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Roasts, Carson Reruns, Amy Schumer - Uncle Orson Reviews Everything

Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 8, 2016

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Roasts, Carson Reruns, Amy Schumer

For years after the huge success of the movie Die Hard, half the action films pitched in Hollywood had a Die Hard tag line. Speed, for instance, was reputedly pitched as "Die Hard on a bus."

Well, the other night my insomnia forced me to watch Home Alone (1990), and I swear, Die Hard itself could have been pitched as "Home Alone in an office building."

It first occurred to me when one of the "wet bandits," Daniel Stern, climbs through a window and steps on broken Christmas ornaments. I immediately flashed on Bruce Willis walking barefoot through broken glass in Die Hard, and then I was off and running.

After all, both movies take place at Christmastime. Willis and Culkin play guys who weren't supposed to be in the building. The bandits are expecting an easy score, and they add extra-malicious touches to their act because hey, why not make it fun? When they run into resistance, though, it makes them furious and they go crazy trying to catch the tormentor who keeps laying traps for them and interfering with their ability to get away with a big haul.

Bruce Willis never does the Macaulay Culkin open-mouth hands-to-cheeks pose, but he might as well have.

Admittedly, the plot details don't match up -- how could they? -- but the premise is so similar that surely Home Alone was on Jeb Stuart's and Steven E. de Souza's minds as they wrote Die Hard.

Except for one tiny problem. Die Hard came out in 1988, two years before Home Alone.

When I realized that, the whole thing flipped in my head. Could it possibly be that writer-director John Hughes saw Die Hard and thought, "How about Die Hard with a kid fighting off bandits in a suburban house?"

You can't really track the genesis of an idea, and John Hughes isn't around for us to ask. Besides, why would he admit it if he were alive? And who says he couldn't have been unconsciously doing "Die Hard with a kid" without even realizing it?

Still, when you're watching twenty-five-year-old movies on cable late at night, it adds a lot of entertainment value to watch Home Alone with Die Hard in mind -- and vice versa.

*

I don't know about you, but I set my TiVo to record the Comedy Central Roast of Rob Lowe.

I did it even though I know that the Comedy Central roasts are vulgar, tasteless, and only occasionally funny.

I did it because I am actually a fan of Rob Lowe. Not necessarily as a human being -- though he was hardly the only young Hollywood star to go a little crazy when fame and money first hit. Unlike Charlie Sheen, he got over it and went on to do fairly well for himself.

You could predict what people would say about Lowe, for laughs. How he's been in a lot of series that got canceled. How he made a sex tape with a couple of underage girls a few decades ago. How he's too pretty to look at, and is aging better than most.

But most of the time, the roasters actually score their best laughs off of attacking each other. Everybody mocks Jeff Ross because, apart from occasional gigs on @Midnight, his only job seems to be taking part in roasts of people he's never met.

David Spade, who was the roastmaster (emcee), had to put up with short jokes and snide remarks about Joe Dirt. Peyton Manning got ribbed for ... well, for not being Tom Brady, apparently. Ralph Macchio got teased for not having worked much as an actor since his supporting role in My Cousin Vinny. And people said truly crude and offensive things about all the women on the dais.

Here's the thing that I didn't understand. Who was the moronic publicist who booked Ann Coulter on this roast? Maybe they thought that because Rob Lowe was briefly on The West Wing -- that painfully self-important TV show that was worshiped by the Left -- she might have something to say.

Ann Coulter has a reputation among conservatives for being "the funny woman" who says things that other conservatives with they could say -- but only she dares to say it.

I'm afraid that after seeing her shtick a couple of times, I find her (a) unfunny, (b) shockingly ignorant, and (c) utterly without taste. I'm a moderate conservative, but never once has she said anything that I "wished I could say." (If I wish to say something, I say it. And I have never wished to say any of the "funny" things Ann Coulter says.)

I may disagree with her, and I always resent her presence on the same programs with serious commentators, but that doesn't mean she deserves the savagery and rudeness with which she was greeted by this Hollywood crowd, both on and off the dais.

