Show Me the Funny

Sketch comedy and the thinking man

When DVDs first arrived on the scene, their selling point was that they offered visual and audio quality far superior to that of videotapes in a sturdy, convenient package that was less pricey and more compact than laserdiscs. All true claims and great things, but I can’t be the only person who, during the great transitional period of around 1999-2000, was finally convinced that I needed to shell out for a player by the commercials for the “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” DVD package that pretty much took over the A&E cable network for those two years.

There had been a number of attempts to repackage various TV series in saleable videocassette sets throughout the VCR era, but it always seemed like a cheesy sort of extravagance. The sets always felt overpriced, with too few episodes per cassette, and given that cassettes handsomely packaged on a shelf at Tower Video (or shoddily pasted together by the drunken elves at the Columbia Home Video Club) are, in the end, just as cumbersome and vulnerable to wear and tear as a copy you make yourself, it seemed to make just as much sense to go tape your own damn home library, especially since, in the modern cable era, everything gets rerun somewhere sooner or later. (Everything, that is, except for the great, short-lived sitcom “Open All Night,” produced by “Bob Newhart Show” vet Jay Tarses and starring George Dzundza, Susan Terrell and Bubba Smith, which I haven’t seen since ABC unplugged its life support system a few months after it premiered in the fall of 1981, and which is one of the few pop treats of recent decades that’s still out there, waiting for someone to be proclaimed a genius by re-discovering it. Get on it, TV Land!)

The repackaging of full seasons and even entire runs of TV series, season by season, from the canonical (“The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “The Simpsons”) to cult favorites (“The Prisoner,” “Wiseguy”) to some sets that can only be explained as evidence that somebody in the company lost a bet (“Gilligan’s Island,” “Laverne and Shirley”), has taken off in a way that it never did with videotape because DVDs, which can pack far more information into a smaller, more durable format, can suddenly make it seem like a one-stop-shopping bargain to have the first season of “Lost in Space” on the shelf for quick reference and use at really bad parties.

But a case could be made that sketch comedy is what DVD is best for. In his pioneering work Demographic Vistas, David Marc argued that TV — at least, commercial network TV as it’s known in this country, especially before the proliferation of cable channels began to shake things up — is an intrinsically comic medium, and that the best evidence that it was capable of growing up came in the late 1970s when such comedy shows as “Saturday Night Live” and “SCTV” began to get all self-referential. Now, with DVD, we can have whole periods of the work of some of the most imaginative and gifted comedians of the electronic age stored in our homes, in preparation for that next bad breakup or IRS audit. But not all sets are created equal.

The Complete Monty Python’s Flying Circus Megaset. Five years’ worth of TV (1969-1974) that changed English-speaking comedy on 14 discs, which are also available broken up into smaller pieces — though if you’re anything like me, a taste of any season will make you so hungry for something from a later or earlier season that the best way to avoid driving yourself mad is to spring for the whole thing at once and just do without food for a month. Be good for you, you’ve been looking a little chunky. Grade: A+

SCTV Network 90: Volume 1 and Volume 2. The series that impressed David Marc as the greatest in the history of American television — the one that was whipped up by a bunch of Canadians — had a strange, roller-coaster history. It began, in 1976, as an attempt by some people who’d been involved in the Canadian franchise version of the venerable, Chicago-based Second City troupe, to come up with a half-hour syndicated show that local markets could program against “Saturday Night Live.” The first season or two often made “Mad TV” look like opening night of the Molière. It took “SCTV” a couple of years to settle into its definitive shape (balancing parodies of network TV fare — ostensibly samples from the SCTV network’s programming schedule — with behind-the-scenes storylines set among the network’s staff) and its ideal cast (John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Rick Moranis, Catherine O’Hara and Dave Thomas), but by its 1980-1981 season it had pretty much hit its full stride and was attracting a great deal of media attention, if no great upsurge in ratings. NBC, which was then enduring abuse in the press over the catastrophic meltdown of the post-Lorne Michaels “SNL,” bought the series and installed it in a Friday late-night slot, where it proceeded to blossom into the smartest, hippest, most original comedy series ever broadcast and be seen by an appreciative audience of 32 people nationwide, nine of whom were sober.

