Noiseless Chatter Spotlight: “Peekaboo,” Breaking Bad season 2, episode 6 (2009)

This isn’t you.

As I mentioned earlier this week, I am far from caught up on Breaking Bad. I’ve only finally started watching it within the past few months, and there’s no question that it deserves the mountains of praise its gotten. Season five began this week, and while I’m still lagging a few seasons behind, I thought it might be nice to spotlight an episode that really managed to stand out for me. Perhaps this will serve as a kind of time-capsule as well…a record of my thoughts before I knew for sure where things were headed. A moment of reflection before barreling forward, before I know too much of what’s coming for these thoughts to really matter anymore. A time when I get to delight in the fact that I don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle, and so focus that much more intently on what little I do have.

In fact, that’s a more appropriate introduction for this episode than I had intended, because focusing on some small aspect of the larger picture — and doing so deliberately, for whatever reason one may have as an individual — is something of a passive theme here.

Peekaboo comes midway through the second season, and it catches a lot of things about the show in a state of flux. It also stood out to me immediately — and continues to stand out to me — as a clear and permanent favorite. Breaking Bad is at its best when it reveals — nearly always indirectly — an undercurrent of humanity. A living and breathing conscience behind (or below, or within) the meth, the violence, and the devastation. Peekaboo elevates that humanity to a level we haven’t seen before. That, in itself, is not much of an achievement. The achievement comes in how masterfully it’s done.

One thing Breaking Bad did quite well from the very beginning was that it allowed for shifting allegiances between its audience and its characters. This was handled brilliantly by centering the show on Walter White, a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher played with almost meek understatement by Bryan Cranston.

From the very start, we want to like Walter. In fact, we want to like him so much that we make allowances for him. When he actively seeks out the chance to cook meth, we temper our natural feelings for drug dealers with the fact that he just found out he has cancer, and needs to pay for his treatment. When he snaps and berates somebody who doesn’t deserve it, we take into account the fact that he has a lot of stress in his life, with both a son with cerebral palsy a new baby on the way. And when he lies to his wife and keeps those who care most about him frustrated in the dark, we compare him to, say, his boorish brother-in-law Hank, who’s relentlessly obnoxious, racist, sexist and homophobic, and decide that at least Walt’s not that bad.

We don’t need to do these things, but we want to do them. We want to like Walter, so we will work to like him. We want to see the man beneath…and not the accumulation of garbage that continues to compound on top of him.

But Breaking Bad doesn’t let us get away with that for long. Two old friends of Walt’s — Gretchen and Elliot — offer to pay for his treatment, so his justification for cooking meth gets a lot more hazy. His outbursts become more frequent and more severe, which makes it harder to see them as troubled cries for help and easier to see them as a man gradually discovering his inner asshole. And the more we see Walt cheat and steal, the more we see that Hank, on the inside, is a tremendously scarred and scared individual who requires such an obnoxious front simply to make it through the day.

As much as we want to like Walt, and view him as a victim of circumstance, Breaking Bad leaves us with less and less room with every episode to rely on such a reading. In the process, by simple comparison, it also deepens the humanity of the characters around him, and lets us feel more aligned with them than we ever thought possible when they were introduced.

Peekaboo is a perfect distillation of the show’s desire that we question our allegiances to these characters. When we first meet Jesse Pinkman in episode one, he’s a drug dealer, immersed in a dangerous and criminal world that we, as viewers, likely would want no part of. Walter is the outsider, and he comes to Jesse, pleadingly, as an assistant. We can count the number of subsequent episodes on one hand, however, before that dynamic upends itself, and we see that it’s Walter dragging Jesse down, rather than vice versa.

By separating — yet still following — the two characters, Peekaboo lets us see exactly who these people really are. With each making his own decisions, free of judgment or pressure from the other, they are allowed to be themselves.

Jesse’s role in this episode is to break into somebody’s home and threaten them with grievous bodily harm unless they pay him back for the the drugs they stole. Walt’s role in this episode is to have a series of conversations. That Jesse comes out of this looking like an infinitely better human being than Walter could ever be is a sign that this journey will be deliberately confusing, and it’s a testament to Vince Gilligan’s absolutely brilliant storytelling.

