Archive for saturday night live

Hidden Jenner

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV channels, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2015 by Tom Steward

There was an unexpected role reversal in the world of TV news this past week. News satire – an institution that regularly attacks the bigotry and ignorance of network and cable news coverage – was itself accused of bigotry and ignorance in regards to transphobia, while a primetime network news special about transgender issues (albeit in the form of an interview with Bruce Jenner, hence why TV is interested in the first place) was widely praised for its sensitive handling of the topic. On Monday, The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore – Comedy Central’s bland replacement for The Colbert Report – aired a segment ridiculing Jenner’s identification as a woman and chosen sexual orientation as abnormal, which were made to seem even more grotesque by comparing her to Pinnochio. This was responding to Friday evening’s 20/20 special on ABC, in which the former Olympian and Kardashian was interviewed by Diane Sawyer about being a man trapped in a woman’s body her entire life and her decision to transition to a woman, which she has been doing piecemeal for years.

Methinks Larry doth protest too much!

Methinks Larry doth protest too much!

At the heart of the controversy surrounding The Nightly Show was Wilmore’s apparent confusion about Jenner’s desire to become a woman yet having male genitalia and preferring women sexually. Now, if this seems to be representative of the billions of people around the globe who have spent their lives knowing they are a different gender than the one assigned to them and have, for reasons too numerous to mention, yet to make their (complete) transition, it’s because that’s exactly what it is. It’s hard to see where the confusion, or indeed the comedy, lies in pointing out these tragedies. If anything, this information helps us make sense of Jenner’s personal (mostly surgical) life choices in recent years, and there is, of course, the little known fact that what Bruce Jenner wants to be or do in her life is none of anyone’s fucking business. Even more appalling was Wilmore’s hetero-bullying tone, which seemed to suggest that this particular combination of gender and sexuality was above and beyond an average straight guy’s understanding of the world.

But 20/20 didn’t miss the opportunity to turn the tables on news satire either. Clips from Saturday Night Live and Conan making jokes at the expense of Jenner’s gender instability were featured in the programme. She was fair game when she was altering her appearance for reasons of vanity, but the punchlines were directed at gender. Conan O’Brien’s monologue jibe seemed to be urging Jenner to hurry up and pick a gender, as if that were somehow easy or necessary for us to recognise her as human. In defence of news satire – which I believe to be essential not only as a critical commentary on the news but also a superior alternative to it – these are atypical moments that in no way represent the genre’s treatment of such issues. It’s hard to imagine The Nightly Show’s tone of reporting on its forerunner The Daily Show which draws Arsenio-style primal screams at the mere mention of Elizabeth Warren. The Conan monologue gag seems unusually cruel, especially for a late-night talk show with a notably liberal following.

Hindsight is 20/20!

Hindsight is 20/20!

It is, however, possible to imagine Wilmore’s segment on The Colbert Report, with the thinly veiled prejudice cloaked in the self-negating irony of Colbert’s fake conservative newsman persona. But there’s no evidence here that we’re supposed to think of what Wilmore is saying as anything other than genuine (and if you ever suspected that Wilmore is capable of comedy that is less than obvious, remind yourself he is the creator of Black-ish!). If the problematic representation of transgender issues in news satire has been reported correctly, we should also note that the success of TV news coverage in dealing with the same issues has been greatly exaggerated. Perhaps the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the Bruce Jenner 20/20 special was motivated by relief that it wasn’t the most hideously offensive piece of journalism ever aired. But interviewer Diane Sawyer adopted the persona of a sceptical and disgusted parent, asking questions only the most hateful (and thus least important) person would. It’s insulting enough, even without the patronising implication that this is what the public would ask. We also have to take into account TV news’ much worse track record when it comes to reporting on the transgender community: Piers Morgan’s media war with Janet Mock, Katie Couric’s inappropriate intimacy interviewing Laverne Cox. Nobody’s getting it right but news satire is wrong less often than the news.

