Laughing

My weekends, I have come to realize, are defined by whatever place/person/song/TV show/movie I spend most of that weekend obsessing about. This year, I’ve had Royal Tenenbaums weekends, Kevin Spacey weekends, Boston weekends, West Wing weekends…I spend hours invested in the topic at hand, and realize with a weird sadness on Sunday night that I won’t get to spend as much time with it on Monday as I did the previous two days.

This weekend has been John Mulaney weekend.

I first heard of John Mulaney a few months ago when I saw a bit about him in New York magazine. I cannot remember the title of the story (it was something along the lines of “The Best Comedians in New York Today”) but it briefly described him as a former SNL writer and creator of Bill Hader’s “Stefon” character with a sitcom pilot in the works. For each comic featured, the story named a “representative joke.” Mulaney’s was:

Nothing that I know can help you with your car, ever. Unless you’re like, ‘Hey I’ve got a flat tire, does anyone here know a lot about the “Cosby Show”?’

That. Is. My. Life. More with 30 Rock or The West Wing, but having nothing but television quotes at your disposal, even in troubling life situations? I can relate. And even though the joke struck me and I memorized it for future reference, all I did after reading it was watch a few of Mulaney’s stand-up videos and move on with my life. I had not entered obsession phase.

Then – backstory: my friend Miranda, who lived across the hall from me for two years at U of O, is visiting New York this week. I am SO HAPPY she’s here because of all my closest friends at school, she’s the only one I haven’t seen since I’ve lived in New York – Miranda brought up one of his jokes on Saturday during a conversation about delayed flights. It was about a bad experience John Mulaney had with Delta airlines and I vaguely remembered the joke from my own YouTube trollings a few months prior. I told her I’d heard that before, and Miranda proceeded to tell me that his stand-up was the funniest thing ever and we should watch it immediately when we got back to my apartment.

So we did.

Please take a 40-minute break from reading to watch this – his latest stand-up release, New in Town:

It felt good to laugh really hard. The routine covered a lot of material about growing up and living in New York City, and I liked that he made the hard parts of those experiences something to laugh about – not something to rant about or wallow in self-pity about or think too seriously about. Weird stuff happens. May as well laugh about it. (Though the “When people order fries, they act like it’s a little adventure” bit hit a little too close to home).

Plus, it was laden with obscure pop-culture references. I don’t watch Law and Order: SVU and thus had no major connection to Mulaney’s jokes about it, but I love that he loves it so much and had watched it enough to make hilarious observations. I love when people let others into the dark little corners of their obscure obsessions and shine a light that lets you see how wonderful those obsessions are (and even if they aren’t wonderful to you, you get to appreciate how much they mean to the other person).

Since I had SNL on the brain, I was excited to see Lorne Michaels wrote a short piece for the October issue of Vanity Fair on television and the 1970s. It was a very personal story of Michaels’ start in New York, but he told it in the context of the decade’s dichotomous television landscape: Past and present were airing at the same time. Networks execs ruled the airwaves, but the young writers they employed knew change was afoot…or at least, they were ready to start making the change. You can read most of the piece online, but some of my favorite parts (like the second one below) came only in the print article.

A couple of favorite lines:

Michaels talking about his morning routine when he first moved to New York City:

I found a sublet on 57th and Seventh, in a building called the Osborne, which had a Chock full o’Nuts right on the corner. I began my day with a cup of coffee, The New York Times, and two sugar doughnuts. They were whole-wheat sugar donuts. I had learned about nutrition in California.

Michaels talking about the performers and artists he worked with in New York, and how their work reflected the decade’s culture:

Pretty soon we began to feel as if we were on to something new. After all, we were the baby boom – we knew television the way French kids knew wine. TV for us had been the miracle that brought us the world, and now we were determined to reflect the world we were living in on TV.

It was our turn. The 1970s, I realize now, were a time when things were both coming undone and being put back together in a different way. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that all of life is re-invention. Sometimes past and future can share the same time period. New just shows up sometimes.

“New just shows up sometimes.” I love that line. It’s a reminder to stay on your toes. As someone with an affinity for the 70s, I found the whole piece charming and funny; criticism on the decade in TV was fascinating.

I guess the moral of this post is that I hope you laughed this weekend. And watched New in Town.

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A Night at the Theater: “Lucky Guy”

My sister was in town this weekend and we hatched last-minute plans to see a Broadway show Saturday evening. We failed in our attempts to get lottery tickets for Matilda or Book of Mormon, but were able to get standing room only tickets for Lucky Guya play written by Nora Ephron and starring Tom Hanks as New York City newspaper columnist and police reporter Mike McAlary, who, among other career highlights, won a Pulitzer in 1998 for his reporting on a Haitian immigrant who was assaulted by police in Brooklyn.

Of course, we wanted to see this play because Tom Hanks stars, but I also wanted to see it because it’s Nora Ephron’s last work. When I think of the ideal writer and the ideal New Yorker, I think of Nora Ephron. Plus, she wrote When Harry Met Sally…, a movie I adore.

lucky guyLucky Guy was phenomenal, and based on what I know of Nora Ephron – from several of her films, her book “I Feel Bad About My Neck,” and a handful of articles I read that were written shortly after her death – so much of her own life experience was infused into this story and its characters. It’s a true story, but in its presentation and dialogue, I saw elements of Ephron and another character she developed.