Peekaboo picks up from the end of the previous episode, Breakage, in which one of Jesse’s friends, Skinny Pete, is robbed. Jesse accepts this as an understandable risk in the business, and is obviously just happy that Pete is okay. Walter, on the other hand, disagrees. He hands Jesse a gun, and vaguely orders him to “take care of it.”

When Peekaboo opens, Jesse is waiting for Pete on a street corner. He is going to follow Walt’s advice, because a drug dealer that can be pushed around is never more than one push away from being brought down forever. But it’s not his mission that he’s focused on…or, at least, that’s not what he chooses to focus on. He finds a beetle crawling along the curb, and he watches it skitter around. He lowers his hand to it, just to feel it walk across his skin. It’s a little sliver of life among the desolation in the poor part of town, and it holds Jesse magnetized.

The beetle didn’t need to be there. That is to say, it affected nothing around itself. It neither made the street corner better nor worse. It was no safer, and it was no more dangerous. It did not contribute to the identity of the world around it. It was, therefore, in its own strange way, a kind of escape. By centering his attention on the beetle, Jesse is able to block out everything around him, everything behind him, and everything up ahead.

It’s temporary, as it must be, but it’s something.

Later, after breaking into the home of the couple who robbed Pete, Jesse finds a similar — but far more affecting — sliver of life among the desolation: a little red-haired boy…alone, neglected, and hungry.

Jesse’s reaction to the boy, who is the only one home when Jesse climbs through the window, is one of almost immediate warmth and protectiveness. He begins by asking the boy when his parents will be back, but he quickly loses sight of his main task. The pity in his eyes in unmissable as he watches the boy play distractedly with the duct tape on the arm of the couch…obviously the closest thing he has to a toy in the entire house. The television only gets a station playing infomercials…not, as Jesse would have preferred for the boy, Mr. Rogers. And then, all at once, the boy says that he’s hungry. Jesse still has a mission, but in that very moment it becomes something else.

Walt, on the other hand, is going back to work after several weeks’ of medical leave. Apart from a minor detour in his lecture — during which he becomes visibly incensed by how poorly General Electric treated one of their chief engineers — his day is uneventful. When he arrives home, however, he finds Gretchen speaking to his wife. In order to hide the fact that he was paying for his treatment with drug money, Walt told his wife that he had accepted Gretchen and Elliot’s offer, and his wife still believes that. Gretchen, on the other hand, obviously knows that that is not true, and the fact that she doesn’t reveal Walt’s dishonesty demonstrates many things about who Gretchen is as a human being. Walt, whatever else he might be, is important to her. He’s somebody she, however we’d like to define it, loves. She wishes the best for him, and won’t speak up until she has some idea of what that is.

He meets with Gretchen later to explain, only his explanation consists entirely of a reminder that it’s really none of her business. Gretchen is played here with an almost angelic sweetness by Jessica Hecht, who even in the face of disrespect, dishonesty and outright hostility wants only to help her friend. She even reiterates that the offer to pay for his treatment is still on the table…despite the fact that Walt uncomfortably involved her and her husband in the deception of his own family.

In return, Walt refuses to tell her anything. He owes her an apology, he admits, but not an explanation. Gretchen pleads with him to accept her help, and Walt, steadying his gaze and speaking with deliberateness and complete control over what he’s doing, chooses to say, “Fuck you.”

Jesse, on the other hand, is feeding the little boy. He makes him a sandwich that seems to only be mayonnaise between two pieces of bread, because there’s nothing else in the house to eat. And when he hears the couple returning home, his first instinct is to put the boy in his room, and tell him not to come out. He doesn’t want to involve him. Pete opened the episode by crushing Jesse’s beetle, and Jesse won’t let this dim light be snuffed out as well.

What follows is more in line with his original plan. Jesse intimidates and threatens the couple, gets back the small amount of drugs that is left, and stands around waiting for the man — called Spooge — to break into an ATM that he stole. A victimless crime, Spooge explains, as we see the dead body of the Indian store clerk he stole it from.

Jesse can’t see the irony behind the “victimless crime” that we as viewers can see. That’s our luxury, and we get to view this morbid comparison point through the wonder of editing. Jesse has no such luxury, and that may be why he won’t see that his own victimless crime — dealing drugs — is directly responsible for the squalor around him, and for the hopelessness of that child’s future.