Sunday Day Recorded

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Reviews, TV channels, TV History, Unsung Heroes, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2015 by Tom Steward

‘For a lot of people, their favourite part of the show is the short films, which makes you wonder why don’t they just do the whole show that way. They’ve been doing the show wrong for 40 years. The sketches, they’re nice but they’re long.’

Louis C.K. has made a career out of hitting the nail on the head – and inducing involuntary laughter from the brain – but in as many words as there’s been years of Saturday Night Live, the comedian summed up the fatal (surely tragic by now) flaw of NBC’s late-night sketch show, which celebrated 4 decades on the air this month. C.K. was introducing a compilation of shorts on the SNL anniversary special, scheduled on a Sunday and in primetime (who says American don’t get irony?) and may well have been feeding in to the inverted back-slapping that was pungent throughout the evening. But as soon as the clips rolled, and names like Jim Jarmusch, Mike Judge, Albert Brooks and Paul Thomas Anderson filled the screen, C.K.’s roast zinger becomes an unarguable truism. I myself once had a similar thought before when watching the late-90s British daily sketch programme The 11 O’Clock Show which was written on the day of broadcast and wondering why they didn’t just spend more time on the jokes and make them funny.

Crapping on SNL!

Crapping on SNL!

The more you think about it, the more damning C.K.’s accusations become. Who honestly prefers to watch an SNL sketch featuring The Blues Brothers instead of just watching The Blues Brothers? Where’s the pervert that would endure SNL’s fake public access show ‘Wayne’s World’ as anything other than the intro to Wayne’s World (or Wayne’s World 2)? SNL cast members try to make out that movies based on their sketches are duds (presumably for fear someone might decide to cut out the middleman) but its filmed elements are the only great comic art the show has ever contributed the world. And a sketch worth of Coneheads feels like an hour-and-a-half movie anyway, so you might as well watch the feature spin-off. C.K. might be biased since his sitcom has the finesse of art cinema, but we’re not talking about a group of comedy Oliviers with rave live notices that seem hopeless on film. Every SNL legend has proven themselves masters of screen comedy and the mythical thrill of live TV shouldn’t distract us from that.

Unless I’m severely underestimating Lorne Michaels’ command of irony, I don’t think the inflated length of the anniversary special – coming in at four-and-a-half hours – was meant as a poke at SNL’s reputation for overlong sketches. Again, C.K. was on point (why don’t I just marry him?) and the underwhelming reaction he received was not simply audience fatigue, but a nervous titter of cold, hard realization. The amount of sketches (if you can call them that) and appearances on the night looks impressive on paper, and yet SNL has that amazing ability to appear stretched even when pushed for time. It doesn’t help that so many of the most famous sketches which were revived for the afternoon/evening are based on repetition; Celebrity Jeopardy, The Californians, Weekend Update, The Bass-O-Matic Infomercial. What start out as parodies of overly-formatted TV programming end up using that format as padding. It’s a mistake for SNL to assume that everyone finds their overlength endearing. Like their very own Drunk Uncle, the nostalgic surface hides a multitude of outmoded beliefs and behaviours.

Eddie Murphy doing for real what he does in his mind.

Eddie Murphy doing for real what he does in his mind.

For a sketch show that invests such capital in the idea of shedding its history as soon as it qualifies, the current SNL cast were rather conspicuous by their absence on the anniversary special. Perhaps it’s not so much about them as the greatest generation that fought for their freedom to pretend to be Justin Bieber, but what this sketch comedy version of Apocalypse Now (minus Brando mumbling about snails – that was cut so Eddie Murphy could applaud himself) somehow failed to acknowledge was continuity. It’s a slap in the face that a cast who may be in the process of getting SNL’s shit together for the first time in quite a while should be passed over in a four-hour show and made to look like the weakest links in the chain. Given that Eddie Murphy has only just forgiven SNL after former cast member David Spade ridiculed his career on-air, despite Murphy single-handedly keeping the show on the air (like 1986 World Cup Maradona), they’re clearly not the ones who should have been asked to clean boots that night/day.