The attacks on her were never funny. The people saying these things weren't even trying to be funny. They were cruel, crude, and had no underlying affection -- which is supposed to be the tone of all these comic roasts.

Coulter herself said it when she finally came to the microphone: "Welcome to the roast of Ann Coulter, with Rob Lowe."

That's what the show turned out to be. She was everybody's favorite target. They thought it was funny to call her a Nazi, a member of the Klan, the author of Mein Kampf, a holocaust denier.

That's because, since nobody in Hollywood ever knowingly talks to a conservative, they have no idea what conservatives actually believe or think. They can only trot out the false accusations that mindless bigots of the Left routinely fling at all conservatives.

The show's director also loved to zero in on her and show how little she was enjoying the "jokes" made at her expense.

When it was her turn to talk, alas, she proceeded to demonstrate that (a) she has no idea how to talk to a left-wing audience, or even an audience with a mix of American opinions, and (b) she has no understanding of comedy that doesn't consist of getting embarrassed laughs by saying shocking things.

The audience, of course, hated her before she started talking. So what do you do in a case like that? You don't do the stupid material that idiots provided for Coulter -- crudely attacking the other roasters. You especially don't do that material when much of it seems designed to make her sound and look exactly like the hate-filled bigot she is reputed to be.

What Ann Coulter needed to do was spend her entire time making fun of herself. As she said, the evening had turned out to be a roast of her, so she should have responded like a gracious, humorous guest of honor. Self-mockery would have humanized her to this audience. It would have made it plain that she was not the demon that she had been treated like; it would have made all those attacks on her seem as mean as ... well, as mean as they actually were.

I know that would have worked, because Ralph Macchio used precisely that strategy and his was the most enjoyable performance of the night. Now, nobody hates Ralph Macchio, but they were quite aware that, while Macchio and Lowe began their careers playing teenagers in the movie The Outsiders, their lives followed very different paths.

Macchio played the title role in the Karate Kid, and he was the defendant who was being defended by Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny. Since then, he's been in front of the cameras most years -- but often in short films that capitalize on his Karate Kid fame.

Like Robby Benson, who found no career-making adult roles after he aged out of kid parts, people often are surprised to find out that he's still alive (though people who pay attention know that Robby Benson had a lovely career playing the voice of the Beast in Disney's Beauty and the Beast). It happens.

Meanwhile, Rob Lowe was one of the Brat Pack (Macchio just didn't have enough brat in him), playing in The Hotel New Hampshire, St. Elmo's Fire, the classic About Last Night ..., and then pretty continuously in films and television shows, most of them with decent paydays. He did a brilliant comic turn for several seasons of Parks and Recreation, and while series like The Grinder failed, none of them failed because Rob Lowe didn't do as good a job as was possible with the material the writers gave him.

Rob Lowe didn't have Tom Cruise's career; he also didn't have Brendan Fraser's career, since he never had huge hits like The Mummy.

But Rob Lowe is still getting big parts, doing well with them, and he has a large fan base that definitely knows that he's alive. If that were not so, there would have been no roast, because Comedy Central needs high ratings.

So Macchio got some good laughs making fun of the fact that he has not had as strong a career as Lowe, wrapping up his stint at the rostrum by angrily pretending to hate Lowe -- and then clinching it by saying, "Now that's acting."

It was a brilliant turn, the funniest performance of the night. By contrast, Ann Coulter looked even nastier and more spiteful than she normally does in front of sympathetic audiences.

She could have made some friends, or at least toned down their hatred of her.

Instead, she went over the top and made it impossible for anybody to laugh at her "jokes." Even the courtesy laughs, such as they were (it wasn't a courteous audience), quickly faded away.

The second funniest performer was, incredibly, Jewel. She actually wrote and performed a very funny song explaining to Rob Lowe why she refused to kiss him. I won't say more, because any description would be way less funny than just watching it.