It hung in there until 1983, by which time O’Hara, pleading exhaustion, departed with steam pouring off the top her lovely head, and Thomas and Moranis ill-advisedly bailed to see how far they could ride the cult success of their Canadian hoser brother characters, Bob and Doug Mackenzie, who were briefly much admired by an uncomprehending audience of well-toasted frat boys. (The hole they left behind was partly filled by new recruit Martin Short.) After someone at NBC canceled the show immediately after discovering that it was still on the air by flipping through TV Guide on his lunch hour, the small surviving body of hardy survivors ground out a few last episodes for Cinemax before breaking up. (There have been a few mini-reunion projects since then, ranging from “The Last Polka,” a Cinemax special designed to wave goodbye to Candy and Levy’s polka-playing Schmenge Brothers, and “The Misadventures of Ed Grimley,” a Saturday morning cartoon series that not only employed the voice talent of Short, Martin and O’Hara, but also featured live-action segments that gave Flaherty a chance to re-apply the Magic Marker widow’s-peak of his horror-show host, Count Floyd.)

Since being canceled for good in the mid-’80s, the series has turned up from time to time in a half-hour package that shuffles together the original syndicated series with chopped-up episodes from the NBC and Cinemax period. The long-awaited DVD sets, which I sort of expected to be long-awaiting up to the moment of my death, settles for slapping the NBC shows onto disc — a smart way to go about it, since the NBC shows, made by people who were already tuckered out when they reported for the first day of work on their new jobs and suddenly found that they were expected to turn out three times as much material as they had before, ended up recycling enormous chunks of the best material from the syndicated years. The total effect is glorious. No show had ever done more, and maybe never has done more, to reward the smart viewer for how much cultural detritus he’s soaked up — especially if that viewer has managed to somehow keep his wits about him.

In order to appreciate a trailer for Martin Scorsese’s TV production of Harvey, a grim and gritty affair with a couple of mooks angrily cursing at each over about the existence of a 6-foot rabbit, it helps both to know the excesses of the director’s work and to have enough sense to know why this production would be a bad idea — a sense that Scorsese himself had lost, if not by the time this sketch first aired, then certainly by the time he made Cape Fear. Marvelous mimics, the troupe could uncork letter-perfect imitations of, say, Gregory Peck delivering Travis Bickle’s speech to the mirror (“Why. You. Dirty. Punk. I’ll. Blow. Your. Head. Off.”) or Richard Harris doing his weird high-voice/low-voice thing, but what sent the series spiraling up into comedy heaven was the way these bits and pieces would intermarry or expand into surreal fantasies that messed with your head. Indira Gandhi, driven from office, plays herself in a musical modeled on Evita, co-starring Slim Whitman. Count Floyd gets stuck showing the Ingmar Bergman parody Whispers of the Wolf and is reduced to assuring the “kids” in the audience that there’s nothing scarier than Scandinavian alienation. In the epic-length sketch “Play It Again, Bob,” Woody Allen ties himself in knots trying to bond with his idol, Bob Hope, based on tips he gets from the shade of Bing Crosby. In the science special “Walter Cronkite’s Brain,” host and bitter rival David Brinkley time-travels back to the moment when Cronkite’s father, Jor-El, on his home planet of Krypton, was about to send the baby Walter to Earth to become “the greatest newsman of all.” (“If I can prevent Wal-Ter from coming to Earth, then I will be the greatest newsman of all!” declares Brinkley, pulling his light saber.)

