The Madness of King George
The following article -- found here -- was published in the September 2002 issue of Los Angeles magazine.

After 13 seasons as the great and powerful Oz behind The Simpsons, writer-producer George Meyer is finally taking his leave from the show he helped shape into a global phenomenon. At a boyish 45, he's too young to retire. One might expect to see him try his hand at another TV show or the movies, but one would be wrong: "I've accomplished my goals in the mass media," Meyer says. "These days I find homemade spectacle more rewarding."

Accordingly, in late June, about a hundred people packed into the tiny Court Theater in West Hollywood to witness the homemade spectacle of Up Your Giggy, a play Meyer wrote, directed, and starred in that his longtime girlfriend, Maria Semple, produced. Despite boasting a cast that constituted a comedy Dream Team--including fellow Simpsons writer and stand-up Dana Gould, Mystery Science Theater 3000 creator Joel Hodgson, and Mr. Show alum Mary Lynn Rajskub--the production had something of a community-theater vibe. None of the actors was paid. Tickets cost just $10. Publicity was limited to word of mouth and a Web site (www.upyourgiggy.com). The theater was booked for only seven performances over two consecutive weekends. And it was Meyer's first time performing.

Ten days before the show opened, with the cast yet to rehearse, Semple, a former writer on such shows as Mad About you and Ellen, was by turns enthusiastic and blase. "We've been together for 12 years, but George doesn't want to get married--he doesn't believe in marriage--so I figure this is as close as I'll ever get to a wedding reception," she said in one breath, and in the next said, "If it's not fun, we'll close it down after the first show." The original run of seven shows quickly sold out, and two others were added to accommodate a waiting list that stretched into the hundreds.

Up Your Giggy hopscotched between sublimely absurd skits featuring the more experienced actors, such as the one depicting a movie starring deceased Wendy's spokesperson Clara Peller, played by Gould; all her dialogue had been posthumously cobbled out of her line "Where's the beef?" Between sketches Meyer delivered monologues that served as more straightforward target practice on his favorite betes noires: advertising ("If lies were garlic bread, advertising would be the Olive Garden"), family, and other pinatas like feminism, religion, and marriage (referred to variously as "a garish carnival of conformity" and "a stagnant cauldron of fermented resentments, ... dull weekends in Santa Barbara, and the secret dredging up of erotic images from past lovers in a desperate and heartbreaking attempt to make spousal sex even possible"). It wasn't exactly a feel-good show, yet Meyer presented his oft-acidic views in a package so amusingly constructed, even those who might have been appalled by the sentiments expressed couldn't help but laugh, hard.

"In my more romantic moments, I wanted half the audience to walk out," Meyer says, betraying a certain Bart-like contrariness, "but I imagine actually experiencing that would be excruciating." He never had to.

A celebrity attendee did give Meyer some pause, however. In one monologue he voices, among other things, his hope that Patricia Arquette won't ever "get adult braces, because the slight crookedness of [her] smile is unbearably sexy." Hearing this, Flirting with Disaster director David O. Russell returned for a second performance, bringing the actress with him. "So George is out there doing the monologue when he spots her in the front row! His jaw dropped--he got really flustered, and it took him a little while to recover," Semple recounts with a slightly wicked laugh.

After the opening-night performance, cast, crew, and audience (which, over the course of the run, included Eric Idle, Matt Groening, Kevin Nealon, and Hank Azaria) mingled under the soft light of a crystal chandelier perched in the crook of a tree in the Court's courtyard, nibbling heart-shaped cookies and drinking mojitos, which Semple had made using mint from her garden. The couple's button-eyed mutt, Chester, threaded his way through the guests' legs, presumably looking for his master. It was easier for a person to spot Chester's lanky owner, the exhilarated un-groom, across the courtyard, greeting well-wishers and crowding together every so often with one or more of them for photos.

A few days after the show closed, on the eve of a celebratory trip to a Santa Barbara spa, the couple seemed energized by the success of their first theatrical effort. Now Meyer and Semple are looking into producing another run of Up Your Giggy. Says Meyer, "We got such a good response to the show that it seems almost a shame not to do something else with it. In retrospect we didn't charge enough--I would love to do it again but not get completely hosed on it."

Good 'n' Randy
My delightful and talented chum Claire Zulkey recently interviewed New York Times ethicist Randy Cohen.