Later in the episode, the boy does come out of his room. He does so because he wants to continue the game of peekaboo that Jesse tried to teach him earlier. Then the child’s confusion was palpable…he had never seen this game before. His parents, it’s safe to say, have never tried to play it — or anything — with him before. And having finally had the experience of an adult who paid him a positive kind of attention, he shuffles out of his room and starts the game again.

As with the beetle, Jesse latches immediately onto this sliver of life among the lifeless. He blocks out his situation and focuses so intently on the magic of the little boy’s innocence, and the urgency of keeping it alive, that he doesn’t notice the boy’s mother coming up behind him to knock him cold. It was an escape, but it was temporary. As it must be.

The two stories end not the way they should end, but the way they must end. Walt returns home, where he learns that Gretchen has called his wife, and told her that they are going to stop paying for Walt’s treatment. Faced, as ever, with an opportunity to stop lying and find some honest way to move forward with his family, Walt chooses instead to extend the deception, and claims that Gretchen and Elliot stopped paying because they are broke. He even offers up a few condescending chuckles at their misfortune.

Jesse, ever Walt’s opposite in this episode, comes to just in time to find the boy’s mother crushing Spooge’s head with the ATM. Her drug-obsessed tunnel vision prevents her from caring much about the fact that Jesse is up and about and brandishing a gun, so he scoops up whatever money he can carry and calls the police, leaving the phone off the hook.

He’s not done here, however.

Jesse returns to the little boy’s room, and engages him in one last round of peekaboo. Only this time, the boy must keep his eyes closed, and not open them until they’re outside. He shuttles the boy frantically past the carnage in the living room, and sits beside him briefly on the front porch.

It’s clear that Jesse wants to offer something to the boy, but there’s nothing he can offer. This merciful — and, of course, temporary — exit from the home is all he can provide. From here, with sirens growing louder in the distance, it’s out of his control. Somebody will always come along to step on the beetle…but Jesse did his part to at least delay that inevitability.

“You have a good rest of your life, kid,” Jesse says, at a loss for anything else and clearly on the verge of an emotion he can’t understand, let alone process. He strolls off with his hands in his pockets, fighting the urge to look back. If he looked back, he wouldn’t have been able to keep going.

And that’s the moment the drug dealer became more sympathetic than the high school teacher.

Walt would not have rescued the child, and Jesse would not have said “Fuck you.”

Allegiances shift. Life is complicated.

Why Spoilers Matter: Do Spoilers Matter?

So Breaking Bad starts up again tonight. Don’t worry; I have something else planned tomorrow by way of celebration. But for now, with the inescapable commercials, and online advertisements, and interviews and so on, it’s got me thinking about spoilers.

My girlfriend and I are at the end of season two. Tonight, season five begins. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do, and we’re getting there…but we’re enjoying the ride and don’t feel too much of a need to rush. Yet whenever we see some kind of promotional material for the show, we want to look away, stop listening, change the channel…all for fear of spoilers.

And I’m not really sure why. I’ve always maintained — and still maintain — that spoilers shouldn’t matter. If the quality of the piece of art in question is high enough (and for Breaking Bad I’d absolutely say it is) then it shouldn’t matter if you know what’s coming. The pleasure shouldn’t be found in an endless succession of surprises. The pleasure should come from the journey. From the many components that come together to create an engrossing experience.

Anyone can shock us. Anyone can jump up and yell boo. That can be a type of pleasure, but it’s not the only type of pleasure. Perhaps if we’re speaking about a summer blockbuster that has no ambition beyond thrilling us with pyrotechnics, spoilers could pull the rug out from under that film’s only trick. But if the acting is good, if the writing is solid, and if the directing is pulling everything together in the right way, then why shouldn’t that be enough?

Recently I was on a forum, and somebody made a comment about something and said, “It’s like the end of Psycho,” by way of humorous comparison. (It wasn’t actually very humorous, but there you go.) A second poster replied, “I haven’t seen Psycho, what happens?” And then the first told him to sign off immediately and go watch it.

Nothing wrong with that, but he justified this by saying something to the effect of, “Go watch it before you get spoiled. You’re very lucky if you don’t know the ending, so go watch it so you can experience it the right way.”

That’s troublesome to me on several levels. First, and less importantly, the ending was already spoiled in the thread by making that comparison in the first place. Shouting out “Go watch it now before you have the twist spoiled for you!” will keep him on guard for that twist, and that’s just as bad as — if not worse than — knowing what’s coming.

