Posted on March 8, 2017
Alt-POTUS 45: Take a Break From the Unending Horror
By Cybele Knowles
There’s a different world where our president isn’t a dementia-riddled, hysterical, ignorant, racist, conspiracy-peddling, sexually-assulting grandpa.
Where women aren’t so hated that 24% of us would vote for a decrepit, sociopathic monstrosity of a business failure and lifelong cheat rather than a competent woman to be our leader.
Where the office of the President of the United States isn’t being dragged through the mud.
Where the scumbag GOP isn’t taking advantage of it all by crapping on our heads as abundantly and rapidly as possible. (How do we get get these stinking Paul Ryan buttocks off us?)
That world is the Twitter account @IfHillaryHad, a.k.a. Alt-POTUS 45.
As you can see, the tweets from this account mainly follow a pattern in which the Alt-POTUS describes a presidential action she’s taking, cusses out a man or mens, and sends Bill Clinton on an errand. I enjoy every aspect of the performance of Alt-POTUS 45: the competent governance, the open-throated self-expression in the face of idiot men, and the idea of a partner who cares just as much about the little details of life as you do.
There’s something extra funny/special about the #BillErrands. They speak to a kind of attention to the small details of life that still feels gendered — still feels like women’s work. #BillErrands in the world of Alt-POTUS 45 honor this gendered form of attention and represent it as potentially part of — rather than a diminishment of — powerful, responsible, humane governance.
On this International Women’s Day, I hope you can fix yourself the perfect snack or drink and check out @IfHillaryHad.
And you can find an interview with the creator of Alt-POTUS 45, Sarah Lerner, at Bust.
Posted on January 2, 2017
A Few Fave Female Cartoonists, Comics, and Illustrators
By Cybele Knowles
There are so many great female comic artists, cartoonists, and illustrators at work these days. Here are just a few of my faves.
Most representations of animals are as much depictions of the human condition as they are of the animal. Brooke Barker, creator of Sad Animal Facts, understands this Catch-22 and uses it brilliantly to both create great understanding for animals and reflect on the human condition.
Each of her single-panel comics presents one true “sad” animal fact. The animal in question, with face of woe or irritation and usually heavy eye-bags, provides a self-deprecating, regretful, or sarcastic comment on its situation.
The delight of Brooke’s work lies in learning fascinating facts about animal biology and laughing at the pithy, pitiful comments uttered by her sad animals. Through these comments, it becomes clear that this series is equally about the beautiful diversity of life on earth and the sad animal fact about us humans: our ability to reflect painfully on our limitations.
Gemma Correll is a whiz with these very important life-things: Puns and other wordplay. Pugs. Personifications. Lists. Variations on a theme. Snark. Her work acknowledges and gently pokes fun at the countless worries and insecurities that our aspirational society breeds. As a balm, her work often celebrates a life of hanging out at home, braless, in a dirty robe, with just the pets for company, drinking tea or wine and watching Netflix or reading a book. Honestly it doesn’t get better than that.
Rebecca Tobin’s ink-and-paint illustrations are some of my favorite art pieces these days. There is a psychedelic quality to her colors and shapes. But she applies this psychedelic voice to the everyday as much as she does to exotic or imagined locales. Her depictions of relatively mundane moments, such as bumping into moth on a dark street or looking at a favorite comic book from childhood, bring out the wonder these moments can contain for sensitive souls. She also renders wonderful animals and animal-people in a world of their own. The images Rebecca shares from her journal on Instagram are like a never-ending fabulous picture book for adults.
I often think of my uterus as this super-focused goal-setter that just refuses to give up. Every month for 30+ years, it has prepared for the Wonderful Event: the arrival of a fertilized egg to protect and nourish. Every month this doesn’t happen. Does this discourage my uterus? Nope. It gets right back to planning, preparing, and hoping. Unlike me, it is constitutionally incapable of hopelessness. Role model material!
So one of my favorite running gags in Sarah Andersen’s work is her personification of a menstruating uterus. Clearly Sarah suffers from intense periods because her uterus is snarling, take-no-prisoners, and never-back-down. It’s one of the many delightful flashes of black humor in her multi-panel pages, which sometimes (not always) end in flames, death, or trauma eyes.
Puuung is a South Korean illustrator who’s been doing a series illustrating the life of a young couple and their cat. The moments she illustrates are simple, everyday moments in a shared life: giving a hug to your partner from behind while they’re cutting vegetables at the kitchen counter. Turning off the bedside table lamp for your partner after they’ve fallen asleep. Watching a video together on a tablet. Sharing what happened during the work day. Puung’s large, lavishly detailed, gold-lit single-panel illustrations communicate the priceless riches contained in these seemingly humble moments.