Here's an excerpt:

Do you miss writing the News Quiz in Slate?
Yeah, very much. That was really fun.

Were you able to do much writing there that you can't do for the column?
I could generate the topics there, but here I can only answer questions from readers but that was my little playground, writing the quiz, and the participants were wonderful. I got to write a funny little essay every day and they were just enormously fun and the people who did the quiz were just so terrific-they were so smart and funny. My job was to provide setups and they would provide punchlines. I thought, "This is my job! This is great!" Really fun and I've stayed friends with people who did it-I'd throw News Quiz parties now and then.

What did you like best about writing for television?
I liked going to the office. Writing is such solitary work and TV was so social in all these wonderful ways. So you'd go there and you'd have colleagues and you'd wander around the halls and chat with them and sometimes during that conversation you'd have an idea. Before Letterman I never really worked on a collaborative enterprise that was so much fun. The person who did the props, she was brilliant, Paul, who did the music, was so smart. None of these were people I'd ever be friends with in my normal course of life and yet together these people put on a show every day. It was just a real treat to be a part of it.

Trivia: I wrote News Quiz's final featured answer.

Here's an excerpt from another Randy Cohen interview:

What's been the highlight of your career?
The first time The New Yorker took a piece. This was when Bob Gottlieb had the magazine — before Tina [Brown] took over, when it still counted for something. I mean, seriously, it's a nice magazine, but it doesn't matter anymore. You know, it was thrilling when they took my piece. Also, getting hired at Letterman. It was a life-changing experience, just wonderful. I did it for seven years. You'd write something, and they'd put it on TV. Astonishing. I didn't write jokes. They had trained specialists for that. There were two guys who wrote opening monologue jokes, and the other eight of us provided the two six-minute chunks needed to fill up the show in an entertaining fashion. My best piece was Monkey Cam. Those who watched the show back then will know what that is.

Here's a humor piece by Randy Cohen that was originally published in The New Yorker: "Diary of a Flying Man."


New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast was on The Leonard Lopate Show today. To listen to the interview, click here.

At Cross Purposes
Anthony Lane on Monty Python's Life of Brian, from the May 3, 2004, issue of The New Yorker:

This week sees the rerelease of "Monty Python's Life of Brian." What has the movie done, you may ask, to earn the privilege of a Second Coming? True, it first showed twenty-five years ago, but then so did "Kramer vs. Kramer," and the public has yet to clamor for a fresh look at Dustin Hoffman playing split-the-kid with Meryl Streep. On the other hand, one cannot help imagining the slow grins that spread across the faces of John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, and the film's director, Terry Jones, when they heard that "The Passion of the Christ" had racked up three hundred million dollars and rising. Now, if ever, was the time to let Brian out of his cage.

For the benefit of any Python virgins, the story runs as follows: Brian (Graham Chapman) is born down the street from Jesus Christ. Thirty-three years later, Brian joins the People's Front of Judaea (not to be confused with the Judaean People's Front), sworn to defeat the Roman oppressors. From this point, without really trying, he topples into trouble—pursued by admirers, arrested, brought before Pontius Pilate, and sentenced to death. In the final scene, he is crucified, with other ne'er-do-wells, upon a hill; they sing themselves into the afterlife with glee.

Brian himself is a ne'er-do-badly who brims with a gentle exasperation, aghast at the frothing certainties of his fellow-men. I failed to notice that niceness before, but then, as a teen-ager, I wasn't looking for it; the Python fan base was a heaving cluster of schoolkids and students, and we yearned for the team to go on the attack, even if we—and, in retrospect, they themselves—weren't entirely sure what the target was. Cowardice prevented me from voicing my doubts, but I used to find the TV programs too skittish and splintered for their own good. The best cure for that fragmentation was to bind it with the kind of narrative glue—one can hardly call it rigor—that holds together "Life of Brian." Only here, and in patches of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," does the Python squeeze leave an enduring mark.