But secondly, it suggests that Psycho isn’t worth watching — or isn’t as worth watching — if you know what’s coming.

And, I’m sorry, but that’s bunk.

I knew the ending of Psycho well before I ever saw it. It may have even been the first thing I knew about it. Yet when I finally sat down to watch the film, I was absolutely ensnared by Hitchcock’s chilling masterpiece. It had nothing to do with not knowing what was coming next…it had to do with the film being a genuine masterwork by a man who knew what he was doing.

By now, most people know the dark secret of Norman Bates. I truly doubt, however, that it interferes with their ability to enjoy that film. If it does, then I can only concede that they must be watching films the wrong way. There’s really no other way to argue it.

When Kate and I were standing in line to see Moonrise Kingdom recently, a man walked by and shouted to everybody, “At the end of the new Wes Anderson movie, they all die.” That didn’t turn out to be true (Oops! Was that a spoiler too?), but if it had been true, so what? Does that make the journey Anderson has planned for us less magical? We may know where we end up. Does that matter? Should that matter? The film isn’t about its own final scene or scenes. If it were, it’d be around three minutes long. No, instead Anderson had more to say. We weren’t there to be shocked by an ending…we were there to be led by the wrist by a man we wished to spend time with. Is that an experience that can even be spoiled by advance knowledge?

What’s more, I knew that Rosebud was a sled. I knew that everybody rallied around George Bailey. And I know that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. So do a lot of people. And yet I doubt that it’s interfering with their enjoyment of those films.

And why should it? Certainly the revelation of Vader’s paternity earned a few gasps in theaters, but was it what resonated most with the people in the audience? Probably not…or, at least, the shock was not what resonated most. If it had been, there wouldn’t be much of a reason to rewatch it now that that coin has been spent. And yet — and please correct me if I’m wrong — I’m under the impression that people do still rewatch the Star Wars films.

So there must be something else. People know there must be something else. After all, how many people can say that their favorite book, film, song, or anything else is something that they’ve only experienced once? No, more likely it’s something they’ve returned to — and continue to return to — many times over, despite the fact that they “know what happens.” They’re already self-spoiled. And it doesn’t detract from their enjoyment. If anything it may enhance it, as knowing what’s to come can give them a stronger appreciation for the steps the artist must take in order to arrive there.

That’s fair. That’s good. I agree with me.

And yet…I still don’t want to know what happens on Breaking Bad.

I know spoilers are a ghost we shouldn’t be afraid of…but when I see it coming, I run in the other direction.

Even though I know better.

Why? What’s so scary about knowing what’s to come? Isn’t it one of mankind’s most clearly recurring wishes to know, in some way, what the future brings? We can prepare ourselves for it. We can steel ourselves against it. We can look forward to it.

So why, given the opportunity to know the future in micro, are we so compelled to shut it out?

I don’t have an answer. I don’t know why. You can rationalize it all you like, but, in the end, we don’t want to know what comes next. At least, not until we get there.

That’s fascinating to me. Because I really, genuinely, honestly, don’t know why.

Four Great Ongoing Critiques

As they say, everybody’s a critic. As they should say immediately afterward, “Not everybody’s good at it, but there you go.”

Criticism is difficult to perform intelligently. I should know; I’m a particularly shitty critic myself. But every so often some anonymous stranger on the internet says something that — against all odds — turns out to be extremely insightful. From there, a great series of ongoing criticism can be born, and I wanted to take some time to share with you four of my absolute favorites.

This is not just a list of links…these are sincerely fantastic critical explorations that I endorse wholeheartedly.

1) Fred Clark’s Dissections of the Left Behind series.

For the past nine years (incredible but true) Fred Clark of Slacktivist has been analyzing page by agonizing page the entirety of the Left Behind series. For those who are unfamiliar with the series, here it is in a nutshell: God loves me, but not you. Fred, being a religious man himself, is appalled by the many levels of spiritual, literary and humanitarian stupidity on display in these pages, and he pulls them apart gorgeously. It’s a discussion about bad writing, yes, but it’s also a learning experience. I challenge any writer to come away from this series without being significantly more aware of the mistakes he or she is already making. You can check out his archive starting here, but many of the posts have annoyingly gone missing thanks to a change in URL. Regardless, he’s only recently begun the third book in the series, Nicolae, Rise of the Antichrist, and you can read these posts as they go up…which is the best way to enjoy them. First post here.