There is one aspect of these illustrations that’s not humble, however: Puung’s couple and their cat live in a large, beautiful apartment. Through the illustrations we continually discover vast new spaces within it: balcony, game room, sitting room, perfectly appointed kitchen, luxurious bath. The fantastical largeness of this urban dwelling renders visible the feeling of abundance one can experience in a loving relationship. Because love, in the words of John Donne, “makes one little room an everywhere.”
Cybele Knowles is the founder and editor of All-Girl All-Comedy Reviews. You can learn more about her at cybeleknowles.com.
Posted on November 13, 2016
On the Grossness of Being a Girl: The CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”
By Laura C. J. Owen
“Maybe this dream won’t poop on my face,” sings Paula from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. It’s the second episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s improbable second season. Dressed up like a Disney heroine, Paula sings “I pee just a li-ttle!” in a high, trilling voice, the humor coming from the mismatch between her sweet persona and her crass words.
This kind of comedy—the contrast between a sweet-as-pie Disney princess and the gross subject of her song—has been done before. A list from off the top of my head includes everything from Nine to Five to Shrek to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s creator, Rachel Bloom, who first gained my attention with her “If Disney Cartoons Were Historically Accurate” parody. But despite the fact that it’s been done before, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend always feels a bit different.
There’s tons of things that make Crazy Ex-Girlfriend something that works, something that—in the midst of all the tropes and clichés it gleefully parodies, subverts, and embraces—feel somehow new. I could have written about several aspects of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – an awesome, how-did-this-shit-make-it-to-network? TV show that features a series of song parodies through the perspective of its heroine, Rebecca Bunch—but the one I kept coming back to and settled on was this: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has a lot of fun with the grossness of being a girl.
In the climax of “Maybe This Dream,” Paula hopes that her new dream won’t be like “when I go running, so I have to take a dump…plus I also have my period so I have menstrual cramps plus dump cramps…”
I’ve had menstrual cramps plus dump cramps, but I’ve never had the experience immortalized in song. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever talked with anyone frankly, in person, about the uniquely horrible experience of all the dumps induced by your period in one big bloody mess.
The closest I’ve come is a thread on the feminist website Jezebel, when a thread talked about “breaking the poop ice with a new paramour.” Jezebel, not so coincidentally, was one of the first site to champion Rachel Bloom’s videos and recently prompted a thread asking readers to talk about the grossest times they peed or pooed themselves.
This all shows the importance of places where women can talk openly—and also make funny videos about—bodily functions. For too long, fart jokes, semen-as-hair-gel, etc., have been seen as the provenance of male comedians. Males were the gross, fart-y ones, while women were the delicate influences who blanched at that sort of thing.
This has always been in direct contrast to my experience. In every comedy, I always identified fiercely with the gross guy character. I was Steve in Coupling as he raged against cushions or argued for sacred toilet time and the importance of bare bottoms. Once, on a sort-of date, I thought I might fart, so I stood up to go the bathroom (to fart in private), and then farted as I stood up. The guy and I stared at each other, post-fart. We said nothing. As a girl, there’s no place where you joke about these things, no place to turn your terrible gas issues into an empowering laugh.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is all about mining those moments for a laugh. The very first episode features the “Sexy Getting Ready Song” features a contrast between the sexy “presentation” of getting yourself ready for a man and the realities behind it: the blood, the plucking, the pore strips, the wax, the unglamorous dance to get into Spanx – not to mention to the way men feel no pressure to engage in the same activities and are horrified at the reality behind the presentation.
And here’s something that I’m pretty sure is totally new: my favorite song from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend involves Rebecca’s sometimes-love-interest Greg singing with smugness about how “I Gave You a UTI.”
I am very, very prone to UTIs (urinary tract infections). This is a normal thing. But because it’s a thing that has to do with women and specifically with sex and also butt germs, it’s cloaked in silence and shame. Perhaps if we as a society talked about UTIs more often I would have felt less lost and confused upon contracting my first one. I had no idea what was happening, and was thoroughly I was convinced I was dying or had syphilis or was dying from syphilis.
And I’m also very familiar with the slightly triumphant, “YOU HAVE A UTI? THIS IS MY DOING! HA HA! AWESOME!” attitude from dudes—one that I had never seen played out in film until “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”’s little ditty. (Incidentally, I’ve never shared a heartier mutual laugh with my boyfriend than watching this song together).