I tuned in a little late, so I didn't hear any explanation of why Bo Derek wasn't there (the Comedy Central cast list still shows her in first position as of this writing); if she was a no-show, she may have been the smartest person in the cast. Or maybe she was there and I simply overlooked her, as I always do.

There were also the normal contingent of people that I'd never heard of, like British comic Jimmy Carr and SNL performer Pete Davidson. I read a little about each of them, and found that Pete Davidson's father died in the towers on 9/11; I only noticed this because when I googled his name, the first thing that came up was Davidson graciously accepting comedian Stephen (The League) Rannazzisi's apology for having lied when he claimed to have escaped from the towers on 9/11.

That forgiving spirit was not in evidence when Ann Coulter was at the podium, though. Davidson was the only participant to do any genuinely angry heckling of a fellow performer. They really shouldn't let them drink quite so much during the show. Ann Coulter bore far worse insults without any vocal response. What does it say about you if you don't have as much class as Ann Coulter?

In principle, I think the whole idea of celebrity roasts is stupid. I once declined to take part in a roast of me at a sci-fi convention. "They'll all be your friends," I was told. "It'll all be in fun." Fun for whom, I wondered. Not me.

I'm like most people -- I forget anything nice that anyone says, because I'm too busy brooding about the mean things. Those I remember forever. Roasts are not for people like me.

The "roast" tradition began with the Friars Club, a private club in New York City that was founded in 1904 by the Press Agents' Association and was quickly dominated by show biz personalities. At first, their tribute dinners consisted of "toasts" to various invited celebrities. They also held "Friars Frolics" as fund-raisers -- Irving Berlin wrote "Alexander's Ragtime Band" for the Frolics in 1911 -- so they valued their showbiz celebrities and offered their wares to the public.

It wasn't until 1950 that the "toasts" became "roasts," as comedians Sam Levenson and Joe E. Lewis were put through the wringer. There's been a roast every year since. Because these roasts were not open to the public for many years, the celebrities who took part often crossed the blue line to offer really filthy remarks that would never have passed muster in any venue available in that more rigorous era.

Comedy Central began televising the Friars Club roasts in 1998, but when their five-year contract lapsed, they started putting on their own roasts.

Everybody acts as if it's a "no-holds-barred" event, but according to Wikipedia, some celebrities have put some limits on what can be said (or aired): Joan Rivers allowed no jokes about her daughter, Melissa, and Charlie Sheen backed away from his "no rules" roast by asking Comedy Central to edit out jokes about his mother. Other jokes in other roasts were in such bad taste that they were later cut, especially jokes that referenced tragic public events.

There were no such limits in this roast, or half the remarks by or about Ann Coulter would have been cut. Since I assume the show's producers hate Ann Coulter as much as the audience did, I'm guessing they relished showing just how bad her taste and judgment were. And ... since she didn't have to say those things, it's hard to fault the show for airing them.

Look, Comedy Central Roasts are like car accidents. No, you don't want to see anybody hurt. But if they were hurt, for some reason you have to know. Therefore everybody slows down to look at the accident scene. And since you have to slow down because everybody in front of you slowed down, you also look at the accident. Almost always there was nothing to see, so you probably don't even mention seeing the accident.

Unless one of the cars was torn in half, or accordioned so badly that not even a cockroach could have survived. Or if there was an identifiable body part detached from its original owner. "It looked like a leg," you whisper at the water cooler at work. "Oh come on," says somebody. "Well, they didn't ask me to come over and give them medical advice," you reply, "so I can't be sure, but to me it looked like a leg." And you're vicariously famous for ten minutes.

That's how these roasts feel.

"Come on, nobody would use the word 'spade' that way in these politically correct times." "Well, it was a pun on David Spade's name ..."

"Come on, nobody would joke about Chris Farley, everybody loved him and he's dead." "The joke was that he died partly from the strain of carrying David Spade through two movies." "Not funny." "Kind of funny, you just can't admit it because you know that Spade and Farley really were close friends so nobody with any decency would say that in front of Spade." "Did Spade laugh?" "I don't think so, but he didn't cry or leave, so ... maybe it was OK."