2) Dead Homer Society’s Discussions of Modern Simpsons.
We can argue all day about when The Simpsons officially became a shadow of its former self, but there’s really no arguing against the fact that it is a shadow of its former self. Dead Homer Society offers a shockingly sharp look at the current state of the show, with every new episode handled over at least four posts: a preview, a next-day recap, a feature that compares and contrasts it with an episode from the show’s golden years, and a transcript of a live chat discussing all aspects of the episode. It’s a surprisingly respectful way of conversing about a show that so clearly disappoints them in every way, and it makes for fascinating reading. Or, at least, it did. Yes, for Season 24 Dead Homer Society will be scaling back coverage, which is disappointing…but they will still be in operation, and — likely — just as worthy of your and my time. They’ve also released a fantastic new ebook called Zombie Simpsons: How the Best Show Ever Became the Broadcasting Undead that you can buy from Amazon or read for free here.

3) ProtonJon’s “Let’s Play Superman 64.”
The Let’s Play is a strange beast. I’ve recorded some myself, but even so I can’t say that I’m sure why people want to watch as somebody else plays video games for them. ProtonJon’s brilliantly exhaustive trek through Superman 64, however, is a glorious exception to a tedious norm. Two years into the project and with only 6 stages under his belt, it’s clear that ProtonJon has a lot to say. He spotlights glitches from the games, discusses characters both inside and outside of their roles in this adventure, and generally goes out of his way to provide fascinating — and sometimes exclusive — information along the way. Superman 64 is widely reviled as one of the worst video games of all time…and rightly so. ProtonJon can’t — and won’t — defend the game on its merits…but he sure does have a lot of fun pulling it apart to learn everything he can about the many, many ways in which it went wrong. From interviewing the developers to playing it alongside other Superman games to comparing it to unreleased beta footage, ProtonJon has taken an effortless YouTube staple and elevated it to the status of genuine — and remarkable — documentary. Tune in.

4) The Annotated Sonichu.
From the moment I started this site, I wanted to do a Noiseless Chatter Spotlight on Sonichu, the addictively weird creation of Christian Weston Chandler…also known as Chris-Chan. Sonichu himself is an unabashed hybrid of Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog, and Chandler’s comic is meant to follow him along on his exciting adventures. Instead, though, the comic sidelines Sonichu in favor of Chandler himself, who appears on the page — as he does in real life — as a man searching for love, and unable to grasp why he hasn’t found it already. Its childish art style and bizarre narrative flow make for an easy mockery, but The Annotated Sonichu takes its source material seriously, and discusses page by page the many direct carryovers from Chandler’s personal life that shape and enrich CWCville, the town in which Sonichu takes place. Family members, friends, his dead dog and strangers online who pretend to be females interested in him all make their way into the comic at some point, where Chandler uses his narrative authority to cope with them in the only way he knows how: with Crayola markers. Truly fascinating, and an unexpectedly respectful deconstruction.

10 Comedians We Aren’t Meant to Find Funny

Maybe I will do a list of this kind every month. Or maybe I won’t. I probably won’t. I hope you didn’t like that introductory paragraph very much, because I’m going to write another one:

Comedy is difficult. Making people laugh is the easy part…making people laugh for the right reasons, at the right times, satisfyingly and consistently, is practically a science. For that reason, we come to expect that not every comedian will make it big, and that not every joke they tell will make us laugh. We know that an impressive hit rate is difficult to maintain, and we adjust our expectations accordingly, striking a balance between how much we’d like to be entertained, and how much we can reasonably expect of a fellow flawed human being.

But, sometimes, a particular comedian is doomed from the start. He is not only incapable of making us laugh, but he’s without control over his material, his audience, or even his demeanor. It’s tragic when this happens, and painfully awkward. The floundering comedian is an effective and offputting archetype, and that’s why writers have dipped into this well repeatedly, crafting characters fated to bomb every time, doomed to botch every punchline, making us laugh not warmly, but defensively, and with discomfort.

In the interesting cases of these comedians, laughing at their material means you missed the joke. Here are 10 examples of that irony personified.