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend works for many reasons. But one of them is that it celebrates all the gross, crass, uncomfortable, fart-y, maybe-I-need-antibiotics? aspects of being a lady.
The show is also deviously clever about the gap between the gross realities of being a lady and the desperate attempts to live up to an idealized male gaze. The most recent episode featured Rebecca imagining herself through the gaze of a 90s sort-of-punk male group in “Ping Pong Girl.” Crazy Ex-Girlfriend deftly nails both female realities and a desperate striving to be the male fantasy that “beats out flight attendant.” Similarly, in “Sex with a Stranger” the show cleverly interweaves the desire to be anonymously sexy and the concern for safety women in particular often experience: “I hope you’re not a murderer,” Rebecca Bunch sings, in a sultry whisper, and, “Have you been tested for STDs?”
Being a girl can be gross and scary. It can also feel invisible. Being “gross” as a girl almost always requires embracing invisibility. Acknowledging the parts of yourself that are “gross” or “too fat” or “crazy” used to mean rendering yourself invisible as a sex object or a participant in desire. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” rewrites the narrative: you can be crazy and gross—have period cramps and dump cramps and poor boundaries and have a shrieking voice in your head screaming “lose some weight, you stupid bitch!”—and still be a girl in love, hoping for sex and love and more—even if UTIs are involved.
Contributor Laura C. J. Owen is a writer of fiction, nonfiction, plays, and screenplays. Learn more about her at her website, www.lauracjowen.com.
Posted on October 16, 2016
The Girl-Sized World of Bizaardvark
By Cybele Knowles
My favorite new TV show is “Bizaardvark” — a sitcom about teenage best friends, Frankie Wong and Paige Olvera, who write comedic songs and post videos of their performances to the the Internet. After gaining 10K subscribers on Vuuugle (a stand-in for YouTube), Frankie and Paige are given access to the Los Angeles-based Vuuugle studio – an idyllic creative space where Vuuugle stars make their videos, come up with ways to promote their brands, get into trouble, and find friends.
I love basically everything about this funny, savvy, inclusive show, which premiered on the Disney Channel this past June. I love that Frankie and Paige are girls of color. I love how they’re styled — with minimal make-up and tomboy fashions. I love that they’re obsessed not with boys or their appearance, but instead with being successful in their creative endeavors. I love that every episode of “Bizaardvark” passes the Bechdel test.
Recently I realized the extent to which, in order to create a fun, positive, and supportive space for teen girls (both the girls on the show and the girls watching the show), Bizaardvark’s creators suppress traditional adult masculinity in the world of the show. There are male characters, but each is contained in important ways.
For example, there’s Liam, the boss of Vuuugle and the only adult character who appears regularly. He’s depressed and British (code for not totally-all-the-way-masculine here in the U.S.), but most importantly, he’s never physically present; we only ever see his face on a mobilized video screen that’s prone to falling over and getting damaged. Frankie and Paige’s agent, Bernie, is a very small-for-his-age 12-year-old boy whose attempts to perform manliness fail 100% of the time in hilarious ways. Fellow Vuuugle star Dirk is a big teenager who runs a channel called “DareMeBro” on which he shares videos of himself performing dares (masculine feats of strength, endurance, and stupidity), but he is sweet, childlike, and often wears floral or foliage prints. The explosion-loving male pyro expert whom Frankie and Paige hire to create explosions for one of their videos is played by a little person. And Paige’s MMA instructor is a huge muscle-y dude…whose feelings are hurt when Frankie mocks his pony tail.
I’m writing this post at the end of the worst week thus far of the 2016 presidential campaign, when toxic masculinity showed us its ass, threatened women, and even got #repealthe19th trending on Twitter. The world will become a better place for women. In the meantime, we’re lucky to be able to take a vacation in the girl-friendly world of Bizaardvark. Watch the whole first episode for free here, and definitely check out Paige and Frankie’s hit single “The Comeback Song” here.
Posted on July 21, 2016
Kate McKinnon is the Future of Comedy
By Mika Taylor
I’ve been looking forward to the new Ghostbusters since the all-female cast was announced. My great hope was that this movie would live up to the fears of its enemies and undermine the misogyny that exploded all over comments sections at the mere prospect of featuring female protagonists in an action/comedy. And while I really enjoyed this film and recommend that you see it, the end result is more of a compromise than the big “fuck you” I was hoping for.