Sharp as it is, “SCTV” also has a quality that really set it apart from all the other hip TV comedy of its day — a generous heart, a sensitivity to the feelings of minor-league celebrities and show-business hangers-on. The show could be vicious in its mockery of the untalented and ego-crazed at the top of the heap, but at the same time it had a poignant feeling for the real losers — the nobodies reduced to showing up at the studios of the underfunded, underviewed SCTV network and squeezing onto Sammy Maudlin’s couch. Unlike, say, Janet Maslin, “SCTV’s” feeling for these idiots didn’t go in the wrong direction, by suggesting that we should pretend to accept their view of themselves as talented; it knew that, for instance, the attempt by Eugene Levy’s Bobby Bittman to fill the Brando role in a TV-Movie remake of On the Waterfront was an act that the clueless Bittman would have to atone for in the next life. But it also encouraged you to see the essential innocence in a mediocrity like Bittman as he reels off his mechanical one-liners for a talk show audience and can’t understand why he’s the only one laughing, and even in John Candy’s monstrous producer-actor Johnny LaRue as he struggles to regain his footing after one costly mistake — an unauthorized crane shot used at the end of the dud TV film Polynesiantown — turns out to be enough to send him sliding towards the bottom. If you watched a lot of late-night TV comedy in the 1980s and 1990s, you got used to the sight of minimally talented people making hateful fun of people as talented as them or more so, whose greatest sin was to have fallen out of fashion. On “SCTV,” you got the refreshing sight of some the most greatly gifted (and criminally underappreciated) people in the business extending a hand of fellowship to those below them in every sense, who in turn were not only unlikely to recognize the people paying them tribute but liable to run them over if it would get them a guest spot on “Will and Grace” — hell, maybe even on “Charles in Charge.” It’s one of the few attempts we’ve had in recent years to prove that it’s possible to be both hip and humane. Grade: A+

The Ben Stiller Show. All 13 episodes, on two discs, of Stiller’s single-season Fox series from 1992-93. It’s too bad they couldn’t squeeze in the 1990 MTV show that Stiller did almost as prep work for this later series, but this is complete enough. Stiller’s show specialized in pop-culture parodies almost as intricate as those on “SCTV” — a trailer for the Scorsese Cape Fear with Eddie Munster, grown tall and doing his best De Niro imitation, in the psycho role; a “rockumentary” profile of U2 in which Bono complains about his old manager, Reuben Kincaid, who “drove us around in a multicolored bus” and worked out an endorsement deal with Lucky Charms; the self-serious stars of Metallica solemnly discuss the theme song they’ve composed for a movie in which Pauly Shore magically trades bodies with his dad; a ’90s update of “The Monkees” called “The Grungies,” a sketch that went on to inspire a legendary e-mail exchange between “Stiller Show” writer and eventual “Freaks and Geeks” creator Judd Apatow and the small crawling thing that created “That ’70s Show.”

Most importantly, the show happened to bring together a small, key group of young comic talents, including Stiller and regular cast members Janeane Garafalo, Bob Odenkirk and Andy Dick, right at the moment when they were hungry and on their game and poised to break out. (Stiller, in particular, has since only intermittently hinted at being capable of hitting the level of high-energy dementia he regularly achieved here.) For anyone who remembers pop culture from the period when this show was picking its targets, it may provide an intense rush of nostalgia as you’re laughing. One minor defect: the linking material between sketches, in which such low-rent “guest stars” as Dennis Miller and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who don’t actually participate in the sketches (thank God) but just hang around with the cast, are treated with an altogether bewilderingly unironic degree of affection. I guess that Stiller must have been genuinely grateful to them for lending their low-wattage star power to his ratings-impaired show. But even so, Dennis Miller!? Grade: A

Mr. Show: the Complete First and Second Season; Mr. Show: the Complete Third Season; and Mr. Show: the Complete Fourth Season. Together these three sets, each of which includes two discs apiece, amount to the full run of “Mr. Show with Bob and David,” which ran on HBO from 1995-1998. Bob is Bob Odenkirk, who can convey the awesome untrustworthiness of a mythically sleazy con artist just by putting on a suit, and David is David Cross, a comic with the look of a bald, bespectacled über-geek and a frighteningly intense aura of barely suppressed hostility. Cross, like Odenkirk, served as a writer on “The Ben Stiller Show.” Maybe their quick cancellation there infused them with a need to go for broke for whatever brief stretch of time they could command the world’s attention, because from the first sight of its inexplicably grotesque title logo, “Mr. Show” seemed to be fueled by a naked, in-your-face desire to offend that was, if not unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, than unlike just about any TV comedy I’ve seen that also managed to actually be funny. The show, which links its sketches into loosely thematic episodes, goes for the jugular whether mocking the more dangerous politicians of the day or a hunk of half-forgotten kitsch like Jesus Christ Superstar. Overall, its hit to miss ratio may be a little farther off than that of “SCTV” or “Ben Stiller,” but it’s capable of being both very silly and wildly ambitious, and even when a sketch goes wrong it’s often something to see; in this kind of comedy, the sheer make-your-jaw-drop factor does count for something. The regular ensemble includes such fine, undersung comedians as Mary Lynn Rajskub and Brian Posehn; such guest stars as Stiller, Garafalo, Jack Black and Sarah Silverman sometimes turn up unannounced to test their footing in the mine field. Grade: A-