1) Fozzie Bear (The Muppet Show)

There’s perhaps no better cultural touchpoint for the ill-equipped comedian than Fozzie Bear, and his signature “wocka wocka” has wormed its way into our vernacular as well, becoming rightfully associated with sub-par material and limp gags. Fozzie’s routine was dated before he was born, relying on simple puns and vaudeville showmanship to generate rapturous laughter and applause that never comes. He’s also, however, eminently sympathetic, which is not only why we like him, but why Kermit keeps him around, and gives him another chance every week to die on stage. With two old curmudgeons heckling him from the balcony above, we are free from the desire to criticize his act, and can instead turn our attention to the uplifting fact that no matter how poorly he’s received, Fozzie’s always devoted enough to his craft to throw away what doesn’t work — in his case, everything — and write a whole new act from scratch. We’d love to see Dane Cook follow his lead.

2) Jimmy Valmer (South Park)

Jimmy Valmer is a special case, in several senses of the word. For one, he’s an 8-year-old boy, which means — unlike Fozzie and everyone else on this list — he isn’t disappointed that he hasn’t made it further in his comedy career. After all, that’s still to come! But he also suffers from several obvious physical handicaps. No matter; Jimmy wants only to make the world laugh, an ambition that’s downright touching by South Park standards, and one made all the more unfortunate by his chronic stutter, which causes him to step on his own punchlines and prevents him from honing his delivery…or even intelligibility. His jokes are about what you would expect from an 8-year-old boy — meaning his material is about as mature as could reasonably be expected and therefore, again, elevates him above the other entries on this list — but they actually seem to work. Stan, Kyle, Cartman, Kenny and the rest of the boys accept him relatively happily for who he is, functioning just fine within their social circle, and he’s not defined in their eyes by his handicaps. No, instead Jimmy is treated exactly as poorly as they treat anyone else. That’s the healing power of humor.

3) Randy (Funny People)

Aziz Ansari is a genuinely gifted comic, and as Parks and Recreation demonstrates weekly, he’s also a talented actor. Both of those things allowed him to bring to life Randy, a pitch-perfect exaggeration — though only just — of a comedian so manic and animated that it completely masks the dire quality of the material he’s delivering. The greatest stand-up comics raised their volume for emphasis. Those from Randy’s school of performing, on the other hand, do it to drown out audience thought, keeping them cheaply engaged and laughing hollowly so that they won’t realize there isn’t any substance. Funny People is just one of many movies that Ansari steals wholesale from their ostensible stars, and the character of Randy has gone on to a have a full life outside the film: Ansari deploys him during his actual stand-up routines now, perhaps as a point of comparison to his normal material, but more likely as a cathartic blow against more popular, more profitable contemporaries of his, who cash larger paychecks but don’t have anything worth saying. Randy may be a popular draw within the world of the film, but all he really does is pull audiences away from more deserving performers.

4) Kenny Bania (Seinfeld)

In contrast to Randy, Kenny Bania is a hack we actually tend to like. Like Fozzie Bear before him, we feel protective of Kenny Bania, as though we don’t trust that he’ll survive the cruel world of stand-up comedy. Even the typically staid Jerry breaks down his personal barriers and takes Bania under his wing — however temporarily. Bania is overjoyed by the simplest, laziest pieces of observational humor, often interrupting his mentor with a sincere and irony-free exclamation of “That’s gold, Jerry! Gold!” His perpetual enthusiasm and sunniness is a rare thing for the Seinfeld gang, and it’s no wonder that he made several appearances during the show’s run, becoming more successful as a comic, but never getting any better or any wiser. Bania was given the ultimate compliment long after Seinfeld ended, by being one of very few recurring characters resurrected for that show’s “reunion” episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Unlike the profoundly irritating Randy, whose success seems to grow as your faith in humanity diminishes, Bania is more of an infectiously adorable nuisance, and it’s nice to know that he’s still out there somewhere, as ecstatic as ever over jokes that aren’t as clever as he thinks they are.