By far, the greatest thing about Ghostbusters is Kate McKinnon. She is a revelation, a bright and shining star, a fiery phoenix rising from the ash of mediocrity. She is a gasoline fire, a nuclear bomb, a supernova. While the other actors move through a fairly straightforward script, developing believable characters with backstories and emotions, she is a wild and vivid series of voices, costumes, one-liners, gadgets, dance moves, hair styles, and facial expressions that in no way cohere except in their incoherence and, as such, add up to so much more.
McKinnon’s character, Holtzmann, is a “mad” scientist, but her madness actually seems to be a deeply sane lack of self doubt. Unlike Kristin Wiig’s Erin, she has no need for external approval, the recognition of institutions or peers. She is excited by science, discovery, and innovation, and she is loyal to those worth loving. She jokes, she dances, she sings, she creates. She invents, improves, and experiments, without self-doubt, self-consciousness, or self-loathing. Her creations bring her joy, and she is a joy to watch.
The reason Kate McKinnon stands out is the same reason the film falls short: unlike McKinnon, Ghostbusters doesn’t go all in. It hints at diversity, intersectionality, and female empowerment, but just as quickly washes over its most interesting ideas and messages with a bucket of slime, a sappy moment in female friendship, or a boring cameo. It gives us moments of eighties nostalgia and pumps great songs that only play halfway through before transitioning into a musical dumpster fire like Fall Out Boy’s craptacular new theme song (so bad that even Missy Elliot can’t save it).
The film shows us female characters struggling to gain respect in a male-dominated world, but falls short of holding that world accountable. Instead of being lauded for her tenure-track STEM job at Columbia, Wiig/Erin is made pathetic by her attempts to fit in (or lean in, or level up). In order to become a fully realized adult woman, she must learn that striving for approval is a betrayal of self.
Ghostbusters hints at diverse sexuality, but doesn’t give us much more than Wiig/Erin’s hubba-hubba drooling over Kevin, the ditziest secretary alive. By casting Liam (Thor) Hemsworth as Kevin, the film almost offers a counterpoint to traditional male/female roles, but then ends up recapitulating stereotypes about physical beauty and stupidity. For those of us looking, there are quiet hints about McKinnon/Holtzmann’s sexuality, including a perfect one-liner compliment: “I’d pick you up at an AA meeting.” Really though, all of these characters are fairly asexual – a big shift considering how sexually charged the first two movies were. At best, we can imagine and infer that Holztmann and Abby’s (Melissa McCarthy) “friendship” is something more.
Studio-driven choices to normalize and homogenize are what people complained about when the trailer first showed Leslie Jones as an MTA officer rather than a scientist. I imagine a room full of suits sitting around saying, “yes, yes, she’s so believably urban.” Leslie Jones is a comic force, and her character, Patty, is far more dynamic than the trailer would have you believe. Director Paul Feig defended his choice in making her the only non-scientist of the crew by insisting the part was originally written for Melissa McCarthy, but that Jones is such a talent that he wanted to give her a place to shine. She does shine, but in light of the racist twittering of the last few days, it seems callous to ignore the fact that casting the black woman as the “street-smart” MTA worker is anything short of problematic. Jones brings energy and intelligence to the role and she is not so much street savvy as she is a walking encyclopedia of building-by-building New York City history. She plays the character a bit subdued, holding back from some of the more brash and animated moves she makes on SNL. One wonders how she might have played it if the character was a professor of history or another scientist. If Leslie Jones had “let loose” with the same kind of exuberant self-assuredness that McKinnon brings to the screen, she would have been the heart of this film.
That’s not to say that only Kate McKinnon gets it right. Each of these actors has strong moments, and the movie as a whole comes through with a few interesting themes. The villain, Rowan, is an IRL version of every internet creep and “nice guy” who thinks himself wronged by the world – a dorky, basement-dwelling white dude who didn’t end up on top and blames the social structure for his inability to fit in. Instead of writing mean comments though, Rowan brings ghosts back to wreak havoc on a city that’s ignored him, regardless of consequence for anyone but himself. He’s a perfect foil – threatening but beatable, dangerous but also inherently ridiculous. He takes up the right amount of space in a female-driven narrative (not much) and we can walk away feeling good about our characters and ourselves.