Here's a suggestion for the future for conservatives with a reputation for humor: Don't take part in any roast, ever. Rush Limbaugh, you weren't even funny when I saw you speaking to an audience of conservatives, so don't ever accept an invitation to a roast -- they're only going to destroy you.

Dennis Miller. P.J. O'Rourke. You really are funny. But you'll die up there -- unless you're roasting Jeff Foxworthy or Ted Nugent or Adam Baldwin, because then you'll have a completely different crowd.

Republican politicians, don't believe it when they say "it's all in fun." When they have a Republican target, there's no "all in fun." They're out for blood -- like when George W. Bush, as a candidate in 2000, appeared as a "guest" on Letterman and got completely destroyed by Unhospitable Dave at his worst.

These roasts are completely owned by the Left. After all, they're the ones who are so proud of talking dirty. And no, guys -- don't try having a "conservative roast." There aren't enough conservatives with a sense of humor to fill the chairs on the dais.

Though I will say that Donald Trump's entire campaign sounds as if he thinks he's at a roast, and so is expected to say crude and stupid things about everybody else on the stand. Not funny though, is it?

Donald Trump was roasted on Comedy Central in 2011. If only they had known what was to come.

*

Johnny Carson was the best late night talk show host ever. We all know it; even kids born after Carson left the air have heard it.

But now whole Johnny Carson Tonight Show episodes are being rerun on WGHP-DT2 (or "TV8.2"), which is carried on Time Warner Cable at digital channel 1250.

It has been illuminating to watch entire episodes of the show, because, to be candid, the passage of time had sweetened the memory. Not that I remembered any of the shows I've seen so far. They're all over the map, calendar-wise -- in the past week I've seen shows from the early 1970s to the early 1980s.

Carson was famous for his "savers" -- funny curses directed at the audience when they failed to laugh at a weak joke. What I hadn't realized was how many times he needed the savers; and how many times he ran out of savers long before he ran out of jokes that drowned in silence.

When Leno and Letterman first came on to compete for Carson's throne after he retired, I was disgusted with both of them because they were lousy interviewers, compared to Carson.

Still true. Letterman was lousy because he either didn't know how to make awkward guests look good, or he didn't care enough to bother. Leno was lousy because, like Sean Hannity, he didn't actually listen to his guests, he was too buys trying to set up the next joke.

But here's what I didn't really get: Carson put a lot of people on his show who would never be allowed on the stage of any late-night talk show today.

Talk shows go through guests like a baleen whale through plankton. Nowadays, we know what to expect -- celebrities touting their latest movie, tv show, or album; athletes who just won or spectacularly lost; celebrity comedians whose "conversations" are nothing but standup routines translated into "true" stories on the couch.

All of these people are fully prepared performers, ready to entertain. They've been vetted and prepped by the show's staff. They're ready to keep things moving at a brisk pace.

To break things up, the host often has his own shtick. Leno's "Jay Walking" and his headlines; Seth Meyer's "Ya Burnt"; Jimmy Fallon's games and other stunts, plus "Hashtags" and "Thank-you Notes." I won't bother listing Conan's bits because ever since he left "In the Year 2000" behind with the change of networks, his bits usually sound like a desperate cry from a drowning victim.

Carson didn't invent host-shtick, but he might as well have, with his Mighty Carson Art Players and characters like Floyd Turbo, American; Aunt Blabby; Carnac the Magnificent; Art Fern, the house of "Tea Time Movie."

Before Carson, hosts like Jack Paar had engaged in "intellectual" discussions with pundits and political figures; it was Carson who moved the show to Los Angeles in order to rely on a steady diet of celebrities. He had a reputation for ruthlessness -- if a guest was boring, he would go to commercial and when he came back, he'd introduce the next guest.