5) Krusty the Clown (The Simpsons)

Krusty the Clown has provided us with much cause for laughter over the years…just not where he wanted us to find it. His Krusty the Clown Show sketches are the stuff of huge mustaches and pie fights, something that might be written by somebody who grew up watching classic comedians, but could never figure out why they were supposed to be funny. In fact, his comedy routines are so poor that they drove at least one of his previous sidekicks to criminal insanity. The humor behind Krusty comes from the incongruity of his situation: he’s a children’s entertainer who openly dislikes children, even when the cameras are rolling. His drug and booze fueled lifestyle allow him to coast lazily through whatever appearances he’s contractually obligated to make, but beyond that he’s a comedian who doesn’t particularly care whether or not you find him funny…he gets paid either way. In fact, in one episode (“The Last Temptation of Krust”) Krusty does become inspired to develop as a stand-up comedian, and achieves a new peak of notability with his more mature, insightful material. And then, of course, somebody offers him money, and he realizes that that’s his real passion. Krusty isn’t a hack because he doesn’t have the talent; he’s a hack because he’d rather make easy money than work hard. It’s an ethos so powerful and seductive that it eventually infected the writing of The Simpsons itself.

6) Dee Reynolds (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia)

You’d be hard pressed to describe any of the main characters in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia as sympathetic, but you’d probably have the easiest time with Dee, if only because she seems to be aware that she’s missing out on something greater in the world. For all their grumbling and groaning, Mac, Dennis, Charlie and Frank are all actually pretty content where they are, and with who they are. They don’t have much of a desire to achieve even a measure of self-awareness, let alone anything bigger for themselves. Dee, on the other hand, does have aspirations: she wants to be an actress. With so little experience and talent behind her, though, she isn’t even sure where to begin, which is why she regularly subjects herself to delivering dire stand-up comedy at The Laff House. She explains this to Charlie — the only one in whom she’s confided about her performances — by saying she’s paying her dues. After all, if she wants to be an actress, she has to learn how to hold an audience. Fair enough, but when her set degenerates immediately into a series of painful and repulsive dry heaves, it’s clear that this is a gesture of self-mutilation, rather than any experience she’s likely to benefit from. Charlie, meanwhile, eats cat food. He’s the happier one.

7) Geoff Tipps (The League of Gentlemen)

The brilliant third series of The League of Gentlemen found many of its characters being thrust well outside of their comfort zones, an evolutionary direction for the show that resulted in much of its best — if not necessarily funniest — material. For Geoff Tips, this meant leaving the small town of Royston Vasey to pursue a stand-up comedy career in London. This is not a career change that’s destined to go well, particularly as we’ve already seen him botch jokes so badly that he’s threatened to shoot people for not laughing, and play practical jokes on his friends that involve him staging a gory suicide in a restaurant bathroom. Comedy is not Geoff’s forte, but it is his passion, and so, when he loses his job in “Turn Again, Geoff Tipps”, the comedy club is the first place he turns. Of course he bombs in more ways than one, not only allowing his act to dissolve into a shouting match with dissatisfied audience members, but also by serving as the unwitting chauffeur for a terrorist car bomb on behalf of the IRA. Still, you’ve got to laugh, haven’t you?

8) GOB and Franklin Bluth (Arrested Development)

Comedy is not GOB Bluth’s strong point. Nor is puppeteering. Nor music. Nor ventriloquism nor respecting the delicacy of race relations. It’s pretty clear then that his act with Franklin is going to go about as well as anything else he’s done. That won’t stop GOB, however, because GOB is one of those people who believes that everything he does is being done well, simply by virtue of the fact that it’s he who is doing it. He sees himself as preternaturally gifted in all areas he attempts to explore, and often this premature self-satisfaction is so seductive that others get sucked in as well. In the case of Franklin Delano Bluth — the puppet who reminds us that it’s not easy being brown — however there’s not much to get on board with. His racially-charged banter with the dead-eyed Franklin is stymied by the fact GOB can’t keep his lips from moving, ultimately resulting in his desperately hiding a tape recorder inside the puppet as a substitute for using his own voice. Unfortunately, GOB’s lips still move, even though he’s not saying anything, and the act is just as doomed as it ever was. As a character, GOB rarely says or does anything genuinely clever; rather, he works so well as a comic figure because of just how artfully he gets everything wrong. And speaking of puppets…

9) Joe Beazley and Cheeky Monkey (Knowing Me, Knowing You… With Alan Partridge)