What is also apparent now is the folly—heartfelt but misplaced, as with nearly all grievances against works of fiction—of those who took offense at "Life of Brian." The opening scene makes it plain that we are watching not a disguised life of Christ but the diary of a nobody, whose life merely grazes against that of the Messiah. The grazing itself is the one serious moment in a farcical film; there is a brief closeup of Brian looking stirred and intrigued as he listens to Jesus deliver, utterly straight, the Sermon on the Mount. The remainder of the movie snaps at extremity: at the revolutionaries who can muster any number of committee meetings but cannot actually rouse themselves to revolt ("Right, this calls for immediate discussion"), at the mob of disciples who harry Brian with a devotion that verges on the violent (compare the front page of any newspaper in the past month), and, not least, at the bug-eyed paranoia of Pontius Pilate. He is played by Michael Palin, who also gives us the funniest thing in the film, a sweet old prophet preaching that whereof he hath absolutely no clue: "There shall at that time be rumors of things going astray ... erm ... and there shall be a great confusion as to where things really are."

"Life of Brian" contains not a shred of blasphemy. It lacks the withering designs of the true heretic—the cruel intent that led Buñuel, say, to stage his boozy parody of the Last Supper, in "Viridiana." The Pythons are enlightened jesters, whose scorn is reserved for those who persist in walking in darkness, although the anniversary release of "Life of Brian" strikes me not so much as a frontal assault on "The Passion of the Christ"—and surely some enterprising theatre owner will screen them as a double bill—as a sharp sideways nudge, bright with opportunism. After all, nobody could deny that Gibson fulfills his believer's task as energetically as Palin, Cleese, and the rest of the gang launch their liberal raids. To complain that "The Passion of the Christ" is possessed by death makes no sense, because Christianity itself makes no sense without the shroud of death; the story of Jesus, shorn of its climactic sufferings, dwindles into a set of difficult ethics. The story of Brian, however, is possessed by life. For all its scruffiness, the lurching strike-rate of its gags, and the unmistakable smell of amateur dramatics given off by its repertory of rotating players with their stick-on Ted Nugent beards, "Life of Brian" jitters with good will.

A Winter's Tale
This week, The Big Jewel features a spoof, by Winter Miller, of the TV show The Swan. You'll honk with laughter!

Holmesward Bound

The following is from BBC News:

Comedy duo Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie are set to reunite to play Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson in a one-off drama for ITV1.

The pair met at Cambridge University in the 1980s and have co-starred in TV shows including Jeeves and Wooster and A Bit of Fry and Laurie.

Fry, who is known to be a keen Sherlock fan, will play the Victorian detective, with Laurie as his loyal sidekick.

ITV has yet to confirm the project but the duo are believed to be on board.

"Stephen is absolutely passionate about Sherlock Holmes and Hugh will make a superb Watson," ITV1's Nick Elliott told The Daily Mirror.

The channel hopes to screen the £2m film in 2005, but has yet to finalise contractual details.

Mean and Gross
Tina Fey was on Fresh Air today.

Talk Show
Tonight on Charlie Rose: Dave Chappelle.


More Rock, More Talk
Click here to listen to Chris Rock on Charlie Rose. This interview originally aired on April 12, 2004.

Lucky Lynde-y

The following is from the Internet Movie Database.

Supposedly Paul Lynde was the inspiration for a line in Groundhog Day. After a high-speed chase through the Valley one night when he was driving recklessly while intoxicated, Lynde crashed his car into a mailbox. The police came to the car, guns drawn, and he lowered his window and told them, "I'll have a cheeseburger, hold the onions, and a large Sprite."

Famous Ramis
The following is from this article about Harold Ramis, from The New Yorker's recent humor issue.

In 1974, Belushi, who loved having Ramis as his deadpan foil, brought him—and several other Second City actors, including Bill Murray—to New York to work on "The National Lampoon Radio Hour" and "The National Lampoon Show." Ramis slowly came to accept his role as the whetstone. "As a person of intellect, I could complement John or Bill, who were people of instinct; I could help guide and deploy that instinct," he says. Even now, Martin Short told me, if someone in a group of comedians cracks a joke, "everyone skirts their eyes over to Harold first, to see if he laughs."

As Belushi and other Second City actors were becoming famous on "Saturday Night Live," Ramis began writing what would become "National Lampoon's Animal House" with Doug Kenney, one of the founders of National Lampoon. (A third writer, Chris Miller, soon joined them.) They were paid ten thousand dollars each and wrote eight hours a day for three months. Ramis took the lead in constructing the script, but its tone owed a lot to Kenney, a sarcastic Harvard graduate who became Ramis's constant companion. "Doug was the Wasp me, the me with alcoholism thrown in," Ramis says. "He used to say that 'just because something's popular doesn't mean it's bad,' which I really took to heart, because my stance had always been that people are idiots and sheep. Our other motto was 'Broad comedy is not necessarily dumb comedy.' Doug envisioned 'Animal House' and, later, 'Caddyshack' as edgy, adult Disney films. He understood that if you make it look like Disney and feel like Disney, and then inject a much edgier message, you have a way of reaching people without threatening them."