But those things were true by contrast with his predecessors and his competition. All his successors learned from him, including the fact that after The Tonight Show went from an hour and a half to an hour, we hardly ever saw, as a guest, anyone who was known only for writing books. It was up to daytime chat shows like Oprah to talk with or about authors.

This selection of Carson reruns, though, often shows him in mid-transition. The first one I saw had him interviewing -- through two segments -- a really boring guy who thought he had discovered something like a perpetual motion machine based on magnetism. It was idiotic, but the audience didn't understand that Carson was giving this guy enough rope to hang himself. The show was saved by having Garry Shandling do standup afterward, though the chance of anyone at home being awake to see him was pretty slim.

They're rebroadcasting both one-hour and hour-and-a-half episodes, and for an old coot like me, it's like coming home. You have to remember that Carson's Tonight Show was new to me in my twenties, and in those pre-DVR days, my wife and I often stayed up to watch the show. (That was easier when we lived in the Mountain time zone and Carson came on at 10:30.)

What I had forgotten was how much we must have talked to each other during the boring guest interviews. Because, even though Carson was getting away from the intellectual chat-show stuff, he was still conducting conversations.

For instance, Lily Tomlin, appearing to promote a new comedy album, seemed to have only one prepared bit. The rest of the time, she made Carson lead her through a somewhat tedious description of the album. For an incredibly long time (for tv), they both sat there looking at the fold-open album cover, seeing things that we couldn't see.

No producer would allow that today. If they were going to look at such a thing, we'd have another copy in front of a dedicated camera, so we could see what they were talking about. Think of Leno's headlines bit, where we were always shown a separate copy of the double-entendre headline or badly-designed ad while he read from another.

So the Johnny Carson reruns are a kind of cultural archaeology: This is what late-night variety shows looked like when they really were still talk shows, and while Carson was still inventing what late-night programming should become, and did become after he was gone.

They all owe everything to Carson; and I do enjoy watching the reruns. But I use fast-forward as often as I do while watching American Ninja Warrior (with ANW I do it so I can see all the action, but somewhat faster, and without any of the idiotic, repetitive commentary).

There was no fast forward when Carson's shows were new, nor was there any displaced viewing. If you didn't stay up, you didn't see the show. And then you were completely left out of the conversations about Carson's show the next morning.

Because we did talk about the show; in my age group at that time, everybody watched. Sometimes it would be to repeat a joke to the poor dorks who fell asleep -- like sidekick Ed McMahon's reputed favorite Carnac joke: "Sis boom bah" ... "Describe the sound made when a sheep explodes."

Or one of my favorites: "Inky dinky doo" ... "What do sanitation workers have to sweep up after a parade of inky dinkies?" But is that one really funny if you didn't grow up hearing Jimmy Durante -- or his mimics -- singing "inky dinky doo"?

One of the recent reruns had Jack Benny as a guest; but, unscripted, Jack Benny wasn't very funny. Most of the humor came from a mildly offensive term that would never be bleeped today, but was bleeped then -- only to be repeated, and bleeped, throughout the rest of the show. The highlight was Rich Little coming on and imitating Carson and Jack Benny, among others.

But think how times have changed, when a mimic was the highlight of the show!

And they had a fiction author, Irwin Shaw, coming on to tout his disappointing (but hugely bestselling) novel Nightwork. Nowadays, I use this book as an example to my writing students of a novel that promises great things, but then delivers a story nearly unrelated to the original premise. Shaw was a delightful guest (better than Jack Benny), but they actually talked about the novel. That only worked because Carson had actually read at least some of it -- or his staff had prepared him to talk as if he had.

What talk-show host would do that today?

Carson's show was so dominant in its time-slot -- and so culturally influential throughout America -- that it became NBC's most profitable program, period. That gave him power to change things around -- he worked fewer and fewer nights a week, bringing back reruns or employing guest hosts, like Garry Shandling, Joan Rivers, and Jay Leno, to fill in early in the week, or whenever Carson vacationed.

It would be impossible to calculate how many careers were started by a Tonight Show appearance. To comedians, it was the holy grail.