Of all the characters on this list, Joe Beazley and Cheeky Monkey are the only ones who have just a single appearance to their credit. Even Randy continued to exist outside of the film that gave him life. Joe Beazley and Cheeky Monkey, however, so thoroughly squandered their chance at fame that they were never heard from again, in any form, ever. Just one of many, many, many things to go wrong for Alan Partridge on his ABBA-inspired chat show, Joe Beazley — suffering obvious and debilitating stage fright — bungles his performance so badly than Alan is forced to shut it down almost immediately…much to Joe’s chagrin. Joe starts out by bungling a joke that he improvised just minutes before in the green room, and it only gets worse from there. This comedy misfire wasn’t quite as damaging to Alan’s television career as the fact that he later shot another guest through the heart with a dueling pistol on live television, but the bitter taste of Joe Beazley’s routine with Cheeky Monkey lingers on to this day; he was one of the performers Alan saw fit to call out and specifically berate in his recent memoir, I, Partridge. Alan’s not one to let go of disappointment easily, and this laugh-free puppet fiasco affected him so profoundly that he used it as justification for never again giving up-and-coming performers a break. Ooh, you cheeky monkey.

10) Steve Martin

Why are we ending on an actual comedian? Well, because Steve Martin, in terms of his stand-up anyway, was always a very deliberate creation. What you saw on stage wasn’t Steve Martin the man, but Steve Martin the character. His arrow through the head, his balloon animals, his belabored “Well ex-cuu-uu-uuse me!” were all meant as clever pieces of anti-comedy. When he took to the stage, he did so as a walking caricature of the worst that stand-up comedy had to offer. Needless to say, audiences loved it, and Martin was given higher profile gigs, such as a record-breaking number of appearances on Saturday Night Live, and also more classic films than we can remember. The public initially decided they loved Steve Martin because he shined a spotlight on things that weren’t funny, but he did so in such an endearingly committed way that they just had to laugh. And then, once he had everybody’s attention, he showed the world that he knew comedy so well that he’s since stood as an important cultural fixture, spanning decades while lesser comedians — including many who unintentionally resembled the act that made him famous — came and went. And the moral of Steve Martin’s story is the most important lesson to keep in mind here: anyone can write a bad joke, but it takes a sincerely gifted people to craft these characters that are so perfectly bad in all the best ways.

How I Would Honor The Three Stooges

The Farrelly Brothers have been promoting their movie The Three Stooges by saying that first and foremost they wanted to pay tribute to the originals. Well, their movie is out this weekend, and from all accounts it doesn’t sound like all that flattering a tribute.

Personally, here’s how I’d pay proper tribute. I know it’s complicated, so I’ve tried to break it down into simple steps.

1) Take some time and go through all the surviving Stooge shorts. From these, take about 80 minutes’ worth of the best and most memorable material. You can narrow it down to a few complete shorts, or mix and match sequences from however many you like. I can see pros or cons either way. The important thing is, you’re using the originals, and not some lesser, artless stab at joyless re-creation.

2) Get someone knowledgeable and well-respected in the film industry to record an introduction for you. Roger Ebert won’t do for obvious reasons, but I’m sure you can find somebody important to speak for a minute or two about what the Stooges did for comedy, and how they influenced just about every physical comedian to come. This will be the first thing audiences see, because it’ll be comparatively boring and we want it out of the way early. Allot time for a pie in the face.

3) Draft a bunch of your Hollywood friends and colleagues to record new and interesting linking material. If they were willing to commit to humiliating cameos in the backyard horseplay you call a tribute film, I’m sure they’d be at least as willing to do this instead. Some of them might even come away from the project with some measure of self-respect, which would make for a nice selling point by comparison.

4) Edit it all together into A Celebration of The Three Stooges, or something. I don’t care. Call it a Tribstooge if you want. It doesn’t matter. Just as long as your centerpiece is original material, lovingly restored and considerately presented, featuring sincere reminiscences and discussions by contemporary stars and artists who appreciated them. Release it for one night only, or maybe schedule several showings over one weekend, to spur ticket sales and contribute to an overall sense of being part of an appreciative community.

5) There is no five. There are only four steps. This is fucking easy.

Of course, such a gambit might not make as much money as a major Hollywood film, but it would certainly cost a hell of a lot less than the monstrosity we have instead…and the profits on that one are yet to be determined anyway.

Then again, what do I know? We’re obviously in the hands of capable professionals.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...