Crude as "Animal House" was, it was also rambunctiously optimistic. By setting the film in the early sixties, the writers tapped the source of their earliest ideals. "Our generation's revolutionary energy had slipped away after Kent State and the rise of the violent fringe of the Weather Underground," Ramis says. "We revived it." They revived it by making their obvious outsiders into not so obvious insiders. "Woody Allen had defined the American nebbish as a loser," Ramis adds. "But we felt instinctively that our outsiders weren't losers. They may not achieve anything in the traditional sense—they may not even be smart—but they're countercultural heroes. The movie went on after the credits to tell you that these were your future leaders, while the guys from the 'good' frat would be raped in prison and fragged by their own troops."

Ramis describes Doug Kenney as the only person he knew who would hit the accelerator if he saw a car crossing his path. When they wrote "Caddyshack" together, along with Bill Murray's older brother, Brian Doyle-Murray, Kenney was using a lot of cocaine and seemed depressed. In July, 1980, after becoming so hostile at the "Caddyshack" press junket that the film's publicists asked him to leave, Kenney took a vacation on the Hawaiian island of Kauai and disappeared. When his body was found, under Hanapepe Lookout, a few days later, it was Ramis who delivered the verdict that everyone repeated: "Doug probably fell while he was looking for a place to jump."

Charlie and the Chuckle Factory
Tina Fey and Lorne Michaels are slated to be on Charlie Rose tonight.


Paper Boy
Today, Dan Kennedy -- author of Loser Goes First: My Thirty-Something Years of Dumb Luck and Minor Humiliation -- graces us with his hilarious paper-related advice over at McSweeney's.

Click here to listen to an interview with Mr. Kennedy.


Marx on Paper
Here's a letter from The New Yorker's founding editor, Harold Ross, to Groucho Marx. The letter is dated April 4, 1929.

Dear Groucho:

We cut this as I said we would. Read it over, and if you have any objection, let me know soon as we are going to use it right away.

About your writing more, you are a fairly well known figure, and as I told you when I first suggested that you write for us, other magazines are bound to offer you more if they like your stuff at all. They buy names, and pay for them. We don't. We would not pay you any more than an unknown writer.

It is literally true that I was after Will Rogers to write before he ever broke forth. I was [editor of] Judge at the time, and I could have had him writing for that magazine, I think. After I nibbled at him, then dropped him, Life took up his stuff. They couldn't hold him long because the big boys went after him. Now he is as recognized a writer as he is an actor. I don't know whether you could attain that or not, but you have a gift which, perchance, can be reflected successfully on paper. I would certainly keep on writing something if I were you, and give it a whirl, whether you write for us or not.

I am honestly unselfish most of the time, and not just an impractical dreamer -- I am being eighty five percent unselfish in this.

Sincerely yours,

Great Dane
Standup Dane Cook has a high-tech website where you can watch some of his appearances on late-night talk shows.


Late-Night King
Here's an article about a Letterman writer who had a bone to pick with Larry King. (Thanks to Chumworth for the link.)

An excerpt:

The 'monologue thing,' in fact, is the real reason Kendall moved to New York: To pursue his dream of becoming a writer on Letterman's 'Late Show.' After several years of trying, Kendall was put on a lucrative retainer by Letterman in April 1997 to write a minimum of 20 monologue jokes a day.

Last year, Kendall quit his full-time job at Bozell to concentrate on his monologue material.

But he still does the milk mustache ads on a freelance basis. Larry King probably wishes he didn't.

Here's a couple of Kendall-written jokes Letterman has used after King drove Kendall nuts on the milk shoot:

"Well, I see where Larry King got married to a lovely young girl while he's in the hospital recuperating from his heart attack. Which worked out great because that way she was able to go in the next room after the ceremony and have her head examined."


Driving Miss Doggy
Comedian and filmmaker Louis C.K. is driving his dog, Loona, from Los Angeles to New York. (Loona's in the photo, behind Louis and to the left.) He's keeping a photojournal/weblog thingy as he goes. Check it out here.