The Kids in the Hall: Complete Season One. Four discs from the five-man troupe that represented Lorne Michaels’s attempt to keep a hand in the edgy side of the pool after “SNL” officially went all-pro. I admit it — I’ve never been as fond of this show as many people I know. At their best, the Kids can get spectacularly silly, which is a plus in my book, and they did develop their own distinctive, is-it-gay-or-just-Canadian? sensibility, but even at their best, I thought their series was usually uneven and a little too arch for my real taste. That said, the material here is far from their best. As Dave Foley acknowledged in a recent interview with The Onion, it took the Kids, who’d been working together as a stage act for five years before Michaels brought them to TV, a while to get the hang of thinking and writing in terms of a weekly series. Fans who are any less hardcore than those who’ve been eagerly waiting for the expanded director’s cut of Brain Candy are urged to wait until at least the second or third season makes it to disc. Grade: C+

Upright Citizens Brigade: The Complete First Season. People either love them or hate them, and I probably know more people who hate them than love them, and both camps are far outnumbered by those who’ve never heard of them and never will. Well, I love them, and, at least for the length of this article, I’m the one wearing the robe.

UCB is a four-member troupe of writer-performers (Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh) who have their own comedy theater and improv school in New York and for three years (starting in 1998, the season preserved on these two discs) provided some of the weirdest, most subversively charged sketch comedy ever seen on Comedy Central. They hit the ground running, too, mixing original sketches with adapted theater routines and surreptitiously filmed street theater and pranks into theme episodes and generally getting the hang of the TV-series format much more quickly than the Kids in the Hall or the SCTV players. It probably helps that they’re one of the few companies out there that has an actual satirical worldview: they present themselves as members of a secret guerilla organization with a mission to undermine authority by spreading “chaos.” The concept, and the results, suggest what it might be like if the Firesign Theatre had been invented by Thomas Pynchon. (Of the troupe members, Walsh is probably the most widely recognizable, thanks not just to his stint as a “Daily Show” correspondent and his steady string of work playing the baffled suburbanite in TV commercials, though I’ve heard that Amy Poehler is now a cast member on “Saturday Night Live.” Anybody still watching that turd fiesta?) Grade: A-

Chappelle’s Show: Season 1. David Chappelle’s Comedy Central series, the first season of which is here captured on two discs, explodes racial preconceptions and ideas through pop-culture parodies. Though Chappelle may be too cool a customer to ever reach the possessed-by-demons heights Richard Pryor scaled in the 1970s — nobody else has, either — the best parts of his show manage to suggest what Richard Pryor’s short-lived 1977 network series might have been like if he’d had a free hand and been given the time to get the hang of the medium. (“The Richard Pryor Show Vols. 1 & 2,” a three-disc set, packages the entire run of Pryor’s old show, along with his original special, which has enough good moments by itself to show why he might have thought the series would be a good idea. In the end, Pryor’s series — whose regular cast included Paul Mooney, Robin Williams and Sandra Bernhard — turned into a non-stop battle between its creative team and the network censors, and is mainly of interest as an historical curio.)