What captivated me most about McAlary’s story was how deeply he felt that he had been born to be a New York newspaper writer. Inside the Lucky Guy playbill was a kind of “bonus” playbill, a large cardstock addition that included an excerpt from Ephron’s book “I Remember Nothing,” titled “Journalism: A Love Story.”

An excerpt of the excerpt:

I’d known since I was a child that I was going to New York eventually, and that everything in between would be just an intermission. I’d spent all those years imagining what New York was going to be like. I thought it was going to be the most exciting, magical, fraught-with-possibility place that you could ever live; a place where if you really wanted something you might be able to get it; a place where I’d be surrounded by people I was dying to know; a place where I might be able to become the only thing worth being, a journalist.

And I’d turned out to be right.

When I read this in the program, worlds collided in my head. Nora Ephron felt this way. She wrote a whole play about a man who felt this way. And she developed a character of her own who felt this way: Sally Albright, Meg Ryan’s character in When Harry Met Sally….

An early scene in When Harry Met Sally… has the title characters driving out of Chicago, en route to New York City to start their lives after college graduation. They’ve just met – Harry’s girlfriend is a mutual friend – and Harry tries to make conversation. Sally’s response to “Why don’t you tell me the story of your life?” is infused with the same eager, optimistic, “I was born to be a journalist in New York City” spirit that Ephron and McAlary possessed.

The first 40ish seconds here are what I’m getting at:

I may not be a newspaper reporter, but I identify with that sense of feeling like you were born to be in New York, at least for a time. Sally Albright’s line, “Nothing’s happened to me yet. That’s why I’m going to New York,” is part of the reason I wanted to come here in the first place. And I couldn’t help loving Lucky Guy because that same sense of conviction drove Mike McAlary.

Knowing Ephron wrote the play while she was dying added another dimension to my understanding of the story. For most of the second act, McAlary knows he’s living with cancer. Ephron’s script shows how he copes with the pain of treatment. One scene I found especially powerful shows McAlary and one of his editors, who was also in the hospital for a major heart surgery, talking to each other as they figured out how to raise their morphine levels. As the dosage goes up, their pain dulls, their eyes widen, their mouths open, and they talk euphorically about how they’ve achieved their dreams in journalism. In that brief moment, death has no hold on them.

I read Ephron’s book “I Feel Bad About My Neck” a couple summers ago, and remember her talking a lot about dreading and preparing for death. I wondered if Ephron had written the play as a coping mechanism, or if she wrote some of her own fears about death into McAlary’s character. When I got home, I discovered a March New York Times magazine piece written by her son Jacob Bernstein: “…part of what she was trying to do by writing about someone else’s death was to understand her own,” he wrote. In a way, this play was therapy.

Those were just two elements of McAlary’s character that stood out to me, but there was so much more to love about Lucky Guy, from the cast to the dialogue to the set design that scrolled through headlines of McAlary’s columns. I also love how everyone clapped for Tom Hanks when he first came onstage. They’re clapping, of course, because he’s a talented and accomplished actor, but I always wonder if a little of the applause comes from a sense of wonder that this larger-than-life movie star is actually a real person, here in the flesh, with me tonight. Part of Broadway’s allure, I suppose.

I highly recommend Lucky Guy if you’re in NYC before it closes July 3. Standing room tickets were only $29 (but only go on sale if the show’s sold out), and I can’t even begin to tell you how much of a steal that was.

What Would You Call that Hairstyle?

Editor’s Note: This is the second of what is still likely to be several posts inspired by my Beatles class.

On Tuesday, I turned some innocent clips of the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show into a personal obsession with the evolving definition of “fifteen minutes of fame.” In Thursday’s class, we watched their 1964 movie “A Hard Day’s Night,” which elicited no more profound reaction than “wow, the Beatles have a killer sense of humor.”

Despite ten years of Beatle fandom, I hadn’t seen “A Hard Day’s Night” until today and am embarrassed to admit I didn’t realize the album of the same name was technically a movie soundtrack. The movie is relatively plot-less, but drips with ironic humor. I won’t declare it an all-time favorite, but I definitely enjoyed it and feel that an understanding of their humor adds to my appreciation of their music.

Our professor talked about how the Beatles had vowed not to go the route of Elvis, whose career declined as he took roles in increasingly low-quality films. They brought on Richard Lester as director, who in 1962 directed the similarly sarcastic “It’s Trad, Dad!” (known as “Ring-A-Ding Rhythm” in the United States). Lester’s proven ability to create an irreverent picture, combined with Alun Owen’s sarcastic script, gave the Beatles what they were looking for.

A couple of favorite songs and/or scenes:

George’s performance of “I’m Happy Just to Dance With You,” which is one of the most adorable things I’ve ever seen:

Our entire class pretty much lost it after Ringo’s hilarious mock laugh:

And some sarcastic George for the road (at 0:52):

If you’ve seen this film, I’d be interested to hear how (if at all) it changed your perspective on the band, and what scenes or lines you especially enjoyed.

*Poster image found here.