (Robert De’Niro), who partners up with a Hollywood producer to fabricate a news story about the United States going to war with Albania as a way to distract the media from a sex scandal involving the president. Even though the film is clearly poking fun at issues that plagued the Clinton administration, watching it in 2016 brings out the other critiques on society that feel very timely, perhaps making it a bit ahead of its time; from De’Niro’s character’s understanding that to get citizens to back a war, all you need is one image that will spark empathy (in this case, the image of a young Tracy Lime (Kirsten Dunst) holding a cat, running through a war-torn village) and using private citizens as symbolic figures of a cause (doesn’t anybody else remember Joe the Plumber from the 2008 U.S presidential election?), to, of course, the obvious critique of the mainstream media as being too gullible and willing to jump on news stories with questionable facts. The moment when Brean instructs the other White House officials to start denying everything about the story that they previously leaked — thus, allowing reporters to expand the narrative further — will surely spark some uncomfortable funny-because-its-true-laughter. And perfectly timed distractions in the political realm seem to happen every couple of days in our Tweet-infested world. Watching it now, Wag the Dog seems to be a pretty great reminder of how the more things change, the more they remain the same. Watch the trailer here.

intheloop
Image Credit: IMDB

In the Loop (2009)

Speaking of media distractions, In the Loop — directed by the creator of Veep, Armando Ianucci — expertly lampoons how public political blunders can easily get blown out of proportion, and how people with their own agendas are usually willing to take advantage of the situation. The story involves a British Cabinet Minister, played by Tom Hollander, who says on a BBC radio show that he feels military intervention into the Middle East is “unforeseeable,” and as a result is quickly chewed out by the Director of Communications to the Prime Minister for not staying publicly neutral on the subject. Soon after, the Cabinet Minister, growing more flustered, continues saying things he instantly regrets, which inadvertently draws the attention of U.S officials on opposing sides of the issue. The story moves at the a break-neck pace and if you momentarily get confused, the clever script —which was Oscar nominated for best adapted screenplay — more than makes up for it. The humour is of the socially awkward variety — reminiscent of the Office — but with a slight Aaron Sorkin franticness. And every moment given to the Director of Communications — played by current Doctor Who, Peter Capaldi — is sweary music to your ears, as he comes up with some very obscene and colourful insults, as if he is the foul-mouthed younger brother to Don Rickles. But even amidst that, it’s a very memorable film, serving as a great  reminder of how even on the brink of war, our largest political figures are likely to be so unbearably human. Watch the trailer here.

bulworth2
Image: nymag.com

Bulworth (1998)

This is without a doubt the strangest movie on the list. However, like Wag the Dog, it desreves a re-watch as some themes are still surprisingly relevant and ideas posed by Warren Beatty — who wrote and directed the film — have not lost their satirical edge. Beatty stars as Jay Bulworth, a Democratic Senator undergoing a re-election campaign, who feels forced to adopt more right-way policies as a result of the unpopular state of his party.  Disillusioned and suicidal, he decides to put out an assassination contract on himself that will leave his family with a large insurance payout. Making the best of the limited time he has left, he proceeds to speak brutally honestly at campaign events about his donors as well as about the reasons why he doesn’t do more to support the disenfranchised, which unexpectedly results in a rise in his popularity. The notion of a politician gaining support by brazenly speaking out against the Washington establishment continues to be a timely conceit, and the screwball, cringeworthy antics of the main character are pretty enjoyable — although you would not be alone if you feel Beatty’s bad rapping grows a little tiresome. And even though the film is a harsh critique on the American political system, it also comments on the strained state of race relations within the country. The overall message of the film proves to be surprisingly poignant as it seems to argue that if one is willing to look past political beliefs or gains, it is actually quite easy to connect emotionally with others of diverse backgrounds. It’s certainly something worth remembering nowadays. Watch the trailer here.

drstrangelove
Image: Universal Pictures

Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Really, would any list of political satires be complete without this Stanley Kubrick classic? The film, a farce about how the world could face nuclear annihilation during the height of the Cold War, is a high water-mark for the two lead actors. Peter Sellers, showcasing his abilities with multiple accents as well as his mastery of dry comedic timing will not disappoint. And in another universe, George C. Scott must have had a very successful comedy career, as his facial expressions alone will no doubt garner some big laughs — from he pouts like a child after getting yelled at by the president to when he gets really giddy and excited at the most appropriate times. The story of a paranoid military general ordering his fleet of planes to attack targets in Russia puts an irreverent mirror up to the political tensions of the day, showing just how ridiculous the status quo had become. If someone was able to find the humour in nuclear armageddon, then there must be hope for our future right now. Things usually aren’t as bad as they seem, and being able to laugh once in a while at the insanity of it all is sometimes all you can really do. Watch the trailer here.

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