Bad Morning Television

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, BiogTV, Internet TV, Reviews, TV advertising, TV channels, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2015 by Tom Steward

It was upon returning to my hotel room at 5 in the morning after seeing some of the best and oldest bluesmen in Chicago and celebrating the existence of an L-train with a trip to a 7-11 to get some cheese-filled-bread (or bread-filled-cheese) with a side dish of whatever was left on the room service tray a few doors down and being confronted with the blurry, blobby outline of Tony Danza that I came to a grave realisation. In the land of 24-hour business, late licensing, and all-night dining, there’s nothing on TV in the middle of the night. So why have two major TV events recently debuted in the early hours of the morning?

Last November the comedy short Too Many Cooks aired around 4am during the infomercial block on Adult Swim, the late night version of Cartoon Network. A parody of both the opening credits of 1980s sitcoms and the insanely dark and genre-bending possibilities of TV comedy in that decade (and before you dismiss it as exaggerated, remember that ALF was dissected by the government in the finale), Too Many Cooks became a viral video smash and was repeated each day at midnight for the next week. The perverse choice of a graveyard slot more or less guaranteed the short’s success, not only because re-run and internet re-circulation was necessary, but also because there was no competition.

Adult Swim seemed to cotton on to the fact that there’s an undiscovered country of television between the hours of 1 and 6 in the morning. I understand why they’d want to be the pioneers, but I don’t understand why there’s not a frontier-style rush to claim territory from every other producer in TV. If the entertainment market is so damn saturated, why not get a head-start by putting out your show in the vast wasteland of unused hours in the TV day? For once, having a variety of media platforms to re-play TV on is a blessing, since audiences will need and want to see your show again once they hear they’ve missed out.

It’s surprising that the networks haven’t come to these conclusions already, since they’ve had such great success by pushing their best programming later and later in the evening. The 11 o’clock talk show is an institution that has spread to virtually every channel in the schedule and their midnight sister programmes aren’t far behind. This weekend NBC celebrated 40 years of Saturday Night Live (ironically on Sunday and in primetime), a show which begins at 11.30pm and runs to 1.30 in the morning. This isn’t, as I once thought, because Americans stay out or go to bed later, but because it’s untapped resources. In Britain at this hour, they start playing movies starring Eric Roberts.

And what if you actually need to bury a show? There was surprise in early February when FXX aired a pilot for a series based on the popular Wheel of Time fantasy novels by Robert Jordan at 1.30am. Not only do the books have a huge fan-base, but with Game of Thrones still going strong, there’s a deep well of fantasy (probably with a goblin in it) that everyone in TV can draw water from. It soon became clear, however, that the air time wasn’t a stunt to get the show ahead of the competition but to keep it firmly under the radar, being the best all-round solution to legal issues facing such a project.

The television rights to the books were to revert to a new owner on February 11 (two days after airing) and so the previous owners were probably trying to get something based on the books out on TV before that happened. Author Jordan’s widow has contested the claims of the producers to the rights and they are threatening legal action. Interestingly, FXX were able to offload responsibility by treating the pilot as ‘client-supplied programming’ i.e. an infomercial. If you’ve got a show mired in legal trouble, 1.30 in the morning is clearly the place for it. The Wheel of Time pilot used the early-morning hours as a dumping ground for toxic material but it still shares similarities with Too Many Cooks’ deployment of late TV.

Both programmes traded on the idea that anyone watching at that hour can’t be sure of what they’ve seen; one for comic effect, the other for legal protection. With each one, being mistaken for a promo or infomercial actually helped. It makes financial and creative sense. Why still the hesitation?