Are movies with female-dominated casts required to be feminist tomes? No, but this one in particular would have benefited from a more assertive take on gender, sexuality, race, and society. McKinnon is hilarious in the moment as she delivers funny lines or looks, but she also brings a longer-lasting joy – a sense of freedom from expectation and prescribed roles. Her kinetic humor shows us what it looks like when we aren’t limited by bodies or defined by expectation. She is beyond that, floating high above, a comedian of such skill that she teaches the rest of us that there are new ways to be.
If there’s anything to take away from the runaway success of Kate McKinnon’s big screen debut, it’s: Don’t hold back. There is room for more: more women, more character, more everything. Bring on the inscrutable, indomitable, unstoppable female leads. Show me things I haven’t seen, that I didn’t yet know I needed. Get weird with it. Please.
Contributor Mika Taylor loves funny shit, but writes sad and sometimes absurd stories, mostly about women and children, parenting and loss, and sometimes mental illness, so two hours in a theater watching kick-ass women kick ass was pretty much the best assignment ever. Her stories and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming from Granta, Ninth Letter, The Kenyon Review, Diagram, and others.
Posted on July 10, 2016
Laughing Alone in the Dark with “Baby Cobra” by Ali Wong
By Cybele Knowles
I have too much to do these days and not enough time to watch, read, and listen to comedy. But after my friend Dennis begged me to watch Ali Wong’s Netflix stand-up comedy special, “Baby Cobra,” I finally made time. One day after work I went to a dark café and watched it on my laptop with earbuds in. I think everyone around me — couple on first date, nursing student reading from giant biology textbook, and Bible study group – was jealous of how hard I was laughing and how happy I was.
Ali Wong is an Asian-American comedian and comedy writer, and at the time of the filming of the special was also super-pregnant. It’s fantastically powerful to watch a very pregnant woman do standup. Watch “Baby Cobra” for that alone!
Ali deftly weaves three main topics through “Baby Cobra”: (1) frank comedy about sex and sexuality, (2) a complex, shifting, ironic/unironic expression of the desire to be a “lazy housewife,” and (3) reflections on American-Asianness, including the important difference between “fancy Asians” and “jungle Asians.” All of it is completely hilarious, and probably especially so if you’re Asian-American, or an Asian-American woman (that’s me).
Here are some favorite lines that I scribbled down at the café while watching the special:
On sexually transmitted disease: “If you don’t have HPV yet, you’re a fucking loser.”
On the glories of having sex with Asian men: “Asian men have no body hair. It’s like making love to a dolphin.” Also: “Asian men have no body odor. None. They just smell like responsibility.”
On liberal white culture: “You know what a doula is? A white hippy witch.”
On intra-Asian racism: “I’m half Chinese and half Vietnamese, and my husband is half Japanese and half Philippino…and we spend 100 percent of our time shitting on Korean people.”
Lol lol lol! In reference to that last joke — one of my favorite aspects of the special are the jokes about intra-Asian bigotry, because it’s specific and real and defies the stereotype of Asians as polite, deferential, and ceremonious. I can never get enough of comedy that tears down that stereotype and instead represents Asians as just as uncouth as all other humans. (Speaking of, I should review Angelah Johnson’s “Beautiful Nail” bit here soon….)
Thanks to my Dennis for making me watch “Baby Cobra.” I can’t recommend it enough. Find it on Netflix here.
Posted on July 10, 2016
“The Flarp Comes to Fort Chiswell Virginia”: Short Story
“Right there in the kitchen, the fabric of the universe ripped open. From the gash, an unearthly illumination rayed out. Then something that looked like a spectral octopus was oozing through. Crystal screamed like holy hell.”
All-Girl All-Comedy Reviews editor Cybele Knowles has a funny-sad story, “The Flarp Comes to Fort Chiswell, Virginia,” online at the Devils Lake literary journal. It’s about a hapless alcoholic and her guardian angel, who looks like a nightmare ghost cephalopod. Check it out!
Photo: Excruciatingly cute “Baby Dumbo Octopus” toy by Santani.
Posted on May 29, 2016
The Purity of Punk vs. the Production Values of Pop: A Fan of “The Maria Bamford Show” Reviews “Lady Dynamite”
By Laura C.J. Owen
Once upon a time (2007), comedian Maria Bamford made a low-budget web series called “The Maria Bamford Show.” In each five-minute webisode she played all the parts: herself, her mother, her father, her sister, her hometown nemesis. The only other actor in the show was Maria’s pug Blossom, who played herself.