And even though Carson refused to openly discuss or debate politics, he was not neutral. He thought Jerry Brown, during his first stint as California governor, was crazy, and made him the butt of many jokes. When Brown ran for president, Carson incessantly called him "Governor Moonbeam," and always got a laugh.

Ridicule is the cruelest weapon in politics (cf "little Mario" or "Hillary-bot") and it was hard for many voters to get past Carson's jokes and consider Brown seriously.

Watching these reruns, show by show, it's possible for younger audience members, familiar only with the nonstop pace of the talk shows of today, to get bored. But I think these shows are a pretty good way to chart American history from the late sixties to the early nineties -- and, once you understand the rhythm of the thing, it's quite entertaining.

*

I didn't get Amy Schumer for a while. I tried watching "Inside Amy Schumer" a few times when it was new, and it seemed to me that it was crude, but not funny. Schumer herself didn't seem to have timing -- nothing sounded like a joke, nothing had the right beat to make me laugh.

So I became kind of a Schumer agnostic. Obviously somebody thought she was funny; I just wasn't one of them.

Then I saw Trainwreck last year, with a script by Schumer and with her in the leading role. I found the film funny and moving and, while crude and indecorous, very very good in both an artistic and a moral sense.

It's one of those movies that, when I flip onto it during late-night TV browsing, I can't stop watching.

With that movie I became an Amy Schumer fan. I don't know if she's a great sketch or standup comic, but she's a terrific actor with an Oscar role in her, if she's brave enough to take on such a script -- and if a studio is brave enough to cast her. She has that Jimmy Stewart quality that lets you move back and forth between comedy and drama.

Now she has a book -- a jumbly memoir, mostly about her family and growing up. The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo is read by her on the audiobook. (There's no point in having somebody else read a book by a comedian.) And I loved it.

Now, it has bad language all through it; if you can't stand that, don't waste your time. But if you can handle the language and the crude candor about body parts and functions, what you end up with is both funny and deeply moving. You know, like Trainwreck.

The surprise is that despite Schumer's shtick as a foul-mouthed comic, she was not and is not a "loose woman" by today's standards. Like most of us, she's looking for love, and doesn't really like the idea of sex without it. In other words, Trainwreck was not autobiographical, though she talks about how a lot of press interviewers, especially in Europe, took it for granted that she lived the kind of one-night-stand life that the movie begins with.

The book becomes truly devastating when she talks about the circumstances of her parents' breakup, and the way she was guided into taking sides between them pretty much her whole life. She isn't spiteful toward either parent, but she doesn't hide anything, either. And the wounds aren't healed, something that most children of divorce can sympathize with. You pretend it's all OK because you don't want to hurt your parents' feelings, but it's most definitely not OK. It's baggage you carry with you into every relationship your whole life.

Suppose you're an Amy Schumer fan. That means you already own this book and you're starting to tell me to mention your favorite bits. You're saying, "Mention her great riff on 'new money.'" No. I won't. There have to be some surprises.

Suppose you're not an Amy Schumer fan, as I wasn't, not really, but you can handle a book that's sometimes funny, always candid, and sometimes painful; suppose you don't mind the rough language and even rougher bodily function chat. Then I recommend this book very highly.

I'm looking forward to Schumer's next movie. I'm hoping to read another book of hers, not necessarily about herself. I probably won't watch Inside Amy Schumer because I'm probably not in the audience for that.

But hey, here's somebody who's doing really good, honest work that isn't pretentious self-worship like Lena Dunham's. {To see what I mean, read Lena Dunham Is A Monster Of Our Own Creation.}

Let's not get into any nonsense that Schumer is a great "woman writer" or "women's writer." I'm not a woman and I loved her first movie and her first book. But women don't have to write about women -- Bad Moms was good and it was written by men; women write about men all the time so we don't even blink at it.

Schumer is simply a terrific writer, no limitations; I just found out about how good she is in The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, and I'm now telling you.

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