Bonus Ball

Posted in American TV (General), TV advertising, TV channels, TV Sports, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 6, 2015 by Tom Steward

I’m sure most of you are over The Super Bowl for another year (this really should be called ‘Watching TV after Americans’) but I’m far more interested in an aspect of the event that doesn’t change each year – although even for someone to whom ‘football’ means round balls and bad pies it was a pretty great game – which is the TV generated around it. The Super Bowl on TV seems never to start or end, making it the perfect metaphor for the medium. As it’s assumed that large portions of the nation are watching, which is no mean feat these days, The Super Bowl is a bat-signal for advertising. For the same reason, counter-programming decides to take one for the team, but those networks that try to take on The Super Bowl must do so in the most ruthless ways possible to even get noticed. This year, however, there were some added satirical bonuses.

I’m used to televised sporting events starting a few minutes later than advertised to sneak in a commercial break while everyone’s watching, but I was not prepared to be sitting on the couch at 3.30 still waiting for the game to begin. And for what? John Travolta’s Adele Dazi trying to break Bleedin’ Gums Murphy’s record for the longest rendition of ‘Star Spangled Banner’? The presentation of the NFL’s annual ‘didn’t rape or hit anyone’ award? Don’t we have a pre-show for this? The mechanics of modern television have manoeuvred themselves so that we are continually watching prelude. The Super Bowl goes one better and expects we will enjoy it. It’s moments like this which remind us that commercial television form is an integral part of the way that a game of American football is structured, rather than the British kind which is merely pricked around the edges by commercial interruption.

Commercials broadcast during The Super Bowl are notorious for being sexist, portentous and counter-intuitive. Half-time act Katy Perry clearly wanted to take some of the heat off the sexist commercials, but they were out in full force, not as well-disguised by nob gags as the advertisers clearly thought. Carl’s Jr. has even managed to turn gender discrimination into a branding mechanism for its Super Bowl ads. But this year they didn’t go unchallenged. Feminine health company Always ran a semantic deconstruction of the gender assumptions and discourses behind the phrase ‘Like a Girl’ while Saturday Night Live staged a fake Totino’s ad exposing the unbelievably narrow gender stereotypes and chauvinistic divisions of Super Bowl ads, particularly the archetypal representation of women as child-minded homemakers. Somewhere in the middle was Fiat’s ‘Viagra’ campaign which unironically presented pumped-up virility and machismo as a draw but also satirised male sexual prowess and the idealised feminine body.

Part of the fun of watching Super Bowl commercials is trying to figure out what product the pretentious pre-amble will eventually advertise (clue: anything combining ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ is deodorant). But sometimes the logic of ad writers is beyond even those who dissect media images for a living. A ghost-child commercial is the perfect vehicle for a leukaemia or cancer charity, but it does nothing to ameliorate the ghoulish undertones of an insurance company. Another insurance company, Esurance, seems intent on using circular logic and specious reasoning similar to the Johnny Cochran O.J. glove defence to convince consumers of its superiority to established rival Geico, but as long as that involves Walter White as a drugstore pharmacist I don’t much mind. If you tire of the commercials, you can switch over to The Puppy Bowl, Animal Planet’s re-imagining of The Super Bowl through the imagery of illegal competitive dog-fighting. For cute read irresponsible.

As with SNL, the most authentic example of Super Bowl television was the least genuine. Key & Peele have always satirized American sport and its coverage, but with their simulated Super Bowl pre-show staged as a real network broadcast, it was far more than a send-up. There was plenty to ridicule: the ill-fitting suits of the former-pro presenters, the passive-aggressive banter, the live-action footer trails of network sitcoms always starring ‘Alison Janney’, and of course the beyond-hyperreal graphics with overly phallic connotations. But the real-time flow and denouement in which the digital robot mascot achieves self-awareness and propels humanity into a state of oblivion identifies The Super Bowl and its live, ongoing broadcast with a dystopian terror effect that reminded me of another piece of faked factual horror television, the one-off BBC drama Ghostwatch. There is something inherently wrong and otherworldly about TV’s broadcast of The Super Bowl, the same something as television itself.