Chappelle, who’s been stealing moves from a wide array of leading men for a decade now, has a winning surface affability and, like Pryor, a self-effacing cuteness than takes the edge off his plainspoken outrageousness, but I suspect that he’s sitting on a bottomless reserve of real anger. (He sets aside a moment to express his surprise that his show hasn’t been canceled yet on just about every episode of the first season, including the premiere.) He’s generous, though, disappearing into the background of one of the wildest, longest, funniest sketches here — a parody of “The Real World” with Christian Finnegan as a token white boy in an otherwise all-black cast — and allowing cast regular Charlie Murphy to run off with it. Prescient motherfucker, too — the season finale here includes an interracial “Trading Spouses” reality show sketch that first aired a year before a cable network did it for real. (After Albert Brooks did a put-on promo for a sitcom about an “innocent” ménage à trois for “Saturday Night Live,” he had to wait almost two years before the makers of “Three’s Company” made him look like Nostradamus.) The first season is uneven, but between its most inspired moments and Chappelle’s continually fascinating presence, it earns an A- when I’m feeling indulgent and still makes it up to B+ when I’m in the mood to get grumpy about a surplus of titty jokes. The recently completed second season — the one that added the phrase “I’m Rick James, bitch!” to the lexicon — was a solid A, and though it hasn’t been announced for a DVD release yet, it’s a sure bet that it will be.

In Living Color: Season 1. Though it was acclaimed in its day for bringing a much-needed degree of black sensibility to network TV, this series (which premiered in 1990) differs from the best shows on this list by the absence of a guiding, singular (or communal) point of view. The show’s creator, Keenan Ivory Wayans, sold the series on the strength of his blaxploitation movie parody I’m Gonna Git You, Sucka!, but Wayans (who went on to play blaxploitation clichés more than half straight in A Low Down Dirty Shame, a movie that functioned as a neon sign announcing the end of his fantasy of being a leading man), was always less a comedian than an I’ll-try-anything-once entrepreneurial show-biz hustler who happened to have some talented siblings whose gifts he could exploit. Right from the start, the show did have a solid roster of talented regulars, including Damon Wayans, Tommy Davidson, David Alan Grier and Kim Coles; ironically, it may go down in history for having relaunched the career of its token white guy, Jim Carrey, who used the series to announce his new intention of cramming himself down the viewer’s throat every second he was allowed within camera range. (Carrey, who had gone from starring in the quiet, short-lived sitcom “The Duck Factory” and playing the male lead in the unwatchable 1985 movie Once Bitten to sleeping in his car before Wayans threw him a lifeline, can perhaps be forgiven for trying to make the most of his second chance, but you’d think that after he got word that the show wasn’t going to be canceled during its first commercial break, he might have pulled in a little.)

The best stuff here — Louis Farrakhan invading the Starship Enterprise, an urban update of “Lassie” featuring an alarmingly ugly pit bull in the title role (“Look, Mom, Lassie found someone’s lost arm!” “I’ll just put it with the others.”) — is still both imaginative and funny. But to find it you have to sift through the gay-baiting routines and dud Milli Vanilli jokes and such misfiring bits as a musical spoof of Whitney Houston that’s built around the notion that she can’t sing. (No, that’s almost everybody else who was in the Top 20 in 1990. Whitney’s problem was that her spectacular pipes were uncomplemented by taste or brains.) And if you haven’t seen this show (or “Married...with Children”) in a while, you may have forgotten about the curse of live-on-tape shows done for Fox in its early days — those (artificially augmented?) studio audiences, who respond to every utterance of a cast member with such full-throated screaming and cheering that they sound as if they’re all being electrocuted while hopped up on laughing gas. There’s funny stuff here, but nothing funnier than the performance of the tall, blonde bit player who appears in the background of a sketch in which Carrey plays a women’s self-defense instructor. When she isn’t playing with her hair or jiggling her tongue while restlessly swaying her body from side to side, she overreacts more energetically than the performers at the center — and did I mention that this sketch stars Jim Carrey!? — and at a couple of points decides to lift one foot off the floor and hop in circles, like a woozy stork. Her presence on-screen seems somehow emblematic of what’s least appealing about the show, in that she’s amateurish in the wrong way — not “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!,” but “Hey, kid. My name’s Keenan. Wanna be on TV? Let me buy you a drink while we talk about it …” Grade: B