I can’t overstate the brilliance of “The Maria Bamford Show.” For starters, to say that Maria Bamford is “good with voices” or “adept at impressions” is like saying that Picasso was pretty good with shapes. She has an uncanny, witch-like ability to adopt distinct inflections, conjuring whole characters out of thin air, and the show felt richly peopled, despite featuring only her.
Maria Bamford is also known for de-stigmatizing mental illness. She talks openly, strangely, and hilariously about her struggles with OCD, depression, and bipolar disorder, and she touts the benefits of medication and therapy in candid, comforting fashion.
One of my favorite parts of “The Maria Bamford Show” is the song “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” which serves as a kind of capstone to the project. In it, Maria cheerfully sings about accepting your dark thoughts and mental illnesses while showcasing her large range of characters. It’s both hilarious and full of good advice (“Just stay on your meds!” she sings brightly). I just watched it again for the millionth time and, as always, it filled me with warmth. Watching it on repeat has gotten me through some perilous moments in my own mental-health history. (I find singing “I’m staying on my meds and drinking plenty of diet coke” is soothing in times of high anxiety).
So: Maria Bamford and her comedy mean a great deal to me, probably more than any other working comedian. You can imagine my excitement when I saw she was getting her own Netflix show, Lady Dynamite. I hoped this would be the big-budget version of “The Maria Bamford Show” I’d always wanted.
I watched the first episode with my boyfriend. We sat in silence. He got up and started to do the dishes. I looked over at him, my distress clearly evident on my face.
“Awww baby,” he said, “Does it suck?”
“But it can’t suck,” I wailed. “I don’t want it to suck.”
I resolved to watch the entire 12-episode season, because as we all know shows can take awhile to find their voice, and I was hopeful.
This I can say: it does get better. The first episodes are definitely the weakest, and as the season goes on, I started laughing way more and sitting in stony, disappointed silence way less. Certain threads of the show get developed in a satisfying manner, and by the last episode I had a grin on my face as the credits rolled.
Still, there were too many moments when I reflected that the half-hour format felt too long, or when I scrolled through unwatched episodes with an internal sigh, feeling a sense of obligation to finish rather than the delightful pull of the binge-watch.
In a way, I know this is probably a result of my own inflated expectations and the love of Maria Bamford I bring to the show. For starters, no one plays Maria Bamford’s characters like Maria Bamford. Having other actors play her mother, father, friends, and manager feels odd and disappointing. Lady Dynamite is full of talented comedic actors, but I couldn’t avoid a palpable sense of how wasteful it was to have Maria Bamford playing only Maria Bamford.
One of the best episodes is the fourth episode, “Jack and Diane” in which Maria meets a man who falls in love with her “Diane” voice, a rich, plummy voice she adopts to sound impressive. The dull-but-attractive Jack (played hilariously by Brandon Routh) is really only into “Diane” and loses interest the second Maria speaks like Maria. This is a simple, effective comic conceit that lets Maria Bamford stretch her voice-acting muscles.
The trouble is that Lady Dynamite rarely seems to feel content to hang an episode, or even a scene, around one central comic premise. It’s as if the show is so worried about losing your interest that it’s always throwing multiple story lines, jokes, celebrity cameos, and random images at you, like a nervous host cracking joke after joke in an attempt to get you to stay at a party.
It doesn’t help that Lady Dynamite chooses to comment on this insecurity pretty openly; the first few episodes are weighted down with meta-commentary about the show itself.
For instance: the first episode. There’s an entertaining but confusing opening, in which it’s unclear if we are seeing Maria’s breakdown within the show or a different breakdown of the real Maria. (The show hinges around a central nervous breakdown that sent Maria to live with her parents in Duluth for awhile—what plot the twelve episode arc has is a build-up to finally getting to see what that breakdown was about—so the choice to open with another, never-explained nervous breakdown, that then references the show itself by having Maria jump into a Lady Dynamite van, is confusing, to put it mildly).
After the disjointed opener, the show finally seems to be hitting a rhythm. Maria puts a park bench in her neighborhood to create community, and is dinged by a bicycle cop, played by comedian Patton Oswalt. She shyly asks him to come see a stand-up show, and we finally seem to be getting somewhere.
Then, Patton Oswalt breaks character and begins speaking as himself, comedian Patton Oswalt. “Maria, you’re not going to do stand-up in the show?” he asks. “That’s been done!”
At this point, I think my boyfriend literally said something like “Oh come on!” out loud. I’m usually pretty open to meta-commentary, but so much meta in a row, before an actual show has been established, produces a mental effect not unlike motion sickness: there’s just too much veering around and no place to focus.