From Diego To A Slow Newsday

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Local TV, TV News, TV Sports with tags , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2014 by Tom Steward

If there’s a pop culture albatross hanging around the neck of my adopted home San Diego, it’s that of bad local television. Not only is the successful Anchorman movie franchise about a San Diego news station – with Will Ferrell’s hapless broadcaster Ron Burgundy a composite of local newsmen – but iconic American late-night sketch show Saturday Night Live currently runs a series of skits called ‘Inside SoCal’ parodying magazine shows on San Diego public television. It seems too much of a coincidence for San Diego to have been arbitrarily picked twice to represent the worst in local TV by the nation’s leading comedians. Before moving here, I thought Anchorman was set in San Diego by accident not design. It didn’t take long to rectify that misnomer.

San Diego: A Dolphin's Vagina!

San Diego: A Dolphin’s Vagina!

It must be acknowledged, however, that this comedy works on national and international levels and clearly doesn’t require affinity with local San Diego stations to be enjoyed. Anchorman and ‘Inside SoCal’ can be identified as broad mockery of the ineptitude of provincial media, applicable to whatever region the audience happens to be in. But in each case, the portrayal captures something unique about the TV coming out of San Diego, which gives them greater weight as parodies, whether you are aware of what they’re referring to or not. It’s presumably why so many of the best media satires (Alan Partridge, Parks & Recreation, Wayne’s World) have a recognisable geographical point of origin, even if the native in-jokes go over the majority of the audience’s heads.

But does it really matter that Anchorman is based in San Diego? On one level, no, since it tells the overarching story of how the sensationalism and kitsch of local news became the mainstream national norm, and could conceivably be about the foibles of broadcast journalism in any overlooked region of the US. Despite an acknowledgement of the city with some local filming at Sea World, San Diego barely features in sequel The Legend Continues, set in New York during the cable boom of the ‘80s. But then there are touches which suggest that Anchorman can’t do without the real thing, with sports reporter Champ’s catchphrase ‘Whammy!’ unnervingly close to KUSI weatherman (and notable global warming denier) John Coleman’s dancing and squealing to signature slogans.

Similarly, ‘Inside SoCal’ could surrogate for just about any poorly-made, small-minded public access show, and indeed you could just as easily locate the skit in the history of Saturday Night Live’s local TV parodies from Illinois-set ‘Wayne’s World’ to the Hampshire College students’ webcam series ‘Jarrett’s Room’. But, again, the self-conscious presenting styles and just-discovered-post-modernism of the editing hits right at the heart of many of the manchild-hosted late-night shows on San Diego’s local stations. The dress, talk and articulation of the East County twentysomething male is rendered to a tee, and G – a San Diego native – was particularly impressed at how convincing this was coming from East Coast comedians. Clearly, though, San Diego-born skit writer Kyle Mooney had a lot to do with this.

But is local TV in San Diego really that bad? Well, yes, but so is I suspect all the regional broadcasting outside the country’s media hubs (and probably in them too!). What distinguishes San Diego is its complete lack of self-awareness. Aside from the waltzing weatherman, KUSI also has an investigative reporter, Michael Turko (of a segment called ‘The Turko Files’ no less), who I will refuse to believe isn’t a parody until my dying day! Turko seems to have studied under Chris Morris’ Ted Maul at the Brass Eye School of Journalism and his voiceovers would be considered a broad spoof if they appeared in a Scary Movie sequel. The anchors are so Stepford I once saw a man present the news with himself.

News For Our Generation!

News For Our Generation!

It might be a welcome break from the surf and sun clichés that haunt San Diego, but the city’s synonymy with laughable local television doesn’t permit the world to take it seriously. Sure, the surfer tag can inadvertently make San Diego seem bland and vacuous too, even if the beach music and movies it stems from are among the best in America’s popular culture. However, there’s no such backhanded compliment in Anchorman or ‘Inside SoCal’, however affectionate they are. Since it puts San Diego on the map and heralds the rise of natives to national fame, I don’t think locals will put up too much of a protest. Given the state of TV here, they wouldn’t have a leg to stand on if they did.