The Best of Ernie Kovacs. Kovacs, who flitted from network to network, show to show, time slot to time slot, was the original termite artist of television, experimenting with the possibilities of the medium and amusing himself in a way that suggests that he was happiest working under the assumption that nobody with the power to do anything about it was paying him any attention — which they probably weren’t. Though he kept employed as an on-camera personality, hosting talk shows and game shows and anything else where he could find an opening, the most resonant, characteristic footage of him that I’ve seen shows him sitting at a console in his shirt sleeves, facing the camera and affably chatting to the viewer in the manner of a tired but friendly man unwinding at the end of a long day with someone he’s just met in a bar, while a technician sitting next to him silently monitors the action. These five discs aren’t the remastered, meticulously assembled, labor of love collection that Kovacs deserves; they’re just a transfer of the standard VHS collection, which in turn was originally slapped together back in 1977 for a PBS series that revived Kovacs for a new generation after it was discovered that his work was a pioneering example of the then-new form known as “video art.” (Even Ernie, who dearly loved a good joke, might have been brought up short by the idea that his continued relevance owed something to the notion that he was the predecessor of Nam June Paik.) Still, it’s what’s available for now, and it’s a way to see some priceless stuff until somebody does the job right. Grade: A-

Sid Caesar Collection. Three discs containing 18 sketches cherry-picked from “Your Show of Shows,” the most familiar being the four (count ’em!) carried over from the 1973 theatrical release Ten from Your Show of Shows. This is a little more in the line of what Kovacs has coming to him. As does Carol Burnett, currently represented on DVD by one 40-odd minute disc of outtakes for Christ’s sakes, and Lily Tomlin, whose first (1973) TV special also contains some of the best work Richard Pryor ever did on TV. For that matter, here’s hoping this set does well enough that they go back to the vaults to assemble another three disc’s worth of Caesar. At least. Grade: A

The Dana Carvey Show. In 1986, Carvey was part of a new influx of talent at “Saturday Night Live” (including Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, Nora Dunn and Victoria Jackson) that kick-started new life into that old warhorse and sustained it through several of its best seasons ever, but by the time he left in 1993, “SNL” was stinking intensely enough to tar anyone associated with it, and Carvey himself had acquired a mainstream identity based largely on his pitiful sidekick act with Mike Myers in the Wayne’s World movies. Eager to re-establish his experimental/countercultural comedy bona fides, he assembled a team of writers and performers that included Dave Chappelle, Robert Smigel (who used the show to debut his “Ambiguously Gay Duo” series of animated cartoons), screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), “Daily Show” correspondents Steve Carrell and Stephen Colbert, stand-up comic Louis C.K. and Heather Morgan, who does imitations of various First Ladies as if they were dogs, which is, trust me, funnier than it sounds. ABC gave the show a plum prime-top spot with “Home Improvement” as its lead-in, touted it with a heavy promotion, and, with Carvey’s gleeful acquiescence, worked out a special endorsement deal so that each week it would sponsored by a specific advertiser whose product would be touted throughout the show and in its title: “This week, it’s ‘The Taco Bell Dana Carvey Show’!” And then, one night in the spring of 1996, millions of Americans, including families who’d been bonding over the antics of Tim Allen and executives eager to see what they were paying to have their product associated with, tuned in to see a show that began with Carvey, made up as Bill Clinton, tear open his shirt to reveal that he had been surgically retrofitted with several artificial udders “so that I can be both father and mother to our nation,” and proceeded to breast-feed a puppy. Apparently the screaming the next day in certain executive offices was really something to see.

Carvey’s show, which up to the time of this writing represents his last gasp as a comic force, was yanked off the air after seven episodes, three fewer than the network had pledged to run; the endorsement-in-the-title concept had long since been dropped, after an episode labeled “The Mountain Dew Dana Carvey Show,” which included a moment when Carvey contemplated a glass of the sponsor’s greenish-yellow product and demanded that cast member Bill Schott tell him “what that really looks like.” (“Liquid sunshine?” stammered Schott.) This show is never going to be unearthed again by any corporate entity, especially what with that historically unfortunate sketch in which a then-newly divorced Prince Charles performs a British invasion-style musical number (complete with Yellow Submarine-style animation) in which he urges his subjects grant him permission to behead his ex-wife. Grade: B+, which will go up to A- if somebody ever finds a copy with comparable visual quality that has the full run.