And the fact the show openly addresses these concerns doesn’t really help. “I think my show is finally finding its voice,” Maria says, at the end of the pilot. “I mean, it’s Patton Oswalt’s voice, but still…” By the third episode, actress Mira Sorvino, playing a British actress playing an American actress, bursts out, “Enough of this meta-bollocks!” But these sly winks don’t really help, because all they’re doing is pointing out real problems with the show. Joking that your show hasn’t found its voice doesn’t change the fact that the show doesn’t have a coherent voice. Having a character complain about all the meta doesn’t help if all the meta is getting tiresome.
The feel of the episodes gets more relaxed as the season goes on; there’s less anxious, apologetic fourth-wall breaking. An emotional arc emerges as Maria begins to cautiously develop a romantic relationship with a guy named Scott and navigate the terrain that comes with that (“I have to stress pee!” she chirps anxiously, when it is proposed that the relationship might be getting serious). Great running jokes develop, such as the heavily German-accented voice of her pug, Bert, as well as the complex and involved lives her dogs seem to have without her: “I’m watching the game with Scott and we’ve also gotten into craft beer!” Bert informs her, nonchalantly.
But it was difficult for me to get past what I felt was a central narrative misstep, which was to divide the chronology of the show up. Thus, the show takes place in the present in LA, and also Maria’s past in LA before her mental breakdown, and also Maria’s past after her mental breakdown, home in Duluth, Minnesota. The show spends the first few episodes doing a lot of determined, aggressive lamp-shading of this narrative choice, having Maria defend the viewing public as being able to follow a complicated narrative, and then carefully explaining the transitions between past and present.
I don’t think it works. It shows a lack of confidence, as if we wouldn’t be interested if the story were presented more straightforwardly, but must instead be tantalized by the chopped-up, fragmented narrative. It ruins the pacing of each episode: As soon as we get interested in the plot of the present, we’re dragged back to the past, and vice versa. The emotional heft of the darker Minnesota flashbacks is undercut by being juxtaposed with the brighter “present day” plots and vice versa. A voiceover attempts to make thematic connections between the two plots, but often the connection feels thin.
In some ways, “The Maria Bamford Show” worked because it was so simple: Maria played some characters, including herself, and told a story about her mental illness. I feel like Lady Dynamite contains a better, more straightforward show: one that has the confidence to tell a simpler story of breakdown, return home to Minnesota, and then a return to LA, interspersed with some of Maria Bamford’s sharp, zany observational humor. But by anxiously trying to do more than that, listening to the voices that cry, “It’s been done!”, Lady Dynamite feels as if it loses some crucial heart. The simple magic of Maria Bamford’s voices and honest observations is replaced by explosions, green screens, and elaborate “random” humor: Maria is randomly replaced by a lamb! Maria-as-power-ranger battles a sugar-monster! Some of it’s genuinely funny, but none of it has the emotional impact of even one Maria Bamford stand-up special.
I have no idea what goes on behind the scenes, but I will say that Lady Dynamite is co-created by Mitch Hurwitz of Arrested Development, and he co-wrote the pilot, the least successful episode. Now, I love me some Arrested Development, but the more I think about it, Lady Dynamite does have the feel of an attempt to turn Maria Bamford’s dark, devastatingly honest, emotional humor into late-era Arrested Development, with all of its narrative twists, wry voice-over, complex running jokes, and emotional distance from the characters. The trouble is, I don’t want to see what Maria Bamford would be like if she starred in the fourth season of Arrested Development, because I already saw that — in the fourth season of Arrested Development — and the fourth season of Arrested Development wasn’t very good. Lady Dynamite is like Hurwitz took the punk poet that is “The Maria Bamford Show” and gave her an arbitrary Hollywood makeover.
Lady Dynamite doesn’t suck. But I didn’t love it. Which, given the depth of my love for Maria Bamford, says it all.
Find Lady Dynamite on Netflix and “The Maria Bamford Show” on YouTube.
Posted on February 29, 2016
No To Femism!
By Cybele Knowles
Writer and comedian Rebecca Shaw started Twitter account Woman Against Feminism as a creative response to Women Against Feminism, a women’s movement that rejects feminism due to a set of fear-based and oppressor-internalized assumptions and beliefs. Woman Against Feminism parodies these assumptions and beliefs, always misspelling the word “feminism,” e.g.:
The speaker of Woman Against Feminism assumes that feminists dislike domesticity and family life:
The tweets also parodically assert strong beliefs about what makes a man a “real man” — all of which reveal the arbitrariness and narrowness of the traditional definition of masculinity.
The glossy-banged speaker of Woman Against Feminism ventriloquizes sexist beliefs widely held by men as well as by Women Against Feminism women, e.g., that women aren’t funny:
Many tweets parody the belief that the full responsibility for protecting herself from assault and harassment falls to the woman — and that she will only become a victim if she chooses to become one, because, of course, it’s entirely up to her.
As you can see, the parody of Woman Against Feminism takes place in the land of extreme absurdity, which offers fertile terrain for social commentary. For me, the combination of the absurd and the re-visiting/re-presentation of persistent sexist beliefs has a powerful cumulative effect. I’ve considered myself a feminist since encountering Free to Be You and Me as a kid in the 1970s, but reading the absurd parody of Woman Against Feminism over the past year has brought the causes and effects of sexism into sharper focus for me while making me laugh.
Rebecca points out through Woman Against Feminism that the main driver of sexism and all forms of inequity is fear. Fear of the downpressed, and of giving them back their agency and space. It’s harder to detect the fear than the hate, but Rebecca, shining her sharp light on it, helps us see it:
Woman Against Feminism makes me laugh and helps me resist. So I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Posted on November 27, 2015
Unremitting Absolutely Fabulous
By Cybele Knowles
Right now, the filming of Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie is taking place for a 2016 release. (!!!) What that means, sweetie darling, is that this is a good time to talk about Ab Fab, one of the great achievements of comedy by women, created by British comedians Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French.
I was a huge fan of the original BBC series (1992-1995) and the 1996 follow-up special, The Last Shout. To my horror/delight (horror, because how did it escape my notice? delight, because now I have new Ab Fab to watch!), I’ve just discovered that since the nineties, the show has returned many times. Here I’ll just talk about what I know: Ab Fab at the beginning.
Ab Fab is a show about a reluctant community of women whose differences in lifestyle, values, and age create a motherlode of comedy. The main character is Eddie, a PR agent in her forties who is predestined to fail in her desperate search for meaning based the most cruelly fleeting of measures: youth and cool. Eddie’s best friend Patsy is an aging beauty who lives in a perpetual alcoholic present. Saffy, Eddie’s serious teenage daughter, rejects everything that Eddie and Patsy stand for (excess, cool, materialism, and fame) in favor of academic success and responsibility. Eddie’s elderly mother is exhibiting the first signs of dementia, and Bubble, Eddie’s assistant, is an airhead who is always dressed (regardless of the hour) to attend a rave.
To an American viewer (this one at least), the pitch-blackness of the show’s satire is what makes it magisterial. It’s almost unrelentingly cruel in its worldview. For example, Patsy is Eddie’s “best friend,” but there are plenty of times when she demonstrates that she doesn’t love Eddie at all, but just needs her, the way a parasite needs a host. Saffy, who otherwise might stand a chance in this world, is so codependently enmeshed with her mother that she will never be happy, no matter how well she does at university. Eddie’s mother maintains a sweet and cheerful demeanor, but she’s steadily losing her grasp on reality, and she knows it. Her daily visits are a kind of haunting, reminding the other characters that no matter how hard they strive, they’re going to end up like Mother: a “useless old woman,” with no more chances left to prove her value, and alone in more ways than one. Airhead Bubble shows us what a manic pixie dream girl might look like when not in the service of the development of a male character: borderline unemployable, quirky to the point of mental illness, handicapped by her ADD.
In the entire first run of the show, there is exactly one feel-good moment. Saffy has gotten herself involved with an older man, her lecturer at university, and has just discovered that he’s married. Her heart is broken–and Eddie punches him in the nose! It’s a glorious moment that redeems them all. But in the next episode, everyone goes back to their normal fallen selves, with Patsy robbing Eddie blind in order to keep her (Patsy’s) adored older sister afloat.
The necessity and artistry of the show’s bleak vision was underscored when America made a rip-off sitcom: Cybill (1995-1998) starring Cybill Shepherd as a twice-divorced single mother of two and struggling actress in her forties and Christine Baranski as Cybill’s hard-drinking friend Maryann. By comparison to Ab Fab, it was awful.
The optimistic form of the American sitcom can’t adequately depict the difficulty of being a woman. For that, you need dark-as-a-moonless-night British comedy. I’m looking forward to catching up on almost two decades of Ab Fab, and I hope it has stayed as fabulously bleak as ever.