Away Sky

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV channels, TV Criticism, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 22, 2014 by Tom Steward

It’s no shock that here in the States TV shows go on far too long or that they change drastically over time. Most series signpost their anti-ageing facelifts to viewers with the help of subtitles, which act as disclaimers for authenticity and longevity, as in the later years of Saved by the Bell or on the opposite end of the scale (it thinks!) American Horror Story. Others more confident of their status as season-long anthology plays such as True Detective and Fargo will re-cast completely each year to demonstrate that it is the concept not the characters that are the stars. Despite this amnesty on self-adaptation, some shows still seem wary of admitting to viewers that they have renewed themselves in the process of maintenance.

Remember them? No, neither do I!

Remember them? No, neither do I!

Chief among them is Homeland. Showtime’s CIA thriller has killed off the character around which the show revolved, re-located to another country, and butchered its beautiful title sequence, which was always as good as (and increasingly better than) anything that followed. Yet it still goes under the name Homeland and goes around acting as if nothing has happened. Frankly, it’s a bit of a cheat. Having revealed itself as a concept that barely had enough material for a mini-series, perhaps it would have wiser to position the post-Brody Homeland as a spin-off or linked franchise entry. With the emigration of the series, it could be Homeland: Kabul or as Damien Lewis re-appears shrunken in all but hair as Brody’s baby son, Homeland: The Next Generation.

I’m not serious about these title tweaks, but the point is that TV has ways and means to suggest that a show has changed dramatically without any detriment to the brand or canon. It’s a win-win situation. The viewer base for the series will return in loyalty to their show and if hideous it can be written or quietly killed off in complete deniability of any resemblance to the original. There is precedent for this in the Columbo spouse-off featuring the elusive Columbo Indoors. Mrs. Columbo starring captain-turned-convict Kate Mulgrew was intended to be a mystery following the amateur sleuthing of Columbo’s wife. It was so unpopular and implausible that producers decided Kate Columbo just happened to be married to another detective with the surname.

In the last four years, Key & Peele has been one of the smartest and most culturally relevant comedy programmes on American TV, and surely a historical high point in TV sketch comedy. This season they have forgone what for many viewers was the highlight of the show, their semi-improvised skits in front of a studio audience introducing the main sketches. There are also noticeably fewer sketches per show, and a shift in the framing of the series towards the cerebral with a sombre western motif in the re-recorded theme tune and filmed introductions. With the amount of time they’ve been on the air, and my suspicion that the changes were forced by a busy production schedule, I don’t begrudge it. But I don’t approve.

The ‘live’ segments of Key & Peele may have been too much of a nod backwards to traditional vaudeville for those obsessed with innovation, but they were the show’s unique selling point. They were bouncy, energetic, and personable, with many of the loosely improvised moments standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the pre-written material in terms of quality. The pre-recorded banter this has been replaced with just seems flat and inert by comparison (with the exception of the discussion about ventriloquist dummy ‘Willy Talk?’). Equally, I feel that what set the sketches apart from the Saturday Night Live School was how tightly-scripted and effectively concluded they were. With sketches stretched to a commercial beat and post-punchline by close-of-play, they’re dragging like Lorne Michaels’ feet about hiring black women.

Did they write that?

Did they write that?

I am, of course, a hypocrite. An aspect of AMC’s The Walking Dead I greatly enjoy is how the concept of the series can periodically change in the space of a few episodes. At the beginning of last year, it was a show about farming. This time round it’s about shooting cannibals with sub-machine guns. Yes, the idea of movement is ingrained in the title, and change has been a part of the formula from the beginning, but it’s still got away with en-masse recasting and retooling without any acknowledgement to the viewer. I suppose the difference is that between growing and living. The Walking Dead evolved into something greater than it was while Homeland and Key & Peele maimed their greatness to